Omer C. Stewart,
Peyote Religion: A History
(University of Oklahoma Press, 1987)

The use of peyote in some Native American religious ceremonies is one of the most controversial issues in America today. It plagues lawmakers, clogs the justice system, gets innocent people treated like criminals, sends almost every preacher into a tangent on evil and idolatry, and pops up in any conversation relating to Native American spirituality. Yet, for most of America, this is an unknown substance that we know zilch about. Peyote Religion is the answer for this ignorance of the subject. The hefty, 454-page manuscript covers every aspect of the peyote religion, old and new.

Peyote, Lophophora williamsii, is a spineless cactus-type plant possessing psychedelic properties that is native to southwestern Texas and northern Mexico. It is not habit forming and produces no harm when used in the moderation of Native American ceremonies.

Indigenous peoples have been using peyote for medicinal and spiritual purposes for centuries. Archeologists found large deposits of dried peyote in Texas caves that date from 810 to 1070, yet they know the use predates those deposits by several centuries. All was well until the first non-natives arrived on the scene.

The Spanish missionaries were the first to try to stop the natives from using peyote. The Anglos followed on their heels. Over the years of civilization in America, the use and even possession of peyote has been a source of controversy and trouble all across the western half of the country, with states having differing laws and often being in direct violation of the federal laws.

To further complicate the issue, oil was discovered in the heart of the Texas peyote region, which is all privately owned. Ranching and oil fields have reduced the availability of peyote. Peyote gatherers, often oil field workers who wish to supplement their income, have been careless in harvesting the plant and have greatly reduced the number of plants. This has prompted many to trespass on private property to steal them.

What started as a ceremony of the Carrizo Nation of northern Mexico, documented as early as 1649, became a fast-spreading Native American trend that has now reached into Canada and spans from Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean.

Stewart has produced a thorough text on peyote. He covers all topics relating to the plant, from eyewitness accounts of peyote ceremonies to the laws pertaining to possession of it. He provides the history of the Native American Church (NAC) and discusses the differences in its many branches. His writing is lively and entertaining. His facts are well noted and easily referenced.

The 47-page bibliography indicates that this is an exceptionally well-researched book. There are numerous maps and diagrams that help the reader to understand the subject.

Appendix A lists elements of the peyote ritual and provides a table showing which tribes utilize the element. Appendix B has a sample program from a NAC ceremony. Appendix C has the church canons for the NAC of South Dakota in 1948.

Stewart has managed to combine anecdotes, archeological research, anthropology, religion, a variety of journal and diary entries, quotations and his own research into a manuscript that flows smoothly and engages the reader's interest. This is the text on peyotism.

Peyote Religion is Volume 181 in the Civilization of American Indian Series.

- Rambles
written by Alicia Karen Elkins
published 10 April 2004