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Registered: 07/04/04
Posts: 4,126
Loc: In the woods
Native American Church: An Anthropologist's Experience with Peyote Ritual
    #5442104 - 03/25/06 08:12 PM (18 years, 3 months ago)

I was assigned this article for my Native American Spirituality class, and I was so impressed that I had to share it with the community. The author, Michael F. Steltenkamp S. J., has given me permission to post his work here.


Stelts in the Peyote Lodge
Seeking a New Consciousness

Don Juan laughed scornfully before answering.
It seemed that he was trying hard to be patient
with me. "Maiz-pinto, crystals, and feathers are mere toys in comparison with an ally," he said.
"These power objects are necessary only when a
man does not have an ally. It is a wise time to
pursue them especially for you. You should be
trying to get an ally; when you succeed, you will
understand what I am telling you now. Power
objects are like a game for children."

"Don't get me wrong, Don Juan," I protested.
"I want to have an ally, but I also want to know
everything I can. You yourself said that knowledge
is power."

"No!" he said emphatically. "Power rests on
the kind of knowledge one holds. What is the
sense of knowing things that are useless?"
(from: The Teachings of Don Juan)

The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda was instantly and enthusiastically received by spiritually-hungry youth of the '70's. A work whose characters were perhaps more in the author's mind than in reality, it still seemed to address the plight of many people. The book suggested an alternative way to be-in-the-world. Songs such as Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" was also popular, and it sounded like an answer-song to Castaneda's call for companionship.
Moviegoers of this period saw Don Juan's wisdom reinforced when films depicted an America that was materially affluent but spiritually destitute. An example from one such film shows a woman tearfully leaving her man who had neatly explained why marriage should not, as yet, be a serious consideration for them. Realizing the hopelessness of trying to set up life with him, the woman agonizingly said in parting: "If you're so damn smart, why can't you make me happy?" Her reproof was based on more than just the marriage question. It was related to an interpersonal dimension which the man, for all his brilliance, simply lacked.
This helter-skelter, Vietnam War period was a time of widespread, social disorientation. The war escalated along with raids on Hanoi, assassins, countercultural "rock" bands, and experimental lifestyles. Bright, inquisitive minds were disillusioned with traditional values that spawned the sins of the 6 o'clock news, and broadcast of the daily body-bag count showed life itself as extremely transient. Something more certain or stable or truly enduring was sought anew (or else considered impossible to find). And Castaneda's work (six books in all) rode the current of these times. He championed a return to the "natural state" which seemed to be preserved by Indian people. His writing suggested that mind/life expansion was attainable through, among other things, a carefully-religious use of drugs.
Alcohol seemed more befitting the bourgeois generations which had been found wanting, so marijuana was loftily raised (almost as a sign) in outward defiance. Hierarchically, LSD reigned as a type of modern sacrament par excellence--promising a fullness of vision which was denied the uninitiated. Other drugs became widely used and, when not injurious to life, allured many into thinking that a significantly new consciousness had been discovered. Though many critical judgments can be levied against this period of drug use, there can be no doubt that much of the trial-and-error process was symptomatic of a deeper, call it "religious," quest.
It is not surprising that Indian America cast considerable appeal. Resistant to pressures of conformity, and regarded as the epitome of counter-culture, Native peoples were also vaguely known to have mastered some control over drugs. Castaneda brought this dimly-lit world onto bookshelves across America, as a vast audience considered his proposition that a new, liberating spirituality had been "Made in America" but never really was investigated, and that the time was now.

Peyote Spirituality

Even though the several books which arose from The Teachings of Don Juan were novel introductions for most Americans to the use of drugs for religious purposes, the spiritual tradition at their core was already centuries-old among different tribes. Alcoholic beverages, though used for secular purposes, were ceremonially employed by southwestern and Mexican tribes. So, too, jimsonweed was known among an assortment of groups from California to Meso-America--its effects sought for either pleasure or more serious concerns (e.g., predicting the future, curing the sick, communicating with supernatural powers). Other narcotic mushrooms, beans, leaves, and plants were part of this complex of Native religious pharmacology, but none of these attained the popularity of peyote.
Variously pronounced "pea'-oat" or "pay-oat'-ee" this carrot-shaped root (Lophophora williamsii) is native to the deserts of central and northern Mexico (extending even into Texas). Its tip rises above the ground and is called a mescal or peyote "button." Either this tip or the whole plant may be consumed. It can, moreover, be prepared as a spinach-like porridge, or brewed into a sort of greenish tea. Mescaline, in combination with other alkaloids contained in the plant, produces what non-peyotists call "hallucinogenic effects." Until recent times, peyote eating was thought by some to be the fastest growing Indian religious movement (adherents said to number over 200,000).
Sometimes simply referred to as "peyotism," the peyote "cult," or (among members) the "Peyote Road," organizations began to form after the turn of the century and, after 1921, spread from state to state under the incorporated title of Native American Church. Its presence is today found throughout the American and Canadian plains, the southwest (especially among the Navaho), the southeast, the Great Lakes region, and a small section of the east coast. Migration to cities outside these areas has also extended peyote influence beyond the reservation milieu (which originally gave it birth).
Peyote's birth in the United States is associated with the Kiowa and Comanche of Oklahoma (around 1870), and from them the cult spread rather quickly. When Black Elk of the Sioux worked as a Catholic missionary some forty years later, "peyote people" were on the Pine Ridge Reservation (having come there, according to oral tradition, from the Winnebago). In fact, the cult's ascendancy was during this period despite attempts to outlaw the use of peyote (by both the government and some tribal councils).
The Indian world of the late 1800's was a recently defeated one. Confinement to reservations was overseen and enforced by military conquerors. Stress on acculturation was stimulated by educational institutions, Church groups, and government agencies which all de-emphasized anything perceived as traditional. Many religious ceremonies were, if not outlawed, forcibly discouraged. In short, an entire way of life was being accosted from all sides, and groups resisted in different ways. If possible, religious ritual was not to be forfeited even if other cultural traits were negotiable.
Origin stories which relate the coming of peyote vary, but all point to a belief now cherished and clung to by its users. Namely, the Supernatural took pity on the Indian, and decided to communicate spiritual power through a special plant, i.e., peyote. Newly subjugated groups especially appreciated this important gift. The simultaneous appearance of the peyote and Christian traditions (both regarded as a light in the darkness of social decay) seemed a Providential outreach to groups feeling supernaturally abandoned.
That God would send his Son Jesus to pitch his camp among the "two legged beings" was a supernatural tale that Native people had little difficulty accepting. With an ecumenism that pre-dated Catholicism's Vatican Council II, Indian people seemed to accept quite easily that God came to earth in Jesus and taught humans how to live. This was indeed considered "good news" and, on a fairly universal basis, they saw particular merit in such a story. Since the Supernatural was perceived as multifaceted, the story of Jesus was certainly possible, they thought, and even very needed! But its formulation in specifically Native terms was yet to occur.
The externals of Protestant or Catholic practice that were brought to Indian groups were largely European-based. Indian people adapted to foreign modes, but some harbored a spiritual restlessness that yearned for Native expression. When word of the "Peyote Way" was brought by visitors, a certain hope was kindled that herein might be the awaited revelation, the binding of Native and Christian traditions. Whether the cult did represent this union or whether needy individuals strove to make it so, Peyote missionaries were successful in spreading what some followers call an Indian version of Christianity.
The preceding has been a broad survey of peyotism's emergence, and three points are germane to the issue of what is considered traditional Native practice: (1) it has its roots in Mexico and the southwest; (2) it spread quite rapidly at the beginning of the twentieth century; and (3) it was adapted from group to group with a strongly Christian flavor. This last point bears on more than just the Peyote practice. Namely, persons unfamiliar with the Indian world of today often seek a pristine form of Native religion that has not in some way been affected by other doctrines or spiritualities. However, five centuries of contact have made this desire an unattainable one (especially since a television antenna can be found on the most remote reservation rooftop). Religious "tradition" is a relative term, and the Native American Church symbolizes an ambiguity this term embodies for Indian people nationwide.

Peyote Membership

Just as Christianity has different denominations, sects, and rites among diverse groups of people, so Peyote has adapted to different tribal contexts. For example, attendance at a meeting among the Osage, though similar in some ways, will not be duplicated among the Arapaho. Whereas, for instance, the Catholic Mass will follow the same procedures in both New York and Chicago, Peyote meetings will reveal more nuance. They have both shared and dissimilar features.
Peyote gatherings might be held anywhere--someone's home, a tepee, a church owned by the group, or any place considered safe from intrusion. Typically, however, a large, conical-shaped tepee is preferred, as it symbolizes traditional Indian life (at least of the Plains area). It also provides a control over the number of people able to participate. Thus, gatherings are generally small (and open to non-Indian guests who are invited).
A distinction within Peyote practice among the Lakota is a division of adherents into groups called the "Half Moon" and "Cross Fire" (so named because of designs on their respective altars). These designations might be broadly analogous to "high" and "low" church Anglicans. People from one group can attend meetings of the other but prefer a particular orientation. Spelling out some basic contrasts between the two groups should illustrate why the above analogy seems more or less appropriate.
The Half Moon "fireplace" (as a division is called) has tended to retain a religious emphasis more in keeping with an earlier, Native religious tradition. Rather than refer to the leader as a "minister" (as Cross Fire people often do), this fireplace is presided over by someone respectfully called a "road man." No sign of membership, other than presence at ceremonies, is required. Likewise, meetings are conducted in which much singing, little talking, and few interruptions occur. The road man orchestrates the eating of peyote and the general flow of the gathering (if practical, in the Native language). Certain elements such as drumming, high-pitched singing, and praying to the four directions are blended with certain fundamentalist themes of Christianity which characterize the group's creed.
Cross Fire people, by contrast, are organized more along the lines of an institutional model. Baptism of its members, a strict moral code, and ordination of its ministers are part of the elaborately written canons which maintain the group's tradition. A Bible is within clear view of participants as it remains on the altar throughout the ceremony. The "minister" exhorts members during the session with sermonettes based on a fairly literal interpretation of Scripture. Gospel songs might also be sung (in English) and interruptions (leaving the tepee for various purposes) are far more frequent than among the Half Moon. The breakfast which always follows peyote meetings also admits greater variety, as coffee, crackers, cookies, or candy can be served along with the traditional beef, corn, fruit, and water.
Other differences exist, and a volume could be written on the peculiarities of each peyote group that gathers. In fact, there is a fair amount of literature on the subject which is of a more technical nature. However, what I will describe here is my excursion into religious experience itself where I sought to tap the lifeblood of an Indian spirituality which remains vital today--despite modern trends that challenge the need for anything but material comfort. What follows is intended to recreate, through means of the written word, a sense of participation within the peyote lodge. Many people claimed to experience the Sacred there, so it seemed an important place to visit.

In the Peyote Lodge

Having been invited to a peyote meeting conducted by Half Moon practitioners, I willingly accepted. Various reasons prompted my ready reply--friendship, curiosity, and religious interest (to name a few). Moreover, I was perturbed to read about a cult that some literature had labeled demonic, while knowing some of its practitioners to be good and friendly people. When the opportunity arose to attend a meeting, I wanted to be present.
A friend was going to make a long journey, and the purpose of gathering for the peyote ritual was to pray for his safe return. A large tepee was to be the setting for our ceremony--pitched next to an abandoned schoolhouse in an out-of-the-way spot on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Situated a half-mile from the main highway, the peyote lodge was hidden out of sight from the several houses which dotted the hills beyond.
Arriving about an hour before the ceremony was to begin, we found the sponsoring family eagerly making sure that all was in order. The ritual would last all night, and so firewood needed to be in good supply. The schoolhouse would serve as a kitchen in which the peyote would be readied and the breakfast prepared. So it, too, needed organization. Participants from other reservations were arriving, and they had to be properly welcomed. All in all, this organizational period heightened anticipation. The placement of materials in order, muffler-less cars chugging to a halt, quiet greetings, and hushed conversations (all quite normal under other circumstances) appeared now as a many-splendored drama against the backdrop of the tepee.
We were asked to enter the lodge's warmth at 8 P.M., the sun having dropped along with the temperature just shortly before. The group who gathered was comprised mostly of people in their forties, although one infant, two teenagers, and several older persons were also in attendance. In all, thirty-five of us were propped against the tepee's slanted, circular wall--our faces aglow from the well-kindled fire which burned brightly in the center.
We were immediately informed by the road man (named Eagle Bear) as to how leadership would be exercised. Directly across from the road man was the "fire man." His duty would be to guard the door from unwanted intruders. He was, moreover, responsible for keeping the fire alive.
Whenever a ceremonial object was to be used, cedar would be sprinkled on the fire. The person assigned to this task was known as the "cedar man," and he was positioned immediately to the left of Eagle Bear. A water drum (hide stretched over a half-filled iron kettle) was given to the "drummer"--seated to the right of the road man. I was third from Eagle Bear, separated by my friend in whose honor the meeting was held, and the cedar man.
Having welcomed everyone to the special event, Eagle Bear expressed kind thanks that God had given him sixty years of life and allowed him to preside over so sacred a gathering. "Long ago," we were told, "God gave Indian people the sacred medicine of peyote. We should eat the sacred medicine, as God wanted us to do."
My friend asked if he could bring along his sacred pipe for the ceremony--permission granted by the road man but needful of explanation for others who gathered. So Eagle Bear addressed the group:

This pipe for the Sioux is very sacred. They don't
call it the "peace pipe" at all. It is a "sacred pipe."
I was taught by my grandfather not to call it the peace
pipe because peace still doesn't prevail in this globe
at all. But we will use it for the sacredness of it.

We Sioux call it the sacred pipe. That's the proper
word for it. As you recall, when Christ was born,
they sang in heaven: "Peace on earth, good will to
men." But King Herod killed a lot of children over
him. Instead of having peace, that happens. Since
that time, they have been having conflict. Peace
is a very elusive word.

We want to be saved--each one of us. Forgive us
for our sins. Sometimes we will not accept Jesus
in our hearts. We want to live in a good way in
our homes, with our children--earning everything
we need. Tonight, all these sacred things are
coming to take place here.

A young couple had strong misgivings about the presence of the pipe in a peyote ritual, as it symbolized olden practices they thought should be better left alone. They threatened to depart and never return to this fireplace, but Eagle Bear and others assured them that all was proper in the eyes of God. I was reminded of conflicts within Christian churches about "updating" as proceedings moved along. The road man's "pastoral touch" was impressive.
Since four different tribes were represented at this gathering, I knew only a couple of people. Most were, in fact, barely acquainted with one another. I made this reflection on the group's makeup after the pipe discussion had subsided. The warm fire created chamber-sounds of cracking, snapping, coal-red embers. Shadows danced against the tepee walls as eyes moved about the group asking silent questions.
From across the lodge, Eagle Bear was asked to dismiss from the gathering a middle-aged couple accused of being intoxicated. The man's request was seconded. Eagle Bear turned to the couple in question and suggested that they respond to the charges. Moved to tears, the husband said that they had been drinking but were not out of control. They had looked forward to this meeting and were ashamed of themselves for raising controversy and violating the ritual. Noticeably shaken, he pleaded that they be allowed to remain--pledging repentance and prayer. Eagle Bear listened until the man had entirely finished his appeal.
Waiting some time before speaking, the road man addressed the group and reflected on the sacredness of the ceremony and the necessity of having a proper disposition. Silence ensued, interrupted only by the fire man attending to his duties. The hour-long drama concluded with Eagle Bear's decision to let the couple stay--sensing the sincerity of their tears, apology, and strength to last the night. Hours later, the husband would pray aloud his regret for this incident--a visibly intense prayer of thanksgiving accompanying this apology.
All of these events lasted a fairly long time. And so, unaccustomed to sitting on the ground for lengthy periods, I found myself shifting regularly to positions that would afford at least some comfort. Stretching legs was not possible since many of us were directly behind the Half Moon altar--a half-circled, small mound of carefully etched dirt--at the outer center of which Eagle Bear presided.

The Night-Long Ceremony

It was about 10 P.M. when the road man started to sing. He was accompanied by drum-beating and the shaking of a gourd rattle. Since singing and percussion are believed to carry prayer to God, this communication would occur throughout the proceedings. Quiet meditation, though crucial, was not permitted to fall asleep.
The songs were all in Lakota and, as with traditional music of this type, tended to be repetitious. One of them (translated) might just be a single thought like the following:

Savior Jesus is the only Savior.

Mantra-like, such verses seemed to focus praying minds. With eyes closed, people listened to high vibrato sounds which stung home important reflections:

God said in the beginning,
"Let there be light."
He meant it for you.

Traditional Christian prayer might shine forth at some point as members hear them feelingly cried and purposefully uttered.
After finishing his prayer-song, Eagle Bear distributed cigarette wrappers and tobacco, as ceremonial smoking was always part of the preliminary ritual. The man seated next to me offered to "roll" my smoke, but I declined, saying I thought I could manage. After dropping most of the tobacco, and nearly shredding the wrapper, I turned to my neighbor whose hand was already outstretched. Salvaging what he could, my ally presented me with a miniature perfect cigarette. Eagle Bear instructed us to light our smokes with embers from the fire and dispose of the butts by returning them to the cedar man (who, in turn, placed them in the fire). Having fewest puffs, I finished first--the rest of the group smoking in silence and listening to the road man's grandfatherly advice and smiling words of encouragement.
I wondered if our smoking was rooted in the more ancient pipe tradition which this fireplace had abandoned. Why would the practice be retained, but the ritual instrument be changed? Perhaps this act was a telling example of the compromise struck long ago. The old had given way to the new, but the wisdom associated with tradition had been preserved.
Interestingly, those who protested the pipe readily accepted tobacco and wrapper. Some appeared to know that their actions were invested with age-old solemnity. Others simply followed instructions and revealed little awareness of these considerations. I likened the scene to other churches, chapels, and assorted assemblies of people who were culturally far removed from this compatible gathering of peyote folk. Some seem ever so conscious of why certain practices and actions occur, and others seem to participate--out of habit? out of a sense of duty? for private reasons? because there is nothing else to do?
After another song, Eagle Bear motioned the fire man to let enter a woman who had prepared the sacred medicine. She presented him with a large, glass, chalice-like container with a spoon handle protruding from the top. The road man expressed much gratitude to her and the kitchen crew and stated how important their role was for the ceremony. After singing and praying, Eagle Bear took several spoonfuls of peyote and handed the container to the cedar man. Singing (always in Lakota) and drumming continued while the peyote was passed around clockwise.
I especially noticed the cedar man's eating of the sacred medicine. With each spoonful and swallow (he took four), his face became contorted and his expression greatly pained. I made certain not to eat that day because I understood that peyote frequently caused vomiting (members having receptacles in case such "air bags" were needed). The cedar man's anguished look gave the appearance of something lodged in his throat. He seemed to be welling up all his energy simply to swallow. Within moments, however, the chalice was extended my way.
Looking into the mixture, I was reminded of what might be imagined as milky-spinach. Prayerfully hoping that my physical reaction would respect the tradition and not embarrass me, I followed suit by taking four spoonfuls--one right after another. As anticipated, the initial, pungent taste of peyote immediately summoned my system to vomit--my fasting for the day proving to be a timely decision. Without exhibiting any noticeable reaction, I finished my portion without incident. Once swallowed, though, nausea did not persist. Having the medicine for less than two minutes, I returned the spoon into the chalice and passed it on.
Each participant seemed to take about the same amount and then pass the chalice onward. Different individuals were given the water drum, and kept somewhat of a pulsating song-prayer alive. The fire man was handed the empty container and he exited. All the while--drum-dum-dum-dum! drum-dum-dum-dum! drum-dum-dum-dum!--sometimes fast, sometimes not. The tepee flap was closed, and none of the singing-beats could escape. We breathed percussion, as high-pitched songs joined base drum-sounds. I forgot to think about the time.
Later on, a teapot was presented at the tepee flap, allowed entry, and given to Eagle Bear. Because the medicine's bitter properties dry the mouth, a special peyote tea would partially slake our thirst. Perhaps because of dilution, perhaps because the taste was no longer foreign, the drink was soothing--a common cup passed along with the teapot from one person to the next.
The road man reflected aloud how fortunate we were to have such a drink, and added:

When the peyote starts working, this music that
comes out of the singers will be good for the
soul--good for what ails you--good for your

As the fire man rakes the coals, I'm going outside
to pray to the four directions. When I come back
in, we are going to eat medicine again. It is the
custom of this fireplace.

Taking leave of the group, the road man exited and returned within a very short time. After being seated, Eagle Bear asked the fire man to bring in more medicine. Once again, the same pattern was followed as earlier in the night--except that the fire man was noticeably absent.
Prior to when the chalice was passed, angry voices could be heard along with the sound of a car motor some distance outside the lodge. But they died down, and Eagle Bear commenced eating. A young mother dabbed her infant's tongue with the mixture--puckered cheeks stinging with a taste quite different from its earlier milk.
Drum-dum-dum-dum! Drum-dum-dum-dum! High voices. Whining-like words. Penetrating. Constant. Fire-flames. Embers gray-red. Faces with shut eyes. Warm stillness. Tepee-tallness. Good people. Religious praying. Stop! Silence--except for the sound of wood-eating fire.
The road man acknowledged the good job done by the drummers and singers who, he said, helped us realize how powerful the medicine was. After paying this compliment, Eagle Bear told us about the nature of the disturbance outside. Troublemakers had spotted the tepee and planned to disrupt the meeting. Physical violence erupted, but was kept in check by the fire man and male relatives of the sponsor. The road man spoke of how there is an ever-present struggle between good and evil. It was evil that was trying to stop our holy ceremony, but peyote would not permit it to overcome.
Since there seemed to be a pause in the proceedings, my friend asked if I wanted to get a breath of fresh air. I nodded and rose, realizing that I had for some time not been concerned with the earlier discomfort of sitting cross-legged on the ground. Opening the flap and leaving the lodge's warmth, we greeted the chilly moon which shone white above us.
Spending but a short time in the cool, clean, night air, I was surprised that no sense of fatigue accompanied me into the late hours. I knew it was getting on, but time seemed suspended within the tepee. What filled my consciousness was not the demands of ordinary duties, but rather the immediacy of lodge participation. Within the tepee, all that mattered was the experience of now--the distractions of daily life barred from intrusion. Contemplating these thoughts, I hastened to rejoin the praying group.
Singing was begun after the road man shared some insights on the topic of being a religious person. Different individuals tape-recorded his remarks as they had done with songs from throughout the night (a common practice so that one can replay a particularly good chant or talk long after a given meeting). The sacred medicine was distributed a last time, and the procedure remained the same.
Just a few days earlier, I had been in Chicago--nicknamed the "Windy City" long ago because of the boastful pride of its inhabitants. Situated on Lake Michigan, the city's majestic skyline seems to command a reverence from all approaches. Entering by air, land, or water, people are awed by the many buildings that suggest the heavens are securely attached to the earth. It occurred to me that modern genius had improved upon history and fulfilled the dream of Babel's once-thwarted architects.
A popular song had convincingly proposed that listeners accept Chicago as their "kind of town." The city could claim all the wonders of twentieth-century life. And yet its appeal seemed common to most every other metropolis. All just appear to be variations on a theme of busy people attending to their concerns within different-sized temples--monolithic structures with gazes that suggest durability or power. In such cities, meaning or security becomes associated with elaborate rituals related to secular sacraments. These might include the sacred profanity of winning subway sanction or corporate approval, acquitting oneself at tavern tribunals, knowing one's place within the hierarchy of economic enterprise, or simply surviving the liturgy of street existence.
Thoughts and images of this nature rushed through my mind as I stared at the lodge's fire. Here was uncompetitive belonging. Here was the feel of firm earth and warm togetherness. Here the sights and sounds, incentives and goals of urban America had no life--except as a memory twisting my mind and, like a bad dream, not going away.
According to textbooks, poverty's weakness defined Indian life. But as I surveyed the faces of lodge people, strength and richness would smile back. In a few days I would return to the material comforts of Chicago, aware of the wealth that this fireplace knew the Creator extended.
By now, consuming peyote was not difficult--not easy, of course, but far less of a challenge. The drum-singing reminded me of the childhood experiment of having someone close their eyes, hold their nose, and state what they had been given to eat--an apple or onion; as with this experiment, so with the drum-singing. Visual, auditory, and olfactory stimulation seem so enveloping that the power of taste becomes greatly diminished.
Drum-dum-dum-dum. Drum-dum-dum-dum. Da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-da. Smoke wisps. Flap closed. Infant-sleep. Altar-neat. Crying throat. People-warmth. God sees. Here is. Burning moments. Shared. The road man signaled silence and gave what was to be a final exhortation.

Jesus Christ, on the third day he arose, sits at the
right hand of God to quicken the dead. All of us go
through that, regardless. Jesus Christ made that
road for us. Peyote teaches that this is the road.
St. Peter in heaven, he watches that gate. I hope
you learn that way through this worship. Everybody
is going to be healthy and good. God is testing you.

Some singing followed this counsel, and I could hear bird choruses from outside. Morning had awakened.


After a period of silence, different individuals would address the gathering and express gratitude that God had been so present. People acknowledged that Eagle Bear had officiated well. The sacred medicine had once again made members deeply appreciative that God communicated with the people and permitted such closeness. The group all seemed to express a profound sense of well-being, as the relaxed atmosphere now permitted a more casual exchange. Eagle Bear even assumed a less-formal posture and stretched out (as far as the limited space would allow).
The flap was soon opened and, along with morning light, let enter the sponsoring couple. They carried four items: a bucket of water, a large bowl of cooked hamburger, and similar-sized containers of corn and berries. The bucket of water held a ladle, while the bowls had a spoon within each. All four gifts were presented to Eagle Bear, and he thanked the couple, saying the kitchen-people had, as expected, performed their task most successfully.
The road man ate from the bowls one by one--passing
clockwise first the hamburger, then the corn, berries, and water. Each person was to take as much as was desired, this being a type of communal breakfast in the most literal sense. We all used the same three spoons and ladle. I was moved that Eagle Bear took time to address me at this time and say that I had conducted myself quite appropriately and did not seem out of place at all. When the last container was emptied, people began to leave. The ceremony was finished. At about 9 A.M., I left the tepee.
Others have reported that peyote people will frequently socialize after a meeting and that sunglasses will be worn by a good many. The same observation applied here. Since pupil dilation occurs with the eating of the plant, eyes are quite sensitive to whatever light may be present. With the sun brightly warming the earth, individuals leisurely wandered about or conversed in small groups. Some napped on car seats, while others smoked as they leaned against a tree or truck. The scene was one of tranquil community--grandfathers quietly reminiscing, younger men exchanging information about work (or lack of it), people introducing themselves for the first time, and women tending younger children while trying to prepare the lunch.
Wandering from one huddled group to the next, I learned that several people were departing for another meeting to be held that night--some one hundred and fifty miles distant. Conversations revealed different understandings of peyote, as one said it was Jesus, another the Holy Spirit, or the food of angels, while some simply claimed that it was the way through which God speaks to people. All agreed that we were much indebted to the sacred medicine.
Eagle Bear's father had been an ardent Catholic, and
most of the group pointed to some past or sporadic tie with that tradition. Some had clashed with their local priest over some issue and turned to peyote where they felt more at home. Others still occasionally attended Mass. All were (whatever their previous affiliation) very clearly concerned about religious practice, the thought of having none seen as pitiable, unwhole, or not on a "life-road." Sociologically, the people of this fireplace were considered "full bloods" (i.e., either they had little traceable intermarriage with non-Indians, or their social behavior was not patterned on Euro-American models). Their congeniality made a forcefully positive impression on me as we gathered for a noon meal.
The sponsors had obviously expended much effort in organizing the occasion since a plentiful table awaited the group which by now had tripled in size. An abundance of chicken, salads, vegetables, frybread, cake and jello was pure torture for several wagging dogs. They ignored the swats, shouts, and pushes ceremonially directed their way and, after a while, their persistence paid off. After all, there was enough to go around. This was a time of gladness and sharing for all present.
After thanking the sponsors, I departed around 2 P.M. Driving home, I felt that time had slipped by very quickly, and no sense of exhaustion was uppermost in mind. Rather, the reigning reflection seemed somehow fixed on the night's warm fire and praying people. Alone now, the closeness of others in an intensely common, religious enterprise was growingly removed. Houses and highway sped by as I anticipated resuming life as before. The bond of the lodge was now an infant memory--with the passage of time, an old recollection.
For some of the people, lifepaths often seemed a road of pain and suffering--with peyote serving as a soothing relief. For others, gathering overcame the paralysis of loneliness. The lodge of tears and joy revealed itself as a microcosm of human longing--the fire in our midst a burning symbol of heart-pourings heavenward.
Since the ritual consumption of peyote is so carefully handled and is not addictive, the Native American church has overcome legal questions that have arisen. As mentioned, it seemed to me that peyotists demonstrated very Christian behavior. In fact, "drug use" did not emerge as the reason why these people were so disposed. On the contrary, peyotists showed a praiseworthy disdain for illicit drug-taking.
From my point of view, this Native American church required a prayerful involvement that many non-Indians would probably find too rigorous. It was this involvement and not the death-dealing illusions of drug-use, that impressed itself on me. Indeed, Christian peyotists would be offended by criticisms leveled at their peyote-consumption in much the same way that other Christians would feel hurt if it was said that they "got drunk" on consecrated wine.
As I returned from the experience, I wondered if a peyote ritual could occur without peyote even being used (although peyotists would probably consider such a thought as heresy). As it was, however, the exotic aspect of peyote-consumption did serve to punctuate a ceremony whose essence was actually already quite familiar to me. I had been with a community of human beings sincerely engaged in prayer and song to their Maker. I had participated in a kind of consummate, para-liturgical religious exercise.
While with the peyote people, I observed the expression of varied needs and an admission of dependence on something beyond even the world-lodge. I began to realize why different Christian denominations were newly appreciating the spiritual wisdom inherent to the sacred pipe and Native American church traditions. Instead of striving to convert Native practices into Western forms, Christian groups had become more sophisticated than in times past. They were now better able to discriminate between theological and cultural divergences.
I had spent the night in prayer with a people from a tradition quite foreign to my own. And upon arriving home, I prayed that the divisive cultural barriers and theological misunderstandings which exist today might deservedly fall. I think the peyote-people, recalling my presence with them, were somewhere expressing a similar sentiment.

Michael F. Steltenkamp, S.J.

The above is based on Chapter two of his book: The Sacred Vision: Native American Religion and Its Practice Today


Fr. Stelts was impressed with the Shroomery and has graciously shared his experince with us.

Thank you Father. :smile:

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Re: Native American Church: An Anthropologist's Experience with Peyote Ritual [Re: shroomydan]
    #5443306 - 03/26/06 05:34 AM (18 years, 3 months ago)

nice read

:confused: _ :brainfart:🧠  _ :finger:

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