Ruth Hopkins

Pot and Pretendians

I’ve heard it dozens of times: folks justify the appropriation of Native culture and the theft of sacred rites and ceremonies by saying there’s no injury; that it’s essentially harmless, or even beneficial.

Wrong. How does redface, be it physical, mental or spiritual, aside from making a mockery of us Originals, further colonial conquest and genocide? Let me count the ways…

I could point you in the direction of studies that show how appropriation harms Native youth psychologically, provide you will a million personal stories from Native people who experience microagressions on a daily basis, or paint the big picture for you, linking hipster headdresses, race based mascots and for-profit sweat lodges to the persistent systemic oppression of Native peoples from Columbus’s arrival to the present, but for now, let me give you one contemporary example.

Recently, officers in Sonoma County, California, confiscated marijuana plants from the Oklevueha Native American Church. Members of the church say the plants are sacred and used ceremonially. They’ve since taken the matter to Federal Court, suing Sonoma County, its Sheriff, and the Governor of California, claiming they’ve been discriminated against under the Constitution of the state of California, and alleging rights violations under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The group is seeking an injunction and praying for damages as a remedy.

Oklevueha members assert that marijuana is integral to their sacraments, just like peyote.

There’s just one problem. It’s not. While I’m not a member of the Native American Church, I practice Dakota/Lakota spirituality, and marijuana has not, nor has it ever been, used as a part of ceremony. While some species of hemp have always grown in the western hemisphere, the marijuana people smoke today is native to Asia. It’s propagation in the Americas is relatively new. I also know a few individuals who put weed in their canupa (sacred pipe), and were shunned for it.

I spoke to a few Native people who frequent Native American Church ceremonies, and they told me the same thing one of the most well-known Lakota medicine men in the United States told me: marijuana is not a part of our sacrament.

Now don’t misinterpret me here. Marijuana is medicinal, as are many plants utilized by Indigenous people. However, claiming its part of our spirituality to avoid catching a case threatens the rights of actual Natives who deserve protection under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Yes, I said ‘actual Natives.’ You see, the Oklevueha Native American Church, established in April 1997 in Gunnison, Utah, doesn’t appear legitimate. On their website, they offer membership to those who “desire to be blessed by having access to Native American Ceremonies and Medicines (such as Peyote, San Pedro, Ayahuasca and Cannabis) without legal interference.” The leader of this church is James Warren ‘Flaming Eagle’ Mooney. He claims to be Seminole. If you research Mr. Mooney online, you’ll uncover a veritable maze of a pretendian who is desperately trying to prove he’s Native. He claims to be a direct descendant of Osceola, but data on his family tree is sketchy. So is his basic assertion of Native lineage. He’s not enrolled in a state or federally recognized Tribe. As you scroll, be prepared to wade through a swamp of anecdotal evidence and hearsay from unqualified sources offered up as proof of his ancestry and the right to call himself “Medicine Man Emeritus.” By the way, let me clue you in on a little secret: I don’t know a single wicasa wakan (medicine man) who calls himself that. Be suspicious of anyone who is a self-proclaimed medicine man or “shaman.” Yet ‘Flaming Eagle’ would have us believe he was commanded by a Lakota to “take this medicine to the whiteman.”

When non-Natives steal ceremonies from us, it creates a spiritual harm. These sacred rites have real power, and that’s not to be taken lightly. How dare people take a belief system that our Native ancestors have bled for and died to protect, only to twist it and exploit it for personal gain.

The ways of the pipe and the teachings of the Native American Church are not a cover for white people to avoid responsibility, and it’s blasphemous to consider them a means to profit making venture.

Have we learned nothing from the deaths that occurred in Sedona? James Arthur Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide in 2010 for those who died thanks to his improperly run new age “sweat lodge.”

Meanwhile, the legal action of Oklevueha Native American Church in the Federal court system could affect the rights and protections of Natives everywhere.

As we say on Twitter, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” We must remain vigilant against those who seek to desecrate our ceremonies, dehumanize us, and homogenize and erase our cultures. The consequences for failing to keep watch and protect our legacies are real.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.

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