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Written by Weston La Barre   
Sunday, 16 January 2011 00:00


Very few ascertainably Christian elements are discoverable in Mexican peyotism. Some such as "curing" with rosaries of Job's-tears beads dipped in tesvino, eating bits of the idol's body and the like, may be largely aboriginal.' "El Santo Nifio de Peyote" of Santa Rosalia is apparently a local variation of EI Santo Nifio de Atoche; the mission of El Santo Nombre de Jesus Peyotes is so-called merely from the a bundance of the plant there-abouts. The overlay of Mexican Catholicism is elsewhere thin and localized also. The Hui-chol2 see the saints in their color visions as pictures or giant men and women walking about; sometimes they press the saints into service in their rain-making ceremonies. The cross' in tesvino-curing and those on the Huichol peyote patio may really derive from an old native four-point symbolism. The Tarahumari4 call the large green hikuli "peyote christiano," in contrast to a small, red, ineffective one called "peyote cimarr6n," and Chris-tian Tarahumari lift their hats to the plant and make the sign of the cross, but the essential ritual was unmodified by Christian ideas. None of these Christian features is common to Mexican peyotism.

The rite as it came to the United States, then, was aboriginal in character, as far as we can ascertain. Opler writes that'

there is no hint of the influence of Christianity in the Mescalero use of peyote. The growth of the cult among these people has been maintained entirely within the traditional bounds of Apache ceremonialism. Indeed, far from becoming a weakened and Christianized version of native beliefs, the Mescalero Apache acceptance of peyote resulted instead in an intensification of the aboriginal religious values and concepts at many points.

This characterization would equally well fit the basic Kiowa-Comanche rite of the Plains, in which Christian elements are quite absent. These elements in the Plains are distinctly a secondary development, stemming from the Oto Koshiway and such Oto-influenced groups as the Omaha, Iowa and Winnebago6 and the groups taught by John Wilson, such as the Delaware, Quapaw and Osage.

Arapaho-Winnebago officials and ritual food are given Christian symbolism:7

During the evening the leader represents the first created man, the woman dressed up is the New Jerusalem, the bride waiting for the bridegroom. The cup used by the leader and the woman is supposed to symbolize the fact that they are to become one; the water represents the God's gift, His Holiness. The corn represents the feast to be partaken of on the Day of Judgment and the fruit represents the fruit of the tree of life. The meat represents the message of Christ and those who accept it will be saved.

The Winnebago, Quapaw and Osage peyote officials represent the Father (the leader), the Son (the drummer) and the Holy Ghost (the cedar-man); the trinity of hearts in the Big Moon may represent much the same idea in the Osage-Quapaw rite.

Koshiway said that the bird into which the Oto ashes are shaped is

the Spirit descending when Jesus was baptized : the Holy Spirit, like an eagle, with good eyes; you can't fool it. [The ashes themselves represent] a prayer for the white hair of old age, and the fire is like the fire through which God spoke to Moses. Peyote is like a "telescope" through which you can see God.

The Delaware twin piles of ashes symbolize Christ's lungs; Mary Buffalo says one pile is the grave of Christ, the other of John Wilson, among the Osage; the Quapaw say the whole coffin-shaped fire-pit is Christ's grave. The Ponca, according to Brabant, believed the body of the Saviour would emerge from the altar and become visible to those who had eaten enough of the sacred plant. Among the Caddo,

the first stick in the fire represents the heart. There are twelve other sticks which represent the ribs [of Christ, as the ashes his lungs].8

The paraphernalia of the ceremony are also given Christian interpretations. The Dela-ware followers of Wilson call the corn husk cigarette the "pipe of Jesus." And of an un-specified group Mooney writes that

many of the mescal eaters wear crucifixes, which they regard as sacred emblems of the rite, the cross representing the cross of scented leaves upon which the consecrated mescal rests during the ceremony, while the Christ is the mescal goddess.

Some Kiowa leaders make a cross under the water bucket, and cross the feathers in the water before drinkine and the peyote staff, like that of the Delaware, often has an inconspicuous cross near the top. The twelve feathers of the Omaha leader's fan represent the twelve apostles of Christ. The Winnebago fans differ for the John Rave and the Jesse Clay rites, but both sects use eagle feathers which represent the wings of the birds men-tioned in Revelations. John Rave's staff is symbolk of the "shepherd's crook," and the mound of earth in the altar is "Mt. Sinai." White Buffalo said that gourd rattles among the Nebraska Winnebago commonly bore drawings of Christ, his cross and crown, etc., and Radin says they often bear drawings of scenes from the Bible as well as peyote visions. A Cheyenne gourd seen at Apache and made by Spotted Crow had the following "Jesus talk" on it:

Help me 0 Lord My God 0 save me According to thy Mercy 0 God my heart is fixed. I will sing And give praise Even with my Glory.

The Winnebago explain that the exchange of gourd and drum between the leader and his assistant when singing the set songs means that "God gives power to Christ, in Heaven and earth," just as the leader delegates his authority. The blowing of the leader's "flute" at the four points of the compass is to announce the birth of Christ to the world, and later it symbolizes the trumpet of the Day of Judgment, when Christ will appear wearing the crown of glory (symbolized by the leader's otter skin hat, worn at this time)."

The Bible as an additional piece of peyote paraphernalia probably stems from the Christianism of the Oto, who used it in their meetings, being mentioned also for the Iowa, Omaha and Winnebago. The New Testament, and particularly Revelations, is a favorite among the Rave cultists (Jesse Clay's followers do not use the Bible)—Crashing Thunder finding in it authority for a hair-cut, and others discovering reasons after the fact for hold-ing their meetings at night. Three Old Testament texts are widely known also:

And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread ; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. (Exodus 12.8.)

And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it as a feast by an ordinance forever. (Exodus 12.14.)

For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy : and if the root be holy, so are the branches. . . . Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. (Romans 11.16 and IS.)

Various other Biblical references appear in the ceremony. Among the Iowa the leader carries the water himself in the morning to show his humility, and because of Christ's washing of feet mentioned in the Gospels. The Winnebago equate the physiological action of peyote with Christ's casting out devils. A Comanche said suffering is caused by one's sins and lack of faith in peyote, and that point in the night when nausea is commonly severest is called the "Dark Hour, the hour of the Crucifixion." A Kickapoo leader often cast his prophecies in Biblical language. A Kiowa, again, appeared to have a belief about the first peyote found which parallels the miraculous proliferation of the loaves and the fishes in the Bible. Koshiway compared the Indians to the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, when Christ said "Peace, be still!" to the angry waves, just as peyote says it to the storm-tossed Indians in this latter-day world. And for the man who lives a good life, the ashes of the fire will open up like the waters of the Red Sea, and he can pass through the fire to the father peyote along the "Peyote Road" on the moon."

Some two dozen songs, previously reported in the text, show Christian influence. The closing song of the Negro Church of the First-born was the Christian hymn, "Till We Meet Again," but the majority of peyote songs have native words. The Rave rite, derived from the Oto and the Quapaw (influenced by the Christianity of Jonathan Koshiway and John Wilson, respectively), contained more Christian elements in symbolism and song than the Jesse Clay cult. This was the more aboriginal, yet he back-handedly quoted the Scriptures to justify the plain staff ("like Moses' ") of his ceremony as against the decorated staff' of Rave. Occasional peyote visions show Christian influence: some of Crashing Thunder's were of this sort, and a Kiowa had visions of a mitred priest who nodded smilingly and approvingly at the father peyote on the altar, but in the visions collected Christian ele-ments are uncommon."

Mexican peyotism and the Wilson rite were influenced by Catholicism, but the Church of the First-born and the Native American Church by Protestantism (the Russellites, the Mormons, etc.). At the first Oto meeting attended a vessel was passed around in the morn-ing for a "free-will offering," as in Protestant churches, and the Pawnee, Kiowa and others have "Ladies' Auxiliaries" to the local Native American Church. These women have quilting parties, can fruit, make up box lunches to raise church money and visit the sick, much as their White sisters do. Other White elements appear in the meetings themselves. The Iowa leader and fireman, for instance, shake hands with everyone in the tipi after the ritual feast, in token of friendship and good will. The Osage and Quapaw "round-houses," too, are in obvious imitation of White peoples' churches, but the Osage are criticized for ostentation along White "leisure class" lines. More conservative groups make disparaging remarks about the "beds" in their meetings, their electric lights in the round house, and their cigars—some Osage churches are even provided with spittoons!

Yet when all these features have been summed up, it is still clear that the Iayer of Christianity on peyotism is very thin and superficial indeed. Furthermore, the Christianized Wilson and Rave rites among the Caddo and Winnebago are currently losing followers to the more conservative Hoag and Jesse Clay moons—and there are frequent expostula-tions against the mixing of the native religion with the White." Some groups feel no in-consistency in belonging to both the peyote church and some White Protestant sect as well, but the unfriendliness of the functionaries of the latter groups toward peyotism and their lack of reciprocal tolerance has driven many borderline cases openly into the peyote church. The Indians feel, perhaps rightly, that peyotism is their last strong link with the aboriginal past, which others are trying to destroy. Hence it has contributed greatly to the sense of community and morale of the Indian groups in Oklahoma.

Of course apologists sometimes use Christian arguments to confound the enemies of the cult, as when peyote and the water are equated to the Catholic use of bread and wine in Communion," or when Old Man Green (Oto) told a minister that he was condemning God's work in attacking peyote. But these do not proceed from any profound faith in Christianity. A Shawnee comment is most typical:

Christ was born only several hundred years ago, not when the world was created, like peyote. Prayers are still addressed to the older tribal deities in peyote meetings : the Winne-bago to Earthmaker, the Oto to Wakan, the Cheyenne to Mayan, etc. A Kickapoo sum-med up the religious history of his tribe as follows :

We had medicine bags before Jesus was born over in Bethlehem, in the old country. The old generation worshipped idols. When God's son was going to be born, they were trying to make the people believe God. And after Jesus was born, they commenced this [peyote].

Nevertheless, it should be reiterated that on the whole, despite the apparent and super-ficial syncretism with Christianity, peyotism is an essentially aboriginal American religion, operating in terms of fundamental Indian concepts about powers, visions and native modes of doctoring. The Christianity of many native Christians is precarious at best—as we have seen from various case histories—when it comes into any very serious conflict with native culture. Perhaps most peyote-users would echo the words of the famous Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, with reference to the superiority of peyotism over Christianity:

The white man [he said] goes into his church house and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.'s

1 "[De la Serna] adds that . . . they delighted in caricaturing the Eucharist, dividing among their congre-gation a narcotic yellow mushroom for the bread, and the inebriating pulque for the wine. Sometimes they adroitly concealed in the pyx, alongside the holy water, some little idol of their own, so that they really followed their own superstitions while seemingly adoring the Host. They assigned a purely pagan sense to the sacred formula, 'Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,' understanding it to be, 'Fire, Earth, and Water,' or the like" (Brinton, Nagualism, 28); Bennett and Zingg, The Tarahumara, 369, 385. Coix Lachryma Jobi was an early Spanish in-troduction, but may have replaced some native seed (e.g., mescal) used as beads. Serna's mushroom is probably teo-nanacatl.

2 Klineberg, Notes on the Huichol, 449; Lumholtz, Unknown Mexico, 1: 314; 2: /7o, 189.

3 Lumholtz, op. cit., 2: 171-72, 272; Bennett and Zingg, The Tarahumara, 294.

4 Bennett and Zingg, op. cit., 29o; Lumholtz, Unknown Mexico, 360-61. On Tarahumari Christianity see Handbook of the American Indians, 2: 692b; the ease of acceptance suggests congruence with aboriginal forms.

5 Opler, The Influence of Aboriginal Pattern.

6 The Winnebago did not introduce the first Claristian elements, as Radin believed. A Taos Indian (Plains-influenced?) once visioned Christ (Parsons, Taos Pueblo, 66).

7 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 418; Densmore, The Peyote CUlt.

8 Petrullo, The Diabolic Root, lox, 113; Brabant, in Seymour, Peyote Worship, 1132.. Cf. Gilmore's Omaha (The Mescal Society, 165-66) whose fireplace is the heart of Jesus.

9 But there seemed to be a certain quality of propaganda for the ethnographer's benefit in one Kiowa doc, toring meeting, when the name of Jesus was mentioned in prayers with unwonted frequency.

10 Petrullo, The Diabolic Root, 96, cf. 56-59, 67, 96, note 9; Mooney, A Kiowa Mescal Rattle, 65; Harring-ton, Religion and Ceremonies, 186-88; Gilmore, The Mescal Society, 165-66; U ses of Plants, 106; Densmore, The Peyote Cult; Radin, A Sketch of the Peyote Cult, 4, 12; The Winnebago Tribe, 416-17; White Buffalo in Blair, The Indian Tribes, 2.82 (letter of April 15, 1909).

11 Skinner, Societies of the Iowa, 724, 727; Gilmore, The Mescal Society, 165-66; The Uses of Plants; Dens, more, Winnebago Songs of the Peyote Ceremony; The Peyote Cult; Radin, A Sketch of the Peyote Cult, 5-6; The Winnebago Tribe, 394-95; Crashing Thunder, 286-87, 200; Simmons, in Mooney, Miscellaneous Notes.

12 Skinner, Societies of the Iowa, 727-28; Murie, Pawnee Indian Societies, 637; Densmore, The Peyote Cult; Winnebago Songs of the Peyote Ceremony; Radin, A Sketch of the Peyote Cult, 5; The Winnebago Tribe, 395; Crashing Thunder, 193-94; Smith [Mrs. M. G.], A Negro Peyote Cult.

13 The turmoil among the Caddo seems to grow out of the attempt to mix Christian with native motives
and John Wilson is nowadays by no means universally revered. "There have been some Delawares living with the Caddo who have from time to time tried to introduce the Catholic faith in the Peyote meeting. Often they used the crucifix on the Peyote on the moon. All these attempts have met with opposition from most of the Del, awares" (Petrullo, The Diabolic Root, 77),

14 Petition of 62, Osage to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, in Peyote, as Used in Religious Worship, 64-67.

15 Simmons, The Peyote Road

Last Updated on Saturday, 22 January 2011 13:15

Our valuable member Weston La Barre has been with us since Sunday, 09 January 2011.

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