The use of peyote has been at the core of Native quest for spiritual guidance and community for thousands of years in MesoAmerica. In North America, some 300,000 members belong to the Native American church, which also holds peyote at its core.

But the epic struggle to win legal acceptance in a nation that prides itself on "freedom of religion" has been noble, complex, largely successful, and extremely instructive to those who would finally end the "war on drugs."

In fact, practitioners of the practice insist peyote is NOT a drug at all. As of 1994, the sacramental use of peyote for members of federally recognized tribes is totally legal. But the route to that reality comprises one of the most fascinating chapters in all US history.

In THE PEYOTE ROAD: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND THE NATIVE AMERICAN CHURCH by my colleague Thomas C. Maroukis we learn that when used in ritual, with community participation and spiritual leadership, the peyote ritual may be the native community’s most effective tool for sustaining its tribal identity and fighting the plague of alcoholism.

Maroukis’s new book follows his earlier PEYOTE AND THE YANKTON SIOUX: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SAM NECKLACE. As head of the Capital history department, in Bexley, Ohio (where I also teach), Professor Maroukis has maintained decades of close, personal contact with the spiritual leaders of this core native practice.

A Greek-American, Maroukis has been to scores of ceremonies, but is banned from taking peyote by criminal law and church custom, which requires 25% native blood. But with painstaking research and a clear style of writing, Maroukis guides us to a time when the chief threat to the peyote tradition has become ecological and financial rather than legal. Today the federal government does not require a minimum "blood quantum" of native heritage, althoug the Native American church does.

To start, Maroukis introduces the nature of the peyote practice. It is usually set in a community gathering, with a "roadman" to lead the ritual and provide the cactus buttons. Practices vary widely from tribe to tribe, and often involve a Christian dimension.

The peyote itself is painstakingly harvested from "Peyote Gardens" in a small area of Texas. Development, damage to the land, over-harvesting (made worse for a while by misguided 1960s hippies) and soaring prices have made the future supply of peyote buttons problematic.

But through history the spiritual experiences involved with this powerful plant have been central to some native cultures. Those who embrace the demanding experiences, inner cleansing and spiritual insights that can come from its use often seem to emerge with an enhanced sense of transcendental empowerment and contact with nature. Alcohol addiction is far lower among those who take it than in the general native community.

For more than a century the US government has focused on trying to stamp this out. From the late 1800s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and those demanding the death of native culture have seen peyote as a symbol and wellspring of native resistance to assimilation. For a wide range of both foes and "friends" of the American Indian, peyote has been a "demon drug" and a means of defiance.

In the early 1900s the tribes fought back by incorporating the Native American [C]hurch with the mission of "protecting the sacramental use of Peyote." As a legally certified religious institution, the First Amendment has grounded the church’s battle against government bureaucrats, state and federal police and a phalanx of "do-gooders" who wanted Indian culture to mimic the white.

The whites, however, never quite overcame their own diversity. Many states have banned peyote. But despite more than a century of trying, the Congress never managed to do it. Even the BIA, usually intent on crushing native culture, took a breather during the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, -actually supported the tribes.

In 1940. the Navajo (Dine) Tribal Council itself imposed a draconian ban. But the church fought back with increasing acumen. The Dine now actively protect the peyote ritual, as do most other tribes.

In 1989 a stunning decision that shocked even many cynics into action, the US Supreme Court ruled that the states could ban peyote altogether. Chief Justice William Rehnquist (himself addicted to painkillers) argued in open court that the First Amendment did not apply to native Americans.

But the peyotists now brought decades of organization and experience to the fight. In 1993 and 1994, they got Congress to explicitly protect peyote rites under the auspices of the church, among users who can demonstrate at least 25% native blood. [this is perfect]

Along the way the culture also survived a three-year craze---inspired in part by the poetry of Allen Ginsberg---among hippies who trampled through sacred "Peyote Gardens" and threatened the cacti’s sole source.

Today the religion has stabilized. In 2004 an extensive study by the Harvard Medical School confirmed that peyote use---in contrast with alcohol---had no provable link to brain damage.

With mainstream tribal acceptance, and a clear ability to fight alcohol addiction, participation is growing.

Working with state and federal authorities, the peyotists have strictly limited use of peyote at the rites to those with provable one-quarter native blood. But growing demand is stressing supply and causing the price to soar. Sooner or later, the tribes will have to buy at least some of the Gardens where the cacti grow.

Taken in tandem, Maroukis’s two books offer a fascinating, comprehensive view of this powerful and important expression of culture. Though academic in tone, they are written with passion and humor. The roadmen and tribal leaders come to life in such legends as the Necklace Family, Emerson Spider, and Reuben Snake, an influential spiritual activist whose business card introduced him as "your humble serpent."

While it occupies its own important niche, the fight over peyote has much to teach about religious freedom, as well as alcohol and marijuana prohibition. Militant prohibitionists fought for a century to win the 18th Amendment. But the nationwide ban (which exempted church use of sacramental wine) proved a disaster, and was repealed with the 21st Amendment after just 13 violent, expensive years.

Marijuana prohibition has been no less a failure, but has lingered for more than 70 years. As states gradually accept pot for medical purposes, legalization activists can learn much from the peyotists, who patiently accumulated savvy, key alliances and legal clout over the course of a century of fighting for religious freedom.

In the end, Maroukis importantly emphasizes that for all the unity embodied in the fight, peyote rituals vary from tribe to tribe. His treatment of this little-known but essential piece of our national heritage is clear, compelling and important.

The experiences encountered by peyotists who participate may be impossible[to] describe. But Professor Maroukis has given us an excellent tool for understanding their place at the heart of Native American tradition and culture---and of the need and responsibility we all have to protect our basic right to religious freedom.

THE PEYOTE ROAD: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM & THE NATIVE AMERICAN CHURCH, by Thomas C. Maroukis. University of Oklahoma Press. 272 pages. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-8061-4109-1