Mawaan Rizwan visits the Oklevueha Native American Church in Utah, where people take Class A drug Peyote in the hope of finding religious enlightenment.
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This programme contains some strong language.
My name is Mawaan Rizwan. I was brought up in a religious family.
I'm not practising
and I would say I don't necessarily believe in God.
But I am curious to know if there is some kind of higher being.
Is there something more to life?
I've heard that some people are looking for answers through taking
Basically, powerful hallucinogenic drugs.
I'm off to the American wilderness to meet a medicine man who uses the
ancient drug peyote, one of the most powerful hallucinogenics on earth.
And I've got to decide if it's something I'm going to try in my
search for God.
I've come to Salt Lake City in Utah, America.
For centuries, Native Americans have taken a drug called peyote to
connect with the spirit world.
Peyote is illegal in the USA unless you're Native American,
but in one corner of the state, anyone can take it legally.
I'm on my way to meet the founder
of the Oklevueha Native American Church,
James Flaming Eagle Mooney.
I'm really excited and really nervous
because I don't really know what to expect.
-How's it going?
I'm Mawaan. Nice to meet you.
-How are you, James?
-I'm so kind and gentle today, it's almost sickening.
Cool. That's good to know.
-Have a seat.
-Thanks for doing this.
One of the things I'm interested to know about is
when I think of spirituality, I think of, like...
I've been to a couple of yoga classes and I was terrible at it,
so maybe it's not for me.
JAMES LAUGHS But...
where do I begin with that sort of understanding of actually what
is spiritual and how do I delve into it?
Well, that's where I come in.
-That's where I help you.
I assist you. I'm a medicine man in terms of spirituality
Native Americans have used peyote in religion for thousands of years.
It comes from a cactus plant.
James's church offers non-Native Americans the chance to use peyote
to connect with God.
I'll be joining him on one of his ceremonial retreats.
But I can't get it out of my head that peyote is a class A drug.
Because of its active ingredient mescaline,
it's put in the same category as heroin.
I've come to a local hotel to get some head space.
I've had friends who have used substances that, you know,
I worry about, that they're dependent.
And so I'm really on the fence about the whole thing
because if it helps people, great, but, you know,
I have been taught to see these things as dangerous and addictive.
'I did some research the only way I know how, online.'
Why is he in the middle of the street?
High on peyote.
Come on, mate. Get out the street.
Why would you do that?
The effects of peyote are like LSD, so it's pretty intense.
Taking it could put you at risk if you or a member of your family have
suffered from psychosis in the past.
But I couldn't find any strong medical evidence that taking it once
would have any long-lasting effect.
It feels like you sort of lose control of your body
and you see things that are not there.
Sounds ideal, actually.
Possession of peyote can land you in prison in the UK.
It's also highly illegal for most people in America.
Four years ago, James Flaming Eagle Mooney
was thrust into a struggle
that pitted religious freedom against drug laws.
For generations, Native Americans have been legally entitled to use
peyote as part of their religion,
but James led the fight to allow other Americans to take the drug
After serving a jail sentence,
in 2004, he won his battle in Utah's Supreme Court.
Since then, James has been allowed to bring non-Native Americans
like me to try peyote, as long as they become church members.
And seeing as I don't want to get arrested,
I've had to get one of these,
which is to say that I'm a member of the religious group
so I can take it legally. This cost 200.
It makes it really official, doesn't it?
This says I can take a psychedelic drug
which helps me get closer to God.
And cos God is attached, that's a legit reason.
You can't argue with that, in a way, can you?
I've got the card in my pocket
and now it's time to head off for the retreat.
This is as remote as it gets.
I mean, it's literally in the middle of nowhere,
I can't see a building in sight.
I'm looking forward to meeting the people who are taking part in the
ceremony, they're called the Seekers.
And I want to know why they would come all this way to find God.
I'm a bit apprehensive, but I'm open.
I'm willing to be out of my comfort zone and maybe it will pay off.
Yeah, who knows? I think we're here now.
Wow! This is absolutely stunning.
It's snowing a bit, as well.
Hey, how's it going? I'm Mawaan.
-Josiah? Nice to meet you, Josiah.
-Hey, man, Mawaan.
What a peaceful place, with these beautiful lakes and mountains.
Yeah, it's beautiful,
we're just trying to get camp set up now
before it gets too dark and then we have no place to sleep.
Richie is one of 12 members of the Church who have travelled from all
over the USA to come to the retreat.
He's come nearly 2,000 miles to be here, all the way from Ohio.
Can I be of any help?
So is this your first time in the mountains?
Yes, it is.
-What do you make of it?
-The best, it's amazing.
I just love being around nature and rocks.
I live in the downtown of a city, so this is very nice.
What are your expectations for the next few days?
Learn how to forgive myself a bit better.
-I've done a few ceremonies already, but, you know,
hopefully third time's a charm.
James will lead the peyote ceremony in a Native American tepee.
He's got an interesting take on his role as a medicine man.
I'm known as a roto-rooter man, that's what they call me.
-What does that mean?
-Well, you know what a roto-rooter is?
-It cleans out toilets.
Who gave you that name?
-A lot of people.
-You dig for the shit and scoop it out.
That's right, that's what I do.
Whatever is blocking people from believing and seeing that beauty,
I'm going to get rid of it.
My job, when those people walk through that tepee,
or walk into the ceremony,
is to penetrate all the stuff
that we manufacture to cover up that vulnerability.
What do you think I've manufactured to hide some of my true spirit?
Denial that you're a spiritual man.
I don't know what to make of James Flaming Eagle Mooney.
I mean, what a guy. I think I like him.
He's endearing in a way that, you know, when your grandad speaks
to you, and he talks a bit, but you're like, you know,
"I still respect you for what you do."
Do you mind if I join in?
What made you choose this over other more traditional
-systems of belief?
-This is what...
It started out as respecting Mother Earth, respecting your body,
Giving free massages?
Serving, that's all it comes down to, is everybody serves.
Have you dabbled in other religions?
Yes, definitely. I've studied a lot of different things.
I grew up, actually, Mormon.
I find there's actually a lot of truth in a lot of different things.
It's not just getting high in the forest?
I don't know what to make of all of this.
Are these guys really here to find God?
I'm getting the feeling that they might already be on something.
I swear you will take your first breath ever after you get it.
-What are you actually doing, though?
You're relieving the bone.
You actually get, like, a face-lift, as well.
It heightens your cheeks and...
So you're... Oh! Wow.
-Wait, wait, wait, do this side first.
You literally just put your entire pinkie in her nostril.
And remember, you're not jerking or anything. It's not violent.
You're just following the passage and you can literally
-feel the bone just moving.
-You're just opening the passage.
What does it...what does it feel like having your nose fingered like that?
Really? It sounded really painful!
After it's, like, the most amazing thing, like, literally,
it just feels like I'm connected to myself.
It sounded really painful.
It is, but, you know, like,
it's worth it if it's going to make me feel better.
-Let's go, let's go, let's go.
-What kind of pain is it?
-WOMAN SHOUTS IN BACKGROUND
-It's tightness, it depends.
The very first one's the worst and from there it only gets better.
It gets clear. Like, mine, I didn't even react or scream.
I cried the first time.
He literally just put his entire finger through her nasal...
I don't know. I need to Google that. Is that a thing? Is that a thing?
Does that make you breathe better?
I Googled it. It's not a thing.
I feel quite detached to faith and spirituality in a way.
I think those words come preloaded with a lot of misconceptions
and a lot of people have used them in the West to do some whack stuff.
So when it comes to spirituality and village, I feel a bit detached
and a bit cynical.
I was a bit surprised by the fact
that it's called Native American Church
and there's not a lot of Native Americans here.
It's interesting because they're dealing with a lot
of ancient rituals and ceremonies and, like, that guy's got an iPhone.
So... You know.
It's an interesting merging of cultures, I guess.
Around three quarters of all Americans subscribe to some kind of
So I want to know what these guys get from peyote that they
couldn't find in more traditional faiths.
What led me to these practices was desire for truth,
a desire for reality.
Peyote itself is considered a truth serum.
Some people refer to it as that, so it removes, kind of,
the facade of who we like to paint ourself as.
Richard, what does God mean to you?
I see God as everything.
I see God as you, I see God as me, I see God as this dirt,
I see God as the stars and the moon.
For a long time...
..I didn't believe in God.
Cos I didn't have enough love there, in your heart.
I used to be a very dark person through and through.
I used to be evil.
Where did that stem from?
Neglect to take care of myself, my physical body, my mind.
Also blaming myself for my father's death,
which was not my fault whatsoever.
He died of a brain aneurysm.
But for a long time I really believed I caused it.
How old were you when that happened?
I was ten years old.
A year and a half after he died,
I have no memory of that part of my life.
I was in such a dark place.
God pushed me into the light.
Because I feel like the first two times I did peyote...
..it really hit me deep.
And it was able to let
me forgive myself...
..for all of the beating up I've done to myself over the years.
(Oh, my gosh.)
I feel like I'm slowly starting to understand why these guys are here
and what it means to them.
Because, actually, being in these surroundings, they're really
candid and they're really honest and open,
and not afraid to look vulnerable and...
Yeah, some deep stuff.
It's not just getting high in the mountains.
It's not just...
It's not just a fun weekend for them,
this is some intense stuff going on.
And they're bringing it all out.
Over the next couple of days I've got to decide if peyote is something
I'm going to try.
It's time to get serious.
There's one important ritual
that you have to do before the peyote ceremony.
It's called a sweat lodge.
It's an ancient Native American tradition stretching back
thousands of years and it's supposed to bring about a spiritual rebirth.
The divot in the centre is supposed to represent the womb of the woman.
And then over there we have lava rocks,
which come from, like, the core of the Earth.
And in American belief, that is the seed of the man.
So we take those and we put them in the womb of the woman and it's
supposed to be, like, the joining of man and woman.
Together in the sweat lodge.
-All the pieces can go up top.
It's kind of cool.
Everyone's really getting stuck into it and working together.
It's really communal and stuff.
And Bear, who looks a lot like my dad,
is leading and guiding everyone into it.
Bear is pretty old school and strict
when it comes to traditional Native American rituals.
Once the lodge is dedicated, or we praise over it,
we have what we call a spirit line
that runs from the fire, through here into the fire pit.
Once that's blessed, no-one is to step over the line except
the fire man and whoever's conducting.
Bear? Can I ask a question?
-How many people are going to go in the sweat lodge?
-I think he said 12.
-You're going to fit 12 people in there?
-You're supposed to be real tight.
-You know, like, skin to skin.
-Like, like really like this.
We're going to be spooning in the sweat lodge.
-I can't wait.
I haven't spooned in ages.
DRUM BEATS SLOWLY
-THEY GREET EACH OTHER
Give this for the north of wisdom and understanding.
After two hours, it's so hot it feels like my skin is burning.
Let it go. Yell it out.
-Yell it out.
-Yell it out.
HE BREATHES HEAVILY
'I had, like... I had visions.
'It was really dark and all you could see was these fiery stones.'
And so, you could just...
let everything go, just get completely lost.
It's fucking euphoric.
I feel really...
I feel euphoria and I don't know why.
OTHERS SCREAM AND YELP
I feel really alive. I think this is the most alert I've ever felt...
..in my life.
I just thought it was a sauna!
I was saying, "What's the big deal? It's just a sauna."
We've been in the mountains for four days.
The sweat lodge has been such an intense experience,
I've decided to go for it and try the peyote.
In the tepee, everything is ready for the ceremony.
'Made out of dried cactus, peyote can be taken in a variety of ways,
'including as a tea or a paste.'
I'm excited. But I'm absolutely pooing my pants.
I've been told that it's a truth serum,
but I'm not sure how truthful I want to be.
So, I want to welcome all of you to the ceremony.
These are indigenous ceremonies, they've been proven over and over,
thousands of years, assisting people to change and alter their behaviour.
Leah, you have a question for me.
Erm, I would like some medicine, please.
You got it, girl. Have a seat.
Put it in your hand.
Make a ball out of it.
Mawaan, I'm honoured to have you here.
When you joined Oklevueha Native American Church,
you didn't join a church, you joined a family.
That's what prevails.
-Can I have some tea, please?
-You sure may.
Sometimes we've been so maligned
that we just don't understand what we really want.
This medicine helps us to really find out
what it is that we really want.
How do you know truth
If you hear something, or somebody says something about you,
and you have this peaceful feeling, and you kind of...
'James droned on for four hours, and, to be honest,
'it wasn't doing much for my quest for inner truth.'
I'd like some fresh air.
-I'd like some fresh air.
OK, do you want to come back?
-You do whatever you like.
I couldn't spend a second longer in there
without feeling like I couldn't take it, because I didn't believe it,
and I don't want to be disrespectful, but that's me being honest.
I want a smoothie!
Are you high right now?
I don't know, I think I'm high.
I don't think I... I think I'm...
OK, I think I'm being really honest.
I think that's the highness.
I think if I wasn't this high...
I think if I wasn't high, I wouldn't be being this honest,
and I don't know if it's honest or not, but it feels really honest.
I don't believe in it.
I want a smoothie and I want to paint pictures.
On the other hand, on the other hand...
I feel cool, like, I feel like I can...
do the essence of what I want to do, you know, like, I can...
close off all the distractions, but this is what I need to do,
and then just get on with it.
Like, right now, I want an Oreo milkshake,
and I need to do that.
I think that's what God is...
'Maybe this drug really is a truth serum.
'I'm definitely feeling like letting it all out.'
I feel like...
I don't really know what love is.
So I don't really know...
..when it's around.
And that can make me quite cynical,
if I'm being completely honest.
It's ringing true to me.
So, do you like it there?
What's strange is I think a part of me does really like it.
-Because it makes me feel...
like I'm better than everyone else.
Oh, my gosh.
You've got time now.
There's not an exterior thing that is overcoming all your thoughts.
In here, you're looking at it, you're seeing.
I feel like if I'm not cynical then I'll just fall for anything.
Boy, that's a double whammy, man. That's a tough one.
These are the battles that are going on in my head.
Especially when I'm in new surroundings.
All those kinds of feelings, like cynicism, like,
"What are these people really doing?"
And surely there's a way to understand this better.
What I found out is that it took a good while for me to sit with the
medicine and learn what it was teaching me.
And so you don't treat that lightly, man. That's the real deal.
Even though the peyote wasn't really doing it for me, it was obvious that
these guys take it really seriously.
It allows you to forgive.
That's the miracle of the peyote medicine.
It takes something that's within you,
that's holding you back from your true self,
the love and light person you really want to be.
And whatever's holding you back, if you can let it go...
it assists you.
I felt God there with me, you know?
And it was powerful.
When I first got here, to be really honest,
I thought it was a bit of a con.
Just an excuse for some hippies to take drugs in the hills.
THEY SPEAK INDISTINCTLY
But sharing these days has made me change my mind.
I personally don't think I talked to God,
didn't really get my money's worth,
but I still felt really safe and held by a group of people,
and that in itself is a bit of an enlightening experience, you know?
-I can't compete with that!
UPBEAT MUSIC PLAYS
You are amazing.
Next time, I'm in Brazil and on the trail of another legendary drug -
So I'm going to knock on God's door
and let's see if he's there.
Mawaan Rizwan travels to Utah to spend time with the Oklevueha Native American Church. People from across the USA come here to use the Class A drug Peyote seeking religious enlightenment. Is the whole thing is just an excuse to get high in the mountains, or can the medicine man really can help him unlock a link to the spirit world?