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Native American Soldiers Will Be Allowed to Use Peyote for Religious Ceremonies Under Pentagon Draft Rule


May-June 1997

Native American U.S. soldiers will be allowed to use peyote in religious ceremonies under a draft rule proposed by the Pentagon (Paul Richter, "Pentagon Rule Would OK Peyote for Religious Rites," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition, April 17, 1997, p. A4; James Brooke, "Military Ends Conflict of Career and Religion," New York Times, May 7, 1997, p. A16).

The Pentagon is "implementing a law that says this is indeed a sacrament," said Captain Mel Ferguson, a chaplain involved in drafting the new rules. The rule would make Pentagon policy consistent with a 1994 federal law that protects Native Americans' right to use peyote in their religious services (P.L. 103-344). The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation worked with Native American religious leaders to get the law passed. The Native American Religious Freedom Project operated out of the offices of CJPF in the summer and fall of 1990.

Although the draft rule would bar the use or possession of peyote on military vehicles, aircraft and ships, it would allow use and possession on military bases with the consent of the commanding officer.

The rule would apply to more than 9,200 members of the armed services who belong to the Native American Church. Peyote is the sacrament of the Native American Church, which has about 250,000 members. It is the holy medicine -- the flesh of God -- which provides spiritual insight and peace of mind. Peyote "buttons" grow atop the peyote cactus, and contain the hallucinogenic compound mescaline. In the U.S., the peyote cactus is harvested only in parts of south Texas.

Still undecided by the Pentagon is how Native American soldiers will notify their commanding officers of their plans to participate in religious rites in which peyote will be ingested. Soldiers will also have to notify their superiors after returning from such ceremonies because of concerns that worshippers will be "impaired" by the effects of the medicine. (Mescaline is believed to stay in the body for about 12 hours.) Some soldiers fear that informing their superiors about their religious practices -- which have long been persecuted and misunderstood in the U.S. -- will damage their military careers. Native American soldiers have reported being threatened with punishment, disqualification from high-risk jobs, and discouraged from enlistment for acknowledging their membership in the Native American Church.

For a copy of the powerful 1990 speech in Washington of Reuben Snake, Native American religious leader, regarding the imperative of ending the persecution of religious use of peyote, or for more information on this issue, contact the NewsBriefs office or visit the CJPF website at