Oklevueha Native American Church
In addition to the widespread appropriation of Native North American culture that characterizes neo-shamanic discourse, the current spate of ayahuasca churches in the U.S. adds insult to injury by claiming that their practices are legal because they are official branches of the Native American Church, specifically the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC), led by James Mooney. At least four churches and one retreat center have been established under the ONAC aegis focusing specifically on ayahuasca (though they may offer other services and products as well including herbal elixirs, cuddle parties and the ceremonial use of Life Frequencies Essentials and Chakra Tools computer software). These churches falsely claim to be offering legal ayahuasca ceremonies in the United States. Membership in these churches is available to the public for a fee, and in keeping with the common framework of Amazonian shamanic tourism, they charge a second (usually much higher) fee for ceremonial services.
Death in Kentucky
At least one of these churches was the site of a death associated with a ceremony, apparently an ayahuasca ceremony. Lindsay Poole, 33, became unresponsive when she fell during a nighttime ceremony with the Oklevueha Native American Church of the Peaceful Mountain Way (PMW) in Berea, Kentucky. Ceremonies were held in a store-front building, “almost on Main Street,” said Madison County coroner Jimmy Cornelison. When police arrived, they found Poole dead. Mr. Cornelison is unable to release an autopsy report because the case is under investigation by federal authorities. He says there’s a possibility that someone could be charged with criminal offense in the death, if the feds rule that the use of ayahuasca was in fact illegal, constituting trafficking in a controlled substance.
Although Mr. Cornelison says that the group is no longer operating out of their store front, they are apparently still offering ayahuasca ceremonies in Kentucky. Signing up for one is as simple as adding a date to your online shopping cart and checking out with PayPal. Another ayahuasca church operating in Kentucky, AyaQuest, has suggested that the PMW leaders were inexperienced and shouldn’t have been leading ceremonies:
I remember conducting [PMW’s leaders’] first journey and I was pleased to meet them. They left Aya Quest in October 2015 to start their own Church, I was concerned they were not ready, but it was theirs to do and I wont go into details here…In my humble opinion I feel they should suspend ceremonies until the investigation is complete but I don’t see that reflected on their website and I find that troubling.
At least one former participant felt the same way.
I found the ceremony leader…to lack deep enough energy work ability to adequately handle the full breath [breadth?] of spirit energies that potentially open up in Aya sessions. He has some education in Psychology (BA major) and relies on the verbiage of the profession to speak during the process but I experienced his actually ability to hold the energy during the sessions and to work with and effectively help and release energies to be limited and, in some cases, inadequate. I suggest if one wishes deep and safe help during an Ayahuasca ceremony to seek help from a true experienced Shaman. I do not recommend this place or this leader.
Other participants offer glowing recommendations, however.
The point that I would like my readers to consider is not whether the individuals leading the ceremony in question were adequate to the task or not. The question is: Can the DEA effectively regulate this issue? How? Is it the role of the DEA to decide who is prepared and qualified to safely lead an ayahuasca ceremony, in which strong physical reactions often go hand in hand with overwhelming spiritual and emotional experiences? This is a matter for debate and disagreement even among indigenous and mestizo shamans in the Amazon—can we really expect the U.S. federal government to be able to solve the problem? The current framework of legalization, based on gaining an exemption from the DEA, simply does not address this issue adequately. Nor can it. Nor should it. We need another system.
Although Mr. Cornelison—and likely the local and federal police—seem clear that the church activities are illegal, the press is less convinced. At least two outlets (WLKY and WKYT) claim that the state of Kentucky allows registered members of the Native American Church to use ayahuasca legally. Their failure to discern the truth propagates continued misunderstandings.
Furthermore, the Lexington Herald Leader stated that the death occurred in conjunction with a Native American Church ceremony—failing to distinguish between the ONAC branches and the legitimate Native American Churches of North America. Such statements reflect poorly on the legitimate and long-standing Native American Churches.
Neo-shamanism and the (real) Native American Church
By attempting to forge themselves a pathway toward legitimacy and legality in the US, these ayahuasca churches have taken a square peg—Amazonian shamanism—and tried to force it into the round hole of Native American Church practice. In doing so they have opened themselves to a host of criticisms and challenges. For one thing, the Native American Church was founded to protect the ceremonial use of peyote and the spiritual path that developed around it—not marijuana, not ayahuasca. ONAC’s campaign to legalize marijuana and other entheogens as sacraments of the Native American Church has aroused the ire of the National Council of Native American Churches, who have participated in lawsuits against the Mooneys and ONAC and who have vigorously and vociferously denounced any association with James Mooney and family, with ONAC and its branch churches, and with the use of anything other than peyote in the ceremonies of the Native American Church (Brief of Amici Curiae the National Council of Native American Churches et al., Mooney v. Holder, No. 14-15143. (US 9th Cir. Court of Appeals, July 25); NACNA 2016).
Furthermore, the commodification of spirituality is anathema to Native North American people. Whereas payment for shamanic services in the Amazon is standard practice, to Native North American people, payment for a religious ceremony or for membership in a church is unacceptable (“AIM resolution, May 11, 1984” and “Resolution of the 5th Annual Meeting of the Traditional Elders Circle, October 5, 1980,” quoted in Churchill 2003). And yet, that is the model that ONAC and ONAC-affiliated churches have adopted in order to promulgate their claims—and fill their coffers.
Oklevueha Native American Church
The Oklevueha Native American Church is headed by James Warren “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, who claims to be a member of the Oklevueha band of Seminole Indians and a descendant of the Seminole leader Billy Osceola Powell (ONAC 2016). His Seminole membership, however, has been denied by the Seminole Tribe of Florida (Brown 2016). Mooney’s son, Michael, heads his own church, formerly affiliated with ONAC, called the Native American Church of Hawaii, which uses cannabis as a substitute for peyote in their ceremonies. In 2014, Michael Mooney and ONAC-Hawaii lost a case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that sought legal status for their use of cannabis. The Mooneys have been granted one victory, however, and that was for the sacramental use of peyote by non-Native Americans in the state of Utah, as long as they are members of the Native American Church and are using peyote in “bona fide religious ceremonies” (State of Utah v. Mooney, No. 20010787 (Supreme Court Utah June 22, 2004)).
Despite the limited scope of this ruling, not to mention other court losses and the ongoing arrest and prosecution of ONAC members for possession of marijuana and other activities (Agar 2015; State of Ariz. v. Tracy Elise, No. CR2013-001555-007 DT (Superior Ct. Ariz. Maricopa Cty. March 2, 2016)), ONAC promises its members and affiliated branches wide protection from prosecution under the law. Among other so-called “rights,” ONAC membership:
provides you a means to receive your constitutional rights in attending earth based indigenous American native spiritually empowering and healing ceremonies – especially Native American Church indigenous ceremonies that involve sacraments (peyote, cannabis, ayahuasca, etc.) that are otherwise illegal for Non-Members to partake and or be in possession of. [ONAC 2015a]
Some ONAC affiliates go farther than that. ONAC of Soma Veda (ONACS), based in Florida, offers its members the ability to practice alternative medical therapies without a license, or to practice beyond the scope of their training:
If you practice any form of alternative, complimentary and or spiritually based healing work and either do not have a license and or are practicing outside your mandated scope of practice you are at risk! In order to continue your ability to practice Spiritually and or Energetically based [therapies], you will need to become an active Member of ONACS according to your authorized scope of practice. [ONACS 2016]
The ONAC version of evangelism—or what the DEA petition process calls “efforts at propagation”— looks and reads more like a multilevel marketing scheme than a growing religious movement. The ONAC-Soma Veda website reads:
• Was your healing and natural medicine training apprentice style?
• Was your training in Native American and or Indigenous Medicine?
• Do you have a current license but are having issues with your full scope of practice?…
• Are you concerned about mandatory Vaccination issues for yourself or your children?
• Have you been hiding your healing work? Keeping it on the “Down Low”, avoiding marketing or advertising because of fear?…
• Do you host Ceremony, Sacrament, Purification Lodges or other Native and or Indigenous practices at your home or property?
If any of the above is true…
Well, you should know the answer by now! We can help you! Time to step into the light!
Membership in ONAC-affiliated churches is available for a fee, with substantial discounts for military veterans. ONAC-Soma Veda charges $100 for a membership at the basic level; ONAC itself charges $200. In addition, both ONAC and ONAC-Soma Veda offer the right to establish independent branches under their leadership; ONAC-Soma Veda charges $7500 to do so. It is probable that other branches offer the same right; Mooney recently repudiated New Haven NAC for establishing Ayahuasca Healings as an independent branch without his approval. Unfortunately, many details of the hierarchy, structure and finances of ONAC’s operation remain obscure. However, Mooney estimates that 300 churches operate under ONAC auspices (Brown 2016; Capps 2016). According to Mooney himself, membership has grown from 2000 in 2014 to 20,000 in 2016—a tenfold increase in a year and a half (Capps 2016).
The growth is driven by Mooney’s contentious claim that ONAC membership is a “bulletproof” means of subverting federal drug law:
“We don’t have the money to hire your attorneys, but we have the information to tell your attorneys that’s bulletproof and will get you off,” Mooney said. “We’ve got them by the short hairs, and it’s a matter of time before it’s all clean and clear…Once this gets out, it’s going to explode,” Mooney says, “it’s flipping going to explode.” (Capps 2016)
Apparently, not everyone agrees that an ONAC membership card is a “bulletproof” way to foil the cops—including ONAC’s own former attorney, Matthew Pappas. In the course of a very tawdry falling out with the church full of accusations and counter-accusations, Pappas released a letter to the public detailing his departure—he says, resignation—from the church. While crisscrossing the country to help defend ONAC-affiliated arrestees, Pappas became aware of Mooney’s “bulletproof” claim.
As we began helping people around the country who had been charged with crimes or had their sacraments taken by police or local authorities, I learned that James had been telling people they were “bulletproof” from law enforcement and had nothing to worry about when introducing them to ONAC and “gifting” branches while money was paid to him under the proverbial table. More and more people reported they were angry that they’d been promised that they were protected from the law yet had been arrested and lost thousands and thousands of dollars they had put in on a sincere and religious basis because of representations made by James Mooney.” (Pappas 2016:2-3)
Pappas began to feel that Mooney’s interest in money was inappropriate, and that many of his actions put the church and its members in danger. He drew up an agreement for Mooney and other church leaders to sign, and presented it to the president and chief operating officer of the church, who in turn took it to Mooney.
The agreement I had proposed required that anyone out talking to potential branch leaders about new branches of the church could not make representations that church membership led to being “bulletproof” from arrest, attacks and seizures by the government. It did not affect anything spiritual – it required representations about the law not be made to make it seem the church totally protected people without any risk. The agreement also required that ONAC leaders have any representations that were being made regarding legal protections be first approved in writing by legal counsel. Finally, the agreement required that people seeking to start branches be subject to a background check as well as a spirituality evaluation. Another issue I had discovered was that some branch leaders had questionable backgrounds that should have been considered so as not to cause risk for other members and branches of the church. (Pappas 2016:4-5)
Based on Mooney’s refusal to sign the agreement, Pappas resigned. In the fracas, Howard Mann was made the new president of ONAC. According to various sources (here, here, and here, though two of these sources may be the same author), Mann deals in online gambling and pornography. His newest venture, according to Pappas, is commercial marijuana.
Tomorrow (hopefully) I will finalize this series with a discussion. Stay tuned.
Citations and links (in order of appearance)
AyaQuest blog post. 2016. “Peaceful Mountain Way Inexperienced?” Accessed at http://www.ayaquest.com/single-post/2016/09/08/Peaceful-Mountain-Way-Inexperienced- on April 6, 2017.
Retreat Guru review. 2016. “Peaceful Mountain Way Holistic Healing – Ayahuasca in America.” Accessed at http://retreat.guru/centers/1738/peaceful-mountain-way-holistic-healing-ayahuasca-in-america on April 6, 2017.
Mora, Christina. 2016. “Americans travel to Kentucky to try ‘spiritual enlightenment’ drug.” WLKY. Accessed at http://www.wlky.com/article/americans-travel-to-kentucky-to-try-spiritual-enlightenment-drug/39612276 on April 6, 2017.
WKYT. 2016. “Questions raised about what caused woman’s death inside church.” Accessed at http://www.wkyt.com/content/news/Woman-found-dead-inside-Berea-church-391634931.html on April 6, 2017.
Kocher, Greg. 2016. Lexington Herald-Leader. “Berea police investigate woman’s death at Native American church.” Accessed at http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/counties/madison-county/article98671762.html on April 6, 2017.
Carpenter, Kristin. 2014. “Brief of Amici Curiae the National Council of Native American Churches et al., Mooney v. Holder, No. 14-15143. (US 9th Cir. Court of Appeals, July 25, 2014). Accessed at https://turtletalk.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/national-council-of-native-american-churches-et-al-amicus-brief.pdf on May 20, 2016.
NACNA 2016. “National Council Does Not Condone Faux Native American Churches or Marijuana Use.” Indian Country Today. Accessed at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2016/02/18/national-council-does-not-condone-faux-native-american-churches-or-marijuana-use-163464 on April 19, 2016.
Churchill, Ward. 2003. “Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men.” In Shamanism: A Reader, edited by Graham Harvey, 324–33. New York: Psychology Press.
ONAC 2016 “Oklevueha Native American Church – History.” Accessed May 25, 2016. http://nativeamericanchurches.org/oklevueha-native-american-church/.
Brown, Karina. 2016. “Ruling Doesn’t Settle Future of Native American Church.” Courthouse News Service. April 15. Accessed April 18, 2016. http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/04/15/ruling-doesnt-settle-future-of-native-american-church.htm.
State of Utah v. Mooney, No. 20010787 (Supreme Court Utah June 22, 2004). Accessed at http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/mooney062204.htm on May 22, 2016.
Agar, John. 2015. “Religious Marijuana Use By ‘Medicine Man’ No Defense to Federal Charge.” Grand Rapids News, Oct. 21. Accessed May 17, 2016. http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2015/10/religious_marijuana_use_by_med.html
State of Ariz. v. Tracy Elise, No. CR2013-001555-007 DT (Superior Ct. Ariz. Maricopa Cty. March 2, 2016). Accessed at http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/04/19/Elise.pdf on May 22, 2016.
ONAC. 2015a. “Why Being a Member of Oklevueha Native American Church Will Benefit You.” Accessed Sept. 25, 2015. http://nativeamericanchurches.org/joining-oklevueha-why-and-how/.
ONACS (Oklevueha Native American Church Soma Veda) 2016. “Start Oklevueha NACS Independent Branch.” Accessed May 24, 2016. http://www.somaveda.org/start-oklevueha-nacs-independent-branch/.
Capps, Reilly. 2016. “Cult leader or religious savior? This pro-drug exile is being called both.” The Rooster. Accessed at http://www.therooster.com/blog/cult-leader-or-religious-savior-pro-drug-exile-being-called-both on March 3, 2017.
Pappas, Matthew S. 2016. “Re: Defamatory Statement by Joy Graves.” Accessed at http://rejectjamesmooney.weebly.com/uploads/1/1/3/0/11305035/matthew_pappas_response_to_mooney_5.15.2016.pdf on March 25, 2017.
Reject James Mooney. 2016. “Internet Porn and Gambling Promoter Slated as New Leader of Oklevueha Native American Church. Accessed at http://rejectjamesmooney.weebly.com/uploads/1/1/3/0/11305035/howard_mann_4_onac_press_release.pdf on April 5, 2017.
Reject James Mooney. 2016. “Meet the new chairman of ONAC: Money Man Howard “Gambling/Porn King” Mann.” Accessed at http://rejectjamesmooney.weebly.com/home/meet-the-new-chairman-of-onac-money-man-howard-mann on April 5, 2017.