Native American Church Peyote Ceremony
Mirando City, Texas
By: Jim Jones
© 1996 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
MIRANDO CITY, Texas — Drumbeats pounded into the Texas night. Ghostly shadows wavered on the walls of the tepee. The air filled with the smell of incense from tobacco and corn-husk cigarettes. In a close circle, 40 American Indians prayed … for the dead, for the sick, for world peace. Their voices chanted ancient, glorious noise. Then came the peyote. It was passed clockwise, with reverence, around the circle. The true spiritual journey began.
It was a grueling all-night ritual, and these worshipers gathered around a blazing fire were among more than 1,000 American Indians from various tribes, including major officials of the 250,000-member Native American Church, who’ve made this holy pilgrimage.
It was an annual, mid-February trip for many seeking spiritual renewal in South Texas brush country, the only place in the United States where the sacred plant grows.
The “peyote gardens,” stretching from Rio Grande City to Laredo, are considered holy ground by those who venerate peyote, a humble-looking flat spineless cactus, as the central sacrament of the Native American Church.
Believers see it as a magical plant that can evoke visions of truth. They say it heals and helps fight diseases from heart ailments to rheumatism. More important, they are sure it as a path toward the Divine Presence.
“It brings us closer to God,” said Alden “Junior” Naranjo, a Ute Indian Shaman from Colorado, as he prepared for his peyote service in a 30-foot high tepee. “Peyote is our blessed sacrament; it is our healer.”
Despite such reverence, peyote is still under fire as a controversial hallucinogen, the source of court battles and legal disputes for decades. Even some Native American tribes are skeptical of its use.
Drug enforcement officials classify peyote, a drug of choice by hippies in the ’60s, in the same category as LSD. Non-Indians caught using it are charged with illegal drug possession.
But for about 30 years, Texas has made it legal for believers who are at least 25 percent American Indian to use peyote in religious observances, a right supported by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Understandably, there is the fear among Indians of the ritual being misunderstood.
One group of Apaches who worshiped in another tepee set up in nearby Oilton declined to talk about their faith.
“We don’t want to be exploited,” said a woman who asked not to be quoted by name. “This is all we have.”
Other leaders are eager to make their case that peyote ritual is not an excuse to get high.
“We get a lot of goodness out of it,” said Anthony Davis, 86, of Santa Fe, N.M., who has been making the Texas pilgrimage since he was 17.
Davis, president of the Native American Church in Texas, attributed his longevity and great health to peyote. “I’ve been using peyote since I was a boy in Pawnee, Okla.,” Davis said. “I had heart problems. But a Navajo man doctored me and I still have my heart.”
Peyote religion combines Christian and Native American traditions, and some of the ceremonies use Christian imagery, such as crucifixes. But the theology centers on the belief that peyote can bring peace of mind; teach one to think good thoughts; know the difference between right and wrong; and heal illnesses if one sincerely believes and concentrates.
Peyote, which is eaten, usually causes sweating, heightened attention and wakefulness. Some people, but not all, have hallucinations that they interpret as visions of truth. Sometimes, peyote’s effects are unpleasant: Worshipers occasionally vomit and are said to be “cleansed” of their sins after eating peyote. They spit a lot, since the drug stimulates the salivary glands.
Certainly, peyote has time and history on its side. It’s been used for at least 10,000 years by tribes in North and South America, sometimes to increase adrenalin during battles. Often, it was a tool to look into the future or help find lost objects.
Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, one of the organizers of the Native American Church, popularized peyote use among tribes in Oklahoma in the late 1800s. In those days, peyote was shipped from South Texas by such old railways as the Fort Worth and Denver City line. But Naranjo said peyote use here dates back even further. “People have been coming down here and south of here (in Mexico) from time immemorial. They came down here before the Europeans arrived,” he said.
The recent peyote meetings at Mirando City, held at the home of Amada Cardenas, a highly revered former peyote seller who has willed part of her land to the Native American Church, were private. But the Indians welcomed visitors to observe preparations for the services and permitted them inside the tepee before the prayer meetings began. Later, they were allowed to remain near the tepee to listen and catch sight of the rituals as a fire keeper emerged several times to bring in wood.
A Japanese film crew producing a documentary on the Native American Church positioned large microphones near the edge of the tepee to pick up sounds of the peyote prayer services. For observers, this was a rare glimpse of ancient ritual in a world that sometimes seems intent on discarding the past. But believers worried that even this ritual, so central to their spiritual lives, won’t be around forever. That’s because the cactus, which hides in rattlesnake-infested caliche hills, is getting scarce. “We don’t have enough,” said Isabel Lopez of Oilton, one of about nine peyote dealers licensed by the controlled substances division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Behind Lopez’s white frame residence, Indians carried away burlap sacks stuffed with peyote buttons, which sell for $100 per 1,000. Lopez had just sent her husband, Margarito Lopez, to a site 40 miles away to harvest more peyote. Sometimes, when supplies are low, she has to diplomatically ration the amount of peyote that she sells to each individual.
Salvadore Johnson, a veteran peyote distributor in Mirando City, said there is no way to obtain adequate supplies for the growing Native American Church. “The hardest part is that we don’t have enough peyote to sell,” said Johnson. “This weekend (during the pilgrimage), we easily could have sold 250,000 buttons.” At one time, there were no fences around the prairies where peyote grows. “We were able to just go out there in the fields and harvest the medicine,” Naranjo said. “A lot of people had prayer meetings out in the fields where the peyote grows.” Now, most of the peyote grows behind well-fenced land owned by ranchers and by those who lease land for deer and quail hunting. Typically, licensed peyote dealers pay a fee to allow them to harvest on land they do not own. Frequent harvesting has caused the size of peyote buttons to decrease.
“Twenty-five years ago we would only pick peyote buttons that were 21/4 to 21/2 inches in diameter,” Johnson said. “Now we are harvesting buttons only an inch in diameter.” Last month in Laredo, Indian leaders asked state and county government officials and ranchers to help put a stop to improper harvesting and the black-marketing of peyote. “We are saying this was a historic meeting because it is the first time we have had a dialogue by all those involved with peyote harvesting,” said Robert Whitehorse, president of the Native American Church of Navajoland. This is just the beginning of the dialogue. Albert Hale, president of the Navajo Nation, said that, with the help of botanists, they can ensure supplies of peyote for future generations.
“We want to be sure peyote is here from now to eternity,” Hale said.
Peyote still thorny topic in law, faith
By Bonnie Pfister
Express-News Border Bureau
Web Posted : 10/15/2001 12:00 AM
MIRANDO CITY ~~ To tens of thousands of Native Americans, this little dot on the map south of Texas 359 is holy land. And here, unique in the United States, lives a deity. It is peyote, an ancient hallucinogenic root that grows only in the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico and north of the border between Laredo and Rio Grande City. Bitter-tasting peyote is both savior and sacrament in the Native American Church. But who may purchase it is increasingly a matter subject to debate. Various state laws are in conflict, and localities’ attempts to harmonize their rules with federal regulations have raised further questions.
In Texas, new enforcement procedures by the Department of Public Safety have, unintentionally, left Canadian indigenous groups uncertain of whether they can continue to purchase the cactus. And in Utah, the state Supreme Court is considering whether to take up a case that pits constitutionally protected freedom of religion for all Americans against the congressional mandate that peyote only be available to members of federally recognized Indian tribes.
James Mooney, founder and leader of a 4-year-old Oklevueha EarthWalks Native American Church, face 12 felony counts for distributing peyote from his Spanish Fork, Utah, home. State prosecutors say Mooney’s claims of more than one-quarter Indian blood are irrelevant because he is not a member of one of the 550 federally recognized tribes. By distributing peyote ~ often for a price ~ at weekend ceremonies, prosecutors say Mooney is running an enterprise akin to Mafia racketeering.
In Mirando City, about 30 miles east of Laredo, peyote harvesters and distributors have stopped shipping their goods to Mooney until the legal battle plays itself out. Salvador Johnson, a peyotero for 30 years, is one of six distributors in the nation licensed by the Texas Department of Public Safety and registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “I’ve seen Mooney help a lot of people ~ people with drug addictions, alcohol problems. But it gets controversial when you start giving peyote to white people,” Johnson said.
Lophophora Williamsii was first revered by Huichol Indians of Mexico perhaps as early as 200 A.D., according to Jay Fikes, writing about the Native American Church for the Council on Spiritual Practices. The mescaline-dense cactus was considered the “heart, soul and memory of their creator.” Ingesting it, like taking communion in the Catholic Church, was a way of getting closer to, and understanding, the supreme spirit.
Spanish missionaries document peyote’s use in rituals by the Carrizo Indians near Laredo as early as 1649. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that a Smithsonian Institution ethnologist began studying the cactus’ use among the Kiowa in Oklahoma, as well as the Tarahumara in Mexico. In 1918, Fikes wrote, the ethnologist testified in favor of Native American peyotists before Congress, and went on to help Oklahoma tribes charter the first Native American Church to protect their religious freedom.
Today there are three “umbrella” Native American Churches: the original Church of Oklahoma; the Church of Navajoland in the Four Corners region, and the Church of North America, which is run by board members based in Arizona, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Perhaps 100 other loosely affiliated and independent churches exist in the United States, said Jerry Patchen, a Houston lawyer who has represented the Oklahoma church for 20 years. “It’s not a monolith,” Patchen said. And the question of who is or is not a Native American ~ and who, in turn, may partake of the sacrament that became a counter-cultural icon for hippies in the 1960s ~ has long been interpreted differently, depending on the state. In Texas, Patchen said, the law until recently held that one must either be 25 percent Native American or a member of a federally recognized tribe to ingest peyote legally. Confusion has sprung up in recent months as the DPS tried to more closely align its enforcement with the provisions of the 1993 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which state that only members of a federally recognized tribe may partake of peyote. “The Canadian tribes are now trying to figure out how they fit into that definition,” said Jody Patterson, DPS supervisor of controlled substances registration. “We didn’t realize the rules would have this impact. We’re looking into the issue.” Such a definition excludes many, including Utah’s James Mooney, Johnson and Patchen himself. Patchen, whose wife grew up near Mirando City, said he never held himself out to be a Native American. Rather, he has taken the sacrament at the invitation of members of the Native American Church of Oklahoma. “Every religion has the right to educate the dominant culture of their religious practices and level of sincerity. Do Indians have a right to invite me in? As part of the law dealing with religious freedom, I’d say they do,” he said.
Johnson said he, too, has been invited to join in the church’s ceremonies. “Peyote is only a small factor of what goes into the ceremony. But I believe in the medicine,” he said. On a recent October morning, Navajo Lewis Peshlakai drove 32 hours straight from Window Rock, Ariz., to purchase 5,000 peyote buttons with his own money. A “roadman,” or priest, Peshlakai, 44, refers to the harvest peyote buttons as medicine. Before driving back to Arizona, he visited a backyard shrine to the cactus in Mirando City. “I’m going to tell the medicine, ‘You’re mine now. You’re going to belong to me,'” Peshlakai said.
He will use the plant in ceremonies to heal the sick, without asking for payment, he said. While he usually makes the pilgrimage once a year, this trip is special: in celebration of winning back his job at a coal mine after being fired two months ago. After 17 years on the job, Peshlakai said that development made him feel “as if I didn’t exist.” “With my first paycheck, I promised I would come here to gather peyote. With this good blessing, I am going to give it back to my community, to say ‘thank you’ for getting my job back,” he said.
Johnson, who generally charges about $180 for 1,000 fresh peyote buttons, loaded his customer’s cargo into burlap potato sacks. Smaller, dried peyote buttons sat in his side yard, drying on rough, wooden pallets in the still-strong October sun. A fence and locked gate surround the area, as DEA requires.
“The Indians who come here are not on vacation, or to sightsee,” Johnson said. “It’s a pilgrimage for the Indians to make the sacrifice to come here.”