Ancient Peyote Rituals & History Among Natives of America

Peyote Cactus Peyote, Lophophora williamsii. also known as Mescal buttons is a spineless cactus. It is found in the Southwestern United States south into central Mexico. It is also found it the Chihuahuan Desert within this area.
Peyote Cactus Peyote, Lophophora williamsii. also known as Mescal buttons is a spineless cactus. It is found in the Southwestern United States south into central Mexico. It is also found it the Chihuahuan Desert within this area.

Long Present Tradition

The ritual use of peyote among Native American tribes has been in practice for hundreds of years. In recent times, it has been associated with the Native American Church, which currently uses it under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, despite federal regulations limiting it use and amid controversy and opposition to its legality. With such a prominent tradition and given its recent controversy what are the details involving the origins of its ritual use? How do the historical details of this ritual compare with its current practice within the Native American Church? What is the significance of its ritual use and of the peyote itself historically among ancient tribes native to the Americas and how does this compare with its contemporary use within the Native American Church?

Chief Good Boy" native smoking a long-stemmed pipe
Chief Good Boy" native smoking a long-stemmed pipe | Source

Peyote: It's Origin and History

Peyote has an integral part of the original religious ceremonies and rituals of the Native American Church, finding its history, origins and source in the previous long-standing tradition of early North and Central American natives. The details surrounding its origin as well as the initial date of its implementation are unclear and somewhat debated among scholars of the subject.

Jay Fikes, in his article, “A Brief History of the Native American Church,” writes, “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.” He further states these peyote rituals were first observed as early as 1649 and included dancing around a fire. Spreading of the ritual use of peyote from the Carrizo to different tribes in other regions of North America followed its initial development.

This theory is supported by Rachel Kunze in her article, “On the Native American Church and the Ritual Use of Peyote” when she writes, “The Carrizo Indians of Southeastern Texas and Northeast Mexico spread peyotism to the Lipan, Apache and Tonkawa, who in turn took it to the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Comanche and other tribes in present-day Oklahoma.” Subsequent altering of the ritual followed its spreading. “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”(Fike).

One example of this is that no tepee was originally included in the ritual of the Carrizo, over time, however, it was added and is used today in the Native American Church in addition to many other elements not previously or originally included. Additions, however, have not been the only historic changes. According to Fike, many elements were also lost. “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”(Fike).

Present Day Carrizo Area

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Peyote Melded to Christianity

This change to early peyote rituals was part of a larger trend involving the joining of Christianity and Native American religious ideas, traditions, and objects. Fike writes on this with respect to two Native American rituals called the Half-Moon and Big-Moon or Cross-Fire rituals as well as the artifacts associated with them. “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.” These two ceremonies were fundamental in the spreading of ritual peyote use as well as shaping its current significance within the Native American Church. This is because both regarded peyote as a divine substance, with both religious and physical restorative properties, as well as a means of combating evil. Fike writes, “Both emphasized the divine role of peyote and its power to teach and heal; both opposed the use of liquor and believed that peyote destroyed the taste for it”

The Unknowns

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The Old Way Preserved

As earlier noted, the changing of peyote ritual was part of a larger adopting among natives of Christianity. Thus, in many cases, the meaning and purpose of Peyote was directly influenced by Christian doctrines and concepts taught by early missionaries involved with the colonization of the Americas. However, some tribes outside of the official Native American Church continue to practice more pure and ancient forms of ritual peyote use. “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…” (Fike).

The implementation of Christian elements into ancient long-standing and well established Native American religious traditions prior to the formation of the Native American Church likewise set the stage for and influenced the meaning behind the use of peyote religiously within the church in contemporary times as well as specific objects associated and commonly included with its ritual use. “Amid extensive missionary activity and cultural collapse, the Native American Church evolved in the late 19th century as a hybrid of ancient tribal traditions and Christian beliefs. With the help of an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma officially registered the Native American Church as a nonprofit religious organization in 1918”, writes Nomi Morris in an article for the Los Angeles Times in October of 2010. Fike also writes on this concept as well as the attitude it created among Native Americans of the early 20th century by including a quote from 1908 by Albert Hensley, a member of the Winnebago tribe, about his feelings regarding peyote and its religious significance within his tribe. “ “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.” ” Hensley’s words from 1908 echo the current prevailing attitude within the Native American Church toward Peyote as a gift of Holy Medicine from God. According to Morris, Reverend John Nighthorse Taylor, a leader within the Native American Church, “fell ill at 16 and was healed by peyote, which his church treats as a medicine, a sacrament and an object of veneration.” Morris also writes of Selven Parson, a member of the church, who was addicted to cocaine for twenty years but reportedly overcame the addiction through the use of peyote.

The loss of land and the subsequent assigning of Native Americans to reservations, which included the loss of many locations regarded as sacred places in Native American religious tradition, also seem to have had an effect on peyote ritual practice and thought. Sacred places, which were, “commonly specific areas of origin in tribal mythology,” (Kunze) played a central role in Native American culture. It was believed conducting ceremonies in these sacred places conferred power to the visitors and allowed the individual as well as the tribe to be aligned with the universe and find meaning within it. With the loss of sacred lands Native Americans were forced to adapt new methods and beliefs aimed at gaining the power originally associated with their sacred places. Peyote rituals seem to have filled the religious vacancy left by the stripping of sacred land rights and thus began to gain an adapted meaning among practicing Native American tribes of the time. “The ritual use of peyote is a new technique to reestablish these bonds [referring to the bonds and religious significance of sacred places], affirm group identity in a changing world, ease the conflicting demands of traditional religion and Christianity, and give a new technology to battling alcoholism”(Kunze). Furthermore, Fike states, “…the Peyote religion, allowed members to establish a new identity which combined aboriginal and Christian elements.”

Here & Now

Current peyote rituals practiced by the church have both additions and subtractions with regards to sacred objects and ritual meaning and generally differ in a number of respects to those used and believed by its original practitioners. For one, as previously mentioned, the ceremony takes place within a tepee. Furthermore, according to Morris, the current practice consists of a, “series of ordered rituals, including blessings with… smoke from cedar shavings, seven prescribed "pipe smokes" of tobacco rolled in corn husks and the administration to worshipers of seven spoonfuls of a mushy pulp from the peyote cactus, followed by peyote tea.” The use of Holy water is also included in the ceremony. Another facet has also been added behind the purpose of the ritual. Contemporarily they have been used as a means of commemorating members of the church who have passed on.

When historical details regarding ritual peyote are compared to the contemporary details practiced within the Native American Church, it can be seen many changes have occurred with regards to its original meaning and practice. It has, however, retained its religious significance through the years as an important religious rite. Indeed, although it has gained new meanings and lost old ones within the religious framework of contemporary Native American culture it maintains its use and high status within their religious thought and practice in many instances.

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FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

Interesting details regarding the history of peyote. I was only faintly aware of it, so thanks for the information.


svenster profile image

svenster 3 years ago Author

Your welcome. Thanks.

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