Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


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Native Americans have long been subjected to various policies of the United States in an attempt to "civilize" them. Conversion to Christianity was among such policies. As with most issues dealing with Native Americans, the picture is not complete without providing some insight into both the traditional and legal backgrounds.

Many denominations of mainstream Christianity made initial forays into Indian Country in the attempt to convert Native Americans to Christianity and as part of federal policy. The success of these efforts is reflected by the single Christian creed professed by various tribes. For example, many Omahas originally adhered to Mormonism. Some Sioux tribes are substantially Catholic or Episcopalian. It depended upon who arrived first to begin the conversion process.

In the early part of the twentieth century, a unique Native Christian religion founded upon the basic tenets of Christianity began to sweep throughout Indian Country. While conversion to Christianity was a slow and painful process, the tenets of the Native American Church were most readily accepted. While the exact origins of the Native American Church and its incorporation of peyote as a sacrament of communion are shrouded in oral history, Native believers generally agree that it began in the Southwest and worked its way up from Mexico. Among the Plains Indians, the Omahas, Poncas, Winnebagos, and Sioux readily accepted the belief system of the Native American Church.

The tenets of the Native American Church are similar to mainstream Christianity. The leap from traditional belief in a universal creative, mysterious, and holy power (God) who now has a son, Jesus Christ, was initially surprising. However, ready acceptance of God having a son was not that difficult, as all things were believed to be possible through the Creator. Peyote is also considered sacred and holy as a sacrament and the means in which to commune with God and Jesus Christ.

The use of peyote, a cactus plant of the mescal family, within the Native American Church has spawned both case law and federal legislation. The legal controversy over peyote resulted in its legal classification as a controlled drug. Therefore, only card-carrying members of the church are allowed to possess, transport, and use peyote for religious purposes.

The Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was passed to provide legal protection for the Native American Church in its use of peyote. All peyote has to be transported from Texas, where it grows. Of the fifty states, only twentyeight states have enacted laws similar to, or in conformance with, federal regulation intended to protect its use. However, in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court held that the First Amendment does not provide protection for practitioners of the Native American Church. Two subsequent amendments, in 1994 and 1996, intended to clarify and provide the much-needed protections.

As for the actual religious ceremony itself, it is an act that requires deep commitment and faith. It is generally held in a tipi or, in inclement weather, a large area indoors. The Native American Church also requires that a pastor, priest, or elder conduct the services. This person is referred to as the Roadman, who from time to time must travel from tribal community to community, similar to early Christian missionaries who covered wide geographical areas.

The Roadman is assisted by a Fireman, whose task is to care for the holy fireplace by making sure that it burns continuously throughout the night. His own instruments for conducting the church services are the prayer staff, his eagle feather, a beaded and feathered gourd, a small drum, cedar, and the peyote chief, which is always present at the altar. Other peyote is ground finely or made into a mush and passed around in a circle to all participants as a sacrament to commune with God and his Son. The Roadman's wife or other female relative prepares seven sacramental foods and the "second breakfast" that are part of the church services. Her part takes place very early, between 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning. The seven sacramental foods are water, shredded beef, corn mush, rice, strawberries, cookies, and soft, individually wrapped candies. To counter-balance the bitterness of the peyote consumed during the services, the sweet foods were added later. The second breakfast is like any other breakfast. It generally includes boiled eggs, toast, hash brown potatoes, coffee, and juice. This meal is served well after sunrise and just prior to the closing of the church services.

Church services are not regular Sunday occurrences but are held in accordance with special requests by a family for celebrating a birthday, or for a memorial or funeral service. Services begin at sundown on either a Friday or Saturday evening and end at sunrise. Thus, a participant "sits up" all night, giving up a full night's rest as part of a small sacrifice to the Great and Holy Spirit and his Son.

The church services culminate in a feast for the whole community the following day. Because peyote is a stimulant, all of the participating members are wide awake, so they, too, attend the feast. The need for sleep is generally felt in the late afternoon, particularly after the feast. Gifts are given to the Roadman and all his helpers by the sponsoring family at the feast to show deep appreciation for all his hard work.

Wynema Morris Walthill, Nebraska

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