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WASHINGTON—Last week, a delegation of leaders representing the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and Tribal leaders continued efforts on Capitol Hill asking for federal assistance to protect peyote habitat in southern Texas.

It is the second annual lobbying effort by leaders of the NACNA, who are asking for peyote protections under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA)

“We continue our efforts to protect our sacred medicine and way of life,” NACNA President Jon “Poncho” Brady told Native News Online. “If we don’t protect our way of life now, it may be gone forever.”

NACNA leaders convened at the Indian Gaming Association’s (IGA) office on Capitol Hill. They were joined by IGA President Ernie Stevens, Jr., Greg Smith, an attorney for Hobbs & Strauss who practices federal Indian law, and Shoshone Bannock Chairman Lee Juan Tyler.

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 Throughout the week, NACNA met with congressional staff, White House staff, and other congressional committee members to strategize on how to protect peyote, both its environment and enforcement of the law that protects the traditional use of peyote in ceremonies.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was amended in 1994 to include protections for the possession, transportation, and ingestion of peyote in traditional ceremonies for enrolled citizens of federally recognized tribes. The landmark law’s amendment protected the use of peyote, which is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), but did not protect its habitat. The plant only grows on private land in southern Texas, and leaders are hoping to protect its environment from eradication due to climate change, over-harvesting, and the degradation of its environment.

In a meeting with White House staff, NACNA asked the Administration for an executive order that protects traditional American Indian and Alaskan Native ceremonies, traditional sacred sites, and all identified ceremonial medicines, including peyote, and for enforcement of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act by federal agencies. If the executive order is signed by President Biden, it will be the first executive order that acknowledges sacred sites by an Administration. However, because of the separation of religion and state, NACNA was told that the president cannot endorse or condone religion.

“It has been 45 years since the law has passed, and there hasn’t been a review of the effectiveness of a public law that is aimed to protect traditional American Indian ceremonies,” NACNA Legislative Chair Ryan Wilson said. “That’s an anomaly in federal law.”

AIRFA is primarily a policy statement and there are still misunderstandings and resistance to the law. Tribal leaders have revitalized efforts to educate federal agencies in Washington to enforce the law. The agency primarily responsible for American Indian issues, including ceremonies, is the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is currently led by Laguna Pueblo tribal citizen Deb Haaland.

Leaders hope that the Dept. of the Interior will take the lead on both enforcing the law and conserving peyote. NACNA is the largest intertribal religious organization in the country, with more than 300,000 members, and its ceremonies often center around the use of peyote as a sacrament. It is considered a medicine and is treated as such. Under the law, peyote use is only allowed by members of federally recognized tribes.

Non-Native people have taken an interest in peyote because of its ability to address mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Celebrities speak of peyote in mainstream media and reference shamans, hallucinogenic “trips,” and participating with Indigenous people, which remains against the law. 

Because of large interest by the non-Native community, pharmaceutical companies have tried to both decriminalize the plant and patent it. NACNA says efforts to decriminalize a protected plant is indicative that the law is neither enforced nor taken seriously.

State Senators in California have introduced legislation—Senate Bill 58—that would decriminalize the possession and cultivation of hallucinogenic plants but excluded peyote and said that it fully respects the efforts made to legalize its use in ceremonies by Indigenous people who have used the plant for thousands of years.

Like the previous years, the week-long advocacy effort was concluded by a peyote ceremony at the East Potomac Park, a park managed by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) in Washington, D.C. However, this year, the organization was met with resistance by the NPS in acquiring a permit to conduct a ceremony.

Per protocol, people wishing to conduct a ceremony, which includes elements many tribes include in their traditional ceremonies—wind, water, earth, and fire—must submit an application to the NPS to conduct a ceremony within a national park. 

Unlike last year, the organization received notification on the day of the ceremony, Thursday, Sept. 21, that they did not submit a burn permit, which is required at least 21 days prior to the scheduled event. 

“This is the very reason we are here, to ask for federal transparency and enforcement of our rights,” said NACNA Counselor Justin Jones to Native News Online. “Here we are, in Washington, D.C., still fighting for our rights on our own land. There’s no one we can go to for the enforcement of our law.”

Currently, the U.S. National Park Service is led by Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Northeast Oregon and the first American Indian to be appointed as the Director of the NPS. Reaching a federal official in times of need is largely unsuccessful and met with bureaucratic hurdles of setting up meetings and appointments weeks or months in advance. 

Organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, the Coalition of Large Tribes, the Shoshone Bannock Tribe, and other chapters of the NACNA have all passed resolutions supporting the efforts to conserve peyote. 

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