Native American Church

Doctrines Although describing itself as a church, the Native American Church refuses to accept the doctrines or canons of any one Christian sect. Its practices and beliefs are based on the attempt to reconcile Christianity with traditional native symbolism. Ritual life centres around the use of peyote, a small, spineless cactus which contains stimulants related to strychnine and sedatives related to morphine. The Indians believe that peyote enables them to partake of the Holy Spirit, as Christians do through the wine of the eucharist.
The church's articles affirm the importance of strict morality. Members are required to abstain from alcohol, to be monogamous, and to avoid deceit and violence. Witchcraft and any form of magical arts are forbidden.

History The use of peyote has been part of the ceremonial life of the Indians in the Rio Grande Valley of what is now northern Mexico and Texas for thousands of years. Towards the end of the nineteenth century peyote spread northwards, having been adopted by tribes who had resettled into reservations in Oklahoma. Fearing that it would spread, Indian federal agents endeavoured to suppress the peyote religion through making it illegal and arresting and imprisoning those who practised it. In response to this situation, the Native American Church was organised with the purpose of defending the beliefs and practices of peyotists. From this basis it quickly spread into other states, becoming international in 1954 with the establishment of the Native American Church of Canada.
Relations with government at local, state and federal levels have been characterised by confrontation or uneasy accommodation. A series of attempts to implement federal law completely banning the use of peyote have ended in failure. A permanent arrangement appeared to be reached when the United States government passed the Comprehensive Drug Prevention and Control Act of 1970 which prohibited the use of peyote except in bona fide religious ceremonies. However, in 1990 the Supreme Court removed religious protection from the Native American Church, making it the responsibility of each state to determine whether or not to tolerate peyote use as a religious sacrament. The Supreme Court's ruling is perceived by many Native Americans as a denial of their religious freedom and, therefore, a violation of the First Amendment.

Symbols As a pan-Indian movement the Native American Church has incorporated a variety of tribal religious symbols into its ceremonial practices. The most important of these is the crescent moon, which provides the shape of the ceremonial altar on which the peyote is placed. During the all night meeting, which usually takes place on a Saturday, ceremonial objects such as a staff, rattle, drum and feather are use. At midnight water is brought in, drunk by the participants and offered to Mother Earth.

Adherents The Native American Church has no official membership figures. Estimates vary from 100,000 to 225,000 (Hirschfelder and Molin 1992, 194).

Main Centre
 The church has centres throughout the United States and Canada.