Ritual peyote use among North American tribes began in the early 20th century after a process of diffusion from the South. 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. The Peyote Religion quickly formed from the earliest peyotists, Lipan Apache Billy Chiwat and Pinero, to include the major tribes of Indian Territory. Mythologies of the peyote plant were incorporated into tribal belief and expressed in the two primary ceremonies of the Peyote Religion: the Half-Moon, originating among the peoples living in the peyote growth area, and the Big Moon, introduced by John Wilson. Both ceremonies incorporate aspects of Native American culture and Christianity and share many commonalties. "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 Native North American Almanac 237).
In 1914 two churches formed around the peyote ceremonies, the Peyote Society or Union Church and the First Born Church of Christ. In 1918 the Native American Church was organized by adherents of the Peyote Religion who sought to protect their religious practices from attack by the anti-peyotist adversaries of the US Federal Government, the Catholic Church, and tribal oppositionist groups such as the Navajo Tribal Council. The Native American Church sought statewide representation and openly acknowledged the use of peyote. The establishment of the Native American Church in Oklahoma was followed by the organization of peyote churches in other states. Data collected in 1999 indicates that the Native American Church is "incorporated in 17 states as well as several groups in Canada" (Native North American Almanac, 237). Members of the coalition of the Native American Church continue to fight for the right to legally ingest peyote in Native American Church ceremonies.
Peyotism among the Plains Indians of North America began as a reaction to the Reservation Period of the 1860s, which brought religious persecution by the United States Government, social alienation, psychological confusion, loss of religious identity, and forced acculturation to European American lifestyles. Before the 1860s, traditional means of gaining power were structured around the idea of sacred places. Sacred places were commonly specific areas of origin in tribal mythology. By conducting ceremonies in these places of origin, power was obtained by a conflation of time and space for the purpose of centering the self and the social group. These sacred places were axis mundi for connection to, and orientation of, the cosmos, the social group, and the person. The ability to place the body in physical connection to this power was lost with the Reservation Period. Due to of the loss of sacred places, Native Americans were forced to find new technologies of gaining sacred power. The ritual use of peyote is a new technique to reestablish these bonds, affirm group identity in a changing world, ease the conflicting demands of traditional religion and Christianity, and give a new technology to battling alcoholism.
Study of the ritual use of peyote in the field of psychology began in 1934 with a series of studies concerned with identifying and understanding the chemicals in peyote and their effect on the human body. Some examples of such studies are Claude and Ey’s 1934 study of peyote as a hallucinogenic substance, Wertham’s 1952 study of the effects of mescaline on pain, and Denber and Merlis’ study of the action of mescaline on brainwave patterns. These investigations into the affects of peyote ingestion produced medical conclusions that ignore social, psychological, and religious aspects. This information provided a foundation for later theoretical work.
In the 1960s a series of studies were conducted in an attempt to explain why Native Americans had organized a religion surrounding peyote use. The psychologists involved in these studies grouped Native American ritual use of peyote with the movement surrounding Timothy Leary, the Dionysian rites of Ancient Greece, and witchcraft of the Renaissance in an attempt to understand the hippie movement of California. Walter Houston Clark analyzed LSD and mescaline in religious experience. Clark defines religion as "the individual’s inner experience of a Beyond, particularly when he attempts to harmonize his life with that Beyond" (Clark 32). His conclusion is that drugs "tend to release or trigger a religious experience" (Clark 32), and that peyote use in the Native American Church is a prime example of the use of drugs for a heightened religious experience. Clark’s definition of religion and therefore his conclusions ignore both the social aspects of religion in general and the Native American Church in particular.
Theodore Lidz studied the ritual use of peyote to expand on Clark’s hypothesis. Lidz presents further analogies among Native American peyote use, the Greek cult of Dionysus, and Timothy Leary, claiming that each of these groups used hallucinogenic drugs as a way to escape from the turmoil of the world and that each have a strong therapeutic orientation. Lidz points out that "all these cults have claimed to cure various physical, emotional, or spiritual ills" (Lidz, 116). In his final analysis, Lidz concludes that Native American interest in peyote results from "increased understanding of inner experience provided by the psychological sciences combined with a reaction to mechanization and technology and a general disillusionment about the certainty and reliability of the external world" (Lidz 117). Lidz’s claim that the use of peyote as a hallucinogenic drug leads to an intensified internal experience with the goal of escapism lends, through association, the Native American Church the highly individualistic nature of the hippie movement in the 1960s. Lidz divorces ritual peyote use from its cultural context and therefore fails to understand Native American ritual peyote use.
This series of studies which attempt to understand the psychedelic bent of the Hippie movement concludes with C. Weggelaar’s causal hypothesis for Dionysian rites, peyote worship, witchcraft of the Renaissance, and the hippies of California. Weggelaar characterizes these movements as "social abnormalities caused by excessive cultural change, certain group hysteria, a strong tendency by the members of minority groups toward individualism, a common feeling of cultural uncertainty, a conflict between an expressed feeling of freedom and an unexpected desire for guidance, an apparent desire to collect in cities, musical accompaniment, always a nonclassical variety, being present during the rites, and a frequent belief in faith healing (Wegglaar 346).
These three studies show how a social trend, in this case the hippies in California, can provoke the brief interest of the field of psychology in the issue of ritual peyote use; however, these studies show little concern for meaningful research into the Native American situation. For example, Clark’s report only has one source of Native American studies in his bibliography. The Native American Church is used only as an example to support theses in each of these three works. The authors show little knowledge of Native American religion and history, and some of their conclusions are simply wrong (i.e. the need to gather in cities). Peyotism among Native Americans is not simply the escape from reality that these psychologists would lead us to believe. This movement has not only misunderstood ritual peyote use among Native Americans, but has also misused the practice as an example to support conclusions about a different culture.
In 1971, Robert Bergman carried out a separate study of Native American ritual peyote use because he wanted to know why "a high proportion of members if the Native American Church...show a relative lack of deleterious effects from their frequent ingestion of peyote" (695). Bergman concluded that the rate of bad experiences was low because the feelings evoked by the drug experience are channeled by church belief and practice into ego-strengthening directions and there are built-in safeguards against bad reactions, due to familiarity with the substance. Berman’s research shows a greater understanding of Native American peyote use within the group dynamic, but ultimately shallow interest in the place of peyote in Native American life. He does not show an understanding of traditional Native American religion and worldviews that primarily affect Native American consciousness. Bergman seems to have an idea of how Native Americans diminish bad reactions, but little understanding as to why peyote is important to those who use it for religious purposes.
Another series of studies began in 1974, concentrating on alcoholism among Native Americans. Bernard Albaugh examined the development and effectiveness of a treatment program for alcoholism among Native Americans. Albaugh concludes that the success of the Native American Church ceremonies in combating alcoholism is due to the therapeutic nature of the ceremony itself, and that the ingestion of peyote only increases suggestibility, which allows anti-alcoholic messages to have greater affect in the lives of the members. The ceremony teaches Native Americans to "walk the good road and adhere to the Indian way while understanding the white way" (Albaugh 1298), stresses kinship roles and family responsibility, and provides considerable empathy and group support. According to Albaugh, the success of treatment of alcoholism is due to group therapy made easier by the ingestion of peyote.
Paul Pascarosa continued Albaugh’s research in 1976 with a more detailed analysis of the particular therapeutic roles in the Native American Church ceremony. Pascaraosa compares the leader of the ritual, the roadman, to a psychotherapist. Both have a profound understanding of the societal conditions of the members/patients and, just as therapists define sanity and insanity, the roadman defines the Native American way of life and "that other way" (Pascarosa 216). The next important aspect of the ceremony for Pascarosa is the expression of feelings and confessions which "is an integral part of any therapeutic group process and is a dynamic means of stimulating emotions and expiating guilt" (Pascarosa 217). The third important aspect of the ritual is the introspective journey induced by peyote. Pascarosa’s conclusion about ritual use of peyote is that "when the effects of peyote are at their height, ego functioning alters. The drug-dependant person who did not have the patience or will power to attain the meditative state is able to with the aid of peyote. Beyond this, there is no single explanation for the therapeutic power of the states of consciousness we have called introspective" (Pascarosa 218). This study shows the social and group aspects of the ceremony, but again sees Peyote as just a shortcut for those who "do not have the patience or will power" (Pascarosa, 218).
In 1990 another study was conducted examining ritual peyote use and the control of heavy drinking. Thomas W. Hill studied the increase of alcoholism among the Winnebago tribe from the early 1860s to the early 1920s. Hill saw the reason for growing alcoholism as "a general sociocultural framework receptive to altered states of consciousness, the ready availability of alcohol, the lack of a strong ethical interdiction against its use faith in traditional Winnebago culture and ample amounts of leisure time" (Hill 256). Hill reaches the same conclusion that it’s the therapeutic nature of the ceremony that helps alcoholics and the ritual ingestion of peyote merely "raised the converts’ expectations that they could quit drinking or otherwise deal with personal problems" (Hill 261). Hill also seeks to find a way to adapt the social ceremony to Western therapy, but without the ritual use of peyote.
These studies take the social implications and effects of ritual of the peyote ceremony seriously and for the first time reach meaningful conclusions about the therapeutic aspects of Native American Church; however, they minimize the importance of peyote as a mythological and spiritual figure, diminishing peyote to a shortcut that could even be done without. They do not focus on the ideas of suffering and sacred power which are the goals of the ceremony. The Native American Church would not exist without peyote, but these psychologists would lead us to believe that the role of peyote is minimal and even unnecessary. This psychological movement clearly marginalizes ritual peyote use.
The 1980s brought two sporadic studies of ritual peyote use. The first was published in 1985 and focused on the Navajo Indians and how the Native American Church resolves dissonance between the Navajo and Anglo-American cultures. John R. Farella believes that since contact with Anglo-Americans, the Navajo have developed a mother complex and because the peyote deity is female, ritual use of peyote creates the much needed connection with the figure of mother. Because old stations of life for men are gone, alcohol was a solution to the traditional dilemmas of the Navajo male, who, upon adulthood, is displaced from the most important social and symbolic unit of this matrilocal and matrilineal society: the mother-child relationship. Peyote merely takes the place of alcohol. "This symbolic structure exactly replicates the essential structural feature of out-of-control alcohol use, the centrality of the mother-son relationship" (Farella 272). A second study was done in 1987 by George Spindler who analyzed the affects of the Native American Church ceremonies on schizophrenics. The articles is based primarily on the observation of one Menominee Indian male. Spindler concludes that "for him the boundaries denoting separation in time and space are so blurred that the special, precious, contrastive character of peyote ideology escapes him. He is mentally ill because he cannot recognize boundaries in time and social space and therefore cannot find meaning" (Spindler 13).
Spindler’s article addresses a specific problem for Native Americans, but does not have anything to say about the importance of ritual use of peyote. Farella’s study does show a theory that has been researched and thought out; however, it does not reach past the ideas of Western Freudian psychology.
In 1997, Joseph D. Calabrese published a study viewing ritual peyote use through the lenses of Holistic healing and culture psychiatry, which attempt to analyze the interrelationship of culture and mental health. Calabrese sees Native American Church ceremonies as a natural psychology in which "the conceptual and emotional framework in which a situation is experienced by the patient is replaced by another framework that applies equally well, or even better to the ‘facts’; therapy then changes the total meaning of an existing situation" (Calabrese 245). These experiences are then built into the very conceptual frameworks with which we think, which results in a complex series of webs that the person struggles with and depends on. Calabrese ends his argument with the hypothesis that this process of making structure leads to the conclusion that sanity is a construction variable across cultures. He shows how the making of these conceptual frameworks depend on symbolic and social constructs and actions, which can be found in the Native American Church:
To conclude, the primary thesis of this article is that in 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. As such, consideration of Peyote’s therapeutic efficacy must include not only knowledge of its psychoactive properties but consideration of the Peyotist ritual process and symbolism. (Calabrese, 496)
Calabrese’s fascinating arguments shows that he has taken into account the symbols of the Native American Church and how they are used as a technology for gaining power and identity for the individual and the group. By seriously considering the importance of the symbols of the Native American Church which create a cultural center through ceremony, Calabrese does not misunderstand, misuse or marginalize the Native American Church, but keeps the integrity of the meaning of ritual peyote use while incorporating it into psychological research.
Ritual peyote use has been misunderstood, marginalized, trivialized, and finally kept its integrity in a movement foreign to its worldview. It is clear that discussion of ritual peyote use by psychologists has often served the purposes of whatever trend is popular at the time. This is often true of any attempt to analyze a topic outside of the researcher’s field of study; therefore, it is necessary to be critical of any cross-field study and make sure that both parties keep the fundamental integrity of their ideas within any conclusions reached. The ritual use of peyote has much to offer the field of psychology, but we must be careful that psychological conclusions are caged by an accurate understanding of the role of peyote in the lives of Native Americans.
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