Native American Church Resists Pot Enthusiasts

      Native American Church traditions just survived a Ninth Circuit battle, but a war within the church wages on.
     In this article, the final chapter of a three-part series, Courthouse News looks at the church’s place in the nationwide movement to decriminalize marijuana.
     
Continue reading below, or return to Part I or Part II of this series.
     
Larger Questions Remain Unanswered
          Though happy that the Ninth Circuit ruled against a nontraditional church using its name earlier this month, five major players in the Native American Church had hoped the federal appeals would touch on broader issues.
     In an amicus brief, the National Council of Native American Churches and other groups asked the court to designate peyote as the only sacrament in Native American Church doctrine.
     Council president Sandor Iron Rope said establishing the true underpinnings of the Native American Church are a critical part of protecting its traditions.
     “What we’re going off of is tribal lineage, tribal teachings that come down from our grandma and grandpa,” Iron Rope said. “We’re not in a New Age paradigm where we create our own religion and grab anything and put it on our altar and say it’s sacred. You can call anything sacred, but we have a tribal lineage and teaching that tells us what actually is and isn’t.”
     The Ninth Circuit did not reach these questions in its April 6 ruling against one of the nontraditional Native American churches that Iron Rope’s council condemns.
     Peyote in the Native American tradition dates back thousands of years, but Michael Mooney’s Native American Church of Hawaii had asked the court to extend federal protections for its use of marijuana, which it calls a central sacrament.
     The court shot them down, but Mooney said there is no single religious doctrine uniting the many nations of Native America.
     “Prior to colonization, we had thousands of tribes,” Mooney said. “Some smoked cannabis as prayer smoke — any smoke gives prayers to creator and ancestors.”
     Not all native nations have a tradition of using peyote. And the Sun Dance was mostly practiced by plains tribes.      Some native groups don’t use peyote, but practice religious pipe ceremonies where they smoke a blend of herbs and tobacco called kinnikinnick.
     And all have their own varying religious songs and stories.
     “For any Native American nation to put aside all the other songs and tradition and say that peyote is the only sacrament is absolutely ridiculous,” Mooney said. “They’re trying to claim ownership of the Native American Church. It’s absurd.”
     Mooney called marijuana a “very appropriate” medicine for the ailments of modern times. “When you get going too much in modern society, it allows you to slow down and feel things and actually think about things in a conscious manner,” he added. “We can see and notice and obviousness of creator around us.”
     Native American Rights Fund attorney Steven Moore condemned this thinking, which Mooney and his father each espouse with different churches they bill as Native American. “The Mooneys think they have license to do whatever they want to do under federal law, and they don’t think their actions have any adverse effect on the people of Native America,” Moore said.
     The whims of a religion that was “made up in the last 20 years and changes all the time” should not bring court scrutiny on laws meant to protect Native Americans, the attorney added.
     “They’re creating a new set of religious doctrine here under a belief system where anything that can produce some kind of mind-altering state is protected,” Moore said. “And they’re saying it’s protected under their status as a Native American Church.”
     What makes this situation particularly dangerous, Moore said, is that it could allow non-native people to decide the future of the Native American Church. “The Mooneys should not be conjuring up self-proclaimed religions for their own profit and ego-gratification, under the guise of the ‘Native American Church,’ when that name carries real weight and legitimacy under federal law,” Moore said. “Their motives are transparent and illegitimate.”

A Radical Departure From Tradition     
     The Mooney family’s connection to a Native American tribe is disputed.
     While patriarch James Mooney claims to belong to the Oklevueha band of Seminole, an enrollment specialist for the Seminole Tribe of Florida said there is no Oklevueha band of Seminole, and that there are no Seminole subtribes.
     Like his son’s church in Hawaii, James Mooney’s Oklevueha Native American Church considers marijuana a sacrament.
     Protections for a broader class of psychoactive drugs, however, are not the elder Mooney’s only break from native traditions.
     He told Courthouse News that he helped found four goddess temples under the Oklevhua umbrella whose mission is to practice “sexual healing.”
     The self-described “high priestess” of one such church, the Phoenix Goddess Temple, is embroiled in her own legal saga.
     After a month-long trial, a jury for the Maricopa County Superior Court found Tracy Elise guilty of prostitution, running a house of prostitution, pandering, money laundering and running an illegal enterprise.
     Elise, who represented herself, tried to convince the court that sexual healing is the foundation of her religion.
     “I’m doing this for spiritual purposes,” Elise told supporters just before the jury read her guilty verdict. “What I think is going to affect the light of my soul and where I go later. If I get sent to prison, I will continue my ministry with the women around me. But it would make me sad because I have beautiful teachings for couples and for men that I wouldn’t be able to share.”
     She is scheduled for sentencing on May 6.     
     James Mooney testified for a day and a half on Elise’s behalf, at one point kneeling on a rug to demonstrate a pipe ceremony for the court. Mooney explained that the demonstration would show “the tantric combination of male, represented by the pipe, and female, represented by the pipe’s bowl.”
     Mooney told Courthouse News that he vetted Elise and the high priestesses of the other goddess temples before offering the protection of being an independent branch of his Native American Church.
     “I interviewed them over a period of years and was convinced that they were working on and mastering the anointing oil ceremony that native people have been doing forever,” Mooney said.
     Mooney said operations at the other Oklevueha goddess temples were running smoothly.
     “They have no problems,” Mooney said. “The only problem is the bogus, idiot prosecuting attorneys.”
     James and Michael Mooney’s faiths have parted ways, but both consider cannabis sacred. “The government tried to say that peyote is the only plant that can be utilized by our church,” James Mooney said. “That’s bullshit. Any plant can be used.”
     With legal use of the drug spreading across the country, Michael Mooney said his church aims to help mitigate excessive use of a drug whose use is quickly becoming normalized.
     Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, while recreational use is allowed in Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
     “Whether it takes two years or 13, once we receive this exemption we can drop in a little consciousness to use it in a sacred manner,” Michael Mooney said. “We believe we are having an effect with our prayers here to help people respect this medicine and appreciate the gift of living God and reconnect with nature.”
     Iron Rope said that’s not the role of the Native American Church.
     “We’ve never been in a marijuana ceremony nor have our grandmothers or grandfathers,” he said. “It really gets people angry when you try to say that marijuana is part of the Native American Church. It’s really a slap in your grandma and grandpa’s face. One thing about indigenous cultures is respect, and we really try to maintain that ceremonial respect for what has been handed down to use. Marijuana is not even from our homelands. It may have its medicinal uses, but don’t confuse it with our holy peyote.”

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