By Darren Thompson
OKLAHOMA CITY—Yesterday, the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States heard from leaders of the Native American Church during a scheduled listening session at the National Indian Education Association’s 2022 annual convention. The Native American Church of North America (NACNA) is advocating for federal appropriations to preserve the peyote’s natural habitat and asking for congressional support.
“Once before, we’ve gone through this issue of peyote protection and it’s coming back,” Dr. Phil “Joe Fish” Dupoint told the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States on Wednesday. “When we get together, we can stop it.”
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA) was amended in 1994 to protect the possession, use, and transportation of peyote by members of federally recognized tribes for bona fide ceremonial purposes. Peyote is not used for any purpose other than ceremonial.
Dupoint is one of the most esteemed elders of the Kiowa tribe and recently received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Bacone College. He was a lawyer and ceremonial leader in the Native American Church for many years. He talked about what he witnessed during peyote ceremonies, usually held in teepees.
“I saw people being carried in the teepee and I saw them come out and still walk to this day,” Dupoint said. “This medicine, to us, is very valuable and important and something that we need as Native American people.”
The Native American Church has its roots in Oklahoma. It was officially founded in 1918 among the Comanches of southwestern Oklahoma and spread to other tribes including the Kiowa and Apache. Today, the church has over 300,000 members, with chapters across the United States and Canada.
Leaders say peyote habitat is under threat and its loss threatens North America’s largest intertribal religious organization. The use of peyote is federally protected for members of federally recognized tribes, but its habitat is not. Because peyote only grows on private land in southwest Texas, its habitat is not protected by state or federal laws.
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Native American church leaders hope to influence Congress to protect their way of life under AIRFA, asking the federal government to earmark funds to incentivize private landowners to preserve the soil where peyote grows.
“We call on the administration to enforce the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and on Congress to uphold their federal responsibilities to the tribes,” said NACNA President Jon “Poncho” Brady. Indigenous News Online.
Many during the subcommittee presentation spoke of peyote as medicine and referred to its habitat as sacred.
“Where this medicine comes from is a sacred site,” Edmund Nevaquoya said at Wednesday’s meeting. “This place is part of us.”
During his presentation, Nevaquoya, a Comanche musician, historian and ceremonial leader, shared the oral history of the creation of the ceremony when one of their ancestors sat in the peyote gardens and created a ceremony for the place.
“The place was so sacred that a ceremony was created there and brought to our people,” Nevaquoya said.
Nevaquoya told congressional staff that peyote helped him beat stage four cancer and he will always believe in its abilities.
“This medicine is good and people get good blessings from it,” Nevaquoya said. “People sing our songs all over the world.”
Many other leaders, including lawyers, tribal chiefs, dignitaries and members of the Native American Church, told Congress staff that peyote is considered a medicine and that its environment must be protected to prevent further habitat losses.
The Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States is part of the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ). The subcommittee is made up of three Indigenous women, Naomi Miguel, Ariana Romeo and Qay-Liwh Ammon. It is the House of Representatives’ version of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and has specific jurisdiction over the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Everything went well, and we’re thrilled to hear from people telling us how we can help protect their way of life,” Romeo said. Indigenous News Online. “This session helps us be informed to share and advocate in Washington.”
A policy analyst from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) was present at the meeting. Going forward, Brady will meet with the NCAI Peyote Task Force, a subcommittee dedicated to protecting peyote.
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