5 The Peyote Cult (Plains)

Paul Radin

The Peyote Cult, by Paul Radin, [1925]


Owing to the great importance of one of the modem cults found among the Winnebago, the so-called Mescal or Peyote, it will be discussed here in some detail. Not only is this cult of great prominence in the life of the modem Winnebago, but as its inception and progress can be followed out in considerable detail it is of great significance for the study of their religion.

The ceremony is generally held in a building called by the Peyote worshipers a church, although it frequently takes place in the open also. In the early days of its organization as many meetings as possible were held. In 1910 there was a tendency to restrict the number and to have them generally take place on Saturday night. In 1913, after the first enthusiasm of the new converts had died out, the author was informed that the meetings were rarely held more than once a week. Around Christmas and beginning with July a series of meetings was held, lasting from a week to 10 days, as a rule. The Christmas meetings were not prominent in 1910, but the July ones seem to have been held from the beginning. They represent, of course, merely a substitution for the older pagan ceremonies and games that were held about that time.

In the early days the ceremony was opened by a prayer from the founder, and this was followed by an introductory speech. Thereupon the leader sang a Peyote song, to the accompaniment of a drum. Then another speech was delivered, and when it was finished the drum and other regalia were passed to the man to the right. This man, in turn, delivered a speech and sang a song, and when he was finished, passed the regalia to the third man, who subsequently passed it to the fourth one. The fourth man, when he was finished, returned it to the leader. In this way the regalia passed from one person to another throughout the night. It not infrequently happens that one of these four gets tired and gives up his place temporarily to some other member of the cult. At intervals they stopped to eat or drink peyote. At about midnight the peyote, as a rule, begins to affect some people. These generally arise and deliver self-accusatory speeches, and make more or less formal confessions, after which they go around shaking hands with everyone and asking forgiveness.

In 1910 the cult already had a rather definite organization. There was, at every performance, one leader and four principal participants. John Rave the Winnebago who introduced the peyote, was always the leader whenever he was present. On other occasions leadership devolved upon some older member. The four other principal participants changed from meeting to meeting, although there was a tendency to ask certain individuals whenever it was possible. The ritualistic unit, in short, is a very definite one, consisting of a number of speeches and songs and in the passing of the regalia from one to the other of the four participants.

During the early hours of the evening, before the peyote has begun to have any appreciable effect, a number of apparently intrusive features are found. These, for the most part, consist of speeches by people in the audience and the reading and explanation of parts of the Bible. After the peyote has begun to have an appreciable effect, however, the ceremony consists exclusively of a repetition of the ritualistic unit and confessions.

There is an initiation consisting of a baptism, always performed by John Rave. It is of a very simple nature. Rave dips his fingers in a peyote infusion and then passes them over the forehead of the new member, muttering at the same time the following prayer:

“God, his holiness.”This is what the Winnebago words mean, although some of the younger members who have been strongly permeated with Christian teachings translate the prayer into, “God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

Whenever the ceremony is performed in the open a fireplace in the shape of a horseshoe is made. At one end of this fireplace is placed a very small mound of earth, called by Rave “Mount Sinai,” and in front of this a cross is traced in the earth. Upon the small earth mound are placed the two “chief” peyote, the Bible and the staff. The latter, called by Rave the shepherd’s crook, is always covered with beadwork, and generally has a number of evenly cut tufts of deer hair on the end and at intervals along its length. The sacred peyote, known as huŋka (i.e., “chief”) are exceptionally large and beautiful specimens. They are regarded by a number of people, certainly by Rave, with undisguised veneration.

In addition to the above, there is found a large eagle feather fan, a small drum, arid a peculiar small type of rattle. To my knowledge, this type was unknown among the Winnebago before its introduction by the peyote eaters.


During 1893-94 I was in Oklahoma with peyote eaters.

In the middle of the night we were to eat peyote. We ate it and I also did. It was the middle of the night when I got frightened, for a live thing seemed to have entered me. “Why did I do it?” I thought to myself. I should not have done it, for right at the beginning I have harmed myself. Indeed, I should not have done it. I am sure it will injure me. The best thing will be for me to vomit it up. Well, now, I will try it. After a few attempts I gave up. I thought to myself, “Well, now you have done it. You have been going around trying everything and now you have done something that has harmed you. What is it? It seems to be alive and moving around in my stomach. If only some of my own people were here! That would have been better. Now no one will know what has happened to me. I have killed myself.”

Just then the object was about to come out. It seemed almost out and I put out my hand to feel it, but then it went back again. “O, my, I should never have done it from the beginning. Never again will I do it. I am surely going to die.”

As we continued it became day and we laughed. Before that I had been unable to laugh.

The following night we were to eat peyote again. I thought to myself, “Last night it almost harmed me.” “Well, let us do it again,” they said. “All right, I’ll do it.” So there we ate seven peyote apiece.

Suddenly I saw a big snake. I was very much frightened. Then another one came crawling over me. “My God! where are these coming from?” There at my back there seemed to be something. So I looked around and I saw a snake about to swallow me entirely. It had legs and arms and a long tail. The end of this tail was like a spear. “O, my God! I am surely going to die now,” I thought. Then I looked again in another direction and I saw a man with horns and long claws and with a spear in his hand. He jumped for me and I threw myself on the ground. He missed me. Then I looked hack and this time he started back, but it seemed to me that he was directing his spear at me. Again I threw myself on the ground and he missed me. There seemed to be no possible escape for me. Then suddenly it occurred to me, “Perhaps it is this peyote that is doing this thing to me?” “Help me, O medicine, help me! It is you who are doing this and you are holy! It is not these frightful visions that are causing this. I should have known that you were doing it. Help me!” Then my suffering stopped. “As long as the earth shall last, that long will I make use of you, O medicine!”

This had lasted a night and a day. For a whole night I had not slept at all.

Then we breakfasted. Then I said, when we were through, “Let us eat peyote again to-night.” That evening I ate eight peyote.

In the middle of the night I saw God. To God living up above, our Father, I prayed. “Have mercy upon me! Give me knowledge that I may not say and do evil things. To you, O God, I am trying to pray. Do thou, O Son of God, help me, too. This religion, let me know. Help me, O medicine, grandfather, help me! Let me know this religion!” Thus I spoke and sat very quiet. And then I beheld the morning star and it was good to look upon. The light was good to look upon. I had been frightened during the night but now I was happy. Now as the light appeared, it seemed to me that nothing would be invisible to me. I seemed to see everything clearly. Then I thought of my home and as I looked around, there I saw the house in which I lived far away among the Winnebago, quite close to me. There at the window I saw my children playing. Then I saw a man going to my house carrying a. jug of whisky. Then he gave them something to drink and the one that had brought the whisky got drunk and bothered my people. Finally he ran away. “So, that is what they are doing,” I thought to myself. Then I beheld my wife come and stand outside of the door, wearing a red blanket. She was thinking of going to the flagpole and was wondering which road she should take. “If I take this road I am likely to meet some people, but if I take the other road, I am not likely to meet anyone.”

Indeed, it is good. They are all well—my brother, my sister, my father, my mother. I felt very good indeed. O medicine, grandfather, most assuredly you are holy! All that is connected with you, that I would like to know and that I would like to understand. Help me! I give myself up to you entirely!

For three days and three nights I had been eating medicine, and for three days and three nights I had not slept. Throughout all the years that I had lived on earth, I now realized that I had never known anything holy. Now, for the first time, I knew it. Would that some of the Winnebagoes might also know it!

Many years ago I had been sick and it looked as if this illness were going to kill me. I tried all the Indian doctors and then I tried all of the white man’s medicines, but they were of no avail. “I am doomed. I wonder whether I will be alive next year.” Such were the thoughts that came to me. As soon as I ate the peyote, however, I got over my sickness. After that I was not sick again. My wife had suffered from the same disease, and I told her that if she ate this medicine it would surely cure her. But she was afraid, although she had never seen it before. She knew that I used it, but nevertheless she was afraid of it. Her sickness was getting worse and worse and one day I said to her, “You are sick. It is going to be very difficult, but try this medicine anyhow. It will ease you.” Finally she ate it. I had told her to eat it and then to wash herself and comb her hair and she would get well, and now she is well. Then I painted her face and took my gourd and began singing very much. Then I stopped. “Indeed, you are right,”she said, “for now I am well.” From that day on to the present time she has been well. Now she is very happy.

Black Water-spirit at about that time was having a hemorrhage and I wanted him to eat the peyote. “Well, I am not going to live anyhow,” he said. “Well, eat this medicine soon then and you will get cured.” Consumptives never were cured before this and now for the first time one was cured. Black Water-spirit is living to-day and is very well.

There was a man named Walking-Priest and he was very fond of whisky; he chewed and he smoked and he gambled. He was very fond of women. He did everything that was bad. Then I gave him some of the peyote and he ate it and he gave up all the had things he was doing. He had had a very dangerous disease and had even had murder in his heart. But to-day he is living a good life. That is his desire.

Whoever has any bad thoughts, if he will eat this peyote he will abandon all his bad habits. It is a cure for everything bad.

To-day the Indians say that only God is holy. One of the Winnebagoes has told me, “Really, the life that I led was a very bad one. Never again will I do it. This medicine is good and I will always use it.” John Harrison and Squeaking-Wings were prominent members of the medicine dance; they thought much of themselves as did all the members of the medicine dance. They knew everything connected with this medicine dance. Both of them were gamblers and were rich because they had won very much in gambling. Their parents had acquired great possessions by giving medicines to the people. They were rich and they believed that they had a right to be selfish with their possessions. Then they ate peyote and ever since that time they have been followers of this medicine. They were really very ill and now they have been cured of it. Now if there are any men that might be taken as examples of the peyote, it is these three. Even if a man were blind and only heard about them he would realize that if any medicine were good, it is this medicine. It is a cure for all evil. Before, I had thought that I knew something but I really knew nothing. It is only now that I have real knowledge. In my former life I was like one blind and deaf. My heart ached when I thought of what I had been doing. Never again will I do it. This medicine alone is holy and has made me good and has rid me of all evil. The one whom they call God has given me this. That I know positively. Let them all come here; men and women; let them bring with them all that they desire; let them bring with them their diseases. If they come here they will get well. This is all true; it is all true. Bring whatever desires you possess along with you and then come and eat or drink this medicine. This is life, the only life. Then you will learn something about yourself, so come. Even if you are not told anything about yourself, nevertheless you will learn something of yourself. Come with your disease, for this medicine will cure it. Whatever you have, come and eat this medicine and you will have true knowledge once and for all. Learn of this medicine yourself through actual experience.

If you just hear about it you are not likely to try it. If you desire real knowledge about it try it yourself, for then you will learn of things that you had never known before. In no other way will you ever be happy. I know that all sorts of excuses will run through your mind for not partaking of it, but if you wish to learn of something good, try this. Perhaps you will think to yourself that it will be too difficult and this will seem an excuse to you for not trying it. But why should you act thus a If you partake of it, even if you feel some uncertainty about its accomplishing all the good that has been said of it, I know that you will say to yourself, “Well, this life is good enough.” After you have taken it for the first time, it will seem as if they are digging a grave for you, that you are about to die; and you will not want to take it again. “It is bad,” you will think to yourself. You will believe that you are going to die and you will want to know what is going to happen to you. The coffin will be set before you and then you will see your body. If you wish to inquire further about where you are going then you will learn something you have not known. Two roads there are, one leading to a hole in the earth and the other extending up above. You will learn something that you had not known before. Of the two roads, one is dark and the other is light. You must choose one of these while you are alive and so must you decide whether you wish to continue in your evil ways or whether you will abandon them. These are the two roads. The Peyote people see them. They claim that only if you weep and repent will you be able to obtain knowledge. Do not, as I said before, listen to others talking about it, but try the medicine yourself. That is the only way to find out. No other medicine can accomplish what this has done. If, therefore, you make use of it, you will live. After they have eaten peyote people throw aside all the (evil) ceremonies that they were accustomed to perform before. Only by eating the peyote will you learn what is truly holy. That is what I am trying to learn myself.

It is now 23 years since I first ate peyote, and I am still doing it (1912). Before that my heart was filled with murderous thoughts. I wanted to kill my brother and my sister. It seemed to me that my heart would not feel good until I killed one of them. All my thoughts were fixed on the warpath. This is all I thought of. Now I know that it was because the evil spirit possessed me that I felt that way. I was suffering from a disease. I even desired to kill myself;

I did not care to live. That feeling, too, was caused by this evil spirit living within me. Then I ate this medicine and everything changed. The brother and sister I wanted to kill before I became attached to and I wanted them to live. The medicine had accomplished this.


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