Peyote religion

When starting the peyote religion that eventually became the Native American Church, Quanah Parker remembered well what the curandera taught him.

He wore the beads like she had instructed, perhaps hers were rosary beads, but as a peyote leader, a Road Man, or He Who Shows the Road, as they are called, he wore the beads over his right shoulder and hanging down his left side.

The beads were really the beans of the bush under which the woman in the legend found the peyote (See Legend of the Peyote). Other men participating in the ceremony wore their beads in identical fashion.

The peyote ceremony, like other Indian ceremonies, has a fire for which to cleanse the mind and body. With the fire was incense; various resins were used but cedar became the standard for the plains people. Smoking occurred too; instead of passing the pipe the Mexican peyote worshippers passed cigarettes of native-grown tobacco and shredded willow bark rolled in corn husks.

Another integral part of the ceremony was the use of bird feathers that represented bird power. Quanah received his bird power from the eagle for which he was named and preferred that bird’s feathers. However, feathers of other birds that were available, even parakeets, could also be used, but feathers of predators were preferred.

Along with the incensed smoke the feathers would carry the prayers of the men to heaven as they ascended. Predators were preferred since they were strong and were able to better bear heartache and repentance; and their presence was thought to protect the worshipper.

The sacrament of peyote must be present during the ceremony. It presence was in form of peyote buttons which were supplied by the Road Man or each worshipper brought his own. That peyote is smoked is a common misconception.

Smoking peyote is impossible because it simply will not burn in a pipe or cigarette. The buttons, either fresh or dried, are eaten by younger worshippers and ground up, in a food grinder, into a powder and ate by older worshippers or drank in a tea.

There is a central alter. The worshippers sit around it. When the ceremony was first introduced on the plains a polite behavior was observed, anyone entering or leaving the tipi walked behind the worshippers, never between them and the altar.

This behavior was not always followed as the peyote worship spread and new worshippers were unfamiliar with it. The movement around the tipi was strictly followed though, always from the door to the east, to south, to west, to north, no exception.

The shape of the altar varied among tribes. In some it was moon-shaped with a flattened top; in others it had a deep groove paralleling the upper curve.

Sometimes the ashes of the fire were scraped back against the inside of the altar throughout the night; in other ceremonies the Door-keeper, the Road Man’s assistant, would from time to time carry the ashes out of the tipi, letting them blow away in the wind carrying the prayers of the worshippers with them.

On the crest of the moon-shaped altar, resting in the curve of its flat top or the curve of its groove was the Father Peyote. This button, originally selected for its size and perfection of form, represented the power of the belief.

This treasured button at various tribal ceremonies might be placed on a silk handkerchief, a bed of sage, or ashes from the previous ceremony. As with many reverend symbols, many people, especially non-Indian, mistakenly thought Father Peyote was being worshipped failing to comprehend that this button was a symbol of the Great Spirit whom the men were worshipping and praying to.

Father Peyote was a prized talisman of the Road Man, used ceremony after ceremony, and sometimes passed from father to son.

It was usually housed in a beaded and fringed buckskin case representing the sun and it rays as the peyote did, and worn as a necklace by the Road Man as a way of carrying Father Peyote. Eventually when such cases were found in museum collections they would be mistaken as watch cases.

The Road Man was neither priest nor minister, for in the peyote religion there were none, each man was his own minister of his spirit.

Any one could be a Road Man as long as he provided the ceremonial tipi, supplied the peyote for those without it, and supplies the food for the feast held the following day for those in attendance of the ceremony and those who dropped by to share in the feast.

The feasts were one of the ways by which women participated in the peyote worship; they prepared for the men who had prayed all through the night and perhaps fasted prior to the ceremony.

Some have speculated these feasts where adopted from Christianity, the after church or service socials where food and clothing was given to the poor, but this is incorrect. The preparation of food by women was specifically specified by the curandera who gave the peyote religion to Quanah.

The Road Man might do various optional things during the ceremony according to his choice such as stepping out of the tipi and blowing signals to the other worshippers from an eagle wing-bone whistle whenever the sky changed overhead-such practice was usually standard, reciting native prayers, singing peyote vision songs, and some might read from the Bible.

Many a Road Man had some sort of stick which showed their authority, but this was optional too.

It seems that Quanah was sort of selective of the men he instated in the religion. The reason for the selection of Tonagat (Snapping Turtle) one of the first Kiowas admitted to the rites is unknown, perhaps he was one of the few men that Quanah afraid of him.

Tonagat had a reputation. It seemed he had what was called a witch power that was associated with water. Many times he told others that when he became unconscious they should submerge him in the water of the Washita River and leave him there until sunset.

Then he would arise and lead them to a peyote ritual. In spite of his apparent faith in peyote, Tonagat continued practicing the use of evil power which he seemed to gain during his boyhood quest a guardian spirit.

He just did evil things like stealing men’s wives, witching cattle and horses into his own corrals or killing them outright in their owner’s fields, and putting sick spells on men, women, and children who he was later paid to cure.

He insisted the taking of peyote just increase his evil rather than giving him a new faith.

As time went by his people were getting somewhat tired of Tonagat’s shenanigans. Then at a ritual, in a shamanic manner, he digested a foreign object in the form of a Father Peyote button which was supposed to come out of him.

After a song and prayer he began coughing and choking; finally he fell faced down on the ceremonial ashes of the fire, probably unconscious or dead. His members now were undecided whether to submerge him in the river again or not.

At the time two Baptist missionaries, sisters, were in the area so the Kiowas took their problem to them. After seriously considering it, after all here was a human life even if not a too desirable one, the missionaries boiled the problem down to whether the people wanted Tonagat back.

Their decision was that they did not, so the sisters said prayers over him at his funeral.

Another man told of finding his guardian spirit when his father sent him on a quest for power as a boy wearing nothing but his moccasins and breechcloth. He cried to the One Above for a guardian, and was told to look down at his feet where he saw a little lizard, called a mountain boomer. It began to grow until it stood above the boy’s head, and told him to trust him and do whatever he said.

The lizard said the boy might not always see him, but he would always be near him. Shortly afterwards the man said he fell and near him he found a tiny black arrowhead which he tied to his scalp rock because he knew the mountain boomer meant for him to have it.

He then went home and told his father, and his mother washed him and gave him some warm broth. Then he slept a while and was taken into the sweat lodge tipi where he sweated till he was clean all the way through.

Things went very bad for the Kiowas, and after his brother was killed in a raid the man was locked up with others in a horse corral in Texas. When getting out he could count his ribs from being so thin. Afterwards he met Quanah Parker and later went into the peyote tipi with him.

There through the smoke and eating peyote he again saw his mountain boomer standing as tall as a mesa, facing him. The lizard told him that he was doing the «right thing,» meaning the life he was living, but to take the new thing too.

The man said he has never been sorry he took the peyote road; in times of trouble and sorrow he has been doubtful and wondered, but when touching the little arrowhead he would know everything was all right.

Besides the preparation of food which had been mentioned, the woman’s minor participation of the ceremony was to bring a bucket of water at midnight and dawn, symbolizing a new day and the new life which women bring.

Sometimes there was more than one water-bearer. Eventually sometimes this honor was given to a young girl or boy. There was no need for a rationale for the girl since women participation was required as previously cited. The young girl might be the relative, daughter, of the Road Man or a prominent member of the tribe.

Usually in case of the young boy, he had just reached the age of a warrior, and this honor was given to him because he could be killed during his first battle. Gradually women participated more actively in the peyote ceremonies either by praying, drumming, or singing. Women achieved advanced status among the eastern horticultural tribes before they did in the hunting societies.

Some of the men around Quanah learned the cattle business from him. They bought stock in Texas and parts of Mexico. On their return trip home they not only herded cattle, but collected peyote buttons by the bags full so the members would have an ample supply.

Another interesting fact about cattle and the spreading of the peyote religion was that originally the railroads only ran from east to west, not north to south, so cattle south of the rail lines had to be driven to the rail heads to be loaded for transfer. On these drives the peyotists met others which helped the spread of the religion.

Even after the cattle drives stopped the peyotists still made trips to collect the peyote. Some tell of family vacation trips, the husband was on vacation and the kids were out of school, and they would drive beyond Fort Stockton, Texas, camp out over night then in the morning collect peyote buttons where they found them. Sometimes they were not seen the night before but surprisingly appeared in the morning which seemed like a blessing.

The legal status was always complicated to define such as sacramental wine. Some territories where Native Americans were centered prohibited the sale of alcohol while others were wide opened. Even the Eighteenth Amendment did not solve the problem.

Although legal officials and some religious leaders were upset with peyote use, it could not be defined as alcoholic, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not sure it fell with the jurisdiction of the Narcotics Act.

Finally a legal case was decided in Dallas, Texas in 1969. The ruling declared that members of the Native American Church were permitted to own, transport, and use peyote in its natural state. For all others, including nonmember Indians, peyote was strictly forbidden. Still other cases were pending.

In 1918 the Native American Church applied for their charter from the new state of Oklahoma and received it.

Other peyote groups soon followed suit. Apparently the peyote religion seems to spread as it originally did, for example, members serving in World Wars I and II furthered its growth. A.G.H.


Marriott, Alice, Carol K. Rachlin. Peyote. New York. Thomas Y. Crowell, Co. 1971.
Neeley, Bill. «Peyote.» The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker. New York. John Wiley & Sons. 1995.