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.

Rojava and the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict: Cultural Genocide in Afrin and International Silence

By Noelle Iati

Noelle is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

In my last post, I explained the reasons for the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the Turkish interest in destroying the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, commonly known as Rojava. In this post, I explore the gross human rights violations committed by Turkish forces and their jihadist allies pursuing a cultural genocide in Afrin, the northwesternmost region of Rojava which borders Turkey, and the international response to these violations.

Turkey attacked the Rojava district of Afrin on January 20, 2018. After two months of fighting, Turkish forces captured Afrin city on March 23, 2018, officially concluding the “combat phase” of the operation. From the beginning of the attack, Turkish forces and their jihadist auxiliaries were accused of violating international humanitarian law protecting civilians in armed conflict. In the report from its February 25 to March 22, 2018 session, the United Nations Human Rights Council Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic highlighted potential war crimes committed by Turkish forces and their allies in Afrin, including the arbitrary killings of civilians by car bombs, landmines, and IEDs, kidnappings for ransom, pillaging of property, sexual harassment, and torture. The report also states concerns over Afrin residents’ reports of a lack of rule of law. Turkey, as an occupying power, was obligated under the Fourth Geneva Convention to do everything in its power to prevent civilians from being caught in the crossfire during the conflict, and certainly was obligated to prevent the blatant abuse of civilians in the war zone. It has also been alleged that Turkey intentionally destroyed hospitals, religious buildings, and cultural heritage sites.

Unfortunately, the abuse did not end after Turkey captured Afrin. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State Human Rights Reports on Turkey and Syria, and news outlets such as Kurdistan 24 and Politurco have all alleged the continued random killings of civilians, the displacement of tens of thousands of individuals (mostly Kurdish), the seizing, looting, and destruction of property belonging to Kurdish residents, and the arbitrary arrest, detention, forcible disappearance, and torture of Kurdish civilians. Following Afrin’s capture, roadblocks and checkpoints were instituted preventing humanitarian aid from reaching affected areas, while the only humanitarian services allowed in the area at all were those registered in Turkey. Meanwhile, the same roadblocks and checkpoints prevented many from leaving the war zone to access necessary medical care. Kurdish refugees were also blocked from receiving aid at the Serdem refugee camp.

While all of these abuses have targeted the Kurdish population of Afrin, perhaps the most telling indicators of Turkish intentions in the region have involved intentional demographic change and “Arabization” or “Turkification” of the area. Kurdish refugees returning home after the fighting in many cases found their homes occupied by Arab refugees from Eastern Ghouta or by soldiers and their families, while Turkish-backed jihadist rebel groups controlling Afrin have pushed for the forced displacement of the remaining Kurdish population. In the city of Afrin, road and place names have been changed from Kurdish to Arabic, including one square renamed after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has already appointed its own teachers and civil servants and installed Turkish-language schools and mosques. In some cases, children have been exposed to the ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist Turkish “Grey Wolves” propaganda in their schools. In April of this year, Turkey started to build a concrete wall separating Afrin from the rest of Rojava.

Incredibly, despite extensive documentation of all of these abuses by international human rights and humanitarian organizations including the United Nations, the international community has remained mostly silent to these attacks on the peaceful and democratic Kurdish enclave. Despite Rojava’s focus on gender equality, human rights, and the democratic principles the West claims to stand on, it has utterly refused to defend Rojava from Turkey’s illegal attack, and most nations have not publicly condemned Turkey’s actions. Western media, especially the American press, has, for the most part, stayed silent on the issue has well. As President Donald Trump plans to pull American troops out of Syria entirely, Turkish-backed rebels have prepared to advance eastward toward the city of Manbij and to use the hefty advantage American withdrawal would give them to advance further east into Rojava. While President Trump has promised economic repercussions should Turkey attack Manbij and National Security Advisor John Bolton has claimed (independently of the President) that Americans would not pull out of Syria without assurances from Turkey that it would leave northern Syria to its Kurdish allies, Syrian Kurds worry about their ability to defend their home. As one of the most democratic regions in the war-torn Middle East, Kurds in Rojava wonder why the West, which claims to have gone to war in the Middle East to protect democracy for all, has refused to recognize Rojava or commit to protecting it from Turkey.

Western military presence in the Middle East is a complex issue mired in difficult questions about capitalist imperialism. But if the West claims to support self-determination, democracy, and human rights, then it cannot continue to stay silent on the issue of Kurdish independence or the efforts of the Turkish government to destroy the Kurdish political project.

Rojava and the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict: What is behind Operation Olive Branch?

By Noelle Iati

Noelle is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

In all likelihood, the person reading this could not point to Rojava on a map, and has probably never even heard that name. You would be shocked to learn that the people of Rojava, this place of which you have never heard, were among America’s most important allies in the struggle against the Islamic State. You might also be shocked to learn that the people of Rojava have been under an unprovoked attack by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed jihadist auxiliaries for nearly two years. What, you might wonder, is so offensive about the people of Rojava? The answer: they’re Kurdish.

Formally known as the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, Rojava has existed independently of Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical rule since its three cantons declared independence in 2014, growing to encompass all of the Al-Hasakah governorate and the better parts of the Aleppo, Ar-Raqqah, and Deir ez-Zor governorates of Syria, including the cities of Manbij, Raqqa, Qamishli, Al-Hasakah, Kobane, and Afrin. The region has historically made up the western part of Kurdistan, and today represents the hope of self-determination for the Kurdish people. Despite its emphasis on democracy, human rights, and gender equality—Rojava has already outlawed torture and the death penalty (leagues ahead of neighboring states), and it would be an understatement to say that women play an important role in Rojava’s government and judicial system—Rojava is not formally recognized as a state by any democratic world power for fear of the political repercussions of the move, and therefore has no power on the world stage and little access to foreign aid. While the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) that act as the military arms of the region have been able to protect it from the Islamic State and the administration has also for the most part been able to stave off al-Assad’s government, its invasion by Turkey–that one you’ve never heard of–could defeat the fledgling democratic utopia.

The Republic of Turkey also contains the northern portion of Kurdistan, and has done its best to suppress Turkish Kurds (Kurdish language in Turkey is heavily restricted, Kurdish schools and cultural institutions have been shut down, and Turkey has removed scores of Kurdish intellectuals, reporters, authors, and other professionals). Like so many of the ethnic conflicts plaguing the Middle East, the “Kurdish problem” in Turkey can be traced back to the Treaty of Sèvres and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. Before World War I, the Kurdish people were allowed to move around their ancestral homeland with relative freedom as one of many cultural groups living under Ottoman rule. After the war, the Allies divided the Ottoman Empire into several sections, attempting to diminish Ottoman power (and further European imperialist interests). While a unified Kurdistan was envisioned in treaty negotiations, the Allies were entirely unequipped to be making such complicated identity-based decisions for former subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and though they kept most of Kurdistan together, they placed it inside the new state of Turkey and excluded the parts of Kurdistan in what became Syria, Iran, and Iraq

Since then, the independence movement among Kurdish people has been strong, while they have remained a mistreated minority group in each state of which they are a part. Recent independence movements in Iraq and Syria have been successful, with the Kurdistan region of Iraq operating almost entirely autonomously within the Iraqi state and Rojava developing as an autonomous Kurdish region. This puts Turkey in a difficult position as the pro-Kurdish militia group connected to the Kurdish Worker’s Party (the PKK, considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and much but not all of the West) fights a guerrilla war against Turkish forces and Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, gains seats in Turkey’s parliament. The existence of Rojava right across Turkey’s southern border threatens Turkish hegemony while emboldening the PKK and Kurdish nationalist movements. 

Enter: Operation Olive Branch. Following the American proposal to patrol the Turkish-Syrian border with soldiers Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG and YPJ, the Turkish military launched an unprovoked attack on the district of Afrin, Rojava’s northwesternmost enclave. Turkey, contrary to its NATO allies, considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization with connections to the PKK in Turkey as a Kurdish nationalist militia. Therefore, the mere idea of such an organization patrolling its border as a protective measure against the Islamic State is, to Turkey, completely unacceptable. Ultimately, though, Turkey’s explanations for its assault on Afrin amount to misrepresentations of the truth at best, and at worst outright lies that many believe are intended to mask Turkey’s true motivation of destroying the autonomous Kurdish region of Syria.

This post is part one of two on the situation in the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria. In the next post, Turkey’s deplorable human rights violations in Afrin and beyond will be exposed and the world response to these violations analyzed.