Veneration of the small spineless cactus called peyote probably began immediately after the first hunter-gatherers discovered its remarkable effects. The Native American deification of the plant is estimated to be about 10,000 years old. Peyote buttons uncovered in Shumla Cave in southern Texas have been radiocarbon dated to 5,000 B.C. The Huichol Indians of northwestern Mexico still use peyote sacramentaly. Their peyote pilgrimage may have been in place by 200 A.D. Scholars consider it the oldest sacramental use of peyote in North America.
Huichols revere the peyote cactus as the heart, soul, and memory of their Creator, Deer-Person. Huichol healers and singers achieve such union with their Creator, as incarnated in Peyote, that Peyote speaks through them, as here:
“If you come to know me intimately, you shall be like me and feel like I do. Although you may not see me, I shall always be your elder brother. I am called the flower of Deer-Person. Have no fear, for I shall always be the flower of God.”(1)
Deer-Person, the supreme teacher of the Huichol, teaches songs, reveals himself to shamanic healers through his Peyote spirit, and punishes those who violate his moral precepts. “It is because of the wisdom of Deer-Person,” we are told, “that shamans exist. That is how we Huichols are able to diagnose diseases with our visionary ability and soul, which are the eyes of Deer-Person. That is our method of curing.”(2)
Huichol Peyote rituals have profound roots in the archaic hunter’s view of the world. Huichols follow strict rules when they pilgrimage to collect the sacred plant in the high desert nearly 400 kilometers northeast of their homeland. They publicly confess their sexual transgressions and abstain from sex and salt. They testify that the Creator was destined to take the form of deer and Peyote. Because Peyote embodies the spirit, and is the heart of Deer-Person, they must hunt him with arrows. When they eat his heart, incarnated in the Peyote actus, they eat it raw, honoring the precedent set by their elder brothers, the immortal wolves. To commemorate the wolves eating the deer raw, our Peyote hunters must do likewise when they eat his heart (Peyote). As the deer escaped from the ancestor-deities, he took the form of Peyote there in huiricuta (the holyland where Peyote is collected). Peyote grows in clusters which resemble the shape of a deer. That is why we shoot it with our arrows.(3)
Huichol religion parallels Christianity in that the Creator, out of compassion for his people, subjects himself to the limitations of this world. In Christianity he incarnates himself as a man who dies but is resurrected to save human beings; in Huichol belief he dies and is reborn in the Peyote plant to give his people wisdom. The Aztec are the cultural cousins of the Huichol, and their word peyotl or peyutl denotes the pericardium, the envelope or covering of the heart. This corresponds strictly to the Huichol belief that Peyote embodies the Creator’s heart
From the very beginning, immigrants to the New World have misunderstood the Native American adoration of peyote. In 1620, sixty years after the sacramental use of peyote was first reported by the Franciscan Friar Sahagun, the Spanish Inquisition denounced it as diabolic and made its use illegal. Inquisitional persecution of Mexican Indian peyotists included torture and death.
We have many early, brief descriptions of peyote use among natives of northwestern Mexico, and two Inquisition reports from Santa Fe, New Mexico, which document peyote’s use in divination, showing that by 1630 it was already being used five hundred miles north of its natural habitat. Serious study of its use, however, did not begin until the 1890s, when James Mooney, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, researched Peyote meetings among the Kiowa in Oklahoma. From there he went on to study Peyote rituals on other reservations as well as its use by the Tarahumara in Mexico. In 1918, after testifying in favor of Native American peyotists at Congressional hearings, Mooney advised peyotists of various Oklahoma tribes to obtain a legal charter to protect their religious freedom. With Mooney’s help and encouragement, the Native American Church was officially incorporated in 1918.
The exact route and time of diffusion of what is today the Native American Church of North America is unclear. All available evidence suggests that the Carrizo culture, which once occupied the area that extends from Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico in what is now Texas, was instrumental in developing Peyote meetings among Native Americans who resided there. Carrizo Peyote rituals that were observed in 1649 included all-night dancing around a fire, but with no tepee. The western neighbors of the Carrizo, the Lipan Apache, seemed to have transformed the Carrizo ceremony before teaching it to the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and Comanche.
Peyote was accepted as a remedy and inspiration by members of many Oklahoma tribes during an era of agonizing cultural disintegration, which reached a peak during the 1880s. By 1874, the Kiowa and Comanche, once proud warriors of the southern Plains, were confined to reservations in Oklahoma. The loss of liberty intrinsic to reservation life brought great pain and suffering to all Native Americans. Perhaps because it provided a powerful alternative to both ancient tribal religions and missionary-controlled versions of Christianity, the Peyote religion spread like wildfire. In the 1880s, two new religious movements were popular among Native Americans. One, the Ghost Dance, tried to renew the old ways. Following the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, the Ghost Dance practically disappeared. The other, the Peyote religion, allowed members to establish a new identity which combined aboriginal and Christian elements. Except for the secular pow-wow, Peyote meetings are now the most popular Native American gatherings.
The Peyote meeting is a genuinely intertribal institution. Reservations established in Indian territory, which subsequently became the State of Oklahoma, contained tribes that had formerly been scattered across the country. In the early 1880s, after the railroads reached Laredo, Texas, in the heart of the area where peyote is gathered, the stage was set for rapid communication between Oklahoma tribes and all other Native Americans. The railroads made it easier for Native Americans to obtain their sacrament and share their religious traditions.
The most famous of all Oklahoma peyotists was Quanah Parker, a Comanche, who helped bring Half Moon style Peyote meetings to members of the Delaware, Caddo, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ponca, Oto, Pawnee, Osage, and other tribes. Half Moon meetings have remained freer of Christian infusions than have those of the Big Moon branch of the Church which a Caddo, John Wilson, pioneered in disseminating. By 1910, both of these styles of meetings had spread far beyond the Oklahoma reservations where they originated.
As soon as Christian missionaries became aware of the sacramental use of peyote on their reservations they began to agitate against it. First in Oklahoma and later elsewhere, Indian agents joined the missionaries in lobbying to outlaw the substance. The Indians bravely defended their religious freedom in their respective states and in Congress. One of the most eloquent of these defenders was Albert Hensley, a Winnebago educated at the Carlisle Indian School. By 1908, Hensley and the Winnebago had come to regard Peyote as both a Holy Medicine and a Christian sacrament. “To us it is a portion of the body of Christ,” Hensley said, “even as the communion bread is believed to be a portion of Christ’s body by other Christian denominations. Christ spoke of a Comforter who was to come. It never came to Indians until it was sent by God in the form of this Holy Medicine.”(4)
Descriptions of still-existing Peyote rituals that are essentially free of Christian admixtures – those of the Tepehuan, Cora, Huichol, and Tarahumara tribes in Mexico, for example – hint of pre-Columbian origins of contemporary Church meetings, for anthropologists can point to aboriginal counterparts for virtually all of the sacred artifacts that the Native American Church uses. Sacramental smoking of tobacco wrapped in corn husks, the staff of authority, feather fans, gourd rattles, incense, a central fireplace, and emphasis on the four cardinal directions all have their parallels in Mexican Peyote rituals that continue today. Some features of Mexican Peyote rituals, however – outdoor dancing and elaborate ritual pilgrimages to collect peyote are examples – have disappeared or were diluted as Peyote meetings moved north into the Plains. Christian doctrine has gradually redefined the meaning of many ancient sacred artifacts. To cite a single instance , in Big Moon (also called Cross Fire) meetings where Christian infusions are most in evidence, sacred tobacco is no longer used as a catalyst for prayer; the Bible has replaced it. Despite such differences, the Cross Fire still shares a common ceremonial core with the Half Moon rituals.
Today the Native American Church of North America has eighty chapters and members belonging to some seventy Native American Nations. In the continental United States, every state west of the Mississippi has at least one chapter. The steady proliferation of its membership among diverse North American tribes has made it Native America’s largest religious organization. Its total membership is estimated to be around 250,000.
Singing occupies about sixty percent of the Church’s devotional ritual. Each of about twenty-five worshipers has ample opportunity to sing to the accompaniment of a gourd rattle and small drum that is pounded rapidly. Singing is often in the local Native American language, but English phrases like “Jesus only” and “He’s the Savior” are likely to erupt. Worshipers sing, drum, pray, meditate, and consume peyote during all-night meetings. Most meetings are held for healing, baptism, funerals, and birthdays.
Peyote is regarded as a gift from God. It counters the craving for alcohol and is not eaten to induce visions. It heals and teaches righteousness. It is eaten, or consumed as a tea, according to a formal ritual. Reverently, it is passed clockwise around the circle of church members a number of times in the course of all-night prayer vigils.
The Church has no professional, paid clergy. Members are free to interpret Bible passages according to their own understanding. Morality is basically Christian and stresses the need to abstain from alcohol and be faithful to one’s spouse. Other prominent values include truthfulness, fulfilling one’s family obligations, economic self-sufficiency, praying for the sick, and praying for peace.
1. Quoted in Jay C. Fikes, Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism, and the Psychedelic Sixties (Victoria, B.C.: Millenia Press, 1993), 235.
2. Ibid., 193.
3. Ibid., 195.
4. Quoted in Omer C. Stewart, Peyote Religion: A History(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 157.
Reprinted with permission from One Nation Under God by Huston Smith