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Articles About the Peyote Way Church
by Outside Authors & Our Responses

An Analysis of the Peyote Way Church of God in the Legal Field
Bernadette Rigal-Cellard

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2004 international conference
Baylor University, Waco, Texas
June 18-20, 2004

Bernadette Rigal-Cellard interviewed Rev. Anne L. Zapf in 1991 and wrote this article, which was reprinted in 2004. Her article is well-informed and written, but we would like to correct one erroneous statement within the article, which reports that the Peyote Way Church "strictly adheres to the creeds of the LDS Church."

Our correction: The Peyote Way Church does not strictly adhere to Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or LDS) doctrine. Church clergy do strictly adhere to the Word of Wisdom (Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). This is simply a dietary code and guideline for clean living. There is no requirement in the Word of Wisdom to believe any other doctrines of the Mormon Church. Every member of the Church has their own set of beliefs. Some are Atheist, others devout Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Agnostics. Furthermore, the strict adherence of Church clergy to the Word of Wisdom is ultimately voluntary.

A Trip Down Peyote Way
Glenn Weyant

Tucson Weekly
June 10, 2004

Leonard Mercado, president of the Peyote Foundation, submitted this response to this article, which was published in the Tucson Weekly:

Dear Tucson Weekly,

The following response originally began as a letter to the editor but obviously developed into something more than that. I understand that the length is well beyond what a mailbag letter would normally run. However, considering the very primary constitutional and individual freedom issues which I felt the need to address, and the fact that the piece in question ran as the cover story, I am hoping that you might be able to fit the bulk of it in somehow, perhaps as a guest commentary. We live in a veritable epicenter of religious peyote use and too many of the articles that run on the subject raise the dust but never settle the questions.

Leonard Mercado
President, The Peyote Foundation

When I heard that there was a story in the works vis-à-vis peyote and the Peyote Way Church, I had the hopeful anticipation of a story that I might like to read- aside from the usual and obligatory legal, cultural and historical factoids. I was at least a little disappointed with what was served up in the June10th article, "A Trip Down Peyote Way". This response is my attempt at putting Glenn Weyant's story into a perspective that may allow me (and hopefully other Tucson Weekly readers) to leave the table with something more informative and satisfying than a McDonald's Happy Meal yet not as perplexing as the brain salad surgery that's left my stomach feeling unsettled. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must point out that I am a former member of the Peyote Way Church. A Google search for my name + peyote will return several dozen results revealing my own history of legal challenges on the peyote road. Aside from a common spiritual frame of reference, the clergy of the Peyote Way Church interviewed and I also share the stone cold reality of having been incarcerated or otherwise subjected to the heat of political fires for our beliefs.

Having said that, I am the first to admit that the whole peyote mythos is a culturally hopped up topic. Take one large mixing bowl, toss your basic western neurotic altered-states taboo/attraction with generous portions of mystic native smoked peppers, smother this mixture with drug war paranoia dressing and you have an excellent recipe for Politico-Fluster-Cuck Stew. A generation of acid-indigested, Castaneda-enthused boomers of the 60's and 70's gave genesis to tales of vanloads of vision-seeking hippies hurrying down to fulfill their un-bathed passions in the Texas desert, much to the dismay of some poor God-fearing rancher.

Hollywood is apparently down with peyote. Jim Morrison used peyote to unhinge the Doors, Oliver Stone style. Beavis and/or Butthead got spun on anime peyote, as did Homer J Simpson when he turned on Springfield with peyote smoothies. Billy the Kid and his Young Guns gang yee hawed their way through their own big screen mayhem and there is also some faint recall of a less than memorable western flick in which Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford party with Mescalito. Even the very word, peyote, is sexy enough to merit a slick 80's cologne product complete with glossy ad images of rattlesnakes, buck knife, and macho cool cowboy boots. These are but a few among many other examples of our pop-culture's confused infatuation with the divine cactus (or the devil's root, depending on your perspective). With that kind of spice in your salad it doesn't take long to turn a very unassuming, non-narcotic and non-addicting little cactus into a menu item that comes complete with an arrest warrant attached to your spiritual lunch tab.† In fairness to Weyant, it is no small task to mix constitutional law, politics, racism, an endangered species, Native American interests, and spiritual fervor in the same meal yet still cook up a story that is digestible. Yet all this has very little to do with the reality of my, or any other individual peyotist's prayer life.

Please allow me to put this all in a sack for you:

Despite a quoted U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson's belief that peyote is not endangered, the reality is that there is very little harvestable peyote left north of the Mexican border. This is a fact documented by the very few remaining licensed peyote dealers, several published research papers, and by many accumulative years of field study. Former growing ranges of the sacrament have diminished to a fraction of what they once were. Sales of up to several million receipted buttons per year to representatives of the Native American Church (NAC), combined with the lack of any provision regarding conservation or cultivation, create a statutory bias towards population decline, and eventual extinction of the species.† When you consider the ironic fact that the political brass of the NAC solicit federal regulatory agencies as the inherent providers and de facto protectors of their sacrament and religion, you get the clear picture that this boat won't stand much rocking. (Think about it. it’s a bit like depending on the Feds to save the bison or Iraqis begging permission of the Occupation Force to pray in a Mosque or pump oil from their sands.) Throw in a few do-gooders or pleasure police into the mix and you have a super-sized political hot potato that would french fry even the most progressive of legislators or special interest lobbies. Clearly, it would take some sort of ecological avatar cajones to get this psychedelic pygmy owl of a cactus on the endangered species radar screen.

Indian Law Office attorney James Botsford is quoted in Weyant's article as saying, "It's not about race. It's about being a member or federally recognized tribe? Well how many times does Attorney Botsford have to repeat this line before it sounds believable? I may not be as well informed as Botsford, but the statement makes as much sense to me as if he explained to a woman that she can’t be ordained, not due to her gender, but because she is female. Let’s face it: the Federal exemptions that provide for the religious use of peyote are racially constructed, if not by letter of the law then in spirit. In a 1991 ruling against the Peyote Way Church, U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Clark filed the dissenting opinion and stated essentially that the entire exemption was an abridgement of the establishment clause:

"I would hold that the exemptions violate the constitutional bar against making laws 'respecting an establishment of religion.' In my view, the fact that the impetus for the exemption arose from the federal government's paternalistic interest in American Indians and the 'me too' view of Texas cannot convert this purely religious exemption into a political one. This exemption is nothing more or less than a law respecting an establishment of religion, barred by the plain words of the first phrase of the First Amendment." [ii]

Botsford also states, "It is the non-Indians doing stuff that causes most of the problems." What if we turned this slickly camouflaged racial slur around and said something to the effect of, Native Americans should not be allowed to smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, drive automobiles, parent their children, or be trusted with sharp objects as they are more likely than non-native people to hurt themselves and others? Would Botsford find this acceptable?

Sorry James, but here's an excerpt from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services? Drug & Alcohol Information website:

"In 2002, the rate of substance dependence or abuse was highest among American Indians and Alaska Natives. In fact, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention's (CSAP's) National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that from 1999 to 2001 American Indians and Alaska Natives aged 12 to 17 had higher rates of past month binge drinking, cigarette use, and illicit drug use than any other racial or ethnic group.

The effect of substance abuse on the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives is overwhelming. According to a SAMHSA Prevention Alert: American Indians/Alaska Natives and Substance Abuse, American Indians aged 25 to 34, males die from vehicle crashes nearly three times more frequently than any other racial or ethnic group; they are twice as likely to commit suicide and seven times more likely to suffer from alcohol-related problems, such as cirrhosis of the liver. Alaska Native males aged 15 to 24 have a suicide rate 14 times the national average and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) occurs among Alaska Native newborns at twice the national average."

Should Attorney Botsford deduce from these facts that Native Americans are either already so addictively challenged or beyond redemption that allowing them another ostensibly dangerous substance couldn’t possibly harm them any more? (The distinct aroma of Roasted Proletariat a la Orwell wafts in from the grill like sweet cedar smoke in a tipi) Perhaps the legendary, anti-drug, sacred medicine is in such limited supply as to require that natives get first cuts in the triage line? Is the idea of white men "re-connecting with the earth" too pedestrian of a concept for some to swallow? Botsford’s contention that the Peyote Way Church erodes Native American rights rather than vice versa, leaves this native born American feeling as if someone is looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. At best it sounds as though Botsford carries a legalistic buffalo chip on his shoulder for non-Native Americans and the predictably profane and sanctimonious nature of all but the noble native. (Colonialist presumptions intended.)

Weyant’s article refers to the NAC as "his (Botsford's) church."†† Clearly what was meant was, "the church for which he provides legal representation," as by Botsford’s own opinion, he, as a Caucasian, native-born American would be prohibited by law from worshiping the Lord God if said worship included the consumption of peyote within the borders of the freest nation on earth. (Would you like some Tums with that happy meal?)

To further add to this conundrum, the few remaining licensed peyote dealers who are struggling to find sufficient peyote for current church needs are not tribal-enrolled natives, they are Mexican-Americans. One of these fellows, a likeable character who supports Baptist missionaries with the proceeds from sales of the sacrament, is legendary for his entertaining discourses citing the Mexican people’s pre-historic association with peyote (Mexico is where 90% of peyote’s natural habitat is located.) and the understandable pride in his multi-generational entrepreneurship which serves as an indespensible blessing to the northern tribes. It seems obvious to me, albeit in a sublimated fashion, that the (Botsford) federal regulatory argument runs something like this: while it’s fine for non-natives to sell peyote for profit, they cannot be allowed (trusted?) to pray utilizing the object of their livelihood. Chew on that gristle for a few moments

Although it is Botsford's contention and a common inference in most journalistic peyote hunts, it is not accurate to assume that NAC membership is composed exclusively of tribal-enrolled worshiper, Quanah Parker, the historically accepted grandfather of today's North American peyote ceremony, was a half-European, half-Comanche Chief who was not prohibitive of non-natives worshiping in this way. To the contrary, there was a positively non-exclusive, ecumenical element in his revivalism. Attending a prayer service at today's Oklahoma NAC Chapter #1 (and most other chapters), the first and oldest legally chartered NAC chapter in the nation, will have you worshiping alongside church officers both red and white. In a 1990 U.S. District Court of Appeals decision in which the court ruled in favor of a non-native NAC member's use and transport of peyote, Chief Judge Burciaga illustrated the fallacious and unequal protection offered as a sort of privilege to peyotists:

"As the uncontradicted evidence in this case shows, the history of the Native American Church attests to the fact that non-Indian worshipers have always been, and continue to be, active and sincere members of the Native American Church. The Government's racially restrictive reading and application of the exemption reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the history and present structure of the Native American Church."

Of the 250,000 NAC members that are commonly reported to attend services, large portions of us are not tribal-enrolled. This fraction grows in proportion as God blesses us with many of our own interracial children, our descendants who are now born into these ways. My own children and grandchildren know only that this is my way of worshiping God. It is my prayer that their minds never become poisoned with the prejudiced and legalistic arguments that some would concoct in order to benefit their own political interests.

Weyant makes much hay of what he refers to as a "$200 drug-induced religious experience". (The suggested donation figure is mentioned 9 times in the article.) Although I can overlook the obvious tabloid flavor for the sake of hooking interest, I must inject this information: in my time at the Peyote Way Church there was never a charge for peyote and there still isn’t. What has changed is that the Board of Stewards of the church has decided to suggest a donation for their services. Over the years church clergy have paid for every need without asking for handouts. Decades of supporting themselves and the church the old-fashioned way (honest work) render Weyant’s aspersion of church clergy selling their endangered sacrament reprehensible, if not sacrilegious. Although you may see them on Highway 60 picking other people’s trash up from the roadside, the residents of this church will be the last people you can expect to ever end up in a welfare line.

In my view, the biggest omission in Weyant's stir-fried perspective is the core of Rabbi Matthew Kent's and Reverend Anne Zapf's religious devotion-family. This couple's dedication to the peyote way is matched only by their commitment to each other and their children-three quite normal, fine young adults that they gave birth to and raised on church land. In doing so, they have far surpassed the national average for success in marriage, being happily united for over 25 years.

I recently witnessed Rabbi Kent and Reverend Zapf as they performed the marriage ceremony for their eldest daughter Kristen Joy. As the bride's Methodist, non-peyote eating auntie offered song of blessing and praise, it was clear that this family represents everything we hope for and admire in America's families.. Likewise, the Peyote Way Church's spiritual and cultural role is part of the solution to America's unhealthy and over consumptive relationship with edible, mind-altering, or addictive substances, not part of the problem.

So, Mr. Weyant, would you like an order of onion rings with that?

Leonard Mercado

[i] "The Peyote Religion", Omer C. Stewart, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, pp. 134-135
†The Peyote Gardens of South Texas: A Conservation Crisis??, Dr. Edward F. Anderson, Cactus And Succulent Journal (U. S.) Vol. 67 (1995)
[ii] Peyote Way Church of God v. Texas 1991
[iv] "The Peyote Religion", Omer C. Stewart, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, pp. 133-134
[v] U.S. v. Boyll, 1991

A Yankee Way of Knowledge
by Jim Parker

Drug Survival News
March-April, 1982

Jim Parker came to the church in 1982. This article is very dated and the people mentioned are no longer at the Church. We would like to clarify one statement within this article, where Parker states: "Klondyke, Arizona is not exactly the crossroads of the Western world, so having visitors has got to be something of a special event for members of the church, but they do their best not to show it."

Our clarification: One of the things that Church members cherish a great deal about the Church property is the sense of an undisturbed natural setting, and a separation from the urbanized human environment that prevails in too much of the rest of our world. But we actually enjoy a large number of visitors here at the Church throughout the year. Visitors often comment that they feel as though they have happened upon an oasis, far away from the madding crowd... And we take great care to preserve this impression by timing appointments so that only a one or two coincide here at any given time.


Road Runner