Introduction to the Peyote Church Ceremony
This is an archival article written in 2003. It's not updated. For more recent recordings, go to Canyon Records website, http://www.canyonrecords.com
When some people speak of Native American ceremonies, the peyote ceremony or the ingestion of the hallucinogen peyote (contains mescaline) usually surfaces. However, there is too much false information being passed around in the non-native community surrounding peyote meetings.
The first thing people need to know about the Native American connection to peyote is that the plant is sacred medicine ingested as a sacrament during healing ceremonies of the Native American Church. The second thing, people need to know is that the Native American Church is not a set structure like the Christian Church. The peyote meeting could take place in a Navajo hogan or a teepee. And finally, since the peyote meeting does in part derive from Native American people's connection to Christianity, one will find similarities between the two entities such as the use of prayers to Jesus, hymns and a sacred altar. And yet, the Peyote Church exist in a realm of its own.
A brief history is laid out on the liner notes for Canyon Records' archival release, Peyote Ceremonial Songs. "The Present Day Native American Church, or Peyote Church had its origins in pre-Columbian Mexico. The peyote button from the small spineless peyote cactus (Aztec, 'peyotl') grows in Mexico and southern Texas.
Since the mid-1800's an intertribal religion, the Native American Church developed a philosophy and ritual around 'Father Peyote.' The Lipan and Mescalero Apache, the southernmost of the Plains tribes, are considered the traditional links between the Mexican peyote cult and the Kiowa and the Comanche of Texas."
The philosophy and practice spread northward to Canada and westward to the Navajo Nation in the 1930's. Today the Peyote Church is prominent in Navajo society. The early peyote religion was free of the Christian influences that you will find into the contemporary Native American Church. The Native American Church was influenced gradually by the Christian philosophy, yet the Native American Church is not an indigenous version of the Christian Church. And in fact, the Native American Church is a philosophy or a religion and not an actual structure as said earlier in this article.
In 1918 several independent tribal churches banned together to form the Native American Church and non-profit organization as a way of presenting a united front to the hostility of the outside world. Several states attempted to outlaw the possession of peyote and this led to several court cases that fought over the legality of using peyote during Native American Church meetings.
According to an article, entitled Native Americans use Peyote in Ancient Prayer Ceremonies written by Ann Waters for Sierra Vista Herald (August 5, 2003), the use of peyote medicine was banned by the U.S. government in the 1940's and 1950's. It was deemed illegal due to its mescaline content. However, if anyone has read up on Native American spirituality, many spiritual practices of the First Peoples had been banned over the years, sometimes due to fear and often time due to ignorance on the part of the U.S. government. The Sun Dance and Ghost Dance come to mind.
The U.S. government lifted the ban in 1976 and declared that the Native people could practice their religion and use their sacred medicine. Today Native Americans from varying tribes mostly from the southwest and the plains and non-natives associated with Native people engage in the peyote ceremony. Unlike the Christian Church, a Native American Church peyote ceremony involves use of a sacred plant, a prayer ceremony that last from dusk to dawn in which a Road Man sings four songs at four crucial points in the meeting (the beginning, midnight, dusk and closing). During the meeting participants pray for practical things such as healing a loved one, helping them improve their finances and praying for another person's needs. They find answers through speaking with spirits or through visions while under the influence of peyote.
The people enter form a circle which everyone is a part. Sacred smoke of tobacco, sage and cedar permeates the space in which some members pray and others just hold the space. A participant can not leave until the ceremony is completed. According to Ann Waters' article, "In the center of the teepee, opposite the door entrance, is a half moon-shaped mound where they place the chief or medicine man. Objects in the ceremony include a staff, a gourd with rocks in it, a cup of sage and feathers. Participants drink tea made from peyote in a fresh or powdered form."
The foul taste of the peyote causes participants to vomit. The Native Americans believe that vomiting is good because it means the participant is getting well. Because peyote is a psychedelic it does induce brightly colored visions and it also allows participants to communicate with helpful spirits. The peyote ceremony is a communal one in which members of the community witness each other's prayers and healing. The peyote ceremony brings healing to oneself by praying for others.
Peyote song & healing song recordings
One doesn't need to participate in a Native American Church meeting to hear peyote songs. A variety of recordings can be found on Canyon Records at least one recording can be found on Smithsonian Folkways label. Artists found on Canyon Records include, Eli Secody (Navajo/Dinè), Delbert "Black Fox" Pomani (Hunkpapa/Lakota), Thomas Duran Jr. (Northern Arapahoe), Jimmy Knight Jr. (Dinè), Paul Guy Sr. and Paul Guy Jr. (Dinè), as well as, Verdell Primeaux (Oglalla/Yankton Sioux & Ponca) and Johnny Mike (Dineh).
The duo Primeaux and Mike have recorded nine albums featuring peyote songs and their album, Bless the People won a GRAMMY for Best Native American album in 2002. According to the liner notes that appear on Primeaux & Mike's Walk in Beauty, "There are four special songs, known inter-tribally, which are sung by the leader at the beginning, midnight, dawn and the close of the ceremony. Hundreds of other peyote songs are constantly being created and passed from one community to another as they are learned at meetings, informal gatherings or from recordings."
The twenty healing songs that appear on Walk in Beauty do not represent songs sung during an actual peyote meeting, but do enhance the spiritual practice. Primeaux and Mike have developed their own system of harmonizing first heard on their CD, Healing and Peyote Songs in Sioux and Navajo. "The use of harmony similar to Christian hymnody shows adaptive quality of Native American culture while the invocation of Jesus is a reflection of the openness of the Native American Church to spiritual ideas from other cultures."
This award-winning peyote song duo has experimented with different approaches over the years. They have recorded traditional peyote songs with rattle and water drum, they have sung a cappella and their 1998 recording, Sacred Path sets peyote songs against ambient electronic textures, which would only enhance the otherworldly qualities of this Native American genre. And an electronic album tends to be radio-friendly whereas, the other peyote recordings are best used for their intended purpose.
Peyote songs with hypnotic water drum and rattle resemble a rapid heartbeat are not easy-listening music that can be filed under new age. However healing songs offer a more accessible repertoire.
Take Navajo Native Eli Secody, for instance. The young peyote singer-songwriter attended his first peyote meeting when he was 6 years old and he started composing songs when he was 16 years old. His recording The Following Generation (Navajo Prayer Songs) features 15 a cappella tracks, sung in Secody's soothing tenor voice. Most of the repertoire on this CD focus on Secody's daughter. Although he also sings about other topics such as God (The Lord is the Only One), and families (Families Walking in Beauty). The CD acts as a wonderful introduction to Native American spirituality, but shouldn't be confused with actual peyote songs, even if the artist is a peyote songwriter.
Navajo (Dinè) singer Jimmy Knight Jr. also sings unaccompanied healing songs on his CD, Navajo Healing Songs of the Native American Church, Volume 2. According to the notes that appear on the cover of the CD, "healing songs are a newer style of singing from the Native American Church without accompaniment of the peyote water-drum or gourd rattle and are meant to facilitate meditation and prayer and provide comfort and peace for the singers and listeners."
The healing songs are sung a cappella, some times with a solo singer and at other times as a harmonized duo as in the case with Primeaux & Mike's healing song recordings. Christian influences can be heard on the healing songs such as references to Jesus and the hymnody quality of the songs. The healing songs might be sung in vocables, in a Native American dialect or the songs might be sung in English. This differs with each performer. Jimmy Knight Jr. performs solo a cappella on the 22-tracks that appear on this short recording. His vocals are soothing and melodic. These slow, ambient songs would be best listened to at night since they lull its listeners into a deep sleep and also enhance a meditation practice.
Northern Arapahoe Thomas Duran, Jr. sings peyote songs on his recording, Life Giver (Peyote Songs of the Blue Sky People). Peyote songs possess psychedelic qualities due to the hypnotic drum beats and constant rattle. And the songs that appear on this recording are no exception to the rule. It's easy to feel disoriented while listening to peyote songs.
The tracks features sets of four songs each, with a total of 24 peyote songs appearing on the recording. The first set asks that God blesses the singer and his family. The second set are straight songs which are followed by four songs dedicated to the singer's uncle. This is followed by straight songs and then a set of songs that ask God to have pity on the singer and his listeners. The songs featured here are sung in the traditional style of the Northern plains and the intention of the songs is to assist listeners on their spiritual quests.
Moving deeper into psychedelic terrain, Hunkpapa Lakota peyote singer and respected Road Man, Delbert "Black Fox" Pomani performs harmonized peyote songs (songs with multiple vocals) and accompanied by ritual percussion instruments on his recording, Sacred Medicine Guide Us Home. Even the cover artwork resembles something out of a Carlos Castaneda book. Again, six sets of four songs appear on the CD signifying the sets of four songs that are sung during peyote meetings. I find the songs to be quite powerful and incredibly disorienting. It becomes increasingly difficult to think with the rational mind while listening to this recording since the songs' hypnotic quality tends to pull the mind into a nonlinear direction.
Having said that, peyote songs are not created for people who are seeking the equivalent of an acid trip. The Native American songwriters and peyote singers honor both the peyote cactus and the peyote songs. The cactus is used as a sacrament and peyote songs represent ceremonial hymns. And in any case, as far as I'm aware, it is illegal in the United States to harvest, possess and ingest peyote outside of the Native American peyote meetings.
The harmonized and solo peyote song recordings give listeners an idea of prayer songs sung in a Native American Church meeting. The recordings have also been used as teaching tools for future generations of peyote singers as well as, providing songs for the Native American spiritual community. The description of peyote songs that appears on the collection of CDs I am reviewing call the songs sober and introspective, yet I find peyote songs to be slightly jarring and up tempo. These songs cause the heart to beat rapidly and yet, I can understand how the peyote songs lead listeners into an altered state of consciousness, especially when coupled with the ingestion of a hallucinogenic plant. This is just an educated guess. (I've never participated in a peyote ceremony nor do I have plans to participate, but I wish to include peyote song recordings on this site).
To further emphasize the sanctity of Peyote Church, listen to Paul Guy, Jr. and Paul Guy, Sr.'s My Father's Chapel. This recording features Paul Guy, Sr.'s and his son Paul Guy, Jr. honoring the duties of the Road Man as well as, providing peyote songs for the Native American Church. Paul Guy, Jr. leads on the odd number songs and his father leads on the even number songs. Paul Guy, Sr. beats on the ritual water drum, while Paul Guy, Jr. holds the gourd rattle in his right hand and the ritual staff and feathered fan in his left hand. The singers drape a blue peyote blanket over their right shoulders and a red peyote blanket over their left shoulders as is the custom. (You will find a similar (archival) photograph of Alfred Armstrong and Ralph Turtle acting in the same manner on the cover of Peyote Ceremonial Music).
I find this peyote song recording to be one of the easiest to listen to without feeling disoriented, despite the hypnotic rhythm. On the first set of songs, the singers sing in tenor and falsetto vocals while they sing in a lower register on the remaining songs. You will not find the soaring vocals associated with pow-wows and round dances on this CD, yet a spiritual fervor does come through on the songs.
I find this CD to be carefully thought out with a vivid collection of photographs, historical facts and quotes of Paul Guy, Jr. We connect with the religious ceremony and the two singers by viewing the photographs and reading the intimate quotes. Paul Guy, Jr. speaks of the difficult life of a Road Man. "Being a Road Man takes great responsibility and commitment. One must be ready in his heart. The Road Man must be prepared to handle any situation that arises in and outside the meetings. If a person needs an emergency healing ceremony conducted at anytime, the Road Man must be ready. Because of this, it takes great strength and dedication."
The final CD is the vintage recording, Peyote Ceremonial Songs. This compilation features both women and men singers representing numerous tribes including, Kiowa, Paiute, Cheyenne, Southern Cheyenne, Southern Ute, Cherokee, Omaha and Bannock. The list of singers include, David Apekaun, Morris Medicine with Betty Jo Pimpey and Pamela Medicine, Chief White Eagle, Chief Spotted Back Hamilton, Johnny Buffalo, Wilbur Jack and a previously released track by Ralph Turtle and Alfred Armstrong.
These songs bear titles describing their function during a peyote meeting. The songs are sung in vocables, a few with harmonies and a few tracks are sung solo. The styles differ slightly since the songs derive from various tribes. This CD also comes with historical liner notes as well as, a wonderful description of peyote songs from a technical perspective. According to the liner note writers, David P. McAllester and Bob Nuss, "A characteristic feature is the closing formula, 'he-ne-ne-yo-we' all on the tonic or bass note of a melody. Another unique element is the sound of the drum. The water inside is in constant motion and produces a special resonance. The player's thumb, pressed against the drum's head, holds the tone of the constant pitch which then drops a fifth or more when the pressure is released between songs."
Listening to peyote songs offers non-Natives another gateway into learning about Native American spirituality, culture and music. I wanted to show the recordings within the context they derive so that listeners reach an understanding of the reverence Native American Church members, Road Men and peyote singers employ towards "Father Peyote," the philosophy of the Peyote Church and its songs.
This by no means was an easy article to write since I kept running into my own ignorance about Native American spirituality. Similar to many people reading this article, I grew up far away from reservation life, I have met few traditional American Indians during my life, but I have read crucial reading material about Native American culture and listened to a variety of noted recordings. My goal with this article is to shed some light on peyote songs, their origin and to bring Native American practices into our consciousness so we can erase harmful cultural biases.
Primeaux & Mike
Walk in Beauty
The Following Generation
Jimmy Knight Jr.
Navajo Healing Songs
Thomas Duran, Jr.
Peyote Songs of the Blue Sky People
Delbert "Black Fox" Pomani
Sacred Medicine Guide Us Home
Paul Guy, Jr. & Paul Guy, Sr.
My Father's Chapel
Peyote Ceremonial Songs
All recordings released on Canyon Records
The quotes in the article derived from the following sources:
1 McAllester, David P., & Nuss, Bob, "Peyote Ceremony Song", CD liner notes, (Arizona: Canyon Records, 1998).
2 Waters, Ann, "Native Americans Use Peyote in Ancient Prayer Ceremonies," (Arizona: Sierra Vista Herald, August 5, 2003).
3 McAllester, David P., CD liner notes, "Walk in Beauty" by Primeaux & Mike, (Arizona: Canyon Records, 1995).
4 McAllester, David P., CD liner notes, "Walk in Beauty" by Primeaux & Mike, (Arizona: Canyon Records, 1995).
5 McAllester, David P., & Doyle, Robert, "Navajo Healing Songs" by Jimmy Knight Jr.,(Arizona: Canyon Records, 2001).
6 Guy, Jr. Paul, quotes, CD liner notes, "My Father's Chapel," (Arizona: Canyon Records, 1998).
7 McAllester, David P., & Nuss, Bob, "Peyote Ceremony Song", CD liner notes, (Arizona: Canyon Records, 1998).
Some quotes and information were gleaned from Ann Waters article, "Native Americans use Peyote in Ancient Prayer Ceremonies," Sierra Vista Herald, August 5, 2003. I found Ann Waters' article on http://peyote.com/peyote/native.html
When I visited the Sierra Vista Herald site, I was unable to locate the article.
Article written by Patty-Lynne Herlevi. Copy or use only with permission from the author.