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Democratic Freshmen Get Seats On Committee That Reviews Donald Trump

For those who opt for a splashy confrontation, there's plenty of precedent during Republican control.

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, laugh as they wait for other freshman Congressmen to deliver a letter calling to an end to shutdown to deliver to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., Jan. 16, 2019. VOA

It’s known as “the theater committee” for its high profile, high-drama role investigating President Donald Trump’s White House. And now, five of the fieriest Democratic freshmen in the House are players on that stage.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Katie Hill, Rashida Tlaib and others now have seats on the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee — a sign that Democratic leaders want their social media savvy and star power front and center of investigations into the Trump administration. In return, the new members get a platform on which to polish their good-government bona fides. And the bet among senior Democrats is that more experienced committee members will help harness the newcomers’ energy, fame and know-how as the blandly-named panel turns its spotlight on the White House ahead of the 2020 elections.

“I consider myself to be a little bit of a justice and truth-teller,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., referring to her background as a prosecutor. “I think I’m in good company.”

On the mission, yes. But the newcomers’ styles will depend in part on how solidly they won their districts in the November elections.

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Ayanna Pressley, Democrat-Massachusetts, listens during a news conference with members of the Progressive Caucus in Washington, Nov. 12, 2018. VOA

“Mine is going to be a very fact-based approach,” said Hill, a liaison to Democratic leaders who will serve as Cummings’ vice chairman and flipped a Republican stronghold in California. “I am not going to go in there with a set agenda as much as seeking the truth.”

Added Rep. Harley Rouda, a former Republican who also represents a swing California district: “We have an obligation as members of Congress to provide appropriate oversight regardless of whether it’s Republicans or Democrats or otherwise,” he said. Rouda called himself “somewhat centrist, and I’m going to carry that into that committee as well.”

It’s an apt home for the outspoken new members. Real-time drama — on matters ranging from former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Hurricane Katrina and steroids in sports — was the panel’s trademark long before Trump and the Democratic freshmen came to Washington.

“You walk in here, into the back room, you muster your righteous indignation and you step out on the stage and ask somebody: ‘How could you? What were you thinking? When did you first know?'” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a committee member and outspoken conservative who was appointed to the panel when Barack Obama was president. “You can make a grandma feel bad about making cookies for her grandkids.”

Though theatrical, the committee has real power to “at any time conduct investigations of any matter,” according to its charter, using as tools subpoenas and the fact that lying to Congress is a crime. And the new chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is promising serious probes that could have consequences for Trump and administration officials who saw relatively little oversight under the Republican-led House. Cummings has promised to look at conflicts of interest within the administration and is one of several chairmen who will lead investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.

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Harley Rouda speaks to a reporter at a campaign office in Costa Mesa, California, Nov. 3, 2018. VOA

The committee also is where Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was scheduled to testify next month on Trump, his links to Russia and payments to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels. Last week he delayed his appearance on the advice of his legal team, citing ongoing cooperation in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and threats against his family.

For now, Cummings is repeating two guiding words to keep the newcomers’ enthusiasm productive: “efficiency” and “effectiveness.”

“They are very articulate, they are very sharp,” said Cummings. “And I’m sure that working very closely with the leadership of our committee, that they will be disciplined about what they put out to the media.”

His comments reflect an acute awareness among senior Democrats that this group eschews a script and likes to improvise. Tlaib’s vow on Trump to “impeach the mother—er,” on Day 1 of the new Congress ran afoul of Pelosi’s dictum to not speak of impeachment in any serious way at least until special counsel Robert Mueller reports on his Russia probe. Tlaib apologized for the distraction and, Cummings said, “realized that those comments do not lend themselves to my two major goals: being effective and efficient.”

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Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar reacts after appearing at her midterm election night party in Minneapolis, Minnesota. VOA

For House Democratic leaders it was a forgivable offense. They opted to leverage the social media prowess and outspokenness of all five freshmen, including Tlaib, by giving them the platform of the oversight panel. Notably, Pelosi kept them off the Judiciary Committee, the body that is made up mostly of lawyers and that would handle any impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Cummings, the freshmen say, is encouraging them to speak up.

“He’s made very clear that a lot of what he wants to do with his leadership is to cultivate the talent and the potential within the committee and the party overall,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who said she wants to focus on immigrant protections and the environment. Cummings, she said, “wants to pass the ball a lot to many of the different members.”

Also Read: White House Challenges Democrats To Prove Their Commitment To Border Security

For those who opt for a splashy confrontation, there’s plenty of precedent during Republican control. A joint meeting of the oversight and judiciary panels last year erupted into a yelling match virtually from the first question to former FBI Agent Peter Strzok.

There’s almost an art to the absurdity, Massie suggested. When his hypothetical grandma comes up with an answer about her cookies, “You say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve only got five minutes, I’ve got to move on to the next question. What about the applesauce?'” (VOA)

 

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“They Don’t Make Prayerful Offerings When They Harvest,” Story Of The Native American Church

“The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

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The sun sets over the gateway of peyotera Amada Cardenas's house in Mirando City, Texas. Ironwork reflects core Native American Church values of faith, hope, love and charity. VOA

Back in the day, when the “grandmas and grandpas” of the Native American Church (NAC) needed peyote, they would make a 2,000-kilometer pilgrimage from the reservations of South Dakota to the tiny town of Mirando City, Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico. That’s where they could find Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman who at the time was the only peyote dealer in Texas.

Cardenas was not Native American, nor was she a member of the NAC. But she understood how sacred the medicine was to church members and defended its use as a religious sacrament to those who sought to ban it.

Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994.
Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994. VOA

“After Amada’s passing, the peyote distribution system lost heart and seemed to be about monetary compensation,” said Iron Rope, former chairman of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and today chairman of the NAC of South Dakota. He is concerned that the remaining three or four peyote dealers in Texas — all non-Native — don’t give “the medicine” the reverence they should.

“They don’t make prayerful offerings when they harvest,” Iron Rope said. “We’ve heard reports about intoxicated harvesters. Sometimes, the medicine that comes to us was mushy or small, and the harvesting technique was not one that would allow regrowth.”

Careless and sometimes illegal harvesting, along with increased land and resource development in Texas, has led to a decline in peyote’s quality and availability. Prices have gone up, and church members worry the cactus, now listed as a vulnerable species, could become endangered.

In 2013, NACNA began researching ways to conserve peyote and its natural habitat.

Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico.
Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico. VOA

Pan-Native religion

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a succulent that contains psychoactive alkaloids and only grows in southern Texas and a handful of states in northern Mexico.

Indigenous people have used it ceremonially and medicinally for centuries, as noted by 16th century Spanish missionaries, who condemned it as an evil. Peyote use persisted, however, and by the late 1800s, had spread to present-day Oklahoma, where tribes adapted it to suit their individual spiritual traditions.

In the face of government efforts to ban peyote, peyotists in the early 20th century sought to incorporate as a formal religion. In 1918, an intertribal group established the NAC, which has evolved to include tens of thousands of members across dozens of tribal nations. Members view the church as an important component of healing from historic trauma and reconnecting to tradition.

Peyote was banned in the United States in 1970, but the law was later amended to allow peyote to be used in “bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.”

Texas allows several peyoteros registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to harvest and sell peyote, but only to card-carrying NAC members with proven Native American ancestry.

Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007.
Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007. VOA

‘A beautiful ceremony’

Unlike other religious denominations, said Iron Rope, the NAC is not a unified theology.

“Different variations of the ceremony have come into play,” he said. “There are Christian aspects to the NAC today and traditional aspects, as well.”

Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and an NAC member, grew up with an understanding of the sacredness of peyote and the religious etiquette surrounding its use.

“It was my own grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin, who actually received peyote early on from the Winnebagos, a neighboring tribe, and passed it on to his sons, my uncles,” she said.

This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled "Cheyenne Peyote Leader." Courtesy: Library of Congress.
This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled “Cheyenne Peyote Leader.” Courtesy: Library of Congress. VOA

Peyote is much misunderstood and maligned, she said, viewed by many anthropologists through the lens of colonial prejudice.

“I don’t like their use of the word ‘hallucinations,’” she said. “You don’t use peyote to get high. You use it to pray and communicate with God — the same God everyone else talks to.”

She described all-night services of prayer, song and meditation.

“The ceremony is beautiful,” she said. “The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

Sacred gardens

In 2013, NACNA began looking at ways to conserve and sustain peyote for future generations of indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

“It was our intent to eventually have our own land and be able to have our own peyote dealer who could understand our concerns as the Native American Church,” said Iron Rope.

The sun sets over "the 605," acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church.
The sun sets over “the 605,” acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church. VOA

In 2017, NACNA and partner organizations formally launched the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). With funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research of medicinal uses of psychoactive plants, IPCI purchased 245 hectares (605 acres) of land in Thompsonville, Texas, to serve as “Sacred Peyote Gardens.”

Also Read: Practice What You Preach: Celebrities Should Stand By Their Public Image In Private Domain

It is their hope that by 2021, “the 605” will house a nursery, residential and guest housing, and youth training, all supported by peyote sales.

“It’s about generations to come,” said Iron Rope. “To reconnect them to the land and to the medicine. And that’s the healing process that we’ve been missing.” (VOA)