By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Peyote is a small, spineless cactus native to northern Mexico and southern Texas. Non-Indians typically defined peyote as a drug because of its hallucinogenic properties. And for this reason, missionaries and federal agents took it upon themselves to stamp it out. But for followers of the Peyote Way, peyote was, and is, a sacrament, just like the bread and wine in the Christian tradition. In fact, some peyotists considered peyote to be the body of Christ.
The Spread of the Peyote Way
Anthropologist Omer Stewart surmised that the Lipan and Mescalero Apache of the American Southwest adopted peyote from the Indigenous people in south Texas and northern Mexico during the 1700s. And from there, it spread to the Comanches and across the southern Plains and beyond during the mid-19th century.
The Peyote Way took hold in Western Oklahoma by the late-19th century. And, like the Ghost Dance, the people who carried the Peyote Way from one community to the next, took advantage of railroad networks and made innovations to the ideas, the songs, and the ceremonies.
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Two of the most important late 19th- and early 20th-century peyote roadmen, or leaders of peyote ceremonies, were Quanah Parker, a Comanche, and John Wilson, a Caddo. Quanah Parker defined one of the mainstays of the peyote tradition, called the Half Moon Way, in reference to the shape of the altar that is a central part of the peyote ceremony.
John Wilson, on the other hand, established the Big Moon or Cross Fire Way, which was revealed to him and carried its own songs and a distinctive altar in the shape of a horseshoe.
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Christianity and Christian Symbols
One of the most important distinguishing features of these traditions was the degree to which Christianity and Christian symbols were woven into the meetings, with Wilson’s version integrating far more than Parker’s.
Evidence of the multiple forms syncretism took in the Peyote Way can be seen in peyote songs and hymns, the content and form of prayers, and the integration of Christian and American iconography on everything—from a roadman’s peyote box to scripture readings and the incorporation of the crucifix and the Bible on the altar.
Christian and American Signs
The Peyote Way also came to include an elaborate artistic tradition filled with beautiful iconography and featured specialized adorned accoutrements, including feather fans, water drums, gourd rattles, prayer staffs, and eagle bone whistles. Here, too, both Christian and American signs, such as the American flag, abounded.
For American Indian practitioners of the Peyote Way, peyote was a means of communing with the sacred. It taught its followers how to think good thoughts and know good from evil. The Peyote Way also underscored right living in the form of eschewing alcohol, infidelity, and fighting.
But that didn’t stop Christian missionaries and federal agents from launching campaigns against it. Interestingly, Quanah Parker, who served as the Comanche’s principal chief, actually welcomed the presence of missionaries, sent his children to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, served on the Court of Indian Offenses, supported the leasing of tribal lands to ranchers, and spoke out against the Ghost Dance.
One of the reasons, though, was to protect the Peyote Way. And when it came time to fight openly, Quanah also accepted that challenge.
Formal Protection of Religious Freedom
As Oklahoma moved toward statehood in 1906 and 1907, Quanah was among the Indian delegates at the Constitutional Convention and advocated for the formal protection of their religious freedom.
After Quanah’s death in 1911 and a federal legislative assault, the peyotists incorporated under the state laws of Oklahoma as the Native American Church in 1918. They did so in order to give the Peyote Way a standing as a legitimate institution in the eyes and laws of the majority society.
Both the Ghost Dance and the Peyote Way manifested assimilation’s unintended consequences. Returned students—students who had attended off-reservation boarding schools—were among the Ghost Dancers and sometimes became leaders of the Native American Church. In these religious movements, they found new ways of carving out a sense of belonging.
One such instance was that of Plenty Horses, the Lakota who killed the white officer in the days following the Wounded Knee Massacre. Plenty Horses attended Carlisle from 1883 to 1889 and returned home to find it equally hard to reintegrate into Lakota society. He had been away at a pivotal moment of his social development—a time when he was to become an adult member of Lakota society.
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Ghost Dance and the Native American Church
One of the ways Plenty Horses found his place was through the Ghost Dance. And when that was taken away, according to the scholar Philip Deloria, “He used violence to redraw a boundary of difference between white and Indian and to place himself squarely on the Indian side.”
While the Ghost Dance and the Native American Church represented two of the most visible forms of turning to the sacred to find hope in an age of despair, a sense of belonging in an age of alienation, and a sense of reconciliation amidst incredible instability and uncertainty, they were by no means the only ones.
Reimagining the Meaning of Indianness
Among the Oto and Potawatomi, the Oto prophet William Faw Faw provided a compelling vision to guide them into the future. In the Great Lakes region, the Ojibwe continued the Midewiwin tradition and the Dream Drum.
In the Pacific Northwest, Native people continued to hold potlatches, while John Slocum, a Squaxin prophet, founded the Indian Shaker Church. Still, other individuals moved into the world that was engulfing them, reimagining the meaning of Indianness in the process.
Whatever path they chose, Native people seemed intent upon not accepting the limited options articulated by American Horse in the wake of Plenty Horses’ trial. They refused the notion that Indians would soon be no more.
Common Questions about the Peyote Way: A Renewed Sense of Belongingness
Two of the most important peyote roadmen or leaders of peyote ceremonies, were Quanah Parker, a Comanche, and John Wilson, a Caddo.
They did so in order to give the Peyote Way a standing as a legitimate institution in the eyes and laws of the majority society.
Plenty Horses was a young Lakota man who killed the white officer in the days following the Wounded Knee Massacre.