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Throughout our entire lives we have always been told that drugs are bad. They have terrible consequences on our bodies, and can cause us to do things that we wouldn’t normally consent to do in a sober state. Drugs can have adverse and varying effects on people, but no matter what the drug is we have been made to believe that its use is bad. What if a drug was more than just a way to escape reality, or to feel good? Peyote is a drug that has had more than just physical use and meaning to people for over 400 years. It is used as a spiritual catalyst by many Native Americans, and is believed by them to cause a direct psychic link to God. People around the country have varying views on peyote use, but who can say that it is bad? If the drug does have bad effects on the body, Native Americans have surely accepted that as a reasonable tradeoff for the spiritual journey peyote brings. So is peyote as a drug, or it’s use in Native American religion, bad?
In order to understand and base an opinion on a religion that is centralized around a drug, you must first understand the drug itself. Peyote is a small, round cactus that grows in the southern US and Mexico. Rather than spines or spikes, peyote has fuzzy tufts that stuck out from it’s edges. Only about an inch of the cactus is viewable above ground, with the majority of it being the deeply buried, carrot-like root structure. The small portion that is above ground is harvested, and is referred to as the peyote “button”. It is consumed either freshly cut, or dried, and has some extreme effects on the body.
The effects of peyote are quite strong, and cause an array of feelings and emotional perceptions. According to www.xs4all.nl;
“… There is a feeling of strange intoxication and shifting consciousness with minor perceptual changes. There may also be strong physical effects, including respiratory pressure, muscle tension (especially face and neck muscles), and queasiness or possible nausea… After this the state of altered consciousness begins to manifest itself…..among the possible occurences are feelings of inner tranquility, oneness with life, heightened awareness, and rapid thought flow…these effects will deepen and become more visual. Colors may become more intense. Halos and auras may appear about things. Objects
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The effects of peyote are caused largely in part to the chemical compound mescaline. It was the first halucanogen isolated by man. It induces highly psycho tropic experiences, and the peyote button is about 1-6% mescaline. It usually takes about 6-10 buttons to get the desired effect. Peyote is proven to not be physically addicting, such as drugs like meth and heroine are, though in some extreme cases the user can become mentally addicted to the drug and ‘think’ that they need it. The only real risk associated with the drug is the possibility of a bad trip, which is centered around fear of dying or loss of control, which can lead to small panic attacks. Another drawback of the drug is its horrible taste. According to the website www.doitnow.org, Indians in Mexico had a saying for the drug; “Conquistadors come and go, but peyote endures forever”.
Peyote use is very controversial, and peyote is considered a controlled substance by the government, and is illegal in all 50 states. However, Texas legalized peyote use to members of the Native American Church. The Native American Church was founded around peyote, and brings together elements of Christianity with Native American moral principles. Not all Native Americans were enthused about this new religion, as is shown on reference.allrefer.com; “In 1940 the church was declared illegal by the Navajo Tribal Council, which saw it as a threat to Navajo culture and to Christianized Navajos. The church flourished underground, however, until 1967, when the tribe reversed its decision. By 1996, the church had 250,000 members in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.” But what made this religion so controversial? A combination of their beliefs and their use of peyote as a sacrificial food, most likely. But to make an informed opinionated decision about this religion and it’s beliefs, one has to take a closer look a it’s workings and rituals.
Native Americans relate the story the first person who was given peyote by the Creator Spirit (www.csp.org);
..a man or woman lost in the desert. Their wandering leaves them exhausted, starving, and dehydrated. Just at the point of giving up all hope of life comes a voice which instructs them to reach out and take hold of the soft and cool plant which grows just within reach of their outstretched hands. They are then told to eat it to quench their thirst for water, food, and guidance back to their home.
This is the basis for the most simple and historically primitive form of peyotism, called the ‘vision quest’. A Native American goes out alone into nature, and the quest involves fasting, solitude, and quiet but steady contemplation. Peyote is eaten or consumed as tea and a vigil is kept until the communicant comes to a sense of physical and spiritual contemplation. This is the first use peyote had in Native American culture, and is the basis off of which the peyote religion is formed.
Another, much more complex, use of the peyote cactus exists in the form of a deeply-involved ritual called peyote meetings. These meetings can be held for gratitude for the recovery of health, safe return from a voyage, to celebrate the birth of a baby, to name a child, for the dead, on Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving. You can see that the peyote religion incorporates many Christian beliefs also, since they celebrate on Easter and Christmas, which are Christian holidays. The leader of the peyote meetings can be anybody who is a member, and they are referred to as the ‘Road Man’. The Road Man must refrain from eating salt the day before and after a meeting, and they may not bathe for several days following the service. Women are admitted to meetings to eat Peyote and to pray, but they do not usually participate in the singing and drumming. After the age of ten, children may attend meetings but o not take part until they are adults.
Usually, the ceremonies take place in a teepee erected over a carefully made altar of earth or clay, and the teepee is taken down the next day. They place a large button of peyote on a rosette of sage leaves or a cross, which is then placed at the center of the altar. The alter is crescent-shaped, and symbolizes the spirit of peyote. As soon as the peyote is placed on the alter, all talking stops at the meeting and everybody directs their gaze to the altar. Each person participating in the ritual then rolls a cigarette out of tobacco and corn shuck. These cigarettes are smoked during the Road Man’s initial prayers.
After that initial prayers are over, a cedar incense is used to purify a bag of peyote buttons. Each person then takes four buttons from the bag while it gets passed around. Anybody is allowed to get more throughout the ritual, but four is what everybody starts with. Then when the initial peyote is consumed, the singing starts. The Road Man leads the first song, which translates into: “May the gods bless me, help me, and give me power and understanding”. Then the members do a variety of different songs and dances, and the peyote ritual lasts throughout the entire night.
Peyote is considered sacred by Native Americans, a divine “messenger” enabling the individual to communicate with God without the medium of a priest. According to an interview between a Native American and an anthropologist on www.peyote.org the Native American said that “God told the Delawares to do good even before He sent Christ to the whites who killed him… God made Peyote. It is His power. It is the power of Jesus. Jesus came afterwards on this earth, after Peyote… God (through Peyote) told the Delawares the same things that Jesus told the whites”.
So why do people consider peyote, and it’s fruited religion to be bad? Sure, many of the beliefs and customs are much different than those of white culture in America, and though the basis of peyote religion is somewhat Christian, it’s far from straight-edged. www.peyote.com did a great job of analyzing how their beliefs and medicinal customs are hard to understand;
The Peyote religion is a medico-religious cult. In considering Native American medicines, one must always bear in mind the difference between the aboriginal concept of a medicinal agent and that of out modern Western medicine. Primitive societies, in general, cannot conceive of natural death or illness but believe that they are due to supernatural interference. There are two types of ‘medicines’: those with purely physical effects; and the medicines, ‘par excellence’, that put the medicine man into communication, through a variety of hallucinations, with the malevolent spirits that cause illness and death.
So basically, being able to understand the peyote religion is all about being able to accept diversity and variances in cultures different from out own. The drug itself is proven to have no severely negative side effects, and isn’t addictive. A religion based on a sacrificial fruit isn’t that foreign, in fact. The way the Native American Church indulges in peyote is somewhat similar to the way that Christians receive Eucharist at mass. Nobody can say the peyote religion is right or wrong, but understanding and acceptance is nothing unfair to ask for. The world is full of diverse customs and rituals. It’s what gives the world so much flavor. The formation of the Native American Church noticeable cessated intertribal warfare. It gives Native Americans a way to keep many parts and aspects of their native culture, but incorporate elements of Western culture and Christianity also. Also, it gives Native Americans a health break from reservation life, and provides a platform for peaceful exchange of social and religious ideas. Peyote is a catalyst to so much more than just a hallucinogenic journey, and is as much a social tool as anything. The drug itself is harmless, so no injustices can be made in regards to the base of the religion, and the peyote religion is nothing but beneficial to the Native American community and will continue to flourish for years to come.
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