Peyote in Native American Traditions

  • Peyote is a small cactus, rarely larger than 15 centimeters, found on both banks of the Rio Grande and in scattered places across Mexico.
  • Mexican Indians have been using the narcotic plant for over 20 centuries to cure any number of ailments.  Peyote is an extremely common medicine in Mexico and is sold at drug markets across the country.
  • For nearly 2 centuries, Peyote use has been noted among Native Americans, mostly tribes located in the Southern Plains.  This is mostly due to the United States government relocating tribes more north, so the spread of Peyote to others tribes occurred.
  • Between the 1880s and 1930s, the US government attempted to ban peyote, but with the establishment of the Native American Church, this did not happen.  Federal law now permits peyote use among members of the NAC, and to non-Native Americans in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon.
  • As seen on the map, Peyote use is centralized in the Plains in Texas and Oklahoma, with some use in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, and Nebraska and very little in the Midwest.
  • Medicinal uses for Peyote ranges; in some places in Mexico, it is considered their “aspirin”.  Peyote is applied externally for rheumatism, wounds burns, snakebites, and skin diseases.  When steeped in hot water to make Peyote Tea, it is ingested for illnesses such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever, intestinal issues, diabetes, and colds.  The dried Peyote crowns, or buttons, are applied to a toothache or, more commonly, consumed in ceremony.
  • Peyote ceremony, or “meeting”, is a specific healing ceremony common among Plains tribes.  Though the ceremony differs among tribes, it is always for the purpose of healing a chosen individual.
  • The meeting usually runs all nights and is lead by a “healer” or a roadman.  Everyone circles a fire and sings songs to drumming while consuming peyote.
  • This is a healing ceremony, so during the ritual, everyone is to pray for the present individual who is ill.  Most often, this person has been undiagnosed.  This is their purpose for the ceremony.  Taking the peyote and participating in the meeting, their illness is supposed to be revealed to them so they may diagnose themselves.  This is the individual acting as the “self perceptible object”.  In an interview, a member of the Navajo tribe said, “But if someone else, maybe a road man is telling you, [prior to the ceremony], this is the problem this is what’s wrong, then you tend to not believe them.  It’s you, you got to work with your mind and your faith.  That’s all it takes.”
  • Though the ceremony tends to focus on one individual, everyone has the opportunity to better understand the nature of his or her own problems.  Peyote, in this sense, is more therapeutic.
  • It is important to remember, although peyote is very powerful as a medicine, it is also very powerful as a narcotic.  Many Native Americans believe that it is “wrong” to use peyote for the purpose of having a vision. In ceremony, there is no indication for pursuit of visions, more introspection and praying for the ill individual.  There is evidence that, in its early use, people would consume peyote on vision quests, but not in modern times.  With the law on peyote, the NAC is very careful with how it is shared within and outside of the Native American tradition.  Peyote is, first and foremost, a medicine and important healing method among Native Americans and Mexican Indians.

- Lizzy Parker

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