By Thomas Constantine Maroukis
University of Oklahoma Press (Norman: 2005)
368 pages; $39.95 hardback; $14.95 paper.
ISBN 0806136162

The use of peyote has generated controversy among the white community for decades. But in Native America, particularly among the Yankton Sioux, it has been a constant source of deep religious conviction and contentment for the past 100 years.

In the past few months serious new medical studies have indicated that when used within the spiritual context of native traditions, peyote has no discernable negative health effects. In fact, the studies have confirmed that the "Peyote Road" can improve the well-being of the tribes and the individuals within them, helping many Native Americans escape the grip of that lethal white man's drug, demon alcohol.

A superb, lasting piece of intellectual and historic groundwork has been laid for that conclusion by Dr. Thomas Maroukis, a professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Maroukis has been a long-time friend and associate of the family of Sam Necklace, the chief priest of the Yankton Sioux peyote faith. Working and living with Necklace and his family and tribe, Maroukis has compiled an academically solid but eminently readable work on this important family and the culture it has anchored.

Building around the life of this native holy man, Maroukis painstakingly re-constructs the fabric of a tradition that dates back thousands of years and the historic events through which Necklace helped keep it alive. Though he died in 1949, writes Maroukis, Sam Necklace is "a living memory today." By bringing the peyote traditions out of the wreckage of the European onslaught, Necklace served as the thin thread that kept alive the core of traditional Yankton Sioux spirituality. "Most of his descendants are practicing Peyotists," writes Maroukis. "Those who are roadmen have copied his style of altar and use his sacred markings. They know that this came to him in a vision, and they honor it as part of their heritage."

These "roadmen" are the travelling "priests" who have re-established and re-seeded the traditional peyote spirituality. That faith and the practices surrounding it not only revived the core of native life among the Yankton Sioux, but also seem to have saved many of them from the tragedy of dispersion and alienation, and the scourge of alcoholism that is their plague.

Without belaboring the point, Maroukis provides first-person testimony from a convincing cross-section of tribal members about the salvation that came through rejoining their native faith. "It is our religion," says one. "We are members of the Native American Church. Peyote has been a big help to the Indians when everything else changed. They find happiness in the meetings helping each other and praying for help through the Spirit of Peyote.

"It is a way of life. It is the best religion that the Indians have."

Maroukis traces a bit of the intersection between the native use of peyote and the beat and counter-cultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s. He also discusses the peyote religion's role in what has become an important mainstay in popular art and music.

But unfortunately, PEYOTE AND THE YANKTON SIOUX comes to a final head in the never-ending conflict with the dominant white society. Over the decades, various drug-obsessed bureaucrats have attempted to crush the peyote faith. And in 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court attacked it while undermining the Bill of Rights.

In its 1990 Smith v. Oregon decision, the court by 6-3 upheld Oregon's firing of two employees who had participated in a peyote religious rite. Oregon argued that this violated the state's drug-free dictates. In upholding that attack, the Supreme Court ignored the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment and a wide range of other bedrock American values.

The storm of protest that ensued led in 1993-4 to Congressional legislation protecting the peyote religion. But anti-drug zealots have made peyote harder to come by, driving up the price and limiting access. The traditional US attack on native lands and treaty rights continues apace, as do issues relating to tribal politics and casinos.

Maroukis's book sorts all that out with calm clarity. His admiration for Sam Necklace and the traditions he helped preserve is open and self-evident. The book is respectful and precise, free of rhetoric or phony detachment. Like the peyote religion that Sam Necklace did so much to preserve, this mature and well-written account will be with us for a long time.

Both the hardback and softcover versions of this book are available from the University of Oklahoma Press ( ). The book has been added to the University's prestigious CIVILIZATION OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN SERIES as #249.