Native American Church

A syncretic blend of Native American spiritual traditions and Christianity, centered on the sacramental use of peyote.

Religion: Syncretist (Christianity; Native American Folk Religion)
Founded: Late 19th century
Location: United States, primarily among Native American tribes
Other Names: Peyote Church, Peyotism

The Native American Church (NAC), also known as Peyotism or the Peyote Religion, represents the most widespread indigenous religious movement among North American Indians. Originating in the late 19th century, it combines elements of traditional Native American beliefs with Christianity, particularly emphasizing the sacramental use of peyote, a small, spineless cactus with psychoactive properties due to its mescaline content .

The church’s roots trace back to the 1870s on the reservations of southwestern Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Peyote, known from the Aztec word “peyotl,” has been used for millennia by Native Americans for both physical and spiritual healing. The modern peyote religion’s ceremonies, instruments, and core doctrines were formalized in the early 1880s, drawing from ceremonies in northern Mexico and southern Plains cultures’ theologies. By 1907, the religion had spread to the majority of Oklahoma tribes, thanks to patterns of intertribal visiting and intermarriage. The church was officially incorporated as the Native American Church of Oklahoma on October 10, 1918​​.

The diffusion of the Peyote religion among Native American tribes was significantly influenced by the Carrizo culture of Texas and the agonizing cultural disintegration Native Americans faced in the 1880s. Notably, Quanah Parker, a Comanche, was instrumental in promoting the Half Moon style of Peyote meetings, which were less infused with Christian elements than the Big Moon branch pioneered by John Wilson, a Caddo. Although they faced opposition from Christian missionaries and Indian agents, Native Americans defended their religious freedom, with the religion allowing them to forge a new identity that synthesized aboriginal and Christian elements​​.

The Native American Church’s theology and spiritual beliefs are highly individualized, centered on a basic creed of reverence for nature and embodying the tenets of faith, hope, love, and charity. Ceremonies, or “meetings,” usually occur in a tipi around a crescent-shaped altar, with services running all night. These gatherings can be for various purposes, including healing, celebration of significant life events, or general spiritual worship. The church accommodates a wide range of local traditions and practices, with congregations and members incorporating varying degrees of Christian theology and Indian symbolism​​.

There are two main types of ceremonial altars within the NAC: the Half-Moon and the Cross-Fire, with variations existing between tribes and practices. The Half-Moon fireplace uses a half-moon shaped sand altar and includes tobacco and corn-shucks in its rituals, with little to no Bible recitation. In contrast, the Cross-Fire fireplace features a horseshoe-shaped sand altar and emphasizes Bible recitation and Christian peyote songs. These differences highlight the church’s syncretic nature and the individualized approach to spirituality among its adherents​​.

Today, the Native American Church has various chapters across the United States, with some allowing participation across racial lines and others requiring a certain degree of Native American ancestry. This organizational structure supports a diverse membership while maintaining the core spiritual practices centered on the peyote sacrament​​.

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