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The Peyote Controversy and the Demise of the Society of American Indians

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 159-180 | 10.1353/aiq.2013.0034

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To exercise the right to oppose any movement which appears detrimental to the race.

The Society of American Indians was not a long-lived organization. During its existence it was beset by a series of problems, including insufficient funds, personality conflicts, if not outright factionalism, and significant differences on policy issues. One such issue was the sai response to the emergence and expansion of the Peyote faith, known as the Native American Church after 1918. The sai took an official position in support of the criminalization of the use and possession of peyote. However, since its founding, the sai included Peyotists as members and others who were supporters, such as attorney Thomas Sloan (Omaha), who served as president, and Francis LaFlesche (Omaha). Individual members were on both sides of this issue; for example, Gertrude Bonnin, an important sai official, was a leading advocate for the criminalization of peyote. It proved to be a difficult issue since compromise was virtually impossible. One was either for or against the criminalization of the use and possession of peyote, creating internal discord that contributed to the Society’s demise.

Peyote, a small cactus, has been used as a religious sacrament, or “medicine” as it is commonly called, for hundreds of years in Mesoamerica. The top is cut off and dried and is sometimes referred to as a peyote button. It may be chewed, made into a tea, or ground into granular form and, with the addition of water, ingested during peyote services. The use of peyote as a sacrament spread north into what is now Texas and Oklahoma and developed into a religious complex in the 1870s and 1880s on the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation. As the Peyote faith expanded throughout the southern and northern Plains, it came under assault by federal and state governments and by many nongovernmental organizations, which believed it threatened their assimilation, “civilizing,” and Christianizing agendas. As Peyotism emerged, it developed a moral and ethical system to guide its members along the so-called Peyote Road. This included a prohibition against alcohol, since it was believed peyote was a manifestation of God that had the power to heal, especially to cure the disease of alcoholism. Peyotism continued to spread throughout the twentieth century, providing a degree of spiritual and cultural autonomy to its members. It also developed variations in its nightlong service, such as the Big Moon, Half-Moon, and Cross-Fire versions, the last incorporating elements of Christianity. As a defense against legal assaults, Peyotists sought constitutional protection. In 1918 Oklahoma Peyotists incorporated as the Native American Church, followed by similar incorporations throughout the western states. Today there are more than three hundred thousand members. Most belong to either the Native American Church of North America or the Azee’ Bee Nahaghá of Diné (Navajo) Nation, the peyote community of the Diné.1

The peyote issue was not mentioned at the sai’s inaugural conference in Columbus, Ohio. The controversy over peyote was just becoming a national issue, although the Office of Indian Affairs was already expressing concern and looking for ways to stop peyote distribution. After the conference Arthur Parker wrote to Charles E. Dagenett (Peoria) that he had received two types of criticisms of the sai. One was a suspicion of government control; the other was a suspicion that the Society might be too “pagan” in its sympathy toward the “mescal-peyote element.” He explained why Sloan was feared by some, especially the missionaries, for his sympathy for the so-called “mescal [peyote] eaters,” and that this antagonism toward Sloan would have a negative effect on the sai. Parker later sent a letter to sai president Sherman Coolidge, pointing out that they were being accused of having exponents of the “Mescal religion” among their members.2

Among those in attendance at the second national conference, also in Columbus, was William “Pussyfoot” Johnson, a former employee of the Indian Office. In his presentation Johnson mentioned peyote only once, but his presence alone would have been discomforting to Peyotists. He had spent several years in south Texas buying and destroying peyote under the guise that it was covered by the 1897 Indian Prohibition Act that outlawed “intoxicants” for American Indians. He...

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