THE PEYOTE RELIGION AMONG THE AMERICAN INDIANS
By Patty Yuen
The use of Peyote has long been referred to as a cult "...which we
found springing into existence when old ways of life (of the American
Indian) are being destroyed by a powerful and technologically more
advanced culture ..." thus also classifying it as a revitalization
Today, peyote use has become the most popular, and one of the most
durable of all the religious movements created by American Indians as a
result of the suffering as the effects of domination by American
society. Peyote use (in the United States) has thus evolved into what
is more accurately described as a religion: a system of symbols which
produces powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations by
formulating conceptions of a general order of existence.
The rite as it came to the United States was aboriginal in character,
and had no hint of influence of any other religion. Today, the Peyote
religion can be characterized as the combination of beliefs tinged with
Christianity and rituals which are distinctly Indian. The peyote cactus
is central to the religion for its effects after ingestion and for its
symbolism. For them, the cactus is the basis for their communication
with God, and their cure for all bodily and spiritual ailments--a
palladium, power and panacea.
In spite of opposition from traditional and Christian Indians, who
oppose the cult fear and hate Peyote, and from the Indian Service,
doctors, missionaries, and traders, the religion has been passed from
the land of the ancient Aztec empire to the Mexican Indians, and
beginning in 1870's, spread to the United States, especially in the
Plains, where nearly all groups use it. It is today one of the major
religions of most Indians of the United States between the rocky
Mountains and the Mississippi, from the territories spanning from
Nevada to Wisconson, and even up to Southern Canada and parts of the
Great Basin. The appeal of peyote is based upon the visions it induces,
and its "medicine power," and its availability in doctoring is
culturally based upon the aboriginal vision quest of the American
Indians and the ideological premises of this quest.
Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii is a small, low-growing spineless
cactus, and ranges in shape from a turnip to carrot-shape. It does not
have branches or leaves, but has tufts of hair or fuzz which are said
to cause sore eyes or blindness. The flesh and roots are eaten by
peyotists. The rounded top surface, which alone appears above the soil
(and which cut off and dried, popular method of preparation, becomes
the peyote-button) makes it difficult to find. It grows mainly in areas
of Texas and Mexico, and was first discovered in 1560. It contains nine
narcotic alkaloids, the most important of which is mescaline, which
produces profound sensory and psychic derangements, or hallucinations
lasting about twenty-four hours. It is this property of the peyote
which led the native American Indian to value and use it religiously.
It is interesting to note that throughout the world, people use many
substances to create special psychological states such as the opiates,
marijuana, coca, alcohol, etc. These are often used in magical
contexts, for instance, for divination, to create a trance, visions, or
dreams. But peyote is the only substance known which is used to create
a special psychological state in service of religious ends. Cult
members face persecution and imprisonment in order to use peyote for
religious purposes. Another interesting point is that given the wide
range of the plant genera in Eastern and Western worlds, why is it that
in America, the American Indians knew of some forty local species of
hallucinogens, while the rest of the world had scarcely half a dozen.
Physiology of Peyote Intoxication
Physiologically, the most noted characteristics of peyote is its
production of visual hallucinations or color visions, as well as the
derangements of olfactory, auditory, and touch senses. Typically, the
first stage in the reaction to the ingestion of peyote is exhilaration
(which may result in the allaying of hunger and thirst on the long
pilgrimage to peyote land n order to obtain the drug, to give courage
in war, and strength in dancing, and racing, etc.) which is produced by
the strychnine-like alkaloids, followed by the second stage,
characterized by profound depression, nausea and wakefulness, mild
analgesia, and a sensation of fullness in the stomach or loss of
appetite. If dosage continues, there may be active nauseam and a
feeling of tightness in the chest, some muscular tetany (particularly
evident in the jaw muscles), and finally, under the influence of the
morphine-like alkaloids,heightened sensitivity to nuances of sound,
color form and texture. If dosage continues, b rilliant color visions
are produced with eyes open or closed. There are no ill after-effects,
and peyote is not known to be habit-forming. It is in the latter stage
where "running amok," witchcraft-suspicion, psychic fear-states,
euphoria and feeling of brotherhood, partial anesthesia, the "suffering
to learn something" (characteristic of the Plains vision quest),
hallucinations which teaches the worshiper sacred songs of peyote, and
"learning" of painting and bead designs, symbolical birds and feathers,
Reasons for the Use of Peyote in Ritual Practice
"For American Indians from the most ancient times, this experience
(induced by peyote) of `medicine power' -- sought ...everywhere at
least by shamans or medicine men..." -- motivated American Indians to
explore a plant that resulted in such impressive experiences by the
worshippers. The question arises, why are these characteristics of
peyote so important to a religion? The visions are not critical to the
peyotist, as one may have been led to believe; in fact they are rare or
absent in a large percentage of cases, and even disvalued by many
peyotists, although welcomed by many others.
What I found to believe that makes peyote so religiously important is
the feeling of personal significance of external and internal stimuli
that hallucinogenics, in particular peyote, creates because the
physiological reactions occur in the person, subjectively. Each person
is experiencing his own similar, but distinct reaction, and examining
his own thoughts, which cannot be exactly the same as the next
person's. "Personal significance heightens the religious experience in
the peyote meeting because it supplies evident proof that something is
being done to and for the human organism and it is felt as a power."
This feeling of personal significance asks, "What does this mean for
me?" For example, if the worshipper is ill, he will be able to ask his
own bodily sensations and the events of the meeting for an
understanding of why he is ill and whether he is likely to get better.
Or if he is anxious or depressed, or guilt-ridden, he can examine these
feelings and the reasons for them and seek in his experience a clue as
to whether he is forgiven, needs to worry, or can ever be happy. These
are generally referred to as revelations. "Users may find personal
significance in the events of the peyote meeting, the physical
surroundings, their fellow participants and in their behavior and
expressions, visions, nausea, indigestion, headache or simply in their
Peyote is a religious adjunct-and aid to a special and personal
experience. Many other religions also have, for the same purposes, such
adjuncts such as fasting, repetitive prayer, trance, self-torture, etc.
These, like the peyote experience are other-than-usual experiences
which, in the context of religious ritual, is usually identified as
having to do with the supernatural. The mind-moving effect of the plant
was proof enough to them that it has supernatural mana or "power."
THE RITUAL USE OF PEYOTE
Symbolism of the Ritual
To the users of peyote, the peyote is in itself, is a power that works
from the outside. It is a teacher who can show a man the right way to
live and answer his questions by giving him an experience to live
Through the use of peyote in the ritual, one is able to communicate
with the Creator, or in more syncretized tribes, God. The ritual is
also regarded as a communion with one's fellow worshippers. Prayer,
song, drumming and the eating of peyote are all regarded as forms of
communication with God, and the reactions brought on by the drug is
regarded as communication from Him--through reflection, illumination,
or visual or auditory hallucinations. The communion with fellow
peyotists is felt through the joint eating of peyote, the singing,
confessions, in the drinking of water together at midnight and dawn and
in the ceremonial breakfast which closes the meeting.
A peyote meeting is generally held for a purpose, one of the most
common reasons is for curing. Some other reasons for a meeting to be
called can range from averting evil, promoting future good, or thanking
God for past blessings to celebrating a child's birth, a death,
obtaining rain, to divine and combat sorcery, to locate an enemy at
war, finding lost objects, foretell the future, and to "see the face of
Jesus" or the faces of dead relatives. Some tribes even hold meetings
on New Years Eve, Christmas, and Easter. Doctoring the sick is, however
the commonest reason for calling a meeting, but a quote from an old
Indian states that, however, when a man wishes to have a meeting, he
ordinarily finds little difficulty in discovering a reason for it, "In
the early days they just had a good time for one night. It was not used
as a curing ceremony then... at first they wanted to have good visions,
that's what they were after. But then, recently, they began to use it
as medicine for sick people."
The Peyote Rite
The ceremonial use of peyote varies greatly from tribe to tribe, but a
general, or "universal" outline of a peyote ritual will be sufficient.
For those tribes who live beyond the habitat of peyote, they may have
to make pilgrimages in order to obtain peyote. For many Mexican
journeys, it is very ritualized, for example, they must walk, some
tribes require fasting even if the journey may last for a month. But
for the majority, this journey is not ritualized, although there is a
modest ceremony at the site. For example, on finding the first plant, a
Kiowa pilgrim sits west of it, rolls a cornshuck cigarette and prays,
"I have found you, now open up, show me where the rest of you are; I
want to use you to pray for the health of my people." He sings and eats
green plants while harvesting them; only the tops are taken, so that
the roots may regenerate buds for the next pilgrimage. In Mexican
tribes, the first button they find is saved as a "father peyote" for
meetings later, in the plains, it is the largest one.
In preparation, many tribes commonly take a sweatbath, while some
require a washing of the hair in yucca suds. Fasting, perfuming of the
body with mint, sage, or other scented plants are also common
preparations in order to cleanse the body for the meeting. An universal
peyotist restriction is that salt may not be eaten on the day that
peyote is eaten. It is also considered hygenically if not ethically
unwise to use peyote in alcoholic drinks; indeed, many become peyotists
in order to cure their alcoholic addictions.
The sponsor selects the leader, or himself acts as one. If a tipi is
used, the sponsor's womenfolk erect the tipi, or enclosure, prepare and
bring the food and water the next morning. The sponsor stands the cost
of the meeting, or others may help in funding the peyote if it has to
be purchased. Communicants may bring their own supply of buttons.
The leader also supplies the paraphernalia: typical requirements are a
staff, gourd rattle or rasp, eagle-bone whistle, and his personal
"feathers" for doctoring. Each item has specific symbolic meaning in
representing the idealogy of their creation.
The road chief is the most important individual in a meeting. "The
leader of each ceremony is the sole director of it. He may base his
ceremony partly on visions during previous ceremonies. In other cases,
he follows ceremonies that he has participated in, changing or adding
details to suit his personal ideas. No two ceremonies conducted by
different individuals are therefore exactly alike; but the general
course of all is similar." -- This variation in leadership is also seen
as a function of leadership -- he has full authority to change the
ceremony in any way he wishes, and his permission must be asked and
secured even in such little matters as leaving the meeting temporarily;
even the fireman, his chief assistant must obtain his permission, and
constantly consults with him throughout the ceremony for directions. --
In fact, peyote leadership is a matter of prestige in a tribe, and a
major means of advancement among the fellow tribe, since each tribe has
a limited number of rec ognized peyote leaders. For example, the Pawnee
tribe has only eight recognized leaders in a population of eight
Participants gather at sundown and enter the enclosure anytime after
nightfall, in a clockwise manner. Entrance is generally informal. The
road chief, who conducts the meeting may say a brief prayer: "I am
going into my place of worship. Be with us tonight."-- The road chief
sits west of the fire, which has been started by the fire chief who
sits north of the door. Two other officials are required: a drummer
chief, who does most of the drumming; he sits south of the road chief,
and the cedar chief, who sprinkles dried cedar incense on the fire at
several points of the ceremony is seated to his right. Almost any one
can learn these roles after a little observation. A road chief is
trained more elaborately by another road chief. In front of them is a
raised crescent moon of earth, and the altar, where the father peyote
is placed. Father peyote should be the focus of concentration in
praying, singing, drumming, and smoking ritual cigarettes as it serves
as a center for communication with God.
Some individuals cherish and prize their father peyotes. Some even
become heirlooms. If one gives his away, or loses it, he may be subject
A prayer, and smoking together is the first ceremony which announces
the purpose of the meeting. The papers to roll the tobacco is usually
made of corn husks. All pray privately, and then the incense ceremony
follows. The cedar man will sprinkle cedar on the fire. The scent will
protect them from feeling weak or dizzy. Peyote is then passed around
and eaten. Peyote is generally eaten in the raw dried state as
"buttons" but, when obtainable, in the green form also, which is said
to e more potent. Peyote "tea," a dark-brown infusion of soaked and
boiled buttons may also be provided. This method is commonly used to
administer peyote to the old and sick, who may be unable to chew the
buttons, and are unable to pick the fuzz off, which is believed to
Singing and drumming begin, continuing until midnight. There are four
"peyote songs" which must be sung throughout the course of the night,
usually by the road chief: Hayatinayo (Opening Song), Yahiyano
(Midnight Song), Wakaho (Daylight Song), and Gayatina (Closing Song).
During this time, the paraphernalia, staff, drum, tobacco, peyote,
etc., are passed around to the left, in a clockwise circuit, for all
participants to handle.
At about midnight, when the midnight song is sung, a bucket of water is
brought in by a female, usually the wife of the road chief, who is
usually referred to as Peyote Woman, who, according to some tribe's
legends discovered peyote. In the early days, women were prohibited to
attend in meetings, and only old men used peyote, but forty or fifty
years ago, women started coming in to be doctored and gradually came in
for other reasons, though they could not use the ritual paraphernalia;
under no circumstances may a menstruant woman enter.-- The restriction
against women appears to apply only to groups who early had peyote,
when it still had a flavor of a warriors' society about it. It is in
the mexican practices where women are able to fully participate, and in
a few cases where a woman acts as road chief.
The water is passed around after prayers by various officiants. After
midnight water, singing and drumming recommence, and peyote is again
passed around. Public confessions are common, lengthy prayers for the
purpose the meeting is held begin and continue until dawn, where a
morning water ceremony, like the midnight ceremony, is held, after the
four songs are completed. Again, it is brought in by a woman, whether
she has participated in the meeting or not, and is followed by more
singing and drumming, and prayers for the purpose and for the
worshippers themselves. This ceremony is the morning "baptism" or
"curing" rite. Singing and drumming again, and then the meeting closes
with a ceremonial breakfast of parched corn, boneless meat, fruit, and
water. A lot of joking, and discussion of the night's events and
experiences occur. And at sometime between ten in the morning and one
in the afternoon, a large meal is served.
Beliefs and Values of the Power of Peyote
Peyotists believe in the existence of power, spirits, and incarnations
of power. "...[Power] is an immaterial and invisible supernatural
force..." which man needs in order to be successful and healthy;
without it he becomes unsuccessful and ill...God, who is equated with
the Great Spirit, or the Creator, is the ultimate source of power. This
power is personified as the Peyote spirit. Peyote "was given to the
Indians by God because he took pity on them for being a subject
people--poor, weak, helpless and ignorant...God made the Peyote
cactus..., and put some of his power into it," in order to help the
Indians. Therefore when one eats peyote, he absorbs the power inherent
in it, which he can then utilize to cure and to understand the world
and one's place in it.
The amount of peyote eaten usually is minimally, four buttons. Some
have eaten 75 to 100 or more, but the average is a third or a fourth of
this. The reason for such large quantities being that there is a
certain prestige in eating and retaining large amounts of peyote.-- But
peyote is not as predictable as one may think. An overdose may cause
one to vomit, and this is regarded as a punishment of one's sins, but
it cleanses the body of its impurities in the process and purifies the
blood. The belief in peyote as a protection against witchcraft is
widespread. Vomiting of the peyote is attributed to witchcraft forced
upon by a powerful shaman, for in Mexico and the Southwest, war and
witching are often done while under the influence of peyote. "A
favorite device of witches to weaken the leader was to make his
assistants vomit the peyote."
Non-Ritual Uses of Peyote
In many instances, peyote is used to prophecize and to divine. Peyote
is also carried in pouches as amulets as charms against all injuries
and illnesses, and is also a powerful protection against witchcraft in
foot races, which are common in Mexican tribes, held usually at night
before a meeting. Rivals are liable to throw bones and obstructions on
the track and cause the Tarahumari runner to be bewitched and lose the
Peyote is also used to topically cure wounds. A salve is made out of
peyote and fat, and is put on to snakebites, arrow wounds, bruises,
etc. Therapeutic uses of peyote also vary from relieving cramps,
fainting spells, painful joints, rheumatism, head-aches, fever, and
colds. In the Plains, a Wichita case of blindness of 15 years was cured
by the sole application of peyote infusion. One of the most remarkable
instances is the curing of a Cheyenne woman of liver cancer, which had
been declared hopeless at a white hospital, although a meeting was
called for this purpose.
Peyote is also used in war for courage, in order to not feel fatigue in
long journeys, etc. Peyote in fact gave power to perform shamanistic
tricks in the old days.
PEYOTISM AS A NATIVISTIC MOVEMENT
Revitalization movement: "a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by
members of society to construct a more satisfying culture" as a result
of real or imagined conditions that create a demand for change. A
nativistic movement, such as peyotism, is a form of a revitalization
movement that is defined by Linton as, "Any conscious, organized
attempt on the part of a society's members to revive or perpetuate
selected aspects of its culture."
Further evidence that the peyote religion is revitalistic is that
several types of deprivation that are prevalent in the Indians'
situation is noted to be the causal link in which leads individuals to
join such a religion, the cause of the rapid spread of Peyotism. These
(1) - economic deprivation. In the American Indian's case, the lost of
their possessions, such as livestock and land.
(2) - organismic deprivation. This applies to the feeling of the
reduction of one's worth among his fellows. If "...one's membership
category is seen as distinctly below standard, (The American Indian is
stills regarded with prejudice) this represents behavioral (organismic)
(3) - ethical deprivation is the result of the loss of hierarchy which
used to be regarded with reverence amongst the tribes. With the
introduction of reservations and with Indians, involvement in white
man's world, these traditions become less adhered to.
(4) - psychic deprivation, which results in the search for new meaning
and values, and
(5) - social deprivation, which refers to the loss of power felt as an
American Indian. For instance, he is unable to control events on/ of
the reservations as a result of white man's laws, and the Bureau of
Peyotism seeks a more satisfying way of life for Indian individuals in
this world, in spite of the difficulties that confront Indians.
Peyotism's only organized efforts at institutional change are those
aimed at altering the legal status of the practice itself. Peyotism
does not believe in changes of individual habit alone, but sees changes
in belief, custom, behavior, and style of life as proceeding from a
change of inner state. This is the stated goal of the Native American
Church. In a sense, peyotism turns its face from the white world, but
it has an ethic that is adaptive for the American Indian in his
situation in America. Its stress on abstinence from alcohol, on hard
work, self-support, sexual morality and responsibility for one's family
is adaptive for those groups partially integrated in our industrialized
December 4, 1989
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7 LaBarre, p.xv.
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11 LaBarre, p.xv.
12 Lehmann, p.126.
13 Aberle, p.59.
14 LaBarre, p.58.
15 LaBarre, p.8.
16 Siskin, Edgar E. Washo Shamans and Peyotists.(Utah: University of
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17 LaBarre, p.43.
18 Benitez, Fernando. In The Magic Land of Peyote. (Austin and London:
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19 LaBarre, p.63.
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23 LaBarre, p.60.
24 LaBarre, p.26.
25 LaBarre, p.65.
26 LaBarre, p.42.
28 LaBarre, p.87.
29 LaBarre, p.29.
30 Aberle, p.338.
31 Aberle, p.338.
32 Aberle, p.334.
33 Aberle, p.335.