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Function of Peyote in Native American Cultures

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4673 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The Function of Peyote


 What is peyote? What is its function? How is it used in Native American cultures? Where did it originate from? These questions will be explained by looking at the overall functions of peyote. Since the early 1900s peyote’s historical diffusion from Mexico into the United States has been debated. The earlier authors; Schultes, La Barre, and Shonle debate over when, where, and why peyote was diffused. This is connected to the function of peyote in Native American Cultures. The various uses of peyote are ritualistic, symbolic, ethnomedical and to create altered states of consciousness.

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 The following literature review will provide an overview of the subject and will describe the peyote debate. The sources gathered range from the origin of the debate 1925 to 2013. The sources include academic articles and book chapters; my literature contains both side of the debate including a synthesis from present day. This paper will be broken into three parts: the background, symbolic properties of peyote and the medical properties of peyote. Within these are the subtopics of rituals, symbolism, ethnomedicine and altered states of consciousness. My research will be looking at the initial belief for peyote diffusion up to the synthesis. In addition, to the overall function of peyote within the Native American religion and tribes.


 Peyote is a small, grey-green, spineless, carrot shaped cactus with flowers on top ranging in color from red to white called Lophophora williamsii (La Barre 1960, 45; Shonle 1925, 53; Schultes 1938, 699). It is known for its visions and medicinal properties. The United States classifies peyote as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it is dangerous and has no medicinal properties. However, it also accepts the peyote meeting of the Navajo as an accepted intervention of substance abuse in Native American communities (Calabrese 2008, 338). The peyote is mostly eaten dried, with the mescal buttons or the peyote buttons are cut off and dried and eaten during ceremonies (Schultes 1938, 699). All of the early research states that peyote originated from the Valley of the Rio Grande in Mexico (La Barre 1960, 45; Shonle 1925, 53; Schultes 1938, 699). Peyote dates back to the pre-Columbian times with the Aztec to at least the 1500s (La Barre 1960, 45; Shonle 1938, 54).

 However, the research disagrees on the diffusion of peyote; when, where, and why it diffused. According to La Barre (1960), peyote first had to come from the Southwest and Texas during the 19th century and that it spread due to its visions, medicinal power, and religious quests. It mainly spread due to its vision properties and that these visions were evidence of its medicinal power (45). Schultes (1938), states the exact opposite, that its widespread diffusion is due to its medicinal reputation and from use came the visions (704). In addition, Shonle (1925), states that the main area of diffusion was from Oklahoma not Texas or the Southwest, going as far as to say that the Southwest natives never used peyote. In addition, to bringing up the railway and it made it easier to contact and connect tribes and transport the peyote. In addition, both Shonle (1925) and Schultes (1938) bring up the Plains Indians and their visions. Peyote was easily diffused to the plains because they already had visions as a vital part of their religion and even used it to find their guardian spirit. Peyote was an easier way of reaching an altered state instead of fasting (Shonle 1925; Schultes 1938). Each author has come up with a different reason why and where the peyote diffused into the United States.

 The Native American Church is the most widespread religion in the United States. The central theme of this religion is the sacramental consumption of peyote. There are over 225,000 individuals of the church (Calabrese 1994; Kiyaani & Csordas 2010; Frust & Coe 2010). It was formally introduced to the Navajos in the 1930s by the Plain Indians (Kiyaani & Csordas 2010; Frust & Coe 2010). According to a Native American Church member, “Peyote. You eat it and it goes through your body, your blood veins, your fresh, your bone, your brain, and we talk to this peyote,” (Kiyaani & Csordas 2010, 209). The Native American church directly connects with their belief on how peyote can treat illnesses and diseases. This will be further discussed in the section on medicinal functions of peyote.

Today, Calabrese (1994), has synthesized that both Schultes and La Barre are correct about the reasons why peyote was diffused. He clarifies the historical debate by stating that peyote spread due to its “therapeutic reputation” and “medicine power.” In addition, to focusing on the altered states of consciousness he states that; “The ability of Peyote is to increase one’s susceptibility to behavior modification and therapeutic suggestion,” (495). Calabrese connects peyote with medicinal and altered states of consciousness which will be farther discussed in the medicinal functions section.


 Peyote is known for its ritualistic and symbolic functions within the Native American tribes. Each tribe has its own rituals and symbols of peyote. I am going to explain two different rituals and their meaning from two different Native American tribes. In addition, to going over the peyote origin myth of the Navajo. First what is a ritual and second what is a symbol? According to Rappaport (1971), he defines ritual as “… both animal and human, as conventional acts of display through which one or more participants transmit information concerning their physiological, psychological or sociological states either to themselves or to one or more other participants.” (63). Individuals are communicating to themselves and others the meaning of the ritual. This is important in peyote rituals communicating to each other and their deities. In addition, Victor Turner (1975), states that “symbols are seen as instrumentalities of various forces- physical, moral, economic, political…operating in isolable, changing fields of social relationships,” (145). Much like rituals, symbols are also communicating ideas and meaning. There are many symbols within the peyote rituals that directly connect to the Native Americans religion and way of life. One of the myths that connects to the Native Americans belief is the origin peyote myth. This myth explains the individual experiences with peyote and the medicinal properties. 


 The two rituals discussed are rites of passage and healing rituals from Myerhoff (2010) and Calabrese’s (1994) research of peyote of the Huichol and Navajo tribes. A rite of passage, according to Turner (2010), is a “…transition as a process, a becoming… a transformation…they are neither one thing nor another; or may be both; or neither here nor there; or even nowhere…[they’re] ‘betwixt and between,’” (88-90). Myerhoff’s research of the symbolic function of peyote of the Huichol Indians led to the discovery of a rite of passage. Calabrese’s research of the altered states of consciousness of peyote of the Navajo Indians led to a healing and a form of a rite of passage a transformation ritual. In addition, the symbolism of the rituals is connected to the meaning of the ritual itself, their belief, and their way of life.


 Peyote has a relationship with the culture and the personal experience of it. There are many versions of the myth however, the main focus is on the Navajo origin myth. The stories almost always contain a helpless woman whom is separated from her tribe and left to die. Then, the woman hears the peyote speaking to her and telling her to eat the cactus. She is healed and strengthened from the peyote and reunites with her tribe. This story is the representation of the experience of any Native American who using peyote and is healed by it (Calabrese 2013, 111). The peyote communicates with the individual and heals them. This communication is in the form of a vision which is discussed in the altered states of consciousness section. The medical properties of the peyote will be explored in the next section containing ethnomedicine. In the rituals below peyote is eaten and it gives spiritual, mental, and physical health back to the individuals just like in the origin myth. Peyote is a symbolic healing of the Native American(s).


Myerhoff (2010) discusses the ritual of reversal of the Huichol Indians of North-Central Mexico (108). The peyote hunt to Wirikuta is an annual hunt that allows the Native Americans to transform into deities and return to their homeland. This hunt takes place in Sierra Madre Occidental, a high desert, several hundred miles away from the Huichol’s location. This rite of passage begins with small groups of natives led by a shaman-priest to Wirikuta to hunt the peyote. Wirikuta is their original homeland where the first people and ancestors came from. It is directly connected to their creation myth and how they came to be. In order, to enter Wirikuta the native must become a deity. They can no longer be human to enter the sacred land. In order to find the peyote, they follow and track it in the form of deer footprints. During the climactic moment of the ritual they slay and eat the peyote. This ritual is a ritual of reversal because, “In Wirikuta, we change the names of everything… everything is backwards,” (109). The names, interpersonal behavior, ritual behavior, and emotional states are reversed. For example, an elder is now a child that cannot carry firewood because he is too young to do such a task. In addition, the individual will act child-like (Myerhoff 2010, 108-115). Just like Turner (2010), states the Huichol Indians are in a “betwixt and between” state they are no longer human nor a deity they are also separate and one with Wirikuta. This ritual has many meanings and symbols. The main symbol is the Deer-Maize-Peyote Complex within the ritual(s). These three separate symbols are apart of major ceremonies and interwoven together (Myerhoff 1970, 68; Myerhoff 2010, 109).

“A symbol also has a single signans and often multiple signata…” (Turner 1975, 152). Turner is basically stating that one dominant symbol like the Deer-Maize-Peyote Complex has multiple meanings and functions. This complex is a central theme in their religion, art, mythology, and worldview. The annual peyote hunt is a symbol itself of their historical and mythical return to their homeland and past. The deer is a sacred animal that represents the past life of the natives as hunters. The Maize represents their present life as agriculturalist. The peyote represents the private spiritual vision of each individual. In addition, according to Schultes (1938), peyote can resemble a deer-hoof print with age and injury which probably accounts for the close association of the peyote with the deer (699). All three symbols are connected and interwoven in multiple rituals. The maize cannot grow without the blood of the deer and the deer cannot be sacrificed without consuming the peyote that is obtained during the hunt. The ceremonies pertaining to bringing the rain to the maize cannot be held without the peyote from the sacred land. And the peyote cannot be hunted from the sacred land until the maize is cleansed with the deer blood and the children first told about the first peyote hunt. This complex and ritual are a part of the larger whole of the culture and are interwoven into other rituals and their daily life. According to an informant the function and symbolism behind the ritual to the Deer-Maize-Peyote complex is, “They are one, they are unity, they are ourselves,” (Myerhoff 1970, 68; Myerhoff 2010, 109).


Calabrese (1994), discusses the healing ritual of the Peyote Meeting of the Navajo Indians. This ritual is a form of communication to their deities and also has more than one meaning. The all-night healing ritual is a rite of transformation referring to a process of change. This correlates with Turner’s (1970) explanation of rite of passage that a transformation is taking place and it is between stages-liminality (88). The transformation is the restoration of physical and mental health. Not only is this a healing ritual but it is also a rite of passage. The ritual takes place in a circular enclosure, the tipi. Inside the tipi is a crescent mound of earth representing the moon with the ‘mother’ or ‘father’ peyote in the center. There are four main personal; the road man who is the leader, the drummer, the fire man who keeps the fire going, and the cedar man who keeps the cedar burning as incense. The meeting starts with an opening prayer and the purpose usually the health and well-being of the tribe and/or person(s). Afterwards the peyote is passed around and the drumming and singing starts. This lasts until dawn. At the end there is a ceremonial breakfast of corn, meat, fruit, and water. The ritual ends after dawn when the sun raises and they greet the sun (Calabrese 1994, 503-505). Each object represented in this ritual has multiple meanings just like Turner (1970) discusses in his research.

The tipi where the ritual takes place is the womb. The crescent moon is nature, birth, and the human lifespan especially since the ritual takes place at night when the moon is out. The moon alter line is the peyote road, the path to be followed in life. Similar to the annual peyote hunt journey in Myerhoff’s (1970 & 2010) articles. It is the road that is followed. Dawn is spiritual rebirth and renewal because the ritual ends when a new day begins with the rise of the sun. The most important symbol is the peyote. It has two symbolic functions it is a spirit and a medicine (Calabrese 1994, 503-509). The peyote is a spiritual entity, parental figure, a messenger, a guardian, and intermediator between human to deities. According to an informant, the peyote is, “this divine herb…has a mind; it can see, it can move, and it grows,” (Calabrese 2013, 104). It is all seeing, nothing is hidden from it and the visions are interpreted as communication from or through it. It has a duality to it as it is both a being and a medicine and a mother and father. When praying the natives will address the peyote as either “mother” or “father” peyote depending on who and what they are praying for. If they need advice, guidance, protection from their mother or father (Calabrese 2013, 101-104). The summary of the ritual and the symbolic meaning behind the ceremony is, “…LIFE IS A ROAD…LIFE IS AN ARC…LIFE IS THE ARC OF THE SUN ACROSS THE SKY…THE HUMAN LIFE IS A DAY…THE RITUAL PROCESS IS A GESTATION AND BIRTH…THE ALL-NIGHT RITUAL IS A GESTATION and THE DAWN IS A BIRTH,” (Calabrese 1994, 520). The medical properties and visions are discussed in the following sections.


 The early researchers: La Barre (1960), Shonle (1925), and Schultes (1938) all agreed that peyote has medical and altered states of consciousnesses properties. “…magical vision-giving power and the curative properties which peyote is believed to possess have made it the center of elaborate religious ceremonies,” (Shonle 1925, 53). The ethnomedical properties directly connects to the altered states of consciousnesses peyote is used for both physical and mental health. ‘Trance’ is an altered state of consciousness that “involves an enhanced internal or external focus of attention,” (Lewis 2010, 189). During the peyote rituals individuals are focusing their attention internally in the form of prayers and healing. According to Schultes (1938), “…[peyote] is attributed to health and longevity; rubbed on the knees, it is believed to give strength in walking; in curing disease, it is said to fortify the body against future ills and to purify the soil,” (705). He goes on to discuss the multiple uses of peyote from various tribes. It is used for external and internal uses. Tea is utilized for ceremonies and daily life for medicinal reasons. Peyote can be applied to wounds, burns, snakebites, and skin diseases. In addition, it can be used for tuberculosis, pneumonia, fevers, pains, colds and dental therapy (Schultes 1938, 703).


 Peyote is used in symbolic healing of mental and physical health. Calabrese (1994) states, “…the Peyote Meeting, symbolism has become a tool in the ritual generation of self-awareness, which, in turn, has become a tool in the therapeutic utilization of Peyote,” (496). It is a transformative process to self-awareness and psychological health. Especially, to the Navajo because the physical, psychological, and social health are in spiritual harmony they are tied together not separate. The Navajo belief that illness is caused by supernatural causes. The Road Man states that, “Your mind gets tired, your spirit gets tired. When your mind gets tired and your spirit gets tired, it affects your body, (Calabrese 1994, 501).  The all-night healing ritual is a rite of transformation that restores the physical and mental balance of the individual. “Peyote is believed to be a holy panacea…restoring spiritual harmony and a means of communication with the Great Spirit,” (Calabrese 1994, 508). It is a medicine and a spirit. The peyote medicine is utilized to cure both mental and physical illness especially alcoholism and substance abuse. An example of a physical illness cured if from Opler (1940), “[Peyote Informant], I had begun to ache in my limbs…so I took peyote tea my sister brewed for me. I sang all night and prayed to get well,” (462). In addition, to curing a visiting Navajo of paralysis in both legs (Opler 1940, 462). Altered states of consciousness and ethnomedicine directly correlate. That ASC can cause short and long-term change. The religious experience is therapeutic to the individuals. This spirituality is needed for alcoholic and substance abuse recovery (Calabrese 1994, 495-509). I will farther discuss the altered states of consciousness and peyote visions below.

 The earlier researchers discuss the colorful visions that the peyote brings. Schultes (1938) and Shonle (1925) both discuss the Plains Indians making use of visions that this is the process to find their guardian spirit. That the individual has a certain amount of conscious control on the visions, it is dependent on the person and what they want to see (Shonle 1925, 59). The visions or the altered states of consciousness are influenced by cultural and personal experiences, environment and behavior. The peyote rituals and symbols structure the altered states of consciousness experience. According to Opler (1938), that when you first start eating peyote you must not be scared and have only good thoughts (281). Sometimes an individual will have a vision that scares them and they are plagued by bad thoughts. If these bad thoughts continue the peyote visions will be fearful and scary. However, if there are only good thoughts a person will have a good time with the peyote (Opler 1938, 281-2). The peyote ritual is a psychological healing process. During the ceremony most of the participants time is spend in silent prayer with others singing around them. This along with the consumption of peyote induces a ‘trance state,’ a vision that can be consciously controlled.

 As Lewis (2010) discusses trance states being altered states of consciousnesses. This trance like state directly corresponds with the peyote ritual.               During the ceremony individuals are singing, drumming, and consuming peyote all of these functions induce the altered state of consciousness, the visions. The Native Americans are using sensory overload which includes singing, dancing, music, drumming, and drugs (Lewis 2010, 190). According to Lewis (2010). A trance is explained by the “manifestation of the invasion of the human body by an external spirit agent,” (191-2). The peyote ritual is used as a healing process and a form of communication to their deities. The vision that is induced by the sacred peyote is this ‘external spirit agent’ or the deity communicating with the individual. Not only is peyote used to induce an altered state but it’s to help with substance abuse and addiction.

The Peyote Meeting that Calabrese (1994 & 2008) discusses is an acceptable intervention of alcohol and substance abuse in Native American communities. The Native American Church uses peyote and peyote rituals as a therapeutic intervention. According to the Native American Church Treatment, “Participation in the Native American Church Ceremonies (Peyote Church) led by a Road Man, who has been recommended by a local NAC chapter, and conducted primarily for the purpose of treating persons with alcohol and drug problems,” (Calabrese 2008, 338). During these Native American Church ceremonies, the Road Man’s role is to lead the ceremony, praying for participants, and administering blessed medicine to the patient. The patient is often responsible for their own healing. This healing comes from the Peyote spirit which is the therapeutic communication directly from God or the Peyote spirit in the form of visions (Calabrese 2008, 342). The ritual explained in Calabrese (1994) correlates with his newer article (Calabrese 2008) that the visions or altered states of consciousness is a form of mental, physical, and spiritual health. These visions or ‘therapeutic messages’ have been influenced by socialization. Essentially, the healing ceremony is a way to activate these messages with the altered states of consciousnesses and a supportive community. This may lead to behavioral changes in the patient (Calabrese 2008; Calabrese 1994). There is also a time factor in the healing process. The ritual is 6-7 hours in length and tradition Navajo rituals lasted five nights. This gives the patient time to disclose or express their feelings freely (Calabrese 2008, 343). The peyote ritual is a therapeutic way to approach mental illness and disease.


 “Peyote was identified as a medicinal herb with God-given properties and as a personality or spirit that is omniscient and that functions in various roles to help the Indian,” (Calabrese 2013, 102). As discussed above peyote is interwoven into the Native American life not just is it a ritual but it is a symbol of their creation myth and their religion. In addition, it is used a form of symbolic healing and mental and physical health. It is always about helping the native whether it is an annual ritual of returning to their homeland or a healing ritual both are rites of passages. The individuals transform into a liminal state, either a human turning deity or a transformation of restoring health. Peyote is complicated and complex symbolic and medicinal cactus. It is connected to everything from rituals to symbols to altered states of consciousnesses and ethnomedicine.


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