- Upholding Indigenous Freedoms of Religion and MedicinePeyotists at the 1906–1908 Oklahoma Constitutional Convention and First Legislature
In February 1908 newspapers throughout Oklahoma reported that the hotel lobbies of Guthrie, the capital of the new state of Oklahoma, were crowded with Indian men, women, and children. At the thirty-sixth day of the first Oklahoma legislature, just sixty days after the state was established by merging Indian and Oklahoma Territories, more than a hundred prominent representatives of the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Osage, Ponca, Arapaho, Iowa, and Sac and Fox tribes filled the legislative hall. On four occasions, twice during the constitutional convention and twice at the first Oklahoma legislature six months later, Indian leaders assertively voiced their concerns about laws that restricted their rights to practice their medicine and religion.
At the Senate legislative hearings, Chessie McIntosh, a member of the Creek Nation, a lawyer, and a delegate at the earlier constitutional convention for the unsuccessfully proposed state of Sequoyah, expressed the importance of the moment:
Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, I thank the people of the great State of Oklahoma for the consideration given the Indian in the late Constitutional Convention; I thank you for what I have never seen in any Legislature before, and I have been to the assembling of more than one state legislature—I have never seen where the Indians were invited into the Legislative Chamber and asked to present his wants. I thank you for that, and for the perpetuation of the souls of the different Nations to agree to come as you have done in the Great Seal of the State of Oklahoma, and I hope and trust that the Indian will make one of the best citizens of this State.1 [End Page 215]
These debates and discourses at the juncture of state formation structured the chartering of the Native American Church (NAC) in Oklahoma ten years later in 1918, creating the legal foundation for the practice of Peyotism throughout the United States and Canada, where it is now the largest intertribal Indigenous religion in North America.
In the five hundred years of European and American globalization of the world, seldom have Indigenous peoples been invited to a constitutional convention and first legislature to express their perspectives and concerns. The use of peyote by the Indigenous peoples of the southern plains and northern Mexico is ancient, dating back thousands of years to at least 5200 BP.2 Indigenous peoples expressing their desires to practice their traditional medicines and religions directly to lawmakers at the formation of a state is a rare occasion in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Rarely in the five-hundred-year history of the European and American colonization of the world were the rights of the Indigenous peoples considered at the juncture when new political entities established their constitutions and first laws. Typically, nation-states attempt to extinguish Indigenous rights to land and resources, refuse to grant their political legitimacy, and severely persecute traditional healing and religious practices. Not until 1978 did the United States grant religious freedom to Native Americans.3 Peyotists were not protected by federal law until 1994, when President Clinton signed the amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.4 Not until September 2007 did the United Nations declare that nations recognize Indigenous rights to their spiritual and religious traditions as well as their traditional medicines and health practices.5
This article portrays this critical juncture in 1907 when the American nation-state imposed its full legal, economic, political, and value system upon more than forty Indigenous nations by merging Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory into the state of Oklahoma. This critical political and cultural event, where Indigenous peoples expressed their rights for religion and medicine, is not documented nor analyzed in the literature. Even though Sidney Slotkin in his 1956 book, The Peyote Religion, details many of the legal and political events in defense of Peyotism, there is no mention of these hearings at the formation of the state of Oklahoma.6 A photograph and six paragraphs in the 1987 book Peyote Religion by Omer Stewart briefly mention this historic event in the chapter on how...