Columbus Day is not a big holiday in Indian country. Native people celebrating Columbus Day is like rejoicing that someone discovered the keys to your car in the ignition and drove it off saying he discovered it. This year on Columbus Day, I was in Salt Lake City, the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). This extraordinary, American-born, visionary sect, was founded less than 200 years ago. It was featured on the cover of this week’s Newsweek magazine, described as one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations in the United States.
On the same day, some Navajo relatives of mine, members of the Native American Church (NAC), were on their way to West Texas. It is the only place in the United States where Peyote grows. Peyote is the divine sacrament, the holy medicine, that is the heart of the Native American Church. Its use is legally guaranteed only to Native people for traditional ceremonial purposes. But it’s getting harder and harder to find.
In the old days (which is only 25 years ago), my Navajo brother would go with his father to walk in the sacred gardens to harvest the sacred medicine by themselves. Nowadays, access to the gardens is restricted; the land is leased to peyoteros who harvest the cactus and sell it by the sack-full, to card-carrying members of the NAC. His son has never seen the holy plant in its natural setting. Ranch owners have stopped leasing land to peyoteros, offering their property to deer hunters or oil and gas companies for considerably higher profits. Some ranchers have plowed under the peyote grounds for development, and others have never opened up their land at all.
As the Native American population grows, membership in the Native American Church is also growing, and so is the demand for the holy sacrament, peyote. The supply of the sacramental cactus is dwindling, so the remaining peyoteros are over-harvesting immature plants, and conservationists are concerned that it will wipe out the cactus.
200 years ago, a new American religion was founded; at about the same time, old American religions began disappearing. Soon the peyote plant may disappear just like so many tribes and native languages. It’s estimated that half of the plant and animal species on the planet will become extinct within the next hundred years. But who cares . . . natives are really insignificant in terms of numbers and influence. Columbus Day is not a big holiday in Indian country.