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Religious tolerance and peyote

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On spiritual matters, the most inclusive, tolerant and respectful approach is always best. A great variety of spiritual life ways enliven and guide the lives of Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. Each and every one has the right to exist and thrive. This winter season, as many American Indian peoples conduct a variety of ceremonies, our appreciation is given for the elders who have sustained the cultural ways of Grandfather Peyote, for those who have maintained the care and application of this special plant.

Used for many centuries by various tribal peoples and groups, including the Native American Church of North America, the peyote plant has, through the ages, survived numerous incursions. With its modest and moderate prescriptions for life, the Peyote Way has been a good, straight road for those families who have sincerely embraced its application and associated cultural practices.

Peyote has an ancient relationship to the original human beings of the Americas. Huicholes of Mexico, among dozens of tribes in the plant's natural territories, have known and used peyote since time immemorial. This spineless cactus (lophophora williamsii), which grows naturally in southern Texas and Northern Mexico, is well known as a healing medicine. Traditional midwives in Mexico and elsewhere in Indian country use it as a labor medicine. It is said to open the mind, the body and the spirit. For Huicholes and other tribes in Mexico, peyote was always central or hugely important to their creation stories, ceremonial concepts and healing practices. Members of the many chapters of the Native American Church hold that this grandfather plant defines the covenant of the human being with the natural world and the forces of creation.

Practitioners say Grandfather Peyote is love itself, that the love of creation is symbol and essence of the button that is chewed and drunk and swallowed by many thousands of American Indians, from the Canadian Rockies to the Sierra Madre of Mexico. The action of taking this sacrament normally occurs during overnight ceremonies ? where those assembled exhibit respect toward one another and reveal their deep appreciation for life and for all of creation. Such ceremonies often culminate in expressions of tolerance and mutual affirmation among participants.

Particularly during these times as the world witnesses daily the contortions of demagogues who routinely distort, preach and deliver violence, based on their own prescriptions of their particular religious faiths, we pay respect today to those spiritual practitioners who responsibly embrace the peyote cactus. The Peyote Way's special ceremonies, songs, and instruments, its meaningful and exquisite arrangement of seating and guidance and direction, its respectful teachings among American Indian peoples have an authentic and legitimate cultural foundation in the Americas. Little harm has come to those who have partaken of the peyote plant, while many good benefits have been realized.

There are many traditional indigenous spiritual ways in North America. These are ways of life of peoples of longstanding human habitation in their own ancient territories. Some call these belief systems "religions" and certainly Native spiritual practices are no less symbolic, benevolent, realistic and amenable than the so-called "civilized religions of mass conversion," such as Christianity (which uses wine as a sacrament), Islam, and Hinduism. The ritual use of peyote, while not always indigenous to the range of tribal participants who presently use it as a sacrament, is nonetheless a deeply held American Indian spiritual movement. It has quietly spread for nearly two centuries, in the modern context, almost completely through Indian-to-Indian contact and cultural exchange.

In recent years, the right of use of peyote as sacrament by the Native American Church was somewhat threatened by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), Judge Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, summarily denied peyote's centrality as sacrament to the Native American Church, refusing to contemplate the vast historical and cultural base of the use of peyote in Native prayer services. Scalia likened peyote's use to the practice of "throwing rice at church weddings." Thus peyote practice was deemed not "of compelling interest," a decision ignoring widespread use of the cactus by upwards of 250,000 Native practitioners and scandalizing religious groups everywhere who felt threatened by the Court's limitations upon religious freedoms generally. The High Court's decision prompted a broad outpouring of concern among Native peoples and many church groups and led to a major campaign in Congress directed by well-respected Winnebago leader, the late Reuben Snake Sr. The campaign resulted in the "American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994," a measure meant to contradict Smith and to legalize and protect the use of peyote in the practice of traditional American Indian religion.

We address the topic of peyote to put on the record also that, amid many diverse and yet tightly held spiritual traditions, and including those who have embraced religions from other parts of the world, the Native world generally holds respect for the Native American Church. While the effect of peyote upon practitioners can help elicit a state of deep reflection, mildly psychedelic in form, ingestion of the cactus is not something done recreationally. In fact it is not an easy undertaking. Indian spiritual leaders and healers understand that these ceremonies are not to be taken lightly, and they condemn those dilettantes who browse through Native traditions for their own amusement. Native participants have deep respect for the dangers and benefits of their traditions, especially those involving medicinal plants often misunderstood by the outside world.

Additionally, the nature of the ceremony itself upholds a great sense of reverence for spiritual value. Family strength, peace in the heart and peace on Earth, the harmony of the people, the celebration of achievement such as high school or college graduation or entrance into the Armed Forces are all occasions for peyote prayer meetings to come together.

Many a Native man and woman have found the strength to straighten out their lives sitting around the fire of peyote ceremonies, to throw down that bottle and see clearly the road ahead. Many a couple have found their love and life's commitment; many a youngster their spirit; many a student his or her strength of endeavor; many an elder the kiss of their ancients on their way to the stars. Through the tipi hole they pray, those elders and children who rattle through the night to bring up the Morning Star.

To this and other Native spiritual traditions most humbly upheld this time of year, we offer our recognition, appreciation, respect and gratitude.