This article originally appeared in
Tomorrow magazine, Spring 1961.
The Native American Church is a religious movement which originated
among the Indians of the Southwestern United States. Its main
features involve the use of peyote, a psychedelic, or mind-manifester,
drug obtained from the dried tops of a cactus that contains mescaline,
in a ceremony combining Indian religious motifs with certain Christian
themes. The drug and the ceremony are fused together in a manner
acceptable to many Indians today. My interest in this church was
a professional one, springing from my researches into psychedelics,
the vision-producing drugs the Indians use in a group setting.
So far as our research group could make out, the Indians were
the first people who used these substances together with certain
aspects of Christianity. We had heard about them in different
ways. Religious people who wanted this sect suppressed had published
complaints in various newspapers. In my country, Canada, there
had been questions and statements from a Minister in the House
of Commons at Ottawa. A police report we read suggested that peyote
was both a dangerous poison and a drug of addiction. Professor
Charles Seevers of Ann Arbor, one of the world's leading authorities
on both peyote and mescaline, one of its active principles, has
frequently stated that it was of low toxicity and that he had
no evidence of anyone becoming addicted to it. The U. S. Public
Health Service Narcotics Section at Fort Leavenworth have never
treated a peyote addict.
One of the clearest and kindest accounts of them and their religion
came from the late Professor J. S. Slotkin of the University of
Chicago. He had visited the Canadian branches of the Native American
Church of North America in the summer of 1956. He told us they
were being persecuted, not very obviously, thoroughly or determinedly,
but although it was mild and intermittent, it was persecution
all the same. Some of these persecutors did not deserve the label,
for they were good people genuinely concerned about the Indians,
who had been misinformed about the nature of the peyote rite.
They were naturally worried by reports that the Indians were obtaining
a dangerous and addictive substance and engaging in wild orgies.
There was reason to be concerned after the damage liquor has done
to some Indians in the past. Along with these people who had a
real interest in the Indians, there were others who never lose
an opportunity to meddle in other people's affairs. There is not
too much scope for this hobby in western Canada today, but the
Indians, being government wards and a special minority group,
are particularly susceptible to this sort of interference. As
the scholarly Slotkin explained to us, "Their conditions
are wretched. They are demoralized. Many of them hate and despise
farming. The Native American Church is something of their own,
born of their misfortunes and developed from their pre-Columbian
traditions. It has grown and flourished in spite of white men,
and this makes it even more precious to the Indians."
Slotkin thought we could do no harm by attending one of their
services, and we might help. It would at least show them that
all white men were not hostile. Their services have been described
as orgies only by those who have never attended them. It is curious
that the early Christians had much the same accusations leveled
at them by the Romans, whose staid, formalized, official religion
had become little more than an annex to politics, devoid of enthusiasm
and feeling. Any young religion (Quakers in Fox's day or the Methodists
in Wesley's are examples) usually manages to offend longer-established
churches, just as young lovers are something of a reproach to
long-wed people, for they reflect a vision of love that time has
more or less dimmed. Long-married people in whom time does not
produce this dimming can be embarrassing to their more habituated
We corresponded in a desultory way with the Indians of the Red
Pheasant Band, from among whose members most of the congregation
of the Native American Church of Canada was drawn. The Church
had been duly registered as a religious body and so was safe from
direct persecution. But the supply of peyote, their ceremonial
cactus, came from the United States, and this made them vulnerable
to administrative pressure, as later events have shown.
In September 1956, we learned that Mr. Frank Takes Gun, President
of the Native American Church of North America, was planning to
come north from his home in Montana to see how his fellow church
members were faring in Canada. Shortly after this, we were invited
to North Battleford. We drove north, picking up Dr. Abram Hoffer
in Saskatoon, armed with a tape recorder, blankets, and lots of
notebooks. Two members of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix staff traveled
with us. It was a glowing early fall day, and the stubble was
still live enough to give the land a blond, crew-cut look. We
arrived in North Battleford late in the afternoon of the sixth
of October, 1956. Mr. Takes Gun and his companion, Mr. Russell,
came to see us in our hotel. They had had a harassing time getting
the hard-pressed Red Pheasant Band to organize the ceremony. They
are poor Indians. Mr. Takes Gun had helped them to get permission
to pitch a tepee for the meeting in the grounds of old Fort Battleford.
He was also inquiring into the legal help the Indians were getting
in Canada. The Indians' way of conducting business is still not
very like that of the white man, and there is much misunderstanding.
I was tired and a little apprehensive on at least two counts.
My colleagues and I had decided that, while they would watch and
record the ceremony, I should take part in it, and observe from
the inside, as it were. I did not wholly enjoy the idea of taking
peyote, although I have used a variety of mind-changing substances
in the past few years. These have included taking harmala, the
seeds of Syrian rue, which has a disgusting taste; kava-kava,
the roots and leaves of a South Sea Island pepper plant; ololiuqui,
the seeds of Rivea corymbosa, a vine-like plant from Mexico, once
the chief and sacred narcotic of the Aztecs. I had also taken
chemically pure mescaline, one active principle of peyote, and
the immensely powerful Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, both derived
from plants. In addition, we had worked with a new group of substances
derived from adrenalin, whose use in this field had been discovered
in Saskatchewan. I had, however, never taken peyote before. I
found its dried, shriveled, and furry appearance uninviting, and
reports said it frequently produced nausea and vomiting. I did
not relish the idea of vomiting in public. My second worry was
a more serious one. I had much sympathy for the Indians and wanted
to assist their cause, but as an honest observer I would have
to report everything that happened. I was concerned lest the service
should be ill-conducted.
Mr. Takes Gun was clearly worried about me. He told me repeatedly
that they would have good, clean city water and that the cups
would be personal and hygienic. The peyote, he assured me, would
not be difficult to take, but would be made soft with a coffee
grinder and wrapped individually in Kleenex. He is of medium height
and very solidly built, of that almost pure mesomorphy that one
finds often among the Plains Indians. His face might have been
carved from old, oiled, highly polished teakwood. He glistened
in the afternoon sun-for he was nervous. His eyes and hair were
black. He had the longest ears I have ever seen. His face was
impassive. This made one notice the eloquence of his hands all
the more (one finger was missing from the left one); his gestures
were as expressive as a Latin's.
Mr. Takes Gun left us to make the final preparations for the
ceremony. We agreed to be at North Battleford a little after sundown,
and, before he left, he gave me a final reassurance about the
purity of the water. We crossed the golden valley of the South
Saskatchewan River and drove up the hillside to the old fort.
They had set the teepee on the short grass inside the stockade.
It was small and pale, its ventilator flapping in the breeze.
The clear night sky with the stars appearing and the faint swirl
of northern lights seemed about to engulf us. Outside the teepee
there was a great stack of small logs.
The ceremonial fire in the center of the teepee was ready for
lighting. It was between the horns of the low, crescent-moon altar
shaped from molded earth. Only the fire tender occupied this middle
space. The rest of us, eight observers, including two journalists,
and fourteen Indian worshipers, were ranged around the circumference
of the teepee. Apart from Mr. Takes Gun, and Mr. Russell, who
had driven up from Montana, our hosts came from Saskatchewan,
mostly from the Red Pheasant Band, though a few had driven over
from Alberta. The elders of this group were Mr. Nicotine and Mr.
Stone. There were several younger men and two Indian ladies. All
looked spruce and neat. They had clearly put on their best clothes
for the service. I sat on Mr. Takes Gun's left so that I could
learn about the ceremony from him. He was the leader, and Mr.
Russell, on his right, was his drummer.
In a teepee, one sits with one's back slightly bent and one's
head forward. However one places the legs, they get stiff, the
long hamstring muscles in particular. Cramping pains can be a
nuisance. Mr. Russell played the fire taps on his drum, and the
fire tender lit the prepared wood. Sparks rose up and fluttered
in the darkness above us before vanishing. The teepee was filled
with the pleasant, acrid smell of sage, thyme, and burning logs.
Mr. Takes Gun put a single leaf and then a large peyote button
on the moon altar. The rest of us remained seated, and he was
silent. He consulted his watch from time to time. At eight-thirty
he began to read a written address he had with him. He asked for
"Religious freedom for the Indian form of Christianity."
He quoted the Declaration of Independence with its inalienable
rights, which include religious freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
The long Indian faces, dark in the fire glow, expressed melancholy,
dolor, tragedy. "We want to be let alone to worship our God
as we wish." He then addressed the observers directly: "I
trust you will tell the truth and nothing but the truth so help
us God." It is no easy matter even to observe accurately
enough to be sure what the truth might be, and having done this,
how should one convey the truth so that it will mean something
to someone else? I wondered how I would be able to communicate
the solemnity of that frail teepee. It was like being inside a
lighted Japanese lantern, suspended in eternity.
The smoke started the ceremony proper. The Indians are masters
of symbolism; a few eagle feathers, a pinch of sweet herbs, a
little water drum, a gourd rattle, a fire, and little more, are
all the aids they need for worship. For them, everything that
is, is holy. They have no written prayers, but as among the Quakers,
everyone prays according to his conscience. So a cigarette made
from cornhusks symbolizes for them the purification and dedication
of the human spirit to a greater spirit. The tobacco was handed
around in a soft leather pouch. It was runny, with many small
grains. I am not a smoker. I fashioned my cigarette clumsily and
the tobacco leaked out, and the result was rather emaciated. A
glowing brand was passed around for lighting the cigarettes. Shortly
after mine was lit, I choked. The fire felt very hot on my face,
almost scorching, while behind I was chilly. It did not seem a
good start for the evening.
While Mr. Russell beat the drum, Mr. Takes Gun chanted and shook
the rattle. Sometimes he used English and sometimes his own tongue.
The wind noises were lost in the chanting and the drumming. His
voice rose effortlessly from a firm baritone to a high, clear
Dear Heavenly Father,
We are representing our folks under this teepee.
Dear Heavenly Father, Dear Heavenly Father
Bless these men that are observers here.
Dear Heavenly Father,
These poor people surrendered all their lands
To the Government of Canada-their conditions
Dear Heavenly Father-bless my people back home.
Then he continued in his own tongue, which seemed made for rhetoric,
for declamation, and his voice rose in searching falsetto. The
Indians maintained a low background of song in their three different
languages. The faces of his fellow worshipers were angry, resigned,
supplicating, shifting with the changes of rhythm and the flickering
fire. The chorus ceased from time to time and the leader continued
alone, his voice cascading and dying away, the song of a bird
fluttering against a great storm. The fire glowed. An Indian wept.
We placed our cigarettes around the base of the moon altar.
At about 9 P.M. the peyote was brought in. It was carried in
a little white cloth sack, which was handed from person to person.
Mine came separately; it had been macerated in a coffee grinder
and each button wrapped in a white tissue, so courteous are the
Indians. They themselves crunched the hard, dry, furry cactus
tops determinedly, as one cracks nuts with one's teeth. I nibbled
cautiously at my soft, damp residue. It has a sharp taste, which
lingers in the mouth. It is bitter and sour on the stomach. It
repeats on one. It is not as bad as ololiuqui, and is pleasant
compared with the sour, oily, rancid seed of the Syrian rue. Mr.
Takes Gun belched a little after swallowing his. Peyote takers,
making a virtue of necessity, sometimes allege there is something
especially valuable about the nausea it induces in some people.
As in other religions, rationalizations are always ready to help
out anything unpalatable. I was glad when I swallowed the last
bit of peyote. My apprehensions about vomiting were unnecessary.
The drumming and singing continued. The water drum is made of
blackened iron covered with hide. Seven knobs on the side represent
the dipper stars. Behind the singing there is always drumming
and rattling. The drum beat in the brain and wearied me; every
drummer seemed much the same. The fire tender moved the ashes
into the space between the horns of the moon, so that it gradually
filled up with fine wood ashes. I had respect for the ceremony.
It was reverent and well conducted. But I was still not of the
group, even though I was among them. I scribbled away at my note
pad and often watched my observing colleagues, who were at the
other side of the teepee.
At about nine-fifteen I wrote, "The young man with the
superb face, puzzled by his fate-he has a kingly face," and
again, "if feeling gets to God, this must." By nine
forty-five there was a ghost of brilliant color in my eye grounds
when I closed my lids. I felt remote and slightly depressed. The
roof flap fluttered like a lost soul. The teepee is a microcosm,
a tiny mirror of the universe. The fire glowed red and smokeless;
the fire tender handed around a smoldering brand for those who
wanted to smoke. Mr. Takes Gun recited prayers in his language-as
he smoked, his hands moved with extraordinary delicacy. It was
an unorgiastic orgy. The Indians sing without opening their mouths
much, and often they hardly move their lips. They sing with their
sound box and chest, while we use our lips, tongue, and sound
box. I was never quite sure where the singing was coming from,
and it was sometimes almost impossible to decide who was singing
and who was not.
By about ten I had become more aware of what was happening,
and recognized that peyote was starting to affect me. My sight
was sharper and my hearing more acute. Looking around the teepee,
it struck me that we white men, outnumbered in this tiny world,
were an even smaller fraction of the larger one. I found it hard
to write and did so reluctantly because, as I noted, "...
it broke the chain of feeling." I got nothing down on my
pad for the next hour and a half. Visual changes continued and
increased during this time. They never became very marked, but
at times the Indians seemed hostile. Their faces became distorted
with anger. I realized that this was probably the effect of peyote
and so did not become panicky. I felt that I was an intruder whom
the Indians did not trust-they had no special reason to. I did
not seem close to them. Peyote works slowly and subtly. It is
well suited for a gathering of this sort, where people of differing
temperaments, who do not necessarily share a common language,
worship together and explore reality without the cushion of words
and supported mainly by ritual.
A photographer took some flash pictures at about ten or fifteen
minutes before midnight, and then I started writing again. The
Indians chanted, drummed, and used the gourd rattle. Only their
faces were impassive. The ceremonial swept me along with it.
At midnight, water was brought in. This was the pure city water
Mr. Takes Gun had promised me earlier. It was in a new, white
enamel pail with a swan transfer on the outside. It was passed
around, and we drank from individual paper cups. It could have
been depressingly hygienic, but the intention was a generous one
to put me at ease. He then said, "Pray to God and ask him
to bless the water." He explained that the Indians held their
services at night, while the white man sleeps, because God would
have time to spare for his Indian friends. He urged his fellow
Indians to bring up their children to be intelligent and progressive,
adding, "We are representing our lives here." Then he
left us and, walking around the outside of the teepee, blew piercing
blasts on an eagle's-bone whistle at the four compass points.
The sound shrilled through aeons of space and corridors of time.
It echoed to eternity. When he came back to us, he prayed, "...
that the Universe may prevail."
Shortly after this my fellow observers left for what must have
been twenty minutes or so, but it could have been as many centuries.
I stayed behind with the Indians, and I became part of the worshipers.
I entered their world, where for generation upon generation they
had hunted the buffalo. They had lived with and on the buffalo.
They were of one piece. They were the buffalo. Their lives were
part of those shaggy lumbering herd beasts whose myriads roamed
the great plains. On these wide prairies, where trees and hills
are almost equally scarce, sound often conveyed as much as sight.
So the Indians call up their past with song, with drum, and with
rattle. For them, minute alterations of rhythm and pace evoke
ever-changing images. Because we cannot hear as they do, the drumming
and rattling seem endlessly repetitive to us. The drumming was
the steady running of a man with his dog padding beside him. It
was the pawing and thudding of buffalo hooves crescendoing in
thunder. It was the gentle crumpling of dung falling or the soft
plop of a calf dropping on turf, soundless, yet heard by the hunter.
The gourd evoked the endlessly sifting wind, catching at scrub
and grass as it passed. It was the hissing of an arrow as it leaves
the bow or snakes by one's head in battle. It was the sizzling
of buffalo meat grilling on the campfire and the creak of a hide
teepee as the blizzard twists and whirls around it. The drumming
was life and death, scarlet blood spurting from a stricken buffalo
or from a fallen warrior. Yet it was also the first fluttering
of a child inside its mother. As he sang, a young man wept, and
Frank Takes Gun said, "Shed tears on mother earth that the
Universal God may take pity on him."
When my friends returned, I felt that the Indians and I were
one and that, for a little time, or more accurately, a different
sort of time, I was of their world rather than that of my colleagues,
their conquerors. It was not simply that I realized they had a
point of view I could respect, but that I felt in my bones as
they felt in theirs. Looking back, I do not believe that this
was an illusion, for I continued to be much more aware of their
way of looking at things. But how could one prove such an opinion-without
fine instruments for measuring a man's system of values.
The women did not drum, sing or use the gourd rattle, but they
smoked, took peyote, and played a large part in the morning ceremony.
They also prepared the feast for the next day. Women only very
rarely enjoy their highest status among nomadic people.
The Indians must have begun to filter down from Siberia about
ten thousand years ago, and as they reached the great central
plains they spread out in the wake of the buffalo. For some mysterious
reason, horses, which had once lived in America, died out long
before man arrived. So the newcomers hunted on foot. Unlike our
forebears, who were harassed and pushed west by waves of horsemen
from Central Asia, many tiny Indian societies grew up far apart
from each other, isolated by vast distances. There were occasionally
brief, savage, and ceremonious wars on the prairies, in which
little groups of men raided the enemies. In these, courage counted
more than killing. Apart from this, their whole lives, their very
existence, was at the heels of those heavy monsters. Pursuing
them, they had endured drought and cold, furious rainstorms and
blinding blizzards. For a very short time, a few generations only,
they had horses, which, escaping from the Spaniards, bred splendidly
on the grasslands. Few people accept an innovation so quickly
and successfully as the Indians took to the horse. They were centaurs.
The drumming told of that age of glory when, to the beat of horses'
hooves, they swept across the prairies like wildfire and hunted
with a splendor never surpassed. Then the white settlers invaded
the prairies, and the unequal struggle between hunting peoples
who lived in space without time, and the season-bound rapacity
of the cultivators of the soil, began. The hunting grounds were
eroded. Finally the buffalo were slaughtered wantonly by the million.
With that holocaust, their traditions, their way of life, their
world, their universe collapsed, and the veil of their souls was
rent. Braves became bums, for there was nothing manly left to
do. Their women mourned for them.
I was drenched in that world of sound, of singing, drumming,
and the subtly changing rhythms of drum, rattle, and voice. We
are a more visual people than the Indians, and this is perhaps
why they seem impassive to us. We watch, in particular, for changes
in facial expression and do not notice the auditory signals with
which the Indians communicate their feelings. Those long silences
during which they let the unspoken flow between people simply
make us tense, embarrassed, uneasy, and ready to burst into nervous
The blue-shirted young man who had been weeping said, "Frank,
can I have some more medicine?" and the little sack was passed
along to him. He crunched two more buttons and began to sing and
use the gourd rattle while his companion drummed. His song rose
above the drumming, was drowned by it, and rose again and again,
faltering but struggling still. It was an agony. The drumbeats
were strides of fate. Life must go on, pain or no pain. There
could be no concessions. The young man wept and sang for himself,
for his people, for every human being who has ever quailed before
the harshness of life. After singing, he was easier, and the rhythm
of his drumming reflected this. There was in it a little of that
cosmic beat of Tchaikowsky's great Second Movement of the Fifth
Symphony, when, for a brief while, he heard and transcribed what
must surely be the pulsing of the galaxies. I watched the young
man, and I think I experienced some of the queasiness that peyote
induced in him. Like most young men, he longed for a life that
meant something-a life of action, danger, pain, defeat, torture,
and death at the hands of his enemies if necessary. A life like
that of his ancestors who lived on the prairies for centuries
before. Anything rather than the humiliating meaninglessness of
the present. But the drumming told him, "You cannot go back.
You can go forward. It will be rough, but it can be done."
It is sad to be a warrior from generations of warriors with nothing
warlike to do-an Achilles without Troy, staying at home among
his mother's spinning women.
The fire tender kept the hearth meticulously, and the moon altar,
which had started as a thin crescent, filled up steadily. When
a singer had sung his song, the Indians sat in silence and absorbed
it. They applauded with a low guttural noise that might be a hum.
They were polite, sensitive, and seemed very courteous and alert
toward each other and to their guests. By now it was almost three
in the morning, and most of the observers were asleep; one snored
loudly and had to be prodded by his neighbor. The visual imagery
I usually experience with psychedelic substances was much reduced
in this setting, and the auditory imagery very much increased.
I responded to every nuance of their drumming. They use a tiny
range of sound with which to express themselves, and this is saturated
The sparks spangled the upper darkness of the teepee every time
the fire was stoked. The teepee was the universe. It had not increased
in size nor changed its shape, but the sound had expanded it beyond
thought. The young man still cannot bear his fate. All the warrior
in him is assailed by it and revolts against it. But he must listen
to the voice of the music, which is greater than man. He sings
again, this time in high falsetto. There is a note of triumph
in it, and perhaps peyote has dissolved the aching in his heart-for
a little while.
The teepee smelled of wood and wood smoke, burning herbs, sweat.
I noticed the tanginess of the smoke, like in a kippering room.
It clung to my hair and clothes for days afterward. The Indians
are creatures of sound and smell, with auditory symbolism predominating.
We are creatures of sight and sound, with visual imagery predominating.
Every drum tap has a meaning for them.
Through the small hours they sang of fleet horses and tireless
riders, of unwearying runners and faithful dogs padding beside
them. The stories are woven into the drum rhythms. They fanned
themselves with a few eagle's feathers, evoking arrow, war bonnet,
and battle club-endless parleys, powwows, and ceremonial meetings.
They had few songs of war, and they returned always to the death
of the buffalo, their banishment from the prairies, and so their
unmanning and loss of their warrior status. The buffalo hoofbeats
are in them as the sound of the sea is in me from generations
of seafarers. The Indians may be poor and defeated, but they are
not contemptible. They reveal themselves to each other with peyote
in humility, but also in pride. For although they revere the Universal
Spirit, they do not cringe. They are not ashamed of being men,
for so they were created. They do not ascribe their misfortunes
to sin, and are thus saved from much futile self-blame.
Mr. Russell's drumming was splendid. Frank sang of the long
winter nights and their hopes of endless buffalo herds. He sang,
too, of that brief time when they tamed horses, molding long-maned
and long-tailed wildings to their will. This reminded me that
the Trojan hero Hector, tamer of horses, was exercising with his
chariots on the windy plain of Ilium when their ancestors were
hunting the buffalo on foot, over these same prairies. The service
was very simple and drew the participants into it. Once I lost
my fear and unsureness, the Indians accepted me with dignity,
as an equal. I was impressed by their economy of gesture, the
faultless taste of their religious art; like a very dry sherry,
it is not for every palate. The prairies have molded them over
the centuries-they are a people of the open spaces; their God
is an open one of the wide earth and the limitless sky-not a shadowy,
hidden god of the forests and thickets. Their Universal Spirit
is mysterious in its immensity and omnipresence. Man's problem
is not to find God, for it is impossible not to be aware of Him,
but to relate oneself to Him in the best possible way.
By four-thirty I was becoming more aware of my hosts as individuals.
We had experienced something together that cannot be contained
in language. Poetry or music would come closer, but I am not a
poet or a composer. The wind fretted around the teepee. The singing
was like voices calling in the dark, calling for dawn to come,
for winter to go, for the buffalo to return, for a child to be
Mr. Russell had the black drum passed to him. He sucked a little
water from it, tautened the hide, and smoothed it with a caress.
Frank Takes Gun explained the next part of the ceremony. "You
have only seen three last night-the leader, the drummer, and the
fireman. Now you will see the fourth. Thank God we have lived
to see another day. We represent our lives: we don't imitate anything.
The foundations of human life rest with our mothers who delivered
us into this world." The Mother stepped into the teepee through
the door flap, announced by the shrilling of the eagle's-bone
whistle. She sat down by the white enamel waterpot. The teepee
was dim, the fire was low, but some wisps of smoke rising from
it seemed to surround her. She had a red blanket around her shoulders,
a blue dress, smooth black hair, and her face seemed very broad.
She was greeted by a song of welcome with voices, drum, and rattle.
With the singing, she became superb mother earth, mother prairie,
grass, cow buffalo, mare, and doe, the epitome of motherhood.
The drum beating was not restful or sleep inducing. It was the
fecund pulsing of sex, passion, generation, and death, sung without
guilt and without self-consciousness. The mother was weary, patient,
tender, but enduring. She stood behind all the men-drummer, fire
tender, leader. In front of her were the waters of life and death.
Frank addressed her in the highest falsetto, a tearing, almost
noiseless scream, the cry of the tiniest baby or of an old man
breathing his last. It was unbearable. The mother could have been
any age-maid, mother, or crone, from sixteen to a hundred sixteen.
"You have been good to us while we were here. You worked
hard and made this possible. God knows we worship Him. God knows
we respect the mothers of our children."
Mr. Dave Stone, the oldest man present, spoke to the mother
in his high, light voice. His voice was very clear and would carry
over great distances. The wind had risen, and the day was being
born with a storm. The old man called upon the mother and sprinkled
dried Sage on the fire, sweetening the air in her honor. She took
a cigarette and lit it from the fire tender's brand. The smoke
she exhales is the life she gives. Above her head, the dawn lightened
the teepee flap. The fire was low. She drew on a cigarette. Its
glowing tip was as evanescent as a man's life, almost aflame one
moment, out the next. She prayed and smoked.
This is the mother who bears the baby, who nurses and cossets
the infant, who rears the child and watches him grow into a young
warrior, drummer, fire tender, or leader, who is possessed by
him and who laments him when he dies. She is indomitable. Warriors
die, but the mother, slave or matriarch, she is always there.
Her voice was low and clear. She dominated the teepee-the mother
who bears and the mother who buries her children. Her prayers
were followed by rumbles of agreement. She reaffirmed the will
to endure, to live on. The worshipers were deeply moved. Frank
whispered to me, "That is how much they respect their mothers."
But it was more than respect. It was awe. She conveyed the sorrow
of a woman's lot in a destitute people. The dawn caught the pointed
top of the teepee, but below where we were sitting, the fire was
so low that I could hardly see to write.
Mr. Russell whispered to me, "Praying with the smoke-something
good-something lasting forever." The Plains Indians were
a Dionysian, an apocalyptic people, frugal but generous; no middle
way existed for them-conquerors or conquered, no in-between, no
compromise. The smoke breath was caught up with the warm air over
the fire and twisted up into dawnlight. It struck me that with
another turn of the wheel of history we Caucasians who, by means
of gunpowder and printing, have gained so much authority in the
world, might find ourselves subject to peoples who possess skills
we do not have. No one who had been with the Indians as I had
been could feel superior to them. The blue-shirted warrior is
almost reconciled to living an unheroic, undionysiac life. It
is against his whole being. But the drumming, the singing, and
peyote have worked their magic. The buffalo are no more; the dawn
is coming; there is a life to face now.
The observed were awake and alert, the observers mostly sleeping.
At six, dawn came to us as the teepee flap was opened. We had
wrestled with the angel. We had grappled with the Heavenly Father.
Water was poured into the hygienic cups again, and a little
more was put into the drum. I was asked to say a few words, the
stranger whom they had made welcome and allowed to enter into
their mystery. I thanked them for their kindness to me and told
them that I would do my best to tell people about their worship
clearly and honestly. I also said that it would be no easy matter
to convey to those who had not shared our experience and who do
not have the Indian sense of oneness with life.
A child had come into the world again. Dawn lit the stockade,
and the wind was chilly. Life had begun again and must be faced.
The voice of the singers rose clear and high-a child's cry of
delight at buffalo hooves thundering far away. The fire flared
a little as if trying to hold back the morning, but it failed.
The center of the tent floor was covered by a great, grayish-white
half-moon of charred wood ashes. The mother left us. The barrier
of everyday life began to return.
The sun was just coming up when we left them at about half past
six. We felt that our Indian hosts would be easier if they could
have their morning feast without us. There were handshakes and
promises that we would do our best to tell our people about their
religion. As I left the tent, I took a last look at the whitish-gray
expanse of the moon altar: the three young men, including blue-shirt,
were singing and drumming together by the door flap. They were
very blithe. Outside, Mr. Nicotine and Mr. Stone stood by the
mother and waved to us as we left. The teepee seemed too small
and frail to have contained so much, but the drumbeats surged
out of it as evidence of the extraordinary power concentrated
there. I slept a little and thought much when I returned to the
hotel. I felt relaxed and happy. I felt that I had seen the Indians,
and what I had seen had cheered me. I wrote at this time, only
a few hours after the ceremony, "We cannot ape them, but
we can learn from them and perhaps gradually adapt their religion
to our needs, as they have adapted ours-feel tired, at peace,
an enlarging of the spirit." A little later, on my way back
from North Battleford, I noted, "Peyote simply reveals what
is the potential in all of us. The Indians, whose gifts have for
so long been run down by the whites, have found that in spite
of being poor Indians, the spirit of God is still with them. This
is an immense advance. It is a new hope, a new humility, a new
A day later I wrote, "Indian singing is incomprehensible
to most white men simply because they have never learnt the fine
discrimination of the Indian in matters of sound. Clearly a people
who have lived in an almost soundless country (and the prairies
are almost soundless to the city ear even now) would learn to
pick up a different range of sounds and would use these sounds
in their music. Grasses, grasshoppers, dust sifting, the wavelets
on little rivers splashing, the shushing of wind among low bushes,
and wind sounds infinitely varied with the seasons. Then, in great
contrast, the very loud sounds-the sounds inside one, the heart
thudding, etc., particularly loud when one is surrounded by great
stillness; hooves stamping or clopping regularly; the drubbing
stampede of the buffalo-again infinitely varied by terrain and
weather, and the crash of thunder reverberating over the endless
prairies. Birds few in number compared with the space, and therefore
all the more memorable. Color on the prairies in great general
masses with very small changes. The Indians would be used to the
very large and the very small. Also the effect of six months or
so of snow."
Then there was the matter of the resemblance between liquor
and peyote that has been raised so often in the press. I made
a special note about this: "Alcohol and peyote (psychedelics
generally) are antithetical. Alcohol produces a downward transcendence,
peyote an upward one-the difference between leveling up and leveling
down. Alcohol allows one to relate to others by being more sure
of one's self. This, in small doses, is much better than not being
able to relate at all, but it is a very precarious business, and
selfishness may soon end in brawling and ill temper. Peyote acts
not by emphasizing one's own self but by expanding it into the
selves of others, with a deepening empathy or in-feeling. The
self is dissolved and, in being dissolved, enriched. It becomes
aware of the nobility of other selves and so of itself."
I tried repeatedly in the next few months to organize my experience,
but it would not be organized. I carried my notes around with
me and made many drafts of papers that were never completed, because
they did not seem to carry out my obligation to Frank Takes Gun
and my fellow worshipers of that little band. It was not until
three years later, when I was quite unexpectedly asked to give
a short broadcast about the peyote ceremony, that I began to see
how I might be able to convey something of that night in the teepee
to people who had not been there and who had never taken peyote
or other psychedelics.
How does it look three years later? Has the wonder and beauty
of those astonishing ten and a half hours receded so that they
now seem unreal? Did my difficulty in writing about the experience
of that strange night arise from a growing feeling that my notes
were muddled and that I was as muddled as they? I do not think
That night in the teepee has resulted in many studies by my
colleagues and me. We have observed the effects of psychedelic
substances on groups of people taking them together-for various
reasons, we did not use peyote. The Indians have been very skillful
in structuring their ceremony so that it best meets their needs.
They are such masters of symbol, ceremony, and ritual, that this
is hardly surprising. It would be unwise and impertinent to ape
their religion, which developed from their agony when they lost
their hunting grounds at the end of the nineteenth century. Our
needs are very different from theirs. So we must follow a different
We have suggestive evidence that psychedelics, properly used,
can increase communication and understanding between those who
take them together, and this is not simply a drug-induced delusion.
It seems to persist long after the effects of the chemical have
disappeared. This has not yet been proved. Proof in such a matter
is not easy, and so for the moment we have to rely on personal
opinion. We have to find some way of showing these effects so
that they can be easily understood. But we have to recognize that
we are dealing with aspects of the human mind that are even more
elusive and mysterious than the depths of space and time.
Due to the interest and generosity of Mrs. Eileen Garrett, President
of the Parapsychology Foundation, several of us have taken part
in two international conferences about psychedelics. One was held
in New York in November 1958 and the other in Le Piol, France,
in July 1959. Both these conferences were attended by scientists
of international repute. At both of them there was general agreement
that these experiences induced by psychedelics, which fall into
the category of what William James called "unhabitual perception,"
call for sustained inquiry and research. It was encouraging that
the impetus for these meetings, which drew contributors from many
countries, arose in a frail teepee raised by members of the Native
American Church, mostly from the Red Pheasant Band, above the
South Saskatchewan River three years ago.
In one respect, however, we have failed, at least so far. We
have not been able to help members of the Native American Church
of Canada to obtain peyote, which is the sacrament of their faith.
Its importation is banned by the federal government department
concerned with these matters, by means of a legal technicality.
So far as we know, this has never been disputed in a court of
law or debated in Parliament. The attitude of government, "We
are doing this for your own good; we can't explain why because
you wouldn't understand," is infuriating, unwise, and unnecessary.
Among its other objectives, we hope that this article will lead
others to question seriously such well-meaning but arbitrary attempts
to do good. The Native American Church and the religion its members
practice, far from demoralizing them, is likely to help them in
their struggle to adapt to a very unfamiliar world.
Surely we can be fair-minded enough to pay respectful attention
to this bold attempt by the Indians to develop a new way of coming
closer to the source of all things. They do not want to convert
us to their ways. They do not claim that the peyote road is the
only way of reaching out toward their Great Spirit and Heavenly
Father. In Frank Takes Gun's words, "We just want to be let
alone to worship our God as we wish." Must we obstruct and
attempt to crush a new religion, which is beautiful and has never
been shown to do any harm, simply because it is unfamiliar and
because we can't imagine that it would work? Can we not let them
tread their peyote road and see what happens-provided they conduct
their services decorously and account properly for the peyote
used? They would, I believe, welcome observers from time to time.
Those observers could see and experience for themselves the form
of worship that the aboriginal inhabitants of these lands developed
when their world was tottering. The loss of the hunting grounds
and the slaughter of the buffalo was for them an even greater
catastrophe than that appalling event one early morning at Hiroshima
in August 1945.
I shall not forget my Indian hosts, who took me back to a life
through which all mankind has passed. A harsh, fierce, dangerous,
passionate life where hunter and hunted are one. A life rich in
beauty and meaning. Little more than eighty years ago, this was
their life and had been so beyond the memory of man. In a few
short, terrible years it was torn from them, and they are still
bewildered at the world in which we are clumsily trying to find
a place for them. But then perhaps we share some of that bewilderment,
for our new world is unimaginably strange. Should we not join
them in their prayer that "... the Universe may prevail"