Attacks on the Native American Church and the Settler-Colonial Nature of the War on Drugs

By Noelle Iati

Modern Peyotism, a religious tradition incorporated in the United States mainly under the name of the Native American Church (and also the smaller and slightly different Peyote Way Church of God), emerged in the mid-19th century in Oklahoma Territory. It involves an overnight, community-based ceremony in which the peyote cactus, considered a gift from God or a sacrament, is eaten by believers. Contrary to popular belief, while peyote is a hallucinogen, anthropologist David Aberle has observed:

The visions are definitely not critical; they are rare or absent in a very large percentage of […] cases, and disvalued by many peyotists, although welcomed by many others […] the peyote experience is characterized by a feeling of the personal significance of external and internal stimuli. The user is prompted to ask, of everything, “What does this mean for me?” […] Users may find personal significance in the events of the peyote meeting, the physical surroundings, their fellow participants and their behavior and expressions, scotomata, visions, nausea, indigestion, headache, backache, or simply in their ruminations.

But it has been used for thousands of years by Indigenous people along the Rio Grande, namely the Aztecs, Chimichecs, Coahuiltes, Coras, Huicholes, Jumanas, Laguneros, Tarahumaras, Toltecs, and Zacatecos. In Mexico today, it is still an integral aspect of the spiritual traditions of several of these groups. Scholars agree that the modern Peyotist tradition was most likely developed by Carrizos and brought north by Lipan Apaches. From there, the religion spread rapidly: by 1867, Kiowas, Caddos, Wichitas, Delawares, and Comanches in Oklahoma Territory all had significant Peyotist sects, and actively proselytized throughout Oklahoma and beyond. It is not a coincidence that the religion became popular in tandem with the establishment of the reservation system. The tenets of Peyotism, called the Peyote Road, appealed to Native peoples’ feelings of powerlessness as they were forced onto reservations with few employment opportunities, little to do, poor living conditions, and rampant disease while the close quarters into which many Native nations were squeezed made it even easier for the religion to spread. By 1880, the popularity of the peyote religion—in many ways a revivalist tradition—led reservations to begin banning peyote. In 1890, the Bureau of Indian Affairs labeled it an intoxicant in an attempt to get it federally banned. [1]

Like other revivalist religious movements such as the Ghost Dance, the emergence and practice of Peyotism was a resistance of American settler-colonialism, and a direct threat to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ agenda of converting and assimilating Native people. Banning peyote had the same purpose as banning traditional language, traditional dress and sacred objects such as eagle feathers, as well as sending Native children to assimilationist boarding schools: destroying Native culture and identity so as to eliminate Indigenous people from North America. As early as 1909, the BIA labeled Peyotism a “religious cult” intended to excuse the use of a “powerful narcotic;” however, it was clear that the government’s issue was not with the use of the peyote substance, but with the Peyotist religion as an increasingly popular alternative to Christianity. While federally banning peyote was a priority until World War II and the BIA consistently lobbied Congress for this ban, six bills banning peyote usage failed to pass between 1918 and 1937. When the federal Drug Abuse Control Act added hallucinogens to the list of controlled substances in 1965, the use of peyote by the Native American Church was exempted. [2]

In 1983, Alfred Smith (Klamath Nation) was fired from his job at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation and counseling center, where he was told he had violated the center’s employment policies on abstaining from drugs and alcohol by eating peyote in ceremonies of the Native American Church. Despite his religious reasons for taking peyote, he was filed as having been fired for reasons of “misconduct,” making him ineligible for unemployment benefits while he searched for different work. In frustration, Smith took Oregon’s Employment Division to court, claiming that his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religious beliefs had been violated by the Division’s decision. Oregon’s courts agreed: the state’s justifications for denying Smith unemployment benefits did not pass the litmus test on infringements of religious freedom established in the Sherbert v. Verner case (1963), and thirty years of established precedent had ruled that the right to possess and ingest peyote for religious purposes was constitutionally protected. The State of Oregon, however, refused to give in. Then-Attorney General of Oregon David Frohnmayer appealed to the Supreme Court of Oregon and, when they ruled against him, appealed to the United States Supreme Court. After two rounds of litigation, one in 1987-1988 and another in 1989-1990, the Supreme Court decided that Smith’s First Amendment right to freely exercise his religious beliefs had not been violated by the State of Oregon, stating that a neutral law, generally applied to all regardless of religious belief, did not place an undue burden on religious practice onto members of the Native American Church. [3]

The 1990 Employment Division v. Smith decision called back a long history of religious suppression of Indigenous people in the Americas, and particularly the United States’ efforts to suppress Peyotism and the Native American Church. However, after World War II, the federal government seemed to have more or less given up on actively attacking religious peyote use. The heightened interest of the federal government in limiting the use of substances it classified as “drugs,” including hallucinogens like peyote and its main active chemical compound mescaline, also impacted the ruling. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s “Moral Majority” was intent on holding Americans to a certain standard—and demonizing the users of any and all substances associated with the upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. While the federal government exempted the religious use of peyote and banned peyote for the general population, states were responsible for their own drug laws. Nearly all fifty states had written or judicially crafted exemptions to their drug laws for Peyotists by the 1980s, one notable exception was the state of Oregon. [4]

While the Employment Division v. Smith case caused the Supreme Court of Oregon to decide in 1988 that peyote users were exempt from the state’s restrictions on peyote usage, David Frohnmayer, the Attorney General of Oregon, and the state he represented were adamant: peyote use was wrong, dangerous, and against the law always, regardless of the user’s religious beliefs. At the height of America’s War on Drugs, and “moral” frenzy, Frohnmayer’s arguments struck a chord; like all who “used drugs,” members of the Native American Church must have been misguided and sick, bringing their children up to think that “substance abuse” was acceptable. In reality, however, the government’s interest in controlling Native bodies under the guise of a righteous Drug War in 1989 is part of the settler-colonial project, mirroring historic attempts to ban Peyotism and other Native religions to catalyze the eventual assimilation and erasure of Native people from the American landscape. [5]


[1] Thomas C. Maroukis, The Peyote Road: Religious Freedom and the Native American Church (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 32, 22-25, 17.; David F. Aberle, The Peyote Religion Among the Navaho, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 4, 6.

[2] Maroukis, The Peyote Road, 192, 106-107, 54, 49.; Senator Daniel K. Inouye, “Discrimination and Native American Religious Rights,” in Native American Cultural and Religious Freedoms, ed. John Wunder (New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1996), 11-12.

[3] Employment Division v. Smith, 494 US 872.; Ronald K. Bullis, “Swallowing the Scroll: Legal Implications of the Recent Supreme Court Peyote Cases,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 22, no. 3 (July 1990): 325-332.; Maroukis, The Peyote Road, 202-205.

[4] Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (New York, NY: Little, Brown & Company, 1996).

[5] Ibid.

Noelle Iati is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College simultaneously completing her first year in the master’s in women’s history program. She studies American political and legal history with a focus on imperialism at home and abroad.

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