Heart of the Great Spirit: The Peyote Cactus
The following is excerpted from Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality, available from O Books.
We know whereof we speak. We have tasted of God and our eyes have opened.1 --Albert Hensley, Winnebago
My first encounter with the peyote medicine spirit, ten years before I met it again in the Native American Church (NAC) ceremonies, demonstrated and presaged in a gentle and humbling manner what it could do. I was visiting an old friend, Alan, for a couple of days. Alan mentioned that he had one peyote button which he'd kept in a jar for about ten years, and he offered to share it with me and another friend of his. One peyote button for three people is not much, to say the least. When Weston La Barre traveled the western United States learning about the NAC in the 1930s, he found that participants commonly ingested from four to thirty or more buttons in a ceremony.
Alan took this dusty old peyote, cleaned out the hairs in the center that he'd heard were poisonous, and steeped it in boiled water for some time. The three of us shared the soaked button and drank the resulting tea in silence while sitting in big, overstuffed chairs in Alan's now darkened living room. We remained like that for a couple of hours before Alan broke the silence and asked us what we'd experienced. We found to our surprise that each of us had undergone something strikingly similar. There were no indications of being "stoned." We all felt sharp and sober. That one little peyote plant had led all three of us on a clear, gentle, and nonjudgmental tour through our own faults. None of us felt belittled or depressed by this exposé. Instead we each felt a similar quiet humility and gratitude from the experience.
The peyote spirit told me one night, "I am a safe way for you to come home."2 --Nancy Littlefish, NAC elder
To be frank, I've been a little nervous about sharing details regarding the Native American Church and have considered not including this chapter in the book. It was only the approval of Native spiritual elder Kanucas that gave me the feeling it was appropriate to share the information with a wider audience. The reason for my concern has to do with the incredible difficulties that the church has had to overcome and the extreme amount of suffering visited upon the indigenous peoples of North America by the European invaders of the past five centuries. This church is -- as religious philosopher and teacher Huston Smith has described it -- a story of great triumph over adversity, and now exists as a refuge of sanity in a disturbed land and a lifesaving sanctuary of healing and wisdom for hundreds of thousands of Native people. It's a sacred treasure to be protected and nurtured with the utmost respect and sensitivity.
My fervent prayer and intention in writing about these matters is to pass along information and inspiration toward a renaissance of awakening and reattunement to reality on this planet. From that point of view, the information is intended to be received in the larger context of the main thesis of the book: that we're in a time of wrenching change and upheaval; that there are reasons we've reached this point; that there may not be much wiggle room anymore -- planetary or personal -- and that it's both possible and probably essential that we (whoever we are) open ourselves to and manifest awakened-heart vision. It looks like the whole planet is rapidly becoming one community, and that we're all becoming part of the same story.
One of the reasons I made the decision to share information about the NAC and Grandfather Peyote is because of something Kanucas told me one morning after a ceremony. He said that he and others have had a vision from Spirit that three medicines will play key roles in the planetary consciousness transformation. Those three medicines are ayahuasca, peyote, and iboga. [Note to Reality Sandwich readers: I have explored the reasons for this at greater length elsewhere in my book Returning to Sacred World.]
Sparse as it is, the information I'm sharing here about peyote wisdom and peyote religion is not breaking new ground or giving away heavily guarded secrets. There are classic texts -- well known to anthropologists and other interested parties -- that contain detailed information on the habitat, the pharmacology, and the historical and current use of peyote. Some of these are listed in the bibliography of my book. I offer here a very brief background summary of that story in the hope of providing some useful context for understanding the power and authenticity of working with the sacred peyote cactus and other similar entheogenic plants.
Lophophora williamsii, as the academics have dubbed it, is a small, spineless cactus whose natural habitat is the Chihuahuan Desert area extending from north/central Mexico up to southern Texas. The peyote cactus has most likely been helping humans with great kindness and wisdom longer than anyone will ever know. Some Native origin stories place it at the beginnings of human existence, as a gift from the Creator to help the people remember who they are and where they came from. Native American deification of the plant is thought by scholars to be about 10,000 years old. Peyote cactus buttons uncovered in Shumla Cave in southern Texas have been radiocarbon dated to 5000 BCE.
It's believed that the peyote pilgrimage of the Huichol -- or Wixaritari as they call themselves -- Indians of central Mexico may have been in place as early as 200 CE. Scholars consider it the oldest sacramental use of peyote in North America.
The annual pilgrimage of the Wixaritari, a practice continued until today, takes members of the tribe, under strict rules of discipline, away from their homeland on a walking pilgrimage to Wirikuta -- the "field of flowers," 400 kilometers to the northeast -- to gather the spirit cactus and return with it for ceremonial and medicinal use. Several other Mexican tribes, including the Tarahumara, the Cora, and the Tepehuan (or Tepecano) also have a historical relationship with peyote.
There is some evidence of pre-Columbian use of peyote in the United States and one Spanish author, Velasco, wrote in 1716 that he had observed Indians of present day Texas drinking "pellote" as part of their ritual dances. The Lakota people today live mostly in the states of North and South Dakota. According to a Lakota elder of my acquaintance, the Lakota say that they have had this medicine since time immemorial. However, as far as researchers have been able to ascertain, the major diffusion of peyote's use northward appears to have occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when it spread into the Great Plains of the U.S. through the Mescalero Apache and other tribes.
It may be more than coincidental -- and in fact in keeping with the uncanny powers of the peyote medicine spirit -- that the most rapid diffusion of its use unfolded at the same time that Native American cultures all over the western states were being destroyed and dismantled. As one tribe after another fell to the American soldiers and settlers and had its lands stolen and its traditional customs and practices denigrated and even outlawed, this sacrament quickly spread throughout the region. As Weston La Barre put it in his landmark ethnographic study The Peyote Cult, the first edition of which was published in 1938, "Thus, ironically, the intended modes of deculturizing the Indians have contributed preeminently to the reinvigoration of a basically aboriginal religion."3
This deculturizing program -- the expressed intention of American government policy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-severely weakened the hold of the older tribal religions without actually undermining widely held Plains religious beliefs. At the same time, placing formerly scattered and diverse groups on reservations together and forcing their children into state schools brought members of various tribes into contact with each other in new ways.
By the 1890s, it had become apparent to the Indians that they would have to organize to protect their right to make use of this sacrament. Movement toward that goal coalesced in Oklahoma under the leadership of Quannah Parker and others and resulted in the formal adoption of the Native American Church by 1918. As of the 1990s there were chapters of this church in every state west of the Mississippi River with members from over seventy different Native American nations. Estimates of current membership range from 250,000 to over 400,000, and growing.
A brief mention of the legal situation may also be of benefit here. Since that time in the 1880s and 1890s there have been repeated attempts at all levels in the U.S., from local to federal, to prevent the religious use of peyote. One could suspect the wise hand of Grandfather Peyote again in this battle for recognition and protection. Each time a dire and lasting threat approached implementation, support arose from unexpected quarters to stop or overturn a particular measure. More than one attempt to pass laws through Congress failed in the early twentieth century. During the period from roughly 1910 to 1930, a number of states passed laws criminalizing the use of peyote until John Collier, the newly appointed federal Commissioner for Indian Affairs, applied a more enlightened attitude, sending out a Bureau circular in 1934 which stated that "no interference with Indian religious life or ceremonial expression will hereafter be tolerated."4
The last Congressional attempt to quash peyote use died in committee in 1963, thanks in part to the support of anthropologists. When new, draconian laws were brought forward in the late 1960s, culminating with the dreaded Schedule One classification -- substances deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use -- for psychedelics of all kinds, peyote use for Native people in sanctioned religious practice was specifically exempted and protected.The most recent, and hopefully final furor arose in the late 1980s with a case called Employment Division of Oregon vs. Smith that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, where, in a decision many consider to be a low point in the history of that court, the protection of freedom of religion was all but reversed. The devastating decision sent shock waves through much of the American religious community and forced practitioners of the NAC underground. Thankfully, a large number of groups and individuals, both Native and non-Native -- including other churches who felt their rights threatened -- worked passionately to get that decision corrected by an act of Congress, a campaign that was ultimately successful with the passage of the "American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994."
When I say "hopefully final furor," I have to add that in 2009 there is still no certainty of the long-term protection of this sacred rite/right. People closely connected to the harvesting and distribution of the peyote cactus have told me that there has been a recent upsurge of obstructionist behavior on the part of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Administrators have apparently been adding extra layers of bureaucracy which, if fully implemented, will have the effect of making access to the medicine much more difficult. It's also been reported that the D.E.A. has engineered ploughing of the peyote fields in Texas so that only a limited supply will be available through strictly controlled licensing of diminishing acreage. This direction, if not reversed, would have to be seen as criminally cruel in its potential consequences
An Inspiring Model
Approaches inspired by the principles and the practices of the NAC ceremonies may prove to be an excellent model for the development of new and revived forms and rituals for the use of entheogenic sacraments where the knowledge from the traditions has been lost. It's very important to make it clear before going further however that nobody from outside should be messing with the existing forms of NAC ceremonies. In my experience, only those who have received a direct transmission of empowerment are sanctioned to act as the roadmen who conduct the ceremonies. The elders tell us that everything in the ritual has been put there for an essential purpose, under the direct guidance of Spirit.
These ceremonies are a synthesis of several powerful forms for healing and awakening: working with prayer and intention; using music to give wings and strength to that prayer, including singing and something akin to shamanic drumming; an encouragement toward a meditative mindfulness and awareness; developing compassion and commitment toward the benefit of others; and of course the potent assistance of the holy sacrament itself, the peyote medicine Spirit.
The church is also light on its feet. It has essentially no professional, paid clergy and no written canon. The only school for learning its ways and wisdom is the school of experience. The church lives in the understanding of those who've opened themselves to the teachings of Grandfather Peyote and especially in the knowledge of the authentic roadmen who have been given a "fireplace" and carry with them a deep understanding of the forms and meanings of the church and its ceremonial rituals. The altar and fireplace of the church are living concepts, even living presences. The house of worship -- the tipi -- is normally only raised for meetings and usually taken down immediately after. The roadmen generally prefer to see themselves as midwives rather than teachers, as people who help others make the daunting and often lifesaving transition from painful dis-ease to awakening heart. In my experience, there is precious little preaching in a meeting. Each individual is to find his or her own direct experience of awakening, peaceful heart, and prayerful communion with Spirit.
It's said that "the peyote spirit is like a little hummingbird -- when you are quiet and nothing is disturbing it, it will come to a flower and get the sweet flavor. But if it is disturbed, it goes quick." Hence the admonitions to sit quietly in meetings and "study" to see if you can "maybe learn something."5 --Weston La Barre
At the same time, in the context of this barely organized religion, there is a powerful tradition of knowledge which has been handed down from generation to generation. With minor variations, the main forms of the ritual have remained consistent for over 120 years. Those experienced in these ways have a deep respect and sensitivity toward every aspect of the practice, beginning with the peyote itself and extending to the various rituals and sacred objects. Based on what I've seen and learned in the ceremonies, I would say that the purpose of this careful reverence toward the forms and materials is to create and maintain the most sturdy, safe, and conducive container for the meeting of human minds with Spirit wisdom as well as to keep alive for future generations an ancient prayer and commitment. The rules for a meeting, I've heard repeatedly, are few and simple and are based on the learned experience of not interfering with the movement and nurturance of Spirit in the tipi.
What do I mean by "Spirit" in this context? After more than seven years of frequent ceremonies, I still consider myself a relative novice in the NAC, reporting the stories passed on to me and strengthened by my own experiences of moments of great beauty, stillness, and love that often pervade the atmosphere in the tipi. As I've experienced personally and been told numerous times, talk of Spirit presence in meetings is not a matter of belief but is testimony of real encounters with presences that appear in a variety of guises -- from ear-whispered guidance, to forms of light, to birds and animals, to entities in human form. This again is the source of the admonition to pay close attention, attempt to remain quiet on both the outer and inner levels, and keep one's mind focused on the main prayer and the energies moving in the tipi.
This [holding up a peyote button] is the heart of the Great Spirit, sent here for all of us.6 --Aurelio Diaz Tekpankalli
This issue of Spirit highlights some of the major differences between the religious practices of the mainstream cultures and the direct encounters of indigenous religions like the NAC. At one meeting there were five or six first-time participants, in a group of about thirty-five. In the morning, when the energy softens a little and a hard-earned new dawn arises out of the work-out of the praying, healing, and upheaval of the deep hours of the night -- Kanucas greeted us, "Good morning relatives," he said. "New people here might wonder what you've encountered. I can tell you but it doesn't make much difference. You have to find it on your own. What you've encountered here is reality." As mentioned before, I've also heard him say a few times that under the influence of the peyote medicine, the Spirit talks to him and gives him instruction on how to guide the meeting and how to work with individuals in need of assistance.
I'd refer you to the above-mentioned book by Weston La Barre if you're interested in a detailed account of the typical format and sequence of a meeting. I would just like to offer another brief summary here in the hope of providing some useful context. A meeting is normally called by someone who is then referred to as the sponsor for that meeting. The sponsor may be responsible for finding the location and the "officers" needed to run the meeting. He or she may also be required to organize the medicine, the firewood, and the tipi. The officers consist of: the roadman, who runs the meeting, typically a very experienced member of the church who has received a fireplace from another roadman; a drummer, who is responsible for tying up the water drum for the meeting and accompanying the singers around the tipi; the cedarman, who throughout the night periodically throws ground cedar onto the fire for purification of materials, for people coming and going, etcetera; the fire chief or fireman, who tends the fire thoroughly according to traditional guidelines; the doorman, whose job is mainly to oversee comings and goings and to watch over the group; and the waterwoman, usually the wife or close relative of the roadman, who is called upon to speak during the meeting and to say an extended prayer with a tobacco over a bucket of water at dawn. I share these details as evidence of the level of care involved in creating and maintaining the container for the ceremonies.
The range of purposes that can be set by the sponsor is quite varied and can range from a request for physical or spiritual healing, to a birthday, a baptism, an expression of gratitude, or in some cases even a celebration of life. These meetings are sometimes called prayer meetings, and I've explained a few things in the chapter on prayer about the approach one encounters in this environment so I won't repeat that information here. I'll just say again that these prayers are spontaneous, a kind of channeling of the voice in the heart. Many times I've been moved to tears by the sincerity and fluid eloquence of prayers shared during meetings.
The prayer established by the sponsor is called the main prayer, and the participants are requested to focus their attention on that prayer for much of the night. Elders would say that the power and consistency of that attention from those assembled goes a long way to invoking Spirit and bringing forth the realization of that prayer. I continue to be amazed at the stories of what would conventionally be called miraculous healing I've heard from various people at meetings and read in accounts like Guy Mount's The Peyote Book. Weston La Barre, writing in the 1930s, was told by his native informants that they considered peyote a panacea in doctoring, with successful healing of conditions like cancer of the liver, hemorrhage, tuberculosis, respiratory diseases, goiter, and one I came across of a boy who had been unable to speak until treated with peyote medicine.
In our prayer songs that bring our hearts together, we offer our single, united heart to the Great Spirit.7 --Reuben Snake
The bulk of the night is carried by the peyote songs that participants take turns leading as the instruments go around the circle, typically two or three times depending on the size of the group that night. The singing is periodically interspersed with other types of prayer and testimonials. As the morning light approaches, the assembled are invited to pray for their own families and friends and finally to ask the Creator for anything they need for themselves. After the prayers offered by the waterwoman at dawn, the prayed-over water and ritual foods -- corn, meat, and berries -- are passed around the circle. As the meeting draws to a close, people are often invited to express themselves. In my experience, although many of us are a bit weary and sore from the long night's journey, that time of the morning is often exquisitely sweet, sometimes heartbreaking, and people's personal testimonials at times eloquent and poignant.
It may be worth noting that although the peyote cactus is an emissary of Spirit and can therefore be very challenging to any resistance we have to surrendering and opening, in another sense it's quite different from some of the other major entheogenic sacraments. I'm thinking here of ayahuasca and psilocybin in particular. Both, as with peyote and as described in other chapters, have deep traditions of healing, shamanic, and ceremonial religious use. Though I'm certainly not the ultimate expert on the question, I've done a number of ceremonies with each of those two medicines and from all I've learned I think it's safe to say that peyote is more subtle and perhaps gentler, especially in the doses commonly employed in NAC meetings. For example, the mushrooms and ayahuasca are both well known for their intense visual qualities, and when ingested in what might be called committed doses will often hurl the user into completely altered and sometimes very strange visual landscapes, sometimes even with eyes open.
Overall, there seems to be more emphasis on eyes-closed journeying in traditional rituals that employ those plants, with more solo time to go inward. Peyote meetings usually keep the focus outward and eyes tend to be kept open most of the time. Participants are often encouraged to pay close attention to what's going on around them and are sometimes called to step forward and assist. In my experience, these meetings are definitely not set up for long periods of solo inner journeying, but rather devoted more to the healing of body and mind that can be powerfully assisted by the care and attention of the group. It is truly a shared work in many respects.
Having said that, I have experienced and also heard others describe visual experiences with the peyote medicine, sometimes quite relevant and instructive, and as I mentioned earlier, for the brave and the experienced who are so attuned and who may have eaten a lot of medicine that night, presences or entities often appear. Kanucas has mentioned that sometimes in a meeting he'll have "one foot in this world and one foot in the other world." He also told me one morning about a brief (in our time) journey that took him out into space to see the celestial configurations before being led down, in through the door of the tipi, across the fire, and inside the chief peyote, which sits on the crescent moon altar, so that he could see that "as above so below" and "as the greater, so the lesser."
Others, however, rarely speak of visual travel, and when I cast my eyes around the tipi, I generally see people who look sharp and attentive and are able to speak coherently and powerfully and carry out ritual tasks without in any way appearing inebriated or diminished in cognitive or motor functioning. Reports in the literature regarding NAC meetings sometimes confirm that impression, such as this from Patricia Mousetail Russell, a Southern Cheyenne: "I have never seen colors or experienced delusions of any sort while taking Peyote. What it feels like is that I am sitting right by God the Creator."8 Or this, from Virginia C. Trenholm: "Those who have unpleasant reactions or see fantastic or frightening objects during a meeting are said to have allowed their thoughts to wander. By controlling one's thinking, one finds inspiration in the quiet meditation of a meeting."9
One shouldn't draw too sharp a distinction between the experiences with different entheogens however. Ayahuasca in particular, as described in that chapter, is being employed by large numbers of people in religious gatherings like those of the Santo Daime of Brazil. The dosage level in those meetings is said to be moderate, not as large as sometimes taken in traditional native Amazonian jungle environments. A group experience somewhat similar to that of the NAC meetings has been reported, with less emphasis on the visual experience and more on the opening of the heart to Spirit in shared ritual space. The core experience of most value must be this awakening to reality.
The peyote filled me, gave me a sense of depth and dimension, a sense of opening, of oneness with the universe. Everything, the beadwork, the room itself, the faces of the others, grew visually intense; every detail came into focus. I became an eagle, soaring with the chant, over a lake of clear blue water. My veins filled with love, and the drumbeats entered, became one with my pulse. The Great Spirit was everywhere. Time had stopped and we were ancient beings, without need of language.10 --Sun Bear
It is said by elders of the Native American Church that the voice -- the teachings, the healing power -- of the peyote medicine Spirit is active on the planet at this time, working behind the scenes and beneath the radar, whispering guidance to the attuned, empowering and participating in the spread of the vision of the joining of the four directions, and guiding the unfolding of the prayer for planetary healing and awakening.
- Albert Hensley, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, by Huston Smith, 117.
- Nancy Littlefish, NAC elder, in conversation with the author.
- Weston La Barre, The Peyote Cult, 110, 111.
- Huston Smith, One Nation Under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church, 128.
- La Barre, 71.
- Aurelio Diaz Tekpankalli, Fire on the Mountain DVD.
- Reuben Snake, One Nation Under God, 20.
- Patricia Mousetail Russell, Ibid, 40.
- Virginia C. Trenholm, Ibid, 40.
- Sun Bear, The Peyote Book, by Guy Mount, 62.
Teaser image by Andyshineyes, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet