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Guilty Plea For The Pittsburgh Shooting Suspect

Trump shook hands with the synagogue's rabbi, Jeffrey Myers

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Pittsburgh shooting
This courtroom sketch depicts Robert Gregory Bowers, who was wounded in a gun battle with police as he appeared in a wheelchair at federal court. VOA

The man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue pleaded not guilty Thursday in a U.S. federal court on 44 charges that include murder and hate crimes.

Robert Bowers, 46, spoke little during the brief court appearance beyond saying he understood the charges and his “not guilty” plea.

A grand jury indicted Bowers on Wednesday in connection with the October 27 attack at the Tree of Life synagogue.

In announcing the indictment, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the alleged crimes “are incomprehensibly evil and utterly repugnant to the values of this nation. Therefore this case is not only important to the victims and their loved ones, but to the city of Pittsburgh and the entire nation.”

 

USA Shooting, pittsburgh
Pittsburgh police stand guard as the casket of Irving Younger, 69, is wheeled from Congregation Rodef Shalom after his funeral, VOA

 

Victims’ funerals 

Funerals for the victims continue Thursday with services for Bernice and Sylvan Simon, as well as Dr. Richard Gottfried.

On Wednesday, hundreds of friends gathered to pay tribute to Melvin Wax, 88, who was leading Sabbath services on Saturday when the gunman burst into the synagogue shouting, “All Jews must die!” and began shooting. Funerals also were held for retired real estate agent Irving Younger, 69, and retired university researcher Joyce Fienberg, 75.

Trump visit 

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the synagogue on Tuesday, placing a stone at each of the 11 Stars of David set up outside. Placing stones at a grave or remembrance site is an ancient Jewish tradition.

Trump also met with police officers wounded by gunfire in a shootout as they apprehended Bowers and spent an hour talking with Peg Durachko, whose husband, Dr. Richard Gottfried, was among the 11 killed.

shooting, pittsburgh
A sign during a protest gathering on the block of the Jewish Community Center in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the funeral for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz. VOA

“Melania and I were treated very nicely yesterday in Pittsburgh,” Trump said on Twitter. “The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly.”

Protests 

Several thousand protesters demonstrated in the streets during Trump’s visit, contending that his rhetoric helped fuel the gunman’s anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant views against a Jewish group that aids refugees arriving in the U.S. from overseas. Trump complained about news coverage of the several hours he spent in Pittsburgh.

“Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away,” he said. “The Fake News stories were just the opposite-Disgraceful!”

Trump shook hands with the synagogue’s rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, and the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer.

pittsburgh shooting
Flowers surround Stars of David on Oct. 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to the 11 people killed during worship services Saturday in Pittsburgh., VOA

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — wearing a Jewish yarmulke — and daughter Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism when she married Kushner, accompanied the first couple to offer their condolences.

“The president was very moved by the visit and his time with the rabbi and called it very humbling and sad,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.

Also Read: Trump Meets Florida School Shooting Survivors, Suggests Arming Teachers

Worst attack in history 

The Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked hatred and violence against Jews since the 1970s, said the Pittsburgh mayhem was the worst attack against the Jewish community in U.S. history. (VOA)

Next Story

“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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Church
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)