Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) Cactaceae is a spineless cactus that is native to central and northern Mexico and to the Rio Grande Valley of the southwestern United States, and that is used in ceremony among participants of the Native American Church.
When prepared correctly, peyote is a hallucinogenic drug, or a chemical substance that distorts the senses and produces perceptions of experiences that depart from reality. The top portion of the root of this greenish/gray cactus is cut and sun dried into “buttons” for consumption during a peyote ceremony. The dried button is ingested by mouth by being dampened with saliva and then swallowed. Mescaline and other biologically active compounds or alkaloids give peyote its hallucinogenie properties. Doses range from four to 30 peyote buttons consumed during a peyote ritual, followed by hallucinations that grow in intensity three hours after ingestion. People report experiencing auditory, olfactory, and tactile hallucinations, an altered perception of time, and weightlessness. Historically, this plant was used as early as 2,000 years ago and early accounts from Spanish conquistadors reported their amazement at the powerful magic this plant possessed in inducing visions and for visioning of the future. During the 16th century the Chichimeca of Mexico consumed it before going into battle for courage and to have strength to fight their enemies. The Spanish sought to eliminate the use of peyote in an attempt to “civilize” the native populations; these efforts drove the use of peyote, along with its spiritual beliefs and practices, underground. Many of the specifics of peyote ceremonialism are strongly protected by the native people who continue to practice it today.
Among the practicing Peyotists or individuals who “follow the peyote road” are the Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, who collect the peyote buttons for use and distribution to tribes in neighboring regions. The peyote religion spread in the United States in the 1900s around the turn of the century during the decline of the Ghost Dance, and subsequently became popular in the Southwest and Midwestern regions. The members of the Native American Church combine traditional ritual practices with the belief in the Holy Trinity. The major precept of the religion is that God is a Great Spirit and Jesus a guardian spirit; however, beliefs vary considerably from tribe to tribe. Some see Jesus as a Native American culture hero while others believe in Peyote personified as God. The quarter of a million members value brotherly love, honor, trust, and the golden rule. They also incorporate some of the Ten Commandments, such as no adultery and divorce, and are especially adamant about abstinence from alcoholic beverages.
While these convictions are similar Christian doctrines, the ritual is uniquely Native American. Normally, the ritual begins at 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday and continues throughout the night and ends with a communal breakfast on Sunday morning. The belief is that the consumption of peyote allows for communion with the gods and the deceased, as well as giving power, guidance, and healing. The Ritual Chief, or Roadman, administers peyote to the congregation while peyote music, which often deals with subjects from the Bible, is sung in the background. The cult incorporates the use of feathers and rattles, bone whistles, and drumming as part of the ceremonial custom.
In the late 20th century, two Native Americans were dismissed from state employment because of their participation in the “drug cult.” The Supreme Court ruled against the right to use a controlled substance regardless of the religious context. However, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Jewish, Mormon, Methodist, and Muslim religious groups, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, joined together to lobby Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This was passed in 1993 and limits the government from intruding upon religious practices, which subsequently allowed the Native American Church to practice without interference.
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