Thomas C. Maroukis,
The Peyote Road:
Religious Freedom & the Native American Church

(University of Oklahoma Press, 2010)

Let me be upfront about one thing: I am no fan of drugs, hard, soft, natural or laboratory. I've seen too many people I loved destroyed by them. I am also, however, no fan of lies or hypocrisy, which various agencies of the government, on both a state and local basis, have consistently deployed to stop the use of peyote by members of the Native American Church and, before the church was formed, by Native American people.

The Peyote Road admirably tells the story of how the government tried to do away with peyote and, in so doing, trampled on a culture, a tradition and a people they did not understand. Nor did they try to understand it. We have a group of laws, written by and for white men, that we tried to apply to people who had their own laws, customs and traditions and lived very well with them.

Peyote has long been a religious ritual among the tribes. In these pages, Maroukis describes the origins and practices of that ritual from its beginnings until now as they live in mythology and in reality.

In 1949, for example, a Lipan Apache told this origin story, saying that after an attack:

There was just one woman and one boy left. It was hot and dry. All the water had dried up. They had no food or water. The woman told her son to go in search of food and people. As he was walking, he heard a voice: "I know you are hungry. Look down ahead of you. You will see something green. Eat it." He saw a green plant, ate some, and the hunger went away. He looked around and saw many more plants. He dug them up and took them to his mother.

After eating of the plant, the mother, that night, has a dream in which she was to take the plants back to her people and teach them how to have a peyote ceremony. Here, in one little tale, we see the importance of peyote, the theme of salvation associated with it, the role of women in the history and culture of peyote's use and the introduction of the ritual ceremony into the tribe.

All of these things are what Maroukis covers in the first part of the book.

Then the government enters.

As early as World War I, the federal government was trying to pass anti-peyote bills. Because of this, the Oklahoma tribes got themselves chartered as the Native American Church of Oklahoma, which effectively removed them from the clutches of Congress. That step didn't end the fight, though. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, state legislatures throughout the West and what Maroukis describes as "so-called huminatarian groups, determined to 'save the indian'," as well as various Christian groups all continued to try to suppress peyote.

The Peyote Road tells the story. Even as it documents objectively what went on, the book remains sympathetic to the tribes. This book is serious history -- well researched, fully documented, serious in intent. It's also highly readable.

If, by being thorough, complete and honest, the book can take an anti-drug person like me and make him recognize that there are times, people and places for whom a natural and, by itself, harmless drug like peyote has a legitimate, very important function, the book is doing its job.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

8 June 2013

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