Five years after the enactment of a federal law permitting Native Americans to use the hallucinogenic plant peyote in religious services, Pentagon officials and leaders of the largest Indian church have finally reached agreement on implementing the law for members of the military--except those who handle nuclear weapons.
Leaders of the Native American Church of North America said the agreement was made with Defense Department officials at the church's 50th annual convention on June 18 in Farmington, N.M., ending years of bitterness among many Indians over restrictions on the use of peyote, which contains the psychedelic drug mescaline, by members of the armed forces.
A Pentagon official would say only that the Defense Department plans to use the 1994 American Indian Religious Freedom Act "and the results of consultations with Native American church leaders as required by this statute to finalize the policy."
Although interim military regulations written in 1997 were supposed to apply the 1994 law to Indians in the armed services, church sources said fears of hallucinogenic "flashbacks" that were raised by officials of the Strategic Air Command delayed formal implementation of the draft rules and caused bitter resentment among many devout Native Americans who use peyote as a sacrament much like communion wine is used in Christian tradition.
Drawn from the button of cacti harvested in parts of south Texas, peyote is eaten or ingested as a tea in ceremonies in which a fire is kept burning and drumming and chanting last from sundown to dawn. While large amounts can induce hallucinations, adherents say the small quantities normally taken in religious rites bring on only an introspective mood that gives the user peace of mind and insight into the spiritual world.
There are 11,040 American Indians among the 1.3 million active-duty service members, and as few as 5 percent of those may be members of the Native American church, according to Defense Department officials. The church has about 250,000 members nationwide from 50 tribes.
In the past, Indian service members have claimed that the armed forces have threatened church members with punishment, barred them from sensitive positions and discouraged enlistment by young Indians who acknowledged their use of ritual peyote.
Church officials were reluctant to discuss details of the agreement because, they said, they are fearful of a reaction from "alarmist" members of Congress who might raise national security concerns. Pentagon officials also cited concerns about a negative response by some politicians, and stressed that they are only following the 1994 law.
Earl Arkinson, president of the church, said at the New Mexico convention that about 40 members who work with nuclear weapons still will not be allowed to use the drug. Other restrictions were said to include a prohibition against the use of peyote on military vehicles, aircraft or ships; a requirement to stop using the drug 24 hours before returning to active duty; and a bar on the use of peyote on base except with the permission of the commanding officer. Indian service members may also possess peyote in amulet form when worn as an item of religious apparel.
One sensitive issue that arose in the meetings between Pentagon officials and church leaders reportedly concerned how service members would notify their commanders of their plans to participate in the sacramental rites. The Indians' advocates argued that their commanders should not be able to turn down requests to leave the base to worship, although they acknowledged that, in some cases, commanders should be entitled to postpone such trips on the basis of legitimate military needs.
Native American church officials say there is no medical evidence to contend that the use of peyote, which they say has been used as a sacrament in Indian ceremonies for at least 7,000 years, causes flashbacks among users or is harmful when used in moderation. They also say it is not habit-forming.
Indian advocates say the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has supported peyote use in ceremonial services and has exempted the drug from its enforcement guidelines since 1965.