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WINDOW ROCK Emerson Jackson Sr., a former president of Native American Church of North America, remembers growing up in Teec Nos Pos and attending Native American Church ceremonies during a time when peyote use was outlawed on the Navajo Nation.
In 1967, the Navajo Nation Council formally sanctioned the Native American Church of Navajoland and an exemption for peyote use was approved.
"Before this exemption was made by the council, people used to go to jail. They used to send police out and raid prayer meetings because it was illegal. I was in about two or three of those meetings like that with my mother, so I know what took place during those days," Jackson said.
Now, the law is about to undergo a revision. The Navajo Nation Council on Wednesday will attempt the second of two work sessions in as many weeks to become educated on legislation proposed for the Jan. 24-28 winter session which would enact the Aze Bee Nahagha Act of 2004.
The act would amend Title 17 of the Navajo Nation Code and is intended to clarify the lawful use of peyote (aze) on the Navajo Nation, according to resolution co-sponsors Lorenzo Bedonie of Hardrock Chapter, Tom Lapahe of Whipporwill, Kenneth Maryboy of Aneth, and Thomas Walker of Birdspring/Leupp/Tolani Lake.
But members of Native American Church, Steamboat Canyon Chapter Inc., fail to see justification for the name change and fear that it could cause problems for other Native American Church (NAC) organizations as well as those vendors in Texas who must be registered to sell peyote to NAC members for ceremonial purposes.
Jefferson Lee Sr. of the NAC-Steamboat group said the resolution states, "The purpose is to clarify the lawful use of aze within the Navajo Nation and to disposition of aze which is seized by law enforcement authorities within the Navajo Nation."
"That's where we are concerned. Seems like to us Aze Bee Nahagha is an organization; it's not the ceremony," Lee said. The way the resolution is written, he said, it seems as though Aze Bee Nahagha would be the only organization legally authorized to use peyote on the Navajo Reservation.
Legislation enacting the Navajo Nation Controlled Substances Act of 2004, sponsored by Hope MacDonald-Lonetree, also is on the winter agenda and would amend Title 17 to include additional substances with the potential for abuse, especially methamphetamine.
Though peyote is listed in MacDonald-Lonetree's legislation under a section dealing with hallucinogenic substances, the legislation specifically states: "It shall not be unlawful for any members of the Native American Church to transport, buy, sell, possess or use peyote in any form in connection with recognized religious practices, sacraments or services of the Native American Church." That legislation does not mention Aze Bee Nahagha.
Members of the Steamboat NAC group called a press conference last Thursday at Din Restaurant to express their opposition to the legislation, which was considered during a council work session on Friday. Delegates heard a report from Aze Bee Nahagha of Din Nation presenters: President David Clark, Vice President Herman Johnson, Treasurer Nathan Begay, Secretary Maggie James and attorney Herb Yazzie.
But the opportunity to be educated on the issue was cut short so the council could appropriate $4 million for disaster relief across the reservation, which is under a state of emergency.
The council needs further education on the subject of NAC, Lee believes. "We need to let the council understand there are other organizations involved. Aze Bee Nahagha, as far as we're concerned, is not representing all of the other organizations. That's the reason we are concerned," Lee explained.
The Navajo Nation Council in October 2003 tabled the Peyote Ceremonial Act due to lack of input from concerned organizations "and referred it back to the people to get more input from other organizations, but this never happened. We're all wondering why," Lee said.
His group also wants assurances that the tribal council is not displacing one religious organization in favor of another. "Aze Bee Nahagha is a ceremony, but it is also referred to throughout this document as an organization with a constitution and bylaws, and members. Does this create any problem of discrimination against Navajos or other Indians who practice the ceremony Aze Bee Nahagha within the Navajo Nation who are not members of the Aze Bee Nahagha organization?" he asked.
Lee also questioned whether other members of Native American Church of Navajoland would be negatively affected by the proposed deletion of the organization's name in Title 17 of the Navajo Nation Code Section 394, and whether it would make it illegal for them to freely exercise their religion on the Navajo Nation.
"What's going to happen? Everyone is not going to obtain cards from Aze Bee Nahagha. This is what you call 'freedom of religion.' Anybody can believe whatever they want; it's their free choice. Nobody can drag anybody, saying, 'You've got to believe it this way.' You can't do that," Lee commented.
Jackson said council doesn't need to get into naming a Native American Church organization on the Navajo Reservation. "If they are getting involved like that, they need to have all seven or eight organizations come in and certify their names. You do it for one, you do it for all. Why favor just one?" he asked.
"I think it kind of creates a confusion and it creates a division among the organizations on the Navajo Reservation. The peyote exemption is enough," he said. "It's going to become a political issue: 'I'm the one; you have to answer to me.' That's the way it's going to be," he said, adding that organizations needing approval for name changes need to go to their place of incorporation.
"Like we have Native American Church of Arizona. If we want to make a change we go to the state; we don't go to the tribal council," Jackson said.
Sponsors of the legislation say their goal is to ensure protection and preservation of the use of aze (peyote) for future generations.