The Navajos, Peyote and Jesus

Some Navajo Indians mix Christianity with the old ways

But not everyone is so impressed with the NAC’s success. Freddy Hall, pastor of Dineh Christian Center on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, says that Peyotism is anti-Christian. “I think they’re having a spiritual experience, but I think it is a demonic experience—imitating Christ.”

Hall, whose church has several former NAC members, says even though the NAC says nice things about Christianity that doesn’t make it Christian. “In the Book of Acts, Simon the Sorcerer followed the apostle Paul around for days saying good things about him, but Simon was demon-possessed and Paul eventually cast that demon out of him.” Hall warns that Christians have to remember that Satan can assume pleasing forms.

Means to an End
Father Joe Redinbo of Tohatchi, New Mexico (on the Navajo reservation) disagrees. Redinbo, 74, sees the use of peyote as a sacrament similar to the Catholic Eucharist that can lead some to a deeper spiritual appreciation of Christ, but only if those who use it have an understanding of Christ to begin with. “Peyote by itself,” says Redinbo, “doesn’t lead anyone to Christ. It’s only a means to a greater end.”

Redinbo acknowledges that it’s challenging for many Christians to view peyote as a sacrament, but he says it’s important to see it from the perspective of many Native Americans who do not have the same negative opinion of the hallucinogenic, which their ancestors have used in religious rituals for 10,000 years.

But Wena Jesus, 43, a Navajo convert to the Mormon faith, isn’t convinced. Wena, who lives on the Navajo reservation, says that nowhere in the Bible does it say any of the prophets—from Abraham to Jacob to Moses—took a drug to help them commune with God. In fact, she says, religious people in the Bible fasted and cleansed their bodies of toxins before communing with God.

As a child, Wena says she prayed to the traditional Navajo deities but now only prays to the Heavenly Father. And as a Christian, Wena has not abandoned her Navajo heritage. She still attends Navajo ceremonies, speaks Navajo and embraces learning more about her culture.

Culture vs. Religion
Wesley Thomas, academic dean at Dine College on the Navajo reservation, says that it’s difficult for Navajos to separate culture from religion because the two are so intertwined within the Navajo worldview. Consequently, Thomas says many Christian-Navajos have a hard time bridging the divide between their heritage and newfound faith.

Wena admits that there have been challenges, such as the time her oldest daughter wanted to partake in the Puberty Ceremony, a Navajo rite of passage for young women. Wena fought it, believing the five-day ceremony advocated worshipping other gods, but with time she made peace with it by interpreting the ceremony more as a festive and supportive event than a religious one. And today, Wena is even preparing for her youngest daughter’s Puberty Ceremony.

Wena says since she joined the Mormon Church her life has been more joyful, meaningful and connected with her children. “It’s what I been looking for,” she says.

But Bobby VanWinkle, 57, a Navajo living on the reservation, whose eight children and wife have converted to Mormonism, sounds a cautious note about Christian-Navajos. He says in the 1960s that there were only a few churches on the reservation, but now, there are many. VanWinkle says with his whole family now Mormon that he has even considered converting.

“But since I still drink a lot of coffee, I might not be ready just yet,” he chuckles. While driving his tour jeep deeper into the sacred canyons of Navajo Nation and looking out at the landscape that legend says was the birthplace of his people, VanWinkle sighs, “In another 100 years, there will be no more Navajo ceremonies here. There will be only churches.”

[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]