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History of the Peyote Cactus and the Native American Church

Peyote ceremony tipi

Peyote ceremony tipi

by Krystle Cole – September 3, 2009

The Native American deification of the peyote cactus is centuries old. Peyote buttons, named so because the top of the cactus that grows above soil is circular-shaped like a button, were uncovered in the Shumla Cave in Texas and have been radiocarbon dated to 5,000 BC. The Huichol tribe, who still uses peyote as a sacrament to this day, started their ritual peyote hunt as early as 200 AD (Fikes, 1996).

When European immigrants first arrived to the new world, they misunderstood the Native American use of peyote. They thought it was anti-Christian and the work of the devil. In 1620, the Spanish inquisition made its use illegal, and then persecuted the Mexican Natives who used it by torturing and killing them. This persecution and ill-will toward peyote users went on for centuries (Fikes, 1996).

Ultimately, the route and timing of the diffusion of peyote use throughout the United States is unclear. Most evidence indicates that it spread from the tribes in Northern Mexico, to the tribes in Oklahoma, and then throughout the rest of the United States. We do know that peyote was accepted as a medicine by many of the Oklahoma tribes during the Native American cultural disintegration of the 1880s. In 1918, the NAC officially incorporated with the hope of protecting their religious freedom. Fikes (1996) pointed out that, “except for the secular pow-wow, Peyote meetings are now the most popular Native American gatherings” (p. 3).

Legality of Peyote Use for NAC Members

As previously mentioned, there has been a long history of prohibition of peyote use. The Spanish Inquisition outlawed it in 1620, Christian missionaries worked to eradicate its use along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs throughout the 19th century, and in 1918 when the NAC was incorporated the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill prohibiting its use (Feeney, 2007).

During the 1960s, peyote use was associated with widespread use of LSD and the hippy counterculture. This led to an even more negative and stereotypical view of it and a Federal prohibition of its use in the Drug Abuse Control Amendments of 1965. This piece of legislation was passed with the understanding that the religious use of peyote would be protected. Shortly after this, a regulatory exemption was passed by the department of Health, Education, and Welfare to allow the religious use of peyote by the NAC. This act was then replaced by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which also lacked a statutory exemption for the NAC. So, the newly formed Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs adopted a regulatory exemption that was similar to the one attached to the previous piece of legislation (Feeney, 2007).

These regulatory exemptions did nothing to protect the use of peyote by NAC members at the state level. Many states still had laws that made using peyote illegal even when used during Native American religious ceremonies (Feeney, 2007). This is exemplified in the 1990 Supreme Court decision for the case of the State of Oregon vs. Smith and Black. The case involved two Native Americans, Smith and Black, who were fired from their jobs for taking peyote during NAC ceremonies. They sued the State of Oregon to be able to get unemployment benefits for being wrongfully terminated from their positions. The State Supreme Court of Oregon did not rule in Smith and Black’s favor, even though it had the power to do so. As a side note, Smith and Black were employed as substance abuse counselors (Calabrese, 1997).

The fallout from the Smith and Black case was significant. Religious groups across the country decided to stand up and take action. This eventually led to a response from Congress with passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Soon after, in 1994, Congress passed an amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Restoration Act that finally made it legal for NAC members in all states to be able to use peyote within the context of specified religious ceremonies (Feeney, 2007).


Calabrese, J.D. (1997). Spiritual healing and human development in the Native American Church: Toward a cultural psychiatry of peyote. Psychoanalytic Review84(2);237-255.

Feeney, K. (2007). The legal basis for religious peyote use. Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogenic Substances as Treatments1;233-250.

Fikes, J. (1996). A brief history of the Native American Church. One Nation Under God. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers. Retrieved on September 1, 2009 from www.csp.org/communities/docs/fikes-nac_history.htm…

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