Recent Articles Concerning Oklevueha
As is usual, news reporting is limited to information available to the reporter and often does not convey accurately the full story. When articles are reporting on court proceedings, they often do not go beyond the issues brought up there. Statements made by the people involved often are slanted to support their agenda. Nevertheless, we are sharing a series of three articles recently published so our readers can know what is being said. The accuracy of what some of the people quoted have said is questionable and some incorrect conclusions have been drawn. These articles were published by the Courthouse News Service and were written by Karina Brown.
(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.
With its traditions steeped in modesty, the Native American Church faces an existential dilemma from the aggressive movement in its name to treat marijuana as a church sacrament.
The Ninth Circuit just rejected one such challenge, but the issue’s fate is far from certain.
Continue reading for a closer look the church’s delicate history, and the legal protections some say are attracting outsiders. To return to Part I of this series, click here.
Old Traditions, New Structure
The future of a cultural institution founded to protect participants of an ancient tradition from genocide is making its way through half a dozen courts. Resolution will require unified rules to follow and define a religion that spans hundreds of independent sovereign nations.
The first Native American Church was founded in 1918, but this institution served to safeguard the religions its members have observed for thousands of years.
Archeological evidence places peyote use in the Americas as far back as 8,000 B.C., but the Bureau of Indian Affairs historically seized and destroyed peyote, and denied food to Indians on reservations for participating in peyote ceremonies.
At one particularly heinous confrontation in 1890, the Seventh Calvary killed more than 200 Lakota Sioux as they prayed while participating in the Ghost Dance ceremony.
With more than 300,000 members today, the name “Native American Church” matters, said Sandor Iron Rope, the president of the National Council of Native American Churches and the Native American Church of North America.
This name represents the sacrifices of past generations and their foresight to protect specific religious practices, Iron Rope said. For new generations or outsiders to bring new practices under this umbrella, he added, is an affront to native elders.
“Calling ourselves a Native American Church in the beginning — we chose that name for a reason, and it was for protection,” Iron Rope said. “Back then, we had no rights. Our grandma and grandpa had no rights. In order to preserve our rights at that time we had to call it a church.”
This generational gap is evident in voting, a practice not guaranteed for Indians in all the states until 1948. This came 24 years after Congress extended citizenship to all Native Americans with the Indian Citizenship Act.
Iron Rope said the elders understood that “one of the things the white government recognizes is a church.”
“So that’s why we chose the name ‘church’ and that was supposed to protect our people,” Iron Rope said. “And now you have outsiders calling themselves a Native American Church. Anybody could just say they’re a Native American Church, but that doesn’t mean there’s an indigenous tradition, a teaching or foundation behind it.”
Authenticity or Exclusivity?
One of the so-called outsiders drawing the ire of Iron Rope’s council is James Mooney, who founded a Native American Church that includes marijuana as a central sacrament.
Mooney’s attorney, Matt Pappas, called it racist to restrict church membership to only Native Americans.
“You don’t have to be Italian to be part of the Roman Catholic Church,” Pappas said. “You don’t have to be Chinese to be Buddhist. Religion is an idea. It’s a belief. It’s not based on blood type. That blood-oriented idea is brought to us from the federal government, the same government that brought us the Trail of Tears. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs? For years and years, their job was to kill Native Americans.”
Pappas said it shouldn’t matter to the courts whether the Mooneys have native ancestry or whether the Native American Church has a history of using marijuana as a sacrament.
“It’s not up to the court to determine whether their beliefs are valid,” he said. “Only whether they are sincere about it. I could go out tomorrow and I could form a church just as long as I sincerely believe in it. Just like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I could wear a strainer on my head and say that’s a central tenant, as long as I truly believe that. There doesn’t have to be 700 years of history or a certain blood type or anything else, as long as the beliefs are sincerely held.”
A U.S. graduate student founded the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a satiric exercise against creationists in 2005, but courts have resisted efforts to grant it protected status. Just last week, a federal judge shot down claims from a so-called Pastafarian inmate who said Nebraska prison officials violated his rights.
Mooney’s fight to obtain federal protections for his church parallels that of his son, Michael Rex “Raging Bear” Mooney, who split off with his own faith, the Native American Church of Hawaii.
Discussing the family fallout over the phone, Michael Mooney said his father’s church has “cheapened itself” by letting go of traditional customs and by charging people to participate in ceremonies.
Anyone can join James Mooney’s Oklevueha Native American Church online by paying $200 and filling out a form, regardless of their membership status with a native tribe.
Michael Mooney called it “taboo” to charge for participation in church ceremonies.
“My father is a good man but I believe that, in order to be a member, you need to actually be involved in ceremonies and not just get on the computer and become a member of the church,” Michael Mooney said in an interview. “I believe there’s a lack of sincerity and authenticity in that.”
And James Mooney had harsh words for his son.
“He’s a thug,” the elder Mooney said. “I love my son, but the facts are the facts.”
Ninth Circuit Steps In
Michael Mooney and his church filed a federal complaint in 2009 against the U.S. attorney general, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. attorney for Hawaii.
They claimed one of their church members was unfairly targeted for federal prosecution after police seized his sacred marijuana, but Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out the case.
Finding that that Mooney espoused nothing more than “a strongly held belief in the importance or benefits of marijuana,” Mollway said Mooney failed to show that a prohibition on the use of marijuana would create a “substantial burden” on his religion.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision earlier this month.
Though Mooney said he uses marijuana daily and in twice-monthly moon ceremonies, the court emphasized his other testimony that marijuana was only a substitute for peyote, rather than an irreplaceable sacrament.
“We fail to see how prohibiting a substance that Mooney freely admits is a substitute would force them to act at odds with their religious beliefs at least when they have made no showing that their primary sacramental substances are otherwise unavailable,” Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain for a three-judge panel in Honolulu.
Discussing his intent to appeal, Michael Mooney said the court “had it wrong.”
“Our chief sacrament is cannabis,” Mooney said in an interview. “It’s not peyote or ayahuasca.”
Mooney, who calls peyote the “grandfather spirit” of his church, and cannabis “chief mother medicine,” said he agrees with native elders who say various psychoactive-plant medicines should not be mixed together during ceremony.
That distinction may have been where the court got the idea that peyote could take the place of marijuana, Mooney said.
“I have a relationship with Mescalito, the spirit of peyote, so much so that I don’t even believe you should mix tobacco in a peyote ceremony,” Mooney said. “The only offering I like to make in a peyote ceremony is putting cedar on the fire.”
Mooney said he doesn’t even drink water “when sitting with grandfather.”
“I believe when Mescalito has his time, he likes it to be just his time,” Mooney said. “But each medicine has its time. Before you enter teepee, cannabis is like a kind of warning for grandfather. And when you exit in the morning when the sun is coming up, cannabis can be a beautiful experience. But during ceremony I don’t believe they should be mixed.”
Mooney’s attorney, Michael Glenn of Honolulu, called the Ninth Circuit ruling “a terrible decision, unsupported by fact.”
“They didn’t seem to understand that the Native American Church has no books and it has no tenants,” Glenn said. “The Native American Church doesn’t even have a building. It’s just a way of life that has existed for thousands of years.”
Glenn said the ruling came as a surprise, given the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, where the U.S. Supreme Court found that a for-profit corporation could use religion as a reason to refuse to pay for contraception for employees.
“But a church that has been using peyote and cannabis for thousands of years being prevented from religious ceremony is not substantially burdened?” Glenn said. “I guess if we mentioned abortion or said we wanted to discriminate against gays that would have been protected.”
Five major players in the Native American Church had wanted the Ninth Circuit to address broader themes, but the panel did not reach those arguments.
Courthouse News takes a look at these questions in the final part of this series, which also explores the controversy’s timing amid nationwide momentum to decriminalize marijuana. Check back Tuesday for Part III.
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 orPart 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.”