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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge Sources of Life

Beck, Peggy V., and Walters, Anna L. (1977)
Tsaile (Navajo Nation) AZ: Navajo Community College Press.

ISBN: 0-912586-24-9

Description: Paperback, xiv + 369 pages.

Contents: 14 chapters, glossary, bibliogaphy, films, index.

Excerpt(s): This textbook is about the sacred ways of Native American people in North America. Through examples from the oral tradition of The People, through interviews, speeches, prayers, songs and conversations, these ways will be explored.

The material in this textbook will attempt to describe, not intrude by analysis, the meaning, role and function of sacred traditional practices and observances in the lives of The People, individually and collectively. This textbook will perhaps also help to correct the misinformed views of Native American sacred traditions and observances. These views fill the archives, the libraries, the movies, and the textbooks students use throughout the world. By simply letting The People speak we may come to better understand the profoundness of strength, beauty, and vitality of this dimension of American Indian People.

Many Native People find it difficult to explain their ways of life, beliefs, traditions, and observances with the word "religion" Therefore, we tried to find a word that would better describe sources of life and ways of knowledge. For this reason we chose the word sacred which we will define in more detail later on in this chapter. (page 3)

The Path of Life

The place from which you had started at the beginning seemingly a long time ago, will now appear very close as if you had started but recently.

Within several religions around the world is the philosophy or idea that life is envisioned as a path or road. The terrain through which it winds and goes is representative of the pitfalls, or turns of life one must encounter as one travels the "road of life." This is made explicit in the ceremony, like the Mide of the Winnebago. The above quote comes from this ceremony.

At the root of Native American aboriginal concepts is the belief that the road conveys an eternal return. There is no end. At death one returns in some way to the beginning. On the path of life, when one has reached old age, one knows what one knew when one was born, but only realizes and acknowledges it for the first time. The concept is at the root of aboriginal beliefs because like the road, the "sacred" had no beginning or end. The road is continuous and never ending. ...

In Peyotism, the Peyote "road" is also discussed. An explanation, metaphorically, is given about the altar of a crescent moon.

At the west corner, horns to the east, is the crescent altar with a groove or "path" along it from horn to horn, interrupted by a flat space in the center where the "father peyote" is later to rest on springs of sage. The "path" symbolizes man's path from birth (southern tip) to the crest of maturity and knowledge (at the place of the peyote) and thence downward again to the ground through old age to death (northern tip).

The priest swung a pointing finger along a narrow groove running through the crest of the altar moon. "You follow life's road,: he explained to me, "then you meet peyote, and your life changes. It has for everyone in here. We meet peyote and then we continue in that Way."

Through these roads or paths life is given more meaning, purpose, and responsibility. We also find that these roads provide means or procedures by which the people may attain or achieve certain desired goals. This is the role of religions. The path of life is analogous to this role. (page 197)

The Peyote Spirit

We have been taught that all men have the right to worship God in the manner and form most satisfactory to their own conscience. (Osage Peyotists)

The definitions of Peyote are multi-faceted and varying. It depends, of course, on whom one asks and their knowledge, or experience with Peyote. Obviously many interpretations will range from the abstract, personal, and emotional to an objective concrete, scientific explanation.

Examples of the abstract are:

Peyote is a power. There is a power in there. That power, he has many names. You don't know how much power is there. It will take all your lifetime and you will know only a small part of the power. This is what I was told.

This description comes from a young Navajo man, Ron Barton, who was introduced to Peyote as a small child and has since made a commitment to it. Larry Etsitty, also a Navajo and Vice-President of the Navajoland Native American Church defines Peyote in this way,

The Peyote to me, is my bible. I know what I should be doing and shouldn't be doing. To me, when I take that Peyote, I feel humble (respectful) all the time.

Peyote has always been a religion. It is used mainly to gain power. (Manuel Watchman, Navajo) (page 233)

The Peyote experience is one of individual meditation and consequently, revelation. Prayer and contemplation provide reasonable access, through Peyote, to satisfying revelations about one's self. Shirly Etsitty explains further, "The fundamental teaching is as a sacrament . . ., it (Peyote) is the mediator. When you take the medicine, you learn from inside out." Change is inevitable, according to one's conscience and confrontation with himself. Change for the better becomes possible, necessary, and worthwhile. However, the change must be within the individual, as his environment does not visibly alter. While he cannot usually control conditions that affect him, he can influence and exercise more controls within his own life. His outlook, philosophically, and behavior adjusts accordingly. (pages 245-246)

Christianity and the Peyote Religion

Emhoolah who has spent part of his life from childhood with "Peyote People" says, "I've gone to Christian Churches. I always come back. There must be something about that herb that appeals to the Indian." Ron Barton echoes the sentiment, "I've been involved in the Native American Church all my life, since I was born. It's in me. It will always be in me. I like the Peyote Way. I pray that way. I eat that way. I sleep that way. I live that way. It puts back the dignity." Sam Gardipe talking about tradition and its place in a fast-moving technologically oriented world, shared his philosophy as Peyotist, and as an Indian. "I have a philosophy. One of the ways of rebelling, is to be traditional, to really know your own way (Peyote Way)."

To reiterate, Larry Etsitty also acknowledges that the bird he envisions can also go in the direction of Christianity. He sees Peyotism as being adaptable, supplemental and not detrimental to any other religion, including Christianity. It is acknowledged that the Native American Church in its contemporary form contains seeds of Christianity, incorporated either recently or in some cases before the 20th century.

The Peyote Religion functioned as separate independent groups prior to the organization of specific groups into the affiliated Native American Church. In doing so, some groups also introduced characteristics and the concept of Christianity. Other groups did not attempt to introduce change or did not reorganize themselves. (pages 247-248)

The Peyote Way or Peyote Road stresses four main teachings one must conform and adhere to. "Peyote People" may supply the instruction, or after Peyote is consumed it may be directly responsible for teaching. The teachings are: (1) Love for your fellow man or brotherly love; (2) responsibility for one's family; (3) self-reliance; and (4) refraining from use of alcohol. ...

Larry Etsitty stated with regard to children that he had been told by other members of the Native American Church (not of the Navajoland chapter or branch) that it delighted them to see children participate. Their age ranged from infants to expectant parents. Larry Etsitty continued, "They said they felt that's where they went wrong. At times when there were too many participants, the young ones were requested to leave to make room for older participants." He indicated that these people regretted that their young ones have not responded in the desired manner. As to the women in Peyotism, depending on the area and the time, it was once recorded they were sometimes not allowed to participate. Most tribes, as oral tradition indicates, gave the women a very high place in the Peyote Religion and usually credit her for the bringing of Peyote. The Navajo tribe is one of the very, very few who allow women to sing during the meeting. (pages 249-250)

In the Summer of 1975, the author met an elderly man at the Navajo Tribal Fair in Window Rock, Arizona. He was a golden man, all sparkly, dark skin and eyes, in the sun. He was obviously not wealthy in ways of money and extravagant finery. He and his clothes were all wrinkly and worn. Both had bags in them. He stepped up to negotiate a purchase he planned. He wanted the man's robe or sheet, half red and half black, worn in the Peyote meeting. He said he was a road man, had been one for forty years. He said he'd been to jail for Peyote, was there when Peyote followers were harassed. He said it simply and matter-of-factly. "Peyotism had endured." He said that softly, gently in Navajo. He said he would do it all over again.

Compilation copyright © 1995 – 2001 CSP

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