Native American traditions are passed down by family from generation to generation. While children are raised, they are taught stories, songs and rituals through oral tradition. Though, over time, the purpose and meanings of these stories and rituals can potentially be lost. One ritual that has no known origin, but is still practiced to this day, is the Peyote rite. In order to understand the music involved in this ceremony, we must first know the effects of Peyote, and how it is used medicinally through ceremony.
Peyote is found within a cactus, and contains hallucinogenic properties. If ingested, the effects of peyote include: “brilliantly colored visions in kaleidoscopic movement, often accompanied by auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile hallucinations. Sensations of weightlessness, macroscopia, depersonalization, and alteration or loss of time perception are normally experienced” (Schultes 15). However, that is not why it is important to Native Americans. Peyote is taken “as a sacrament in religious rites conducted by… the Native American Church” (Slotkin 96). The use of Peyote is significantly deeper than the desire to have a psychedelic experience.
The Native American Church believes that Peyote has medicinal powers. Schultes explained that its medicinal attributes “derive from its ability, through the visions, to put a man into contact with the spirit world, from which, according to aboriginal belief, come illness and even death, and to which the medicine men turn from their diagnoses” (16). Taking a step further into how Peyote is medicinal, we must first break down how it heals the patient physically and spiritually. It is known to heal individuals of sickness, as well as provides an individual with strength to protect them from evil. Spiritually, Peyote provides an individual with knowledge. Slotkin explains that there are two ways Peyote teaches individuals. One is by “heightening the sensibility of oneself” which gives the patient an increased sense of introspection, or self-examination as if they see themselves through others’ eyes (101). The other is by revelation through visions, which “provides a direct experience (visual, auditory, or a combination of both) of God or some intermediary spirit” (102). This healing process is believed to be sacred to the Native American Church, and must be taken during a Peyote rite.
The ceremony lasts all night, from dusk to dawn. Slotkin explains that throughout the night, there are “four major elements: prayer, singing, eating the sacramental Peyote, and contemplation” (97). Slotkin also describes the role singing in the ceremony:
“In clockwise rotation, starting with the leader, each male participant sings a set of four solo songs; he is accompanied on a water drum by the man to his right. The singing continues from the time of the Starting Song [when it begins] to that of the Morning Water Song [at dawn]; the number of rounds of singing depends upon the amount of men present. On most occasions there are four rounds, so that each man sings a total of sixteen songs.” (97-8)
In this video of the Starting Song, you will hear two instruments being used to accompany the singing: the peyote rattle and the water drum. According to McAllester, “the peyote rattle is made with a small gourd mounted on a handle stick” (59). McAllester also explains that the water drum “is made of a small, three-legged iron pot with a wet, almost rubbery, buckskin drumhead stretched over the opening” (59). When the participants in this video sing, they provide a mix between a heterophonic and homophonic texture. The individuals begin at different times with their own interpretation of the entrance, but then come together in harmony.
I believe that the presence of the music in a Peyote ritual is a symbol of unity. Together, they are working to attain the same level of consciousness while trying to heal themselves. I also think that the songs are an example of the importance of ritual while taking this substance. It shows that they are not taking it to party, but to become enlightened.
McAllester, David P. “North America/Native America.” Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s People. Ed. Jeff Todd Titon. 3rd ed. Belmont: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 35-65. Print.
Slotkin, J. S. “The Peyote Way.” Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy. Ed. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Liveright, 1975. 96-104. Print
Schultes, Richard E. “An Overview of Hallucinogens in the Western Hemisphere.” Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens. Ed. Peter T. Furst. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972. 3-54. Print.