The small cactus Lophophora williamsii - or better known as peyote - has found widespread use among American Indian traditions. The Kiowa tribe is of particular interest due to their early adoption of peyote as a ceremonial sacrament and their role in propagating the plant among other tribal groups.
It is generally accepted that the Kiowa people migrated from the northern plains to the southern plains, before they got eventually relocated to their reservation in southwestern Oklahoma in 1867. Before relocation, the Kiowa lived mainly from buffalo hunting and followed the animal herds. As hunters and gatherers, they were famous and feared for the long distance raids that ranged from Mexico to Canada.
Due to the limited natural habitat of the peyote cactus, the Mexican and Southwestern tribes learned first about its use. Peyote is native to a relatively small region in southern Texas and northern to central regions of Mexico. Numerous southwestern Indian tribes knew the plant and knew it by different names: “Among the Kiowa it was seni; among the Comanche, wokoni; with the Mescalero, ho; and with the Tarahumara, hikori.”
It must be noted that there has always been very active cultural exchange between tribes. Be it for raiding, hunting, trading or territorial exploration - there was always intertribal exchange of information. The three tribes living in the natural habitat of peyote have passed on the knowledge of the plant, so there were eventually six tribes - the Carrizo, the Lipan, the Lipan Apache, the Mescalero, the Tonkawa, the Karankawa, and the Caddo - that are known to have used the cactus ceremonially. According to Omer Stewart, “It is within these six tribes, [...] that we should find the origin of the peyote ceremony of the United States. These are the tribes in or nearest the growth area at the beginning of the nineteenth century. All were familiar with the ritual use of peyote.”
There is evidence that many of these tribes, particularly the Mescalero, have known peyote for decades. “For at least a century they had occupied lands or raided into them”. There are written records of peyote rituals by the Carrizo tribe dating back to 1649 - “involving all-night ceremony, singing and drumming around a circle”.
As Oklahoma became part of the designated Indian territory that followed the Indian removal act of 1830, numerous tribes were relocated to these lands - among them, the Kiowa. “By 1874, the “wild Indians of the Plains,” or what was left of them, had joined the civilized tribes in Oklahoma. Peyote would have been known to many of these tribes.”
Once peyotism reached Oklahoma, the ceremony transformed significantly from its origins in Mexico. In the words of Stewart, “the peyote ceremony in Oklahoma was different from earlier Mexican peyote ceremonies. There was no blood-letting; there was almost never any dancing; people sat as in a meeting; there were no drunken stupors. It was an affair of family and friends, with singing and praying, and for all its strangeness to outsiders, to its participants it carried a high moral tone, such as might characterize a mission service. While no Christian symbol, with the possible exception of the cross, can be found in early peyote ceremonies, they might be said to have had a Christian ambience [...] It was the civilized manifestation of the aboriginal ceremonies that were integrated in the Oklahoma ceremony and not the primitive, uncivilized aspects”
It was in Oklahoma, were the seeds for the Native American Church were laid. At first, it was difficult to obtain enough of the sacrament, since they were living far away from its natural growth habitat. And gathering peyote in Texas was very risky, because at that time no Indian were allowed in Texas. However, through courageous excursions to Texas, eventually a steady supply of peyote was established.
In the 1880, life on the reservations became more stable and peyotism spread rapidly. Its use quickly became apparent to missionaries and Indian agents of the U.S. government, who sought to suppress peyotism. After a long struggle to maintain its legality, eventually the Native American Church was founded in 1918. And the Kiowa “were apparently the most active proponents of the new religion”.
The efforts to practice peyotism legally and unrestrained eventually resulted in the foundation of the Native American Church. Members of the church nowadays enjoy legal protection and the liberty to freely pursue peyotism. Particularly, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 declared the use, possession and transportation of peyote for the „bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion“ as lawful. Today, it is estimated that the church counts more than 300‘000 members, and membership is usually reserved for descendants of native tribes.