An Oklevueha Native American Church medicine woman from Oregon mailed a five-ounce package of pot—the sacrament of cannabis—to an ailing church member in Ohio on Dec. 10, 2015.
The package never made it. It was seized by law enforcement, as Joy Graves discovered when she used UPS’s online tracking option to track her package. Graves and the church, founded by James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, turned around and sued for the company and the federal government for their weed and the right to ship it wherever they please, citing federal religious freedom laws as the basis.
Mooney, who claims Native American ancestry but is not a member of a federally recognized tribe, told The Daily Beast by phone Tuesday that he believes the unnamed recipient, who suffers from esophageal cancer, got the “medicine” anyway. The church sent it to her “through a different route,” he said.
“All I know is that Joy is extremely dedicated to her medicine, and we will continue to support her with everything we have,” Mooney said of the medicine woman. “We will go to the wall for her because she is so pure in her intent to serve her fellow human beings.”
Graves’s dedication to the sacrament of cannabis is apparent on Facebook. The petite woman poses with marijuana plants that tower over her, with joints, and other drug paraphernalia. In several photos, she appears to be dressed like a cannabis plant.
“It sure is Frustrating to me to hear people utter that somehow we have ‘Won’ our battle for Cannabis Liberation, especially from those in states who have Laxed it enough for THEM to use Mother's Medicine while the masses upon the land still suffer because they can’t and too, because they try...THAT ladies and gentlemen is NOT true Justice nor ‘Victory,’” she wrote on Jan. 25. “TRUE Liberation such as this Creator given Plant Deserves, means it is viewed no Differently than any Other plant, vine, bush, tree, or whatever Else you wish to compare it to.”
The Oklevueha Native American Church, based out of Utah, claims in its complaint that it boasts “thousands of members in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, and Africa.” And membership is easy: a one-time payment of $200 and reading the group’s code of ethics. Veterans and active duty servicemembers get a 90 percent discount, and they can get their own membership card for just $20.
The church’s complaint says medicine men have used peyote and other naturally occurring substances as medicine for centuries. It also says it’s now affiliated with Mexico’s Huichol tribe.
“The sacramental cannabis included in the package was in-part sent for healing purposes as part of the church’s healing sacraments for a woman suffering from esophageal cancer,” the plaintiffs claimed in their complaint. “Each day the sacrament is delayed, the healing process provided through the church is denied to its member suffering from esophageal cancer as well as is denied for other of church’s spiritual healing practices.”
They recruited Matthew Pappas, an attorney perhaps best known for once alleging that on-duty police officers consumed marijuana edibles during a dispensary raid.
The church claims relief not only under RFRA and RLUIPA, but also under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act—designed specifically to protect and preserve “the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians.”
Mooney and his ilk have been on the radar of Native activists for years, one of whom called their actions “spiritual redface.”
“When non-Natives steal ceremonies from us, it creates a spiritual harm,” Ruth Hopkins wrote in the Indian Country Media Network in December. “These sacred rites have real power, and that’s not to be taken lightly.”
Hopkins lives in North Dakota, where she’s a chief judge for the Spirit Lake Tribe. She told The Daily Beast that her investigation of Mooney’s church turned up a number of red flags.
“It’s kind of an ongoing concern for me, as far as cultural theft and people appropriating Native culture,” she said. An open invitation to join the church, like the one she saw on Mooney’s site, isn’t common for Native religions, she said.
“What they’re trying to do is use the law meant to protect Native American ceremonies...to traffic marijuana and grow it,” Hopkins said.
The lawsuit alarms her not only because it gives Native spirituality a bad name but because, she fears, it could go all the way to the Supreme Court—which might use it to strike down one of the prized laws that protect authentic Native religious practices.
But the debate about whether Mooney and his adherents count as a Native American church raises larger questions about the government’s role in defining religion. Particularly when a religious tradition doesn’t have a defined ultimate authority, deciding what counts, and what does not, may not be a responsibility the government wants.
Sergio Sandoval, a paralegal and investigator for Pappas, said Mooney views his beliefs “in a completely different way” from some other practitioners of Native American religions. “Traditionally, native churches are very exclusive. He thinks it should be more of where your thought process is at, not your lineage,” Sandoval said. “...If you’re Buddhist, you don’t have to be Chinese.”
He said he even joined Mooney’s church himself, paying the full price of admission.
“The idea behind it is that the church partners with other religions. It’s not exclusive, it’s not saying that you have to believe this,” Sandoval said. “Marijuana is one of those sacrament things that deals with the mind, it deals with the body.”
“We don’t deny anybody, we don’t care what ideology they carry,” Mooney told The Daily Beast. “Our medicine people are instructed to respect all walks of life, as long as they abide by the code of ethics.”
And he is a true believer, at least in the healing power of cannabis. Mooney told The Daily Beast he “absolutely” believes that it can sustain and prolong life, even to the point of curing cancer. “I mean, that’s proven every which way you can possibly read,” Mooney said. “All you have to [do is] Google.”
With one major religious freedom victory—a Peyote use case in Utah—under its belt, there may be no stopping the Oklevueha Native American Church. And Mooney’s relentless in pushing back against claims of appropriation and misrepresentation of Native traditions by federally recognized tribes.
“What they’ve done is convinced the public that you have to be a federally recognized Indian with a certain amount of blood quantum to practice religion,” he said. “It’s like telling a Catholic that you had to be born in Italy.”