September 29, 2009
If you cultivate cannabis as spiritual medicine, using it to offer up prayers, you are still subject to arrest and prosecution. But two Native American brothers whose crops were raided last summer passionately disagree – because the name of their tribe, Tuscarora, literally translates to “People of the Hemp.”
“The soldiers got your brothers.”
The women who lived next-door gave Ross Johnson the news. They can be forgiven their assumption. The cops arrived heavily armed, a group task force of 20 federal and local law-enforcement officers – dressed in either camouflage or black, supported by a Border Patrol helicopter. They blocked roads, crept through the woods and surrounded the property of Crandy and Tracy Johnson, all in an effort in to raid their garden, which consists of just 43 cannabis plants.
Ross rushed over to his brothers’ homes, which are next-door to each other, but was turned away. Cops were hauling away plants and searching inside thehouses, despite the fact that the warrant issued by the town judge specified a search of only the property’s exterior.
Crandy, a roadman (ceremonial leader) in the Native American Church, seethed as the cops moved into the room where he keeps his vast assortment of spiritual paraphernalia – feathers, hides, herbs, antlers and bones. Skins and buffalo heads hang on the wall, adorned with sprigs of sage and cannabis. The young cops in camo handled the artifacts roughly, calling out triumphantly as more buds were found.
“You should watch what you’re doing,” Crandy said sternly. “You’re not supposed to be touching this. I can’t be responsible for what happens to you.”
The young cops hesitated, unsure of the gruff, white-haired Indian. “I only touched this stuff. Is that okay?” asked one.
“This is a church,” Crandy explained. “If you violate it, I can’t tell you how the spirits will react.”
Another offered nervously: “Hey, I didn’t touch anything.”
Crandy snapped back: “You’re not supposed to be here! This is a violation of our inherent religious rights!”
The county sheriff then got in Crandy’s face: “Just stand here and shut the fuck up! We don’t give a fuck about your religious rights!”
That sentiment has been pretty clear for a few centuries now.
Three months after the raid, Crandy and Tracy sit at the kitchen table. Crandy shakes his head. “The boat people – these citizens of the United States – came here to escape religious persecution,” he says. “But when they got here from Europe, they started persecuting what they call our pagan religion!”
They’ve been here before. Fourteen years ago, the Johnson brothers experienced a similar raid for cultivating 240 plants (see “Tuscarora” in the April ’97 issue of HT). They were prepared to go the distance then to vindicate their right to use cannabis as spiritual medicine. However, the prosecutors got squeamish once the case garnered press coverage and agreed to drop the charges provided that the Johnson brothers obey all New York state laws for one year.
“They aren’t my laws,” scoffs Crandy. “We had our laws long before there was a Constitution.”
The Tuscarora Indian Reservation, in Lewiston, NY, near Niagara Falls, comprises about two square miles. Fifty years ago, it was far larger, but the New York Power Authority seized 500 acres of Tuscarora land to construct the Niagara Power Project, despite the declaration of tribal chiefs that their land wasn’t for sale at any price. The Niagara Reservoir now covers the land where families once lived. In return, they got mobile homes and little else.
Hundreds of years earlier, the land of the Tuscarora was even larger. The tribe is part of the famed Iroquois Confederacy established in 1570, a pact entered into by the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk tribes to promote peace and mutual defense against intruders.
The Tuscarora were welcomed into the alliance in 1710, after fleeing their homeland in the region of present-day North Carolina. The English plantation system in the region of the Jamestown settlement had ravaged the East Coast tribes. Village territories were stolen and the people enslaved; women and children were often kidnapped and sold away. As part of the Iroquois Confederacy, the tribe was able to re-establish itself.
Seventy years later, the Tuscarora would fight on the side of George Washington during the American Revolution. In fact, because of their meritorious service, treaties of that era specified that “the United States would never disturb them, or any of the Six Nations in the free use of their land and enjoyment thereof.”
Clearly, that treaty has been violated many times. But what can never be disputed is the fact that the Tuscarora have been known as the “People of the Hemp” for centuries – long before the invaders arrived. In fact, the name evolved from the Iroquoian word skaru’ren (“hemp gatherers”), bestowed because of the tribe’s gathering and use of Indian hemp for fiber. In Joseph Campbell’s authoritative volume The Way of the Seeded Earth, the Tuscarora are noted to have used hemp for “medicine” as well.
It is also noteworthy that when the confederacy’s constitution was read, councils were instructed to provide the reader with “a specially made mat woven of the fibers of hemp” on which to stand, never to be used again. Equally compelling are the laws themselves: They specifically honor the plant kingdom and the abilities with which it has been endowed – to take away the sickness of the human family and elevate human consciousness.
The Tuscarora have no doubts whether hemp is native to North America
Archaeologists have long questioned whether Native Americans smoked cannabis, or whether the plant is even native to North America. But traditional Tuscarora have no such doubts. Their creation tale teaches that they were designated to be the caretakers of the hemp seed and keepers of the peace pipe in which “hemp flower medicine” is smoked.
As children, Crandy and Tracy were told to stay out of the “special” gardens of their elders, and memories of adults smoking cannabis as part of their spiritual practice are among their earliest. They are both former “steelwalkers,” part of the Native American community of ironworkers renowned for their ability to work high above the earth building our country’s skyscrapers and bridges. Now in their sixties, the brothers continue to venerate the cannabis plant. What they cultivate is never sold; it is smoked in a spiritual way and burned in copious amounts in ceremonial fires.
What is cultivated is never sold
“Our relationship with the hemp seed originates with the instructions we were given,” Crandy says. “We were told to honor the forces of nature – the four seasons, the four directions, the four elements – to give thanks for being part of this beautiful kingdom. And this is what the white man calls our pagan religion.”
Doug Anderson, the roads commissioner for the tribe, is equally incensed and has protested the “illegal invasion” to the United Nations, where he also functions as ambassador for the tribe.
“We are a sovereign nation,” he says. “We have our laws and our way of life. Our government and our religion go hand in hand. Canada and the United States keep them separate, which allows them to persecute us.”
Even more to the point, the Tuscarora nation actually issues its own passports, which are accepted by member nations of the UN. Unfortunately, the Tuscarora leadership is fragmented: Of the 13 seats on the tribal council, only three are filled. Council meetings are sporadic, and communicating new developments to tribal members is sketchy. The tribe numbers about 1,200 now; sadly, some of the ancient Tuscarora clans have vanished. Many of the people belong to Christian churches, and Crandy admits that only a few share the deep identity with the hemp seed that he and his brother do.
Adding to their frustration is the fact that, three months after the raid, the Johnson brothers still haven’t been charged with a crime, even though the authorities promised that charges would be filed within 30 days. Perhaps it’s due to their glaring violations of the warrant: The cops were instructed to search only the outside property, but they forced their way into the Johnsons’ homes, seizing hunting rifles and stashes of dried cannabis, their spiritual medicine.
Still, the raid has hardly deterred Crandy and Tracy from what they believe are sacred obligations. But these days, it’s tougher.
“We’ve been driven underground,” Crandy says. “Religious-freedom laws are not respected or abided by, because they are written for and by white men. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re out of harmony,” he adds. “We’re out of balance with nature, because of the white man’s laws that don’t allow us to use these herbs in the proper way: to appease the understanding of the Guardians, to send this smoke skyward to the realms, to carry the message of the people, to keep the cycle moving onward.”
In December, the Johnsons were finally charged with criminal possession of marijuana. They are claiming it is their right as members of a sovereign nation to grow cannabis. They have pleaded not guilty and will defend themselves on the grounds of religious freedom. They will also argue that the state of New York has no jurisdiction on the Tuscarora Indian reservation.