Part 1: Peyote and the Native American Church
…by Jerome Putnam
The term ‘drug’ triggers fear in many people. No one wants to end up as a drug addict. However, if we take a look at so-called psychedelic (“soul-manifesting”) or ethogenic (“generating the divine within”) catalysts, we can easiloy exhume a rich and ancient history reaching back several thousands of years that have only been “recently” buried by monotheistic or modern materialistic ideologies. We will now try to get a glimpse back into the ancient spiritual partnership that tribal communities have been cultivating with healing “Teacher Plants.”
The Peyote Cactus
We are now somewhere in the state of Oklahoma where there are officially 20 Native American Churches, all of which hold peyote ceremonies regularly. Peyote is a button-like cactus containing high amounts of psychoactive alkaloids like mescaline. Thus, Peyote is considered by American law to be a “Class A” drug (, ie, high potential for abuse and of no medical value).
Nevertheless, the first official “Native American Church” was created in 1918 to bypass unjust legal restrictions. Drugs are bad but religion is okay: the mainstream mantra of the USA. And thus, these Native Churches could slowly spread all over the USA and Canada.
The peyote cult originated among the Mexican tribes some 5000 years ago. The North American Kiowa and Comanche tribes imported the peyote cult from Mexico in the 19th century and created a syncretistic synthesis of their tradition with the “newly introduced” (no, imposed) Christianity, which saw peyote visions as the devil’s work.
The new church founders ingeniously equated the Great Spirit with God and the Lesser Spirit, inherent in the peyote cactus, with Jesus. Eat peyote and you will meet Jesus and be able to ask him questions and receive answers. The old native name of peyote was Hikuli, which denotes the spirit that sits next to Father Sun. Peyote is also often nicknamed “Father Peyote.”
The ceremonies have the purpose of renewing tribal and familial bonds, recreating harmony and peace, showing gratitude, celebrating the first four birthdays of their children, and commemorating the deceased. Originally the ceremony began with the pilgrimage hunt for the Hikuli cacti in the wilderness, acted out as a mythological inner quest.
Let’s take a look at how a peyote ceremony opens and try to learn from their ingenious art of mood-setting for these magical group meetings. As we know from Timothy Leary and numerous follow-up studies: the “setting” will channel a large part of psychedelic trajectory: “the meeting place is a tipi with its east-facing entrance. A crescent-shaped altar and fire prepared according to custom. A drum, a feather fan, an eagle humerus whistle, a gourd rattle, Bull Durham tobacco, and sagebrush complete the necessary ritual equipment. The chief or leader usually supplies the peyote for the meeting.
Members bathe before the peyote meeting and, about nightfall, they gather in small groups outside the tipi — first the chief, then the chief-drummer called the cedarman, next the men then the women and children. The fire chief is last, following all making their way to the tipi.
Paraphernalia Used in a Typical Plains Indian Peyote Ceremony
The leader places the “chief peyote” upon some sagebrush leaves on top of the altar and prays. Everyone is invited to speak of their ills and struggles so that prayers may be voiced on their behalf. The Bull Durham tobacco is passed and cigarettes are made and lit from the glowing firestick. Each person blows the first four puffs of smoke toward the “chief peyote” on the altar and prays. The cigarette butts are then placed at the base of the altar.
The group is led by the Chief Medicine Man or “Road Man” (because he will guide the group on the Peyote Road). He continues with solemn rituals, prayers, and blessings in preparation for the group experience. Everyone is focusing on purification, letting go of troubles and worries, getting healthy, finding solutions to problems, or on receiving messages and visions from the spirit world.
They beat the drums, shake the rattle, sing and dance. All the songs praise Hikuli for its protection of the tribe and for its “beautiful intoxication.” Everyone is open in the circle. The fire burns in the middle.
Mary Crow Dog (Mary Brave Bird, 1954-2013)
A closer look into the troubles and struggles of the recent Native American
communities was excellently described in the best-selling book, Lakota Woman, (1990), by Mary Crow Dog, later known as Mary Brave Bird. She describes the peyote ceremonies as unifiers, as a method of real understanding of yourself, the world around you and the tribal history. Peyote is the ultimate psychiatrist and medicine in one.
She was introduced to the Peyote Way by her grandfather. Peyote not only helped her revitalize her roots, but also gave her “other-worldly power” to fight against the constant injustices and racism she had suffered all her life. Inspired by a speech given by her future husband, Leonard Crow Dog, she joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and, in 1973, gave birth to her first child during an important 71-day siege in Wounded Knee, a town on a reservation in South Dakota.
A telling anecdote from her memoirs exemplifies the petty attempts of the FBI to harass native communities and destroy their treasured traditions:
Leonard (Crow Dog) had been invited to a peyote meeting by some Navajo friends. It was run by a Navajo but they gave Leonard the job of fire chief. At the beginning, an Indian woman came in with a white man. She explained, “He is my husband. That makes it all right for him to partake.” This guy was dressed like a hippie. He had long hair and beads all over him. He was dressed like an Indian. He took some medicine and seemed to be affected by it. He acted drunk. Halfway through the meeting, he suddenly got up to take a leak outside. As he stumbled back into the tipi, he did not bend down low enough to clear the entrance hole. His long hair got caught and came off. Underneath, he had a crewcut. At once, he said, “I am the sheriff of Holbrook (Arizona), and I arrest the whole bunch of you.” All the Indians burst into laughter, it was so grotesque. (Mary Crow Dog, Lakota Woman, 1990)
Fortunately, Leonard successfully defended the Native Americans in court by explaining that the white man is just a tourist on Indian land and has no jurisdiction. Only the tribal police would have the right to make an arrest, and since it is an approved religious meeting with a sacrament and the white man has been giving permission to participate, no law has been broken. It was a landmark decision in favor of the Peyote Church.
Following Drug Culture articles will deal with darker and less predictable directions of nature’s potent substances. The weaponized (CIA), the experimental (science), and the touristic usage of mind-altering drugs like LSD, Ecstacy, Psilocybin, Ayahuasca and Marijuana.
Description of a Peyote Ceremonies: http://entheology.com/peoples/a-peyote-ceremony/
Movie on the Life of Mary Crow Dog (Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee, 1994): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX4fKNLepdM