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William Barr, U.S. Attorney General Nominee Grilled On Russia Probe

The nominee criticized so-called "sanctuary cities" that do not notify federal officials about undocumented immigrants who are taken into custody.

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Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 15, 2019. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, William Barr, goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee again Wednesday, after pledging in his first day of confirmation hearings to shield the special counsel’s Russia probe from political pressure.

In his initial appearance before the panel, Barr also took issue with Trump’s labeling the investigation of his inner circle’s contacts with Moscow as a “witch hunt.”

“I don’t believe (special counsel Robert) Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” Barr said, adding that he intends to let the probe run its course and that the results should be made known to the public and Congress.

Barr said the special counsel could only be terminated for good cause and that “it’s unimaginable” that Mueller would “ever do anything that gave rise to good cause.”

Democrats repeatedly stressed the importance of independence to the role of attorney general and noted Trump’s penchant for lashing out at the Justice Department.

USA, Attorney General
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., accompanied by Ranking Member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.,(R) questions Attorney General nominee William Barr during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 15, 2019. VOA

“I believe it is important that the next attorney general be able to strongly resist pressure, whether from the administration or Congress,” California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said. “He must have the integrity, the strength and the fortitude to tell the president ‘no’ regardless of the consequences.”

“If confirmed, the president is going to expect you to his bidding. I can almost guarantee he’ll cross the line at some point,” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy said.

“I can truly be independent,” Barr insisted. “I’m in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences … I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong.”

Barr’s memo

Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H. W. Bush, has drawn scrutiny for a memo he wrote last year criticizing special counsel Mueller for examining whether Trump tried to obstruct the investigation by firing then-FBI Director James Comey in 2017.

USA, Attorney General
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference to announce a criminal law enforcement action involving China, at the Department of Justice in Washington, Nov. 1, 2018. VOA

In a memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation, Barr opined that probing Trump’s actions toward Comey was “fatally misconceived” and “grossly irresponsible.”

The memo, written last June, came to light after Trump nominated Barr, 68, to succeed then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump ousted over his recusal from oversight of the Russia investigation. The document sparked widespread concern among minority Democrats in the Senate, who have long feared Trump intends to shut down the probe.

At the confirmation hearing, Barr argued his memo was “narrow in scope” and did not address the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and other “potential obstruction-of-justice theories.”

Later in the hearing, Barr said, “I think Russians attempted to interfere with the [2016] election, and I think we have to get to the bottom of it.”

USA, Attorney General
Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 15, 2019. VOA

Republicans also sought assurances from the nominee. The committee’s new chairman, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, expressed outrage over extensive communications between two FBI agents during the 2016 presidential campaign that showed extreme bias and prejudice against Trump.

“We’re relying on you to clean this place up,” Graham said of the Justice Department.

Graham also asked if, as commander in chief, Trump has the authority to divert federal funding in order to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Without looking at the statute, I really couldn’t answer that,” Barr replied.

Also Read: “I Never Worked For Russia”, Says US President Donald Trump

The nominee criticized so-called “sanctuary cities” that do not notify federal officials about undocumented immigrants who are taken into custody. He also weighed in on the current standoff between the White House and congressional Democrats over border wall funding.

“I would like to see a deal reached whereby Congress recognizes that it’s imperative to have border security, and that part of that border security, as a commonsense matter, needs barriers,” Barr said. (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.”

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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)