The group evolved in the late 19th century as a hybrid of ancient tribal traditions and Christian beliefs. Officials estimate membership at 250,000. Peyote is seen as a medicine, a sacrament and an object of veneration.
The light of a full moon through desert fog cast an ethereal glow around a spacious tepee as worshipers gathered in the foothills of Palomar Mountain last weekend for an all-night prayer meeting of the Native American Church of North America.
The Rev. John Nighthorse Tyler, a Northern Arapaho originally from Wyoming, beckoned 36 people to sit on blankets and pillows in a circle facing a carefully tended fire in the middle.
Participants had traveled to this site, 40 miles southeast of Temecula, from as far away as San Francisco to remember Albert Bianez, who died a year ago at age 61. They emerged from the womb-like tepee 12 hours later, greeting the new day as if spiritually reborn.
Pat Bianez of Escondido, who hosted the meeting in honor of her late husband, said it helped bring her closure and an ability to move forward from a state of grief.
"Thank you all for being here. This is what Albert would have wanted," she said. Bianez said that after her husband lost his 13-year-old daughter in a car accident, he spent the final 15 years of his life immersed in the spiritual traditions of his New Mexico Apache forebears.
Throughout the cold night, those inside the Plains Indian tepee shared memories of Albert, songs, prayers, drumming and personal testimonials. There was one short break about 3 a.m.
Tyler and his aides performed a series of ordered rituals, including blessings with the smoke from cedar shavings, seven prescribed "pipe smokes" of tobacco rolled in corn husks and the administration to worshipers of seven spoonfuls of a mushy pulp from the peyote cactus, followed by peyote tea.
Peyote, which contains the psychoactive agent mescaline, has been used as a sacrament and holy medicine by indigenous people of the Americas for at least 6,000 years, experts say.
The federal government banned peyote under 1970 anti-narcotics laws, but the Native American Church has historically been exempt from that restriction under the 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion. Legal challenges to that exemption have been constant over the years and enforcement differs from state to state, despite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress in 1993.
Tyler, 63, has been instrumental in protecting his church's right to the sacramental use of peyote in California. As a "roadman," or traveling pastor, of the church, he is authorized to conduct prayer meetings and act as a "custodian" of peyote, which is grown in Texas and brought legally to California for religious purposes.
Tribal practitioners view the plant as a sacred gift from God to their people, allowing them to access the divine. They consider peyote to be as important to their faith as holy books, such as the Bible and Koran, are to others.
"Thank you, Creator, for giving us this sacred medicine so that we can get closer to your spirit," Tyler said during the ceremony.
Amid extensive missionary activity and cultural collapse, the Native American Church evolved in the late 19th century as a hybrid of ancient tribal traditions and Christian beliefs. With the help of an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma officially registered the Native American Church as a nonprofit religious organization in 1918.
Since then, it has spread across the continent and has an estimated 250,000 adherents, its officials say. Meetings are organized in response to a spiritual need, such as the Bianez family memorial, a milestone birthday or a health crisis. There are gatherings in different parts of California almost every week.
Tyler was raised a Catholic but was taught by his grandmother that her faith was based on three pillars: the Bible, the Pipe and Grandfather Peyote. He says he fell ill at 16 and was healed by peyote, which his church treats as a medicine, a sacrament and an object of veneration.
Tyler inherited his ministry from his father, Henry Tyler, also called Pretty White Eagle, who favored an open ministry that welcomed those of all backgrounds to deepen their connection to God through prayer meetings and sweat lodges.
Participants at the recent meeting ranged from Ruby Staley, 24, an L.A.-area actor and screenwriter who was at her first such prayer session, to Timothy Redbird, a San Diego-area musician and full-blooded Kiowa from Oklahoma, who has practiced his religion for more than five decades.
Redbird's grandfather was a medicine man and the keeper of his tribe's 10 sacred bundles, passed down through the generations. "We have had everything taken from us. We have lost our land. The buffalo are gone. All we have left is our prayers," Redbird said during the ceremony.
Others taking part included a Cherokee woman, a Huichol from central Mexico who traces his ancestry to the Aztecs and a Navajo from Arizona named Myron Burnside, who is a metalworker at the San Diego shipyards.
Burnside, 49, seeks out meetings as often as he can, usually twice a month. "You have frustrations at work and in life. This keeps you grounded," he said. Several other men described how the church and its rituals saved them from lives of addiction and despair.
"Without a doubt I owe my recovery to this," said Selven Parson, 63, a Vietnam veteran originally from South Carolina. Parson said he was addicted to cocaine and other drugs for 20 years. "I saw too many of my friends die. I came to a sweat lodge in 1982," he said, and within the decade he had overcome his addiction.
As the sky began to pale outside the tepee's open flap, members of the Bianez family stood to be blessed. Then Albert's daughter Rose carried in holy water, passing the bucket and cup around the circle to mark the new day and close the ceremony.
Several women served a breakfast of honeyed blue cornmeal, fruit, and buffalo meat with nuts and berries.
Then everyone left the tepee as they had entered, single file, clockwise, in the direction the sun appears to move across the sky.
By Nomi Morris
October 30, 2010