The Ancient Tradition Of The Peyote Ceremony

This article by Sasha Sisko was originally published on Microdose Psychedelic Insights and appears here with permission.

Since the dawn of civilization, Peyote has been consumed by countless Indigenous American communities. It wasn’t until 1918 that the Native American Church (NAC) was officially established within the state of Oklahoma as a “Christian religion with the practice of the Peyote Sacrament”.

Though the NAC has revered Grandfather Peyote as a sacrament for over a century, outsiders know very little about what exactly goes on within the Native American Church ‘meetings’. In this article, we’ll trace the history of the Peyote ceremony and describe its modern elements so that others may understand and appreciate the value of these cherished cultural practices.

Before we get started, we ought to remember that Peyotist faiths have faced oppression for centuries. Because of centuries of intergenerational trauma within the Native American community, congregations within the NAC are well aware that sharing information with outsiders has led to devastating outcomes for their people.

As you will read, these consequences were not limited to imprisonment, torture, and even murder. Ever since the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries instituted the Entheogenic Inquisition of 1620, Indigenous Americans have, to borrow the words of Robert Gordon Wasson, kept Peyote “close to their hearts, sheltered from desecration by white men, a precious secret”.

The First Peyote Visions

Thousands of years ago, Sacred Peyote grew abundantly on the land surrounding the US-Mexico border. When Paleo-Americans first witnessed naturally-growing Peyote in the xeric scrublands of the Southwest, they likely saw the spineless desert cactus as a potential source of food.

Soon after the bitter taste of the cactus subsided, the very first ‘button eaters’ certainly had something profound to share with their kin. Though no one can accurately estimate when this happened, archeologists have concluded that Peyote has been consumed by Indigenous Americans for at least 5,700 years.

Passed down by oral tradition, Native American communities have formed numerous folktales about the origin of the Peyote ceremony. Within many of these stories, there’s a common link. The teaching goes something like this:

Dehydrated and famished, a person was wandering the desert and unable to find their way home. As their exhaustion began to take hold, they laid down and worried that they might not wake from their slumber. Fortunately, they were awoken by a voice. Though no one was nearby, close to the ground was a patch of Grandfather Peyote in blossom. Feeling nourished after eating the cactus, they found their way back home and shared the valuable plant with their community.

Consumed within group and individual settings for millennia, this greyish-green cactus quickly propelled its users into mystical states of awareness. Aware of its medicinal and entheogenic qualities, Peyote was (and remains to be) a precious resource to Indigenous Americans.

By the time Spain conquered Mexico, conquistadors and missionaries held a fundamentally different opinion — they viewed Peyote as a major impediment in their pursuit to convert the Natives to Christianity. As history has proven, Europeans began a ruthless campaign to conquer, control, and convert the Indigenous people of Mexico at any cost.

Entheogenic Inquisition

On June 29th of 1620, the Holy Office of the Inquisition declared in Mexico City that the use of Peyote was a heretical act of “pagan idolatry”. Posted in every major city and village, this decree advised the inhabitants of New Spain that “We, the Inquisitors against heretical perversity and apostasy […] order that henceforth no person […] may make use of the said herb, Peyote”.

What were the penalties for disobeying this decree? The edict advised Indigenous Mexicans that possessing Sacred Peyote would result in “pecuniary and corporal penalties within our discretion”. Simply put, violators of the edict would be met with torture and murder for centuries. Reluctant to forego their way of life, countless innocent Natives bravely fought against these edicts only to find themselves bound in chains.

Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, author of Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions, relentlessly tortured Indigenous Mexicans in an inhumane attempt to force admissions about the use of “la raíz diabólica” (the diabolical root). One victim of the Entheogenic Inquisition, an Acaxee man, was sadistically tortured for three consecutive days before his captors gouged his eyes, lacerated his abdomen in the shape of a “crucifix”, and turned “ravenous dogs loose on his innards”.

From the Inquisition onward, the sacramental ingestion of Peyote was driven underground so as to avoid detection by the Spaniards. Only in remote landscapes would these entheogenic sects survive. The various mountain ranges and deserts of Mexico were notoriously difficult for the Spaniards to traverse, much less effectively govern. For centuries, Peyotism survived as a secret passed down from generation to generation in hushed tones — a secret so powerful that one might lose their life if it were revealed to the wrong person.

The Modern Origins of the Peyote Ceremony

By the end of the 19th century, Native Americans were facing some of their darkest days. By instituting an unwritten policy of Indigenous genocide, the United States had effectively deprived our First Nations of their natural resources, land, health, families, and “even their names”. In response to this unbearable oppression, many began embracing a variety of new and traditional religious practices to ease their individual and collective sense of suffering.

While the Ghost Dance movement was spreading across the United States circa 1890, Native Americans began to incorporate something new into their religious practices — Peyote. In stark contrast to the Ghost Dance, Peyotism offered Native Americans a means to practice their ceremonies “out of view of white people”.

In fact, that is how the term “meeting” came to be associated with Peyote ceremonies. Melissa Haag, wife of the President of the NAC of Oklahoma, recently told The Oklahoman that early NAC congregants had to use code words to conceal their practices. As she put it, someone would “go to someone’s house and say ‘Hey, we’re having a meeting.’ That’s what they did until it became OK”.

Why are Peyote meetings conducted? The Church provides communal ceremonies centered on spiritual growth and healing of the individual as well as the community-at-large. Oftentimes, meetings will be conducted for those suffering from spiritual or physical illnesses, to give thanks for good fortune, or to seek divine guidance during uncertain times. Given the dignified nature of these ceremonies, entire families often join the ceremony while wearing their finest clothing.

The first Western account of the Peyote ceremony was documented by the ethnologist James Mooney. After observing the solemn ritual among the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache in 1891, Mooney described a nocturnal ceremony led by a “Roadman” in which “worshipers sit in a circle around the inside of the sacred tipi, with a fire blazing in the center”. As congregants chew Peyote, everyone engages in prayer and reflection. Participants also take turns singing sacred songs while utilizing a variety of instruments (e.g. sacred rattle, eagle-bone whistle, water drum, etc.).

One traditional Lakota Peyote hymn popularized by Robbie Robertson (Mohawk and Cayuga), Wani Wachi Yelo, poetically asks a divine “Father” for support during times of misery. When translated, a section of the hymn reads “I am in misery, I pray to you. I want to live on, Father I say this to you […] A life to come, a life to be. A life to come, I wish to be on that road”.

Though practices within the Church differ slightly, the Roadmen often supply the Sacred Peyote, find a location for the meeting, officiate the ceremony, and provide the next morning’s breakfast. Though NAC meetings are often portrayed as a ritual that only takes place in a teepee, this is not at all a requirement. For example, the case of People v. Woody described three NAC members who conducted an official NAC meeting within a “hogan made of railroad ties”.

Last year, Sandor Iron Rope (President of the NAC of South Dakota) was asked by Michael Pollan (author of How to Change Your Mind) why NAC meetings are often conducted within teepees. Sandor made it clear that every individual component of the teepee serves as a traditional symbol of members of the extended family. As he put it, even the individual “pegs that hold the tepee down, those are all your children. So when you go into the tepee you are going into that spiritual family for help, for prayers, because we are all related”.

Though it is true that Peyote serves as the NAC’s sacrament much like the Christian Eucharist, Peyote is considered to be more than a sacrament. Within many Native American Church congregations, Peyote is viewed as an “ancestor and living relative”, a “health restorer”, a “deity”, the “flesh of God”, the “flesh of our ancestors, an “omniscient spirit”, a “teacher, and a “protector”.

Perhaps you can now see why describing Peyote as a ‘drug’ is insulting to the NAC? Peyote is more than a sacrament. For millions of Native Americans, it’s their family’s way of life.

Current State of the NAC

Over the past few decades, the Native American Church has witnessed a sharp decline in the overall supply and quality of naturally-grown Peyote — a grave issue known as the Peyote Crisis. Various factors have come into play, but we can be assured that nearly all of these are caused by a disconnection between humankind and Mother Earth. Unfortunately, capitalist politics place profit and power over the needs of the less fortunate and our environment.

Peyote’s natural habitat in Texas and Mexico has become entangled in a web of factors that have led to its endangered status. In the US, the DEA imposes unreasonably high fees to those who wish to take on the practice of cultivating Peyote for the NAC. Every year in Mexico, thousands of tourists flock to the deserts to search for this elusive cactus.

Many improperly harvest Peyote by uprooting the entire plant instead of harvesting the above-ground portion. What’s worse is that this practice is common for illicit harvesters — those who seek to sell Peyote within the black market. Land development and mining of natural resources also impacts the sustainability of the Peyote Gardens. Given that the vast majority of state-side Peyote resides on private properties, only a few sparse plots of land are available for the NAC to gain a foothold on the supply of their Sacred Medicine.

Thankfully, various Indigenous organizations have begun massive efforts to secure a supply of their sacrament for future generations. In October of 2017, the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) purchased 605 acres of land in Southern Texas — a major victory for the NAC. Though the Indigenous community was overjoyed by this news, the IPCI understands that much more needs to be done if the NAC is to survive.

Psychedelic CSR

While the industries surrounding the field of psychedelics mushroom into existence, our community should advocate for the protection of Indigenous religious practices, welfare, and ways of life. Zealously defending Native American communities demonstrates true allyship and allows us to give thanks to those who have contributed priceless knowledge to our field of research.

Back in September, I had the pleasure of hosting the ‘Law & Regulation’ panel at Microdose’s DMT Masterclass. Among other questions, I asked a panel of attorneys about policies that psychedelic organizations can adhere to as a way to honor the Indigenous wisdom that is foundational to our movement.

Ruth Chun, CEO of Chun Law, told the audience that psychedelic organizations must self-reflect and honestly ask themselves about what values they hold dear. She also suggested Environmental Social Governance (ESG) investing “not as an add-on social tax but how you integrate your corporate values and deploy your capital”, adding that such practices are “palatable in the board room and in investment communities”.

Speaking from experience as a woman of color, she lamented that boards-of-directors within psychedelic organizations are mostly composed of white men. Resting on the principles of diversity and inclusion, Ruth made it clear that true reciprocity would inherently include bringing Indigenous people into positions of power within psychedelic organizations.

Serena Wu, partner at Plant Medicine Law group, echoed Ruth’s points and shared how organizations can establish Public Benefit Corporations (PBC’s) so that they are “beholden not just to share-holders but other stake-holders” who are culturally invested in these “sacred” medicines.

David Wood, Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel at PsyGen Industries, drew from personal experience and explained that “everyone benefits” in non-Native allies adhere to our values and respect Indigenous communities and individuals alike.

Where do we go from here?

As we move forward in this psychedelic paradigm that does not give enough respect to Indigenous wisdom, we learn how to honor Indigenous people by sincerely listening to their concerns, learning about their cultures and history, and ultimately honor their beliefs and positions. To this end, the psychedelic community must stand in solidarity and proclaim that:

  1. The NAC is a proud tradition that has faced significant oppression.
  2. The Peyote Crisis must be urgently addressed.
  3. People without Indigenous heritage should abstain from consuming Peyote so as to honor the NAC.

If money is the only way that you can show support for Indigenous causes, there is no shame in admitting that. Microdose has compiled a list of Indigenous organizations which directly benefit either the NAC or various Indigenous American communities.

Indigenous Organizations Currently Accepting Donations

Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative
Chacruna’s Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative
Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women
American Indian College Fund
Native American Rights Fund
Warrior Women Project
Native Wellness
Amazon Frontlines

Editor’s Note

This piece is part of a series produced by guest contributors to expand the voices on our site and in the greater conversation. While Microdose supports the education and exploration of these topics, the facts and opinions presented in this work are the author’s alone.

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