We are thrilled to have a guest post from Christopher R. Versen of Bridgewater College who shared his insights at the AHA as to how we should teach the Native American Church controversy. He shares an abbreviated summary of those remarks here.
Finding ways to get students to engage the complexity of American Indian history and Progressivism is a challenge. The controversy surrounding the formation of the Native American Church (NAC) neatly meets that challenge. As a classroom subject, it allows students to work with all that complexity and better understand the process of human interaction, the role of religion in societies, American Indian agency in their history, and of the Progressive Era, generally.
The Native American Church (NAC) was incorporated in El Reno, Oklahoma on October 10, 1918. It was at once an example of American Indian assimilation and resistance, innovation and tradition. It was a reaction against forced relocation and the hardships of reservations life, which could not have happened without the concentration and intertribal mingling of reservation life. It was a religious institution that used a mild, hallucinogenic cactus from the Rio Grande Valley traditionally used by American Indians as the central sacrament in its worship of Jesus Christ and the Creator, which confounded missionaries and prohibitionists alike. The church was chartered under the laws of Oklahoma to protect worshipers against state efforts to suppress their religion. It used the federal separation of powers to protect itself against national prohibitionists. It was a church supported by Indians on the reservations, boarding school trained Indians who knew how to work within the American legal framework, and Progressive Era anthropologists and reformers. It was opposed by members of those same groups.
The NAC incorporated modern Peyotism, which was an outgrowth of the ancient ritual use of peyote that had its roots in and around the Rio Grande river valley before Contact. By the nineteenth century, the widespread use of peyote had been squelched in Mexico, but it thrived in the unique circumstances of the Indian Reservation system in the United States after 1880. The forced comingling of previously unaffiliated tribes allowed the spread of ideas, and the oppressiveness and disruptiveness of life on unfamiliar land created a demand for transformed belief systems.
The integration of the old and the new in religion was nothing new in either Indian history or human history. American Indian communities had confronted a period of remarkable spiritual disruption in the years following contact with Europeans and Africans. The deaths of religious, political, and cultural leaders, the undermining of long-held visions of the world--physical and spiritual--the introduction of powerful new ideas, and the imposition of alien cultures demanded unique and dynamic responses.
The Native American Church was a response that synthesized traditional tribal rituals and a pan-Indian notion of universal structure with new ideas gleaned from other tribes and from Christian culture. It was a creative process that produced a new religious tradition with roots in the old. In this, it was similar to the contemporaneous rise of Fundamentalism, which likewise manufactured an “old time religion” to counter modern uncertainty. It is an excellent point at which to draw students into a consideration of the role of religion in American and American Indian history.
An effective way to dig into this rich subject is through an in-class discussion based on materials in the 1918 House Peyote Hearings, which were an important spur to the incorporation of the NAC. Preceding classes provide the context: conditions on the reservations in the early twentieth century, Oklahoma statehood, and the reformism of Progressive Era America. Before the class students, divided into several groups, read passages from the House hearings on whether or not to ban Peyote under an 1893 prohibition law. Each group reads the testimony of different people on both sides of the debate and defends that position in a class debate over whether or not to ban peyote. The 210-page document, available online, has testimony from Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala Sá), Francis La Flesche, James Mooney, tribal members and spokesmen, politicians from Western states, white scientists, doctors, anthropologists, and Indian agents, giving a variety of voices on both sides of the issue. Run as a reenactment of the hearings or as an open debate among interested parties, the exercise gives students insight into the complex issues at the heart of American Indian and US history in the Progressive Era. It also drives home the importance of Indians’ agency in their own history.
Peyote: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs of the House of Representatives on H. R. 2614 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1918), Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/cu31924097625895.
Omer Stewart, Peyote Religion: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).
Thomas Constantine Maroukis, The Peyote Road: Religious Freedom and the Native American Church (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).
Dr. Christopher R. Versen