Native American Church

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Native American Church insignia

The Native American Church (NAC), also known as Peyotism and Peyote Religion, is a Native American religion characterized by mixed traditional as well as Protestant beliefs and by sacramental use of the entheogen peyote. The religion originated in the U.S. state of Oklahoma in the late nineteenth century after peyote was introduced to the southern Great Plains from Mexico.[1][2][3] Today it is the most widespread indigenous religion among Native Americans in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, with an estimated 250,000 adherents as of the late twentieth century.[4][5][6][7]

History of the peyote religion

Peyote road
A peyote set such as this is used by the medicine man during the peyote ritual.
Peyote ceremony tipi

Peyote use originated in pre-Columbian Mexico as a medicine and a means of mystic revelation. The tradition spread north to tribes in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century and acquired its present form around 1885 and thereafter began its wider spread.[3][7]

The two current, major NAC chapters in the United States showcase this dichotomy: the Native American Church of the United States, the original umbrella incorporated church birthed in 1918 from which many other chapters are tied to, allows non-natives to participate, in regulation with state law. On the other hand, the Native American Church of North America, incorporated much later in the 1950s, only allows Native Americans with a 1/4 native blood quantum and CIB certificate to participate (Omer Stewart - Peyote Religion).

Development of the movement

Peyote Rattle, late 19th-early 20th century, Brooklyn Museum; This peyote rattle was played during Native American Church ceremonies. The gourd symbolizes the world and the sound it makes represents prayers. The gourd’s zigzag decoration symbolizes Christ’s crown of thorns. The handle’s beaded lightning design, which signifies people's ability to ascend from earth to heaven, is encircled by a red horsehair fringe that represents the rays of the sun at sunrise, the hour when Christ rose from the dead. The medal attached to the handle reads “Behold the heart of Jesus is with me.”

Quanah Parker, along with other prominent roadmen, was influential in the adoption of the Native American Church by tribal entities in the United States. Even though historically ceremonies are much older, the NAC movement started generally in the 1880s and was formally incorporated in 1918 in Oklahoma. The genesis of modern NAC ceremonies have deep roots in both Mexican and Native American culture and ritual, due to the natural locality of peyote and the dissemination by Parker to the Comanche and other plains tribes located in Indian Territory.[8][9]

Though there are many variations, the main two ceremonial styles of the NAC are the "half moon" fireplace and the "cross fire" fireplace. Parker learned the "half moon" style of the peyote ceremony from the Lipan Apache leader Chevato. The Lipan Apache learned the ceremony from the Comecrudo tribe of Southern Texas (Peyote Religion by Omer Stewart). The "half moon" fireplace hallmarks include the use of tobacco throughout, with very little to no use of the Bible in the ceremony. This does vary tribe-to-tribe. The "cross fire" ceremony (originally called the "Big Moon" ceremony) became prevalent in Oklahoma (initially among the Kiowa) due to the influence of John Wilson, a Caddo man who traveled extensively around the same time as Parker during the early days of the Native American Church movement. The "cross fire" ceremony has elements that separate it strongly from the "half moon". Usually, there is no tobacco used in the meeting and the use of the Bible is used extensively. Therefore, it is a merger of both indigenous ritual and Christian doctrine and belief.

United States law

As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), which, among other things, put the legal use of peyote by American Indians into uncertainty and potential legal jeopardy, Congress passed an amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (42 U.S.C. § 1996), i.e., the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 (42 U.S.C. § 1996a), pertinent excerpts of which are given below:

Use, possession, or transportation of peyote
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful, and shall not be prohibited by the United States or any State. No Indian shall be penalized or discriminated against on the basis of such use, possession or transportation, including, but not limited to, denial of otherwise applicable benefits under public assistance programs.
— 42 U.S.C. 1996A(b)(1).

For purposes of this section (1) the term “Indian” means a member of an Indian tribe; (2) the term “Indian tribe” means any tribe, band, nation, pueblo, or other organized group or community of Indians, including any Alaska Native village (as defined in, or established pursuant to, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 U.S.C. § 1601 et seq.)), which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians; (3) the term “Indian religion” means any religion (A) which is practiced by Indians, and

(B) the origin and interpretation of which is from within a traditional Indian culture or community; and (4) the term “State” means any State of the United States, and any political subdivision thereof.
— 42 U.S.C. 1996A(c)
Protection of rights of Indians and Indian tribes

Nothing in this section shall be construed as abrogating, diminishing, or otherwise affecting (1) the inherent rights of any Indian tribe; (2) the rights, express or implicit, of any Indian tribe which exist under treaties, Executive orders, and laws of the United States; (3) the inherent right of Indians to practice their religions; and

(4) the right of Indians to practice their religions under any Federal or State law.
— 42 U.S.C. 1996A(d)


Shawnee altar cloth, ca. 1940, Oklahoma History Center

Native American Church instruments used in the peyote ceremony are as follows:

  • The peyote gourd rattle (also used in the Gourd Dance ceremony) consists of a hard wooden stick, with a vegetable gourd cut in half and affixed to a wooden or other hard stopper. It has a horsehair top with usually intricate threadwork that is removable at top. Leather fringe tassel affixed to the bottom of the gourd stick. It can be beaded or carved depending on the artist's taste. Finally, inside of the gourd is filled with stones, pebbles or other material to produce a special sound. This rattle is used to sing peyote songs during the NAC ceremony.
  • The water drum is an iron kettle, with ears cut off, that is tied down with a deer, caribou, or other animal hide. It is tied down with stones or marbles along a certain formation along the side. It is filled with water halfway and produces a special, deep sound when played with a drumstick. It is played by the water drummer during the ceremony while the singer sings songs with a peyote rattle. The tempo played by the drum is usually rapid and quick.
  • The peyote drum stick is a single hard wooden stick used to play the drum during the ceremony. It is usually made from dense wood to produce a more satisfactory sound when played with the water drum.
  • The peyote staff is a wooden staff that is passed around with the water drum and peyote rattle. It is representative of holy god and is held up right during the ceremony. The staff is usually beaded or carved to match the gourd. Like the peyote rattle, it usually has a horsehair top affixed and removable.

See also


  2. Catherine Beyer. "Peyote and the Native American Church". Religion & Spirituality. Retrieved 5 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Native American Church". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 5 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Native American Church". Retrieved 5 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "World Religions & Spirituality - Native American Church". Retrieved 5 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "University of Virginia Library". 2006-09-07. Retrieved 2011-07-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 "'A Brief History of the Native American Church'". CSP. 1996.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Stewart OC. 1989. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2457-1.
  9. Alice Lee Marriott, Carol K. Rachlin, Peyote: An Account of the Origins and Growth of the Peyote Religion, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co. (1971), 111pgs.


  • Hayward, Robert. The Thirteenth Step: Ancient Solutions to the Contemporary Problems of Alcoholism and Addiction using the Timeless Wisdom of The Native American Church Ceremony. Native Son Publishers Inc., 2011. ISBN 0983638403. -- Describes the Native American Church Ceremony.

External links