(CN) — In a 10,000-year-old tradition where it’s taboo to step forward as a public figure, one has emerged. And it’s a voice pushing for changes that nobody else wants.
James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, founder of the Oklevueha Native American Church, says marijuana, ayahuasca and “sacred sexuality” are as important to his church as peyote.
“Cannabis has always been sacred, used since time immemorial,” Mooney said in an interview, reached on the phone at a golf course in Utah. “Anything produced by Mother Earth is a sacrament. Outlawing a plant is a sign of a sick society.”
Mooney’s attempt to extend sacred status to nontraditional plants and practices has enraged the leaders of the oldest branches of the Native American Church, who say his churches represent an attempt to capitalize on federal protections designed to protect a persecuted heritage by appropriating their name.
Mooney has repeatedly been accused of having no native ancestry, despite his claim that he is a member of a Seminole tribe that is not federally recognized. He also says he is descended from the warrior chief Osceola and the anthropologist James Warren Mooney, who wrote the bylaws for the first Native American Church.
Mooney estimated that 300 churches operate under the umbrella of the Oklevhua Native American Church. Most of them use marijuana as a sacrament. Some use peyote or ayahuasca. And a handful offer “sexual healing.”
Sandor Iron Rope, president of the National Council of Native American Churches and the Native American Church of North America, said in an interview that claiming anything other than peyote as a sacrament is an offensive perversion of the traditions his ancestors died to protect.
“None of the indigenous Native American Church organizations or their chapters that I represent as president of the National Council have this belief that marijuana is a sacrament,” Iron Rope said. “I’ve traveled extensively amongst tribes and I’ve never sat in a Native American Church marijuana ceremony or even heard about one. I’m full-blood Lakota and I’ve never experienced it. I’ve never even heard of it.”
At the Native American Church in Hawaii run by Mooney’s son, Michael Rex “Raging Bear” Mooney, marijuana is the main sacrament.
Iron Rope said both Mooneys are free to practice their beliefs, just not under the umbrella of the Native American Church.
“Michael and James Mooney can pray to whatever they want to,” Iron Rope said. “But trying to blend it all together is not our heritage. And it’s not the Native American Church.”
Steven Moore, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund familiar with the Mooneys, said they are combining completely separate practices without respect for where they came from.
“It’s like they’re throwing all native religious traditions and ways into a pot and saying they are all one,” Moore said. “Then you are free to just bring anything you want into the teepee, into the sweat lodge. Pray to anything you want. Use all these objects, and then you think you’ve got all this power. And that is prototypical, New Age spirituality. It’s this big stewpot. Let’s bring crystals in. Let’s bring crow feathers in. There’s a pretty red rock in the alleyway behind my office. Let’s pray to that.”
Such changes as particularly painful, Moore said, in the Native American tradition.
“For Native Americans who for 500 years watched everything be taken away from them to then watch the appropriation of their traditional ways, that’s kind of the final insult,” he added. “You’ve taken my children. You’ve taken my land, my water, my trees. What else can you take? Call it New Age spirituality, but don’t call it the Native American Church and then seek the hard-earned protection of federal law indigenous people have achieved.”
Pushing for an Expanded List of Sacraments
“He’s not related to us,” said Amanda Bouby, with the Seminole tribal enrollment office.
James Mooney claims to belong to the Oklevueha band of Seminole, but Bouby said there is no Oklevueha band of Seminole, and that there are no Seminole subtribes.
Ruth Hopkins, chief judge of the Spirit Lake Tribe in Fargo, North Dakota, who has written for Indian Country Today about Mooney and the Oklevueha Native American Church, said Mooney’s ancestry is questionable, and that he has tried to create a maze of information typical of someone “desperately trying to prove he’s native.”
Iron Rope is one of five major players in the Native American Church who signed a statement condemning “the proliferation of organizations appropriating the ‘Native American Church’ name with no ties to the indigenous worship of the holy sacrament peyote.”
“Some of these illegitimate organizations, comprised of non-Native people, are now claiming that marijuana, ayahuasca and other substances are part of Native American Church theology and practice,” their statement says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We, the National Council of Native American Churches, are now stepping forward to advise the public that we do not condone the activities of these illegitimate organizations.”
In addition to Iron Rope, the statement is joined by Steven Benally, president of the Azzee’ Bee Nahaga of Dine Nation; Charles Haag, president of the Native American Church of the State of Oklahoma; Albert Red Bear Jr., president of the Native American Church of the State of South Dakota; and Santos De La Cruz Carillo, with Consejo Regional Wixarika Mexico.
The threat by nontraditional Native American churches is not merely an existential one. Mooney and his son have spearheaded several lawsuits around the country in an attempt to extend legal protections to other plants like cannabis and ayahuasca.
Last month, James Mooney even testified on behalf of the Sedona Goddess Temple, an Arizona organization he helped found, that claims its religious sacraments consist of “sexual healing.” Despite his efforts, the temple’s so-called high priestess was convicted of running a brothel.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declined to extend federal protection to marijuana in a case brought by Michael Mooney.
Ruling from Honolulu, the court found that marijuana was merely a substitute for peyote and not the main sacrament of Michael Mooney’s Hawaii church.
James Mooney called that a win, saying the ruling would not apply to his own pending federal cases in Oregon and California because in those churches marijuana is the central sacrament.
James and Michael Mooney may be making similar legal arguments, but disputes over how to run their churches have driven a wedge between father and son.
A schism has developed in the Native American Church over whether marijuana deserves the same legal protections peyote enjoys as a church sacrament.
With both sides claiming victory in a recent Ninth Circuit ruling, Courthouse News begins a three-part series that explores the church’s delicate history and the legal protections some say are attracting outsiders.
Part II of this series, delving deeper into the Mooneys’ court battle, appears Monday.
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