Gallery 2
Tent Meeting
Gallery 2 - Page 3
Gallery 2-Page 2

The Navajo Church Peyote; the Sacred


By James Donahue

Author Robert Anton Wilson claimed that the psychedelic effect of the cactus flower peyote, which grows mostly in the hot moist climate of southern Texas and parts of Mexico, is almost identical to the experience of taking lysergic acid dyethylamide, better known as LSD.

Both are described by proponents as "mind expanding" drugs. There is much argument about just how dangerous either peyote or LSD is to those who indulge. The U. S. government ruled LSD illegal about 40 years ago. Because of a trade agreement signed in 1993, both LSD and peyote recently became equally illegal in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

This agreement, and the fact that all three governments got equally hard-nosed about peyote use in 1993, created a serious problem for certain
Navajo tribal members in Arizona, the Huichol Indians in northern Mexico, and many other tribes through the mid-section and western Americas. That is because peyote is considered as sacred a sacrament to the Native American Church as bread and wine are to Christian believers during communion ceremonies.

Our Navajo friends, who took the peyote sacrament as part of their religious ritual, say the drug is, for them at least, a true religious experience. The participants claim visions, see into the hearts and minds of the other people who share the influence of the cactus, and they have the ability, while the drug is in their system, to repair flaws in their own personalities so they can become better citizens. While we did not see this first hand, I was told that there was a lot of weeping and setting hearts right during the Navajo tent services, usually held in a large teepee.

(Dr. Timothy Leary, a psychologist who used psilocybin mushrooms to successfully treat criminal and mental disorders in the 1960s, claimed this drug did exactly the same thing.)

The peyote ban was lifted in 1995 for the Navajo people in the United States, much to the joy of the Native American Church. My wife and I attended a quarterly meeting of the church at Greasewood, Arizona, in December that year to hear Church President Robert B. Whitehorse praise President Bill Clinton for signing the bill that put peyote back into the church sacrament.

The church business during the meeting included changing the by-laws to comply with the new law, which allowed only church members to receive peyote during religious services. Outsiders, or non-church members, are not allowed to participate.

The estimated 300 members in attendance, also voted to open dialogue with the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration in the hope of allowing church members serving in the Armed Forces to also take peyote, no matter where in the world they were stationed. Members voted to send a delegation to negotiate with the Mexican government and help the Huichol Indians get their sacrament reinstated.

There was a practical reason why the Arizona tribes wanted the Mexican government to get in line. The cactus, which once grew in abundance throughout the southwestern United States, is getting hard to find. Some say climate change caused this. Nobody knows for sure. Not only did the Navajo Indians want the Huichols to enjoy peyote during their services, the Navajos wanted the freedom to import the cactus from Mexico into the United States.

"The main emphasis is to establish a good dialog with the Mexican government officials, lawyers and land owners on whose land the holy sacrament grows and to set up a good working relation with our United States for importation of the holy medicine," Whitehorse said.

While all of this was going on, we had our first glimpse of the controversial flower. Our friends, Raymond and Elfrieda Begay, a Navajo medicine man and his wife, returned from a trip to Texas with several boxes filled with peyote. As a minister of his church, he was legally licensed to purchase and carry the cactus in his vehicle, and to keep it in his home.

Peyote doesn't look like a flower at all, but rather like a gray button cut from the tip of a cactus. It is soft and spongy to the touch.

To prepare it for use in worship, the two spent hours cutting the buttons into thin strips and hanging each strip on a clothesline in a warm room to dry. It seemed strange to see the lines of peyote hanging around the room, knowing that this was considered by our government to be a dangerous and illegal narcotic.

Raymond told how he suffered years of arrest and jail because he refused to obey the law and stop using peyote. He and other peyote medicine men carried on their crusade for years before the government backed down. After their release from jail, the ministers would go right back into the field, set up another tent meeting where peyote was used, and get arrested all over again. He said it got to be a regular routine. But the Navajo persisted and in the end, they won their fight. It meant that much to them. Raymond was considered among the leaders in the peyote movement.

The peyote users among the Navajo do not include all tribal members. And The Native American Church, where the peyote ritual is practiced, stretches beyond the Navajo nation to other Southwestern United States tribes.

Raymond told a strange story about how he became a peyote medicine man through an encounter he had with a group of Oklahoma Cherokee when he was a young man. He said a number of Cherokee came to him at his home in Arizona and said he had been especially chosen to learn the sacred rituals of the church.

He said he took peyote for about three consecutive days with the Cherokee and had visions. He did not sleep during the entire time. After that, he collapsed into a long and deep sleep. When he awoke, Raymond said he was surprised to discover that he knew everything. He knew the sacred songs. He knew the rituals. He became, in that short a time, a fully-trained priest. From that day on, he helped found the church among the Navajo people.

Raymond said he personally witnessed changed lives and healing through the use of this cactus flower. That is why he was willing to defy the law when the U. S. government declared peyote an illegal substance.

You have to know Raymond to understand the significance of this. If ever there was a patriot, Raymond Begay is that person. He served his country as a member of the armed forces in Korea. He always spoke highly of the federal government, in spite of the dark history behind our country's take-over and virtual destruction of the North American tribes and their customs.

I once asked him why he was so loyal. He explained it was because of the symbols printed on the money and on the federal seal. I believe he was speaking of the spread-winged eagle on the presidential seal and our dollar bills, and possibly the eye above the pyramid as it appears on the dollar bill. These were sacred symbols and he would never raise a finger in anger against them, he said.

We were living with the Begays at the time we were learning these things. We were there when Raymond and Elfrieda left for a long trip to southern Texas, where they acquired several boxes filled with peyote flowers. When they returned, the drying process was done and then preparations were made for a tent meeting.

A day or two before the service, I helped Raymond and some of the other men gather firewood; dried juniper found in the high desert, and then prepare it. Great care was taken to chip away all of the tree bark from the wood with sharp axes so the wood would burn clean and smokeless. Next, we cleared a flat section of sandy ground, taking care to level it so it would serve as the floor of a very large teepee. Once this was completed, the men selected several long straight poles stored on a rack behind the Begay home. These were put in place to support the tent. Then the fabric, in this case some very sturdy canvass, was wrapped around the poles and the tent was ready.

While this was going on outside, women were busy in the house preparing food for a large feast to be enjoyed on the morning following the service. Some of the women remained on the job all night as the service was in progress, getting the big breakfast ready. We saw ham, slabs of beef, and lots of the Navajo favorite meat, lamb, being cooked, as was the tribe's ever-present fry bread.

Once dried, the peyote was ground into a fine powder and mixed with water. During the religious service, the people drank this concoction before going into the tent meeting.

Doris and I felt honored that we were invited to attend the service but we declined. It was Navajo tradition to sit in one place, with legs crossed, until the service was over. The singing began at about midnight and continued until sunup. Although there were breaks, I doubted if I could sit in that position for that length of time without becoming so stiff the men would have to carry me, my legs still locked, back into the house.

The other thing that bothered me about participating in the service was that I was expected to join the church and consume peyote. I am not a prude and I sampled many of the fruits of the earth in my younger years, but this drug was not attractive to me. First of all, I wasn't sure I wanted my soul opened up like a tin can to a room filled with strangers of another culture. Secondly, I didn't like the fact that everyone carried a bucket, large empty tin can, or pail
into the tent. I was told that the peyote caused the user to vomit and the pail was there to catch things. Taking a substance that was going to make me sick did not appeal to me. My wife shared my feelings about joining the tent meeting. We elected to stay in the house and go to bed that night with the chickens.

Not that we did any sleeping. The drum beat, the singing, the women clanging pots and pans in the kitchen, made sleep nearly impossible. The energy from that nearby tent seemed to flow through the house. It was the strangest of nights.

Looking back I suppose I don't regret not participating in that peyote service, although I have moments when I wonder what it would have been like to have experienced that kind of fellowship with the Navajo. At the time it seemed somewhat natural for us to be at that particular place at that particular time. Now it all seems like a dream.