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The Peyote Ceremony

Let‘s look at the structure of a typical Kiowa1 peyote meeting. The information is derived from the observations and recollection of Omer Stewart, who participated in numerous ceremonies of the Kiowa and other tribes. Throughout the United States and Canada, there are two distinct ritual variations - the Cross Fire and Half Moon ritual.

Many of the differences between the two styles are related to smoking. Besides not using tobacco in the peyote meeting, the Cross Fire ritual is distinctive by greater reference to the Bible, by displaying the Bible in the peyote meeting, and by ending the all-night ceremony with a sermon based on a text taken from the Bible.

However, there is a rule that the leader of the ceremony - also called the peyote chief or roadman - “is free to conduct the meeting as he wishes, allowing for minor variations. Nevertheless, nearly all rituals fit into either the Half Moon or Cross Fire pattern.”

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Preparation For the ritual

Between 7-8pm the participants meet in either a house, a hogan or a Tipi. The meetings are never held in the open. Preferably, all participants wear a traditional indian dress and have taken a bath before attending. There are no other preliminary preparations like fasting or sweating. The last supper is taken on regular hours. The ceremonial space has been set up by the leader and host of the meeting, who is in charge of the ritual. He set up an altar and provided sacred objects, such as a father peyote , the instruments and the staff. The crucifix is usually displayed on meetings.

The fire chief is responsible for the central fire in the tipi, which has been ignited before the ceremony starts. It is his responsibility to keep the fire going and say prayers. He is also responsible for conducting people in and out of the ceremony. As participants enter the sacred space, there is a specific order of entering. In that order enter first the chief, the chief drummer, the cedar man, all men, all women and children, and lastly, the fire chief. There is a circular seating order, separating men and women. Women usually sit behind the men. The men generally sit near the rear and the women near the entrance. On each side of the leader sits an assistant. There are at least two assistants, but also four or more.

As everyone is seated, usually on a blanket, the ceremony starts with a prayer or speech, or both. The cedar man is sitting to the left from the leader. The Kiowa use tobacco, as provided by the leader. The tobacco is rolled into cigarettes using maize husks and oak leaves. The cigarettes are then passed around clockwise and smoked along with leaders prayers. The smoke is blown towards the altar.

Along with the tobacco, sage bunches are passed around clockwise as wise. But they are not burned; they are rubbed in the hands and chewed. After the speech and prayer the chief lays out the paraphernalia on the ground between the leader and the altar. At that time the first cedar is thrown into the fire. The peyote buttons are now incensed before being passed around clockwise. Each participant takes 4 buttons to start out. Each button gets chewed, then spit into the hands, rolled, offered to altar and then swallowed.

Ceremonial Peyote Music

Music is central to the ceremony

Music is the central activity in peyote ceremonies and consists of singing and drumming. It has to be noted that as peyotism has developed into an intertribal activity, the ceremonies and the music are very similar between the traditions. Songs are passed form one tribe to another. There are particularly four songs - the “Opening Song", the "Night Water Song", the "Morning Sunrise Song", and the "Closing Song” - that can be heard among different tribes, among them the Kiowa.

In Kiowa ceremonies the instruments used are a water drum and a gourd rattle, in addition to the voice. The water drum is able to produce an organic sound with variable pitch through the movement of water in the body of the drum. The water drum is filled with water and tied anew before each ceremony.

Once everyone has ingested the sacrament, the music commences. The music during the ceremony follows a fixed procedure. There is a “staff of authority”, a cane stick of 3-5 feet length, beautifully decorated, that is being passed around and the person holding it leads the singing. Along with the staff a decorated gourd rattle and an eagle feather fan is being passed to the same person. The song leader also shakes that rattle.

The leader begins the singing with four fixed opening songs and holds the staff in front of him. The chief drummer accompanies him. After the four opening songs the water drum, the rattle, the staff and the fan are passed around clockwise. Each man in the circle is expected to sing four songs, and each song is repeated four times. The man sitting right to him is playing the accompaniment on the water drum. “The singer holds the staff in his left hand and accompanies himself with the rattle in his right hand.” Traditionally, women do neither sing nor drum. The drumming and singing goes all night, except for pause during the midnight water call.

Video: Peyote - Opening Song

General Characteristics of peyote music

In the book “Peyote Music” David McAllester lists seven general characteristics of peyote music thats sets it apart from other tribal music:

  1. The songs are sung with a relatively 'mild' vocal technique.
  2. They are fast.
  3. The accompaniment is in eighth-note units running even with the voice and adding to the impression of speed.
  4. They are uniquely consistent in the use of only eighth and quarter-note values in the vocal melody.
  5. They have the usual plains phrase patterns but in addition show a significant incidence in paired patterns, restricted compass and unusually long and flat codas.
  6. The finals show a cumulative use of the tonic for phrase endings.
  7. At the end of the typical peyote song, as diagnostic as the Christian 'amen,' comes the phrase “he ne neyo wa”.


The old and new style

There is a basic distinction between “old style” and “new style” peyote songs. The old style songs are traditional peyote songs as they have been performed for decades and passed down from one generation to the next.

New style songs are newly written compositions and have developed only in recent years. They are often electronically enhanced, particularly with reverb, harmonization and electronic instruments. The Native American Church2 is putting emphasis on creating new songs, so everyone is encouraged write new songs. As a consequence there are now hundreds of new peyote songs available.

The water calls

Water cannot be drunk by anyone at anytime, so there are two dedicated rituals for drinking - the water calls. They occurs twice, once at midnight and once in the morning. There is a special eagle wing bone whistle used only for the water calls. Only the leader plays the whistle. The water ritual follows a strict structure: the leader recalls the drum, staff, rattle, and other objects passed out. The fire chief replenishes the fire and puts four sticks of cedar on the fire. He also carefully cleans the altar and the floor. The leader then brings in a bucket of water and sings fixed water songs that bless the water. Once the water has been blessed, he spills some water on ground and then passes the bucket around clockwise so that everyone can drink.

As the ceremony continues, the roadman lays out the paraphernalia on the ground again and leaves the tipi for a short while to pray to the cardinal directions. Up to this point, only the material provided by the roadman could be used, but after midnight the individual fans and rattles can be used. At his point in the meeting, all urged to eat as much peyote as possible as the bag of buttons is passed around again. Before the music resumes, individual prayers are said aloud by men and women. No one leaves the tipi while anyone is singing, praying or eating peyote. The music continues until the morning water call, which is a repetition of the ritual described above.

After finishing up the ceremony with prayers and storing away the paraphernalia, the participants line up in front of the door and food is distributed. The order of the meal is passed out in that order: water, maize, fruit, and meat. The food gets first blessed and then eaten. The participants also drink the water from the water drum. At around 9am all leave the tipi to greet the sun, and then lounge, smoke and talk in the tipi. Finally, the tipi is dismantled and the altar destroyed.

Beliefs connected with peyotism

Among the native American users of peyote there tends to be a shared set of beliefs. Of these, the belief in the great god or great spirit is at the center. In random order, some other beliefs:

  • Spirit forces are subservient to the great god. Peyote is a spirit force chosen to guide the Indians.
  • Peyote's function is medicinal.
  • The ultimate goal of peyote consumption is enlightenment and physical betterment.
  • The individual can be helped by concerted prayer.
  • The individual must attain purity before approaching spirit forces.
  • An important function of the peyote meeting is to purify.
  • Modifications to the ritual are allowed by new revelations.
  • The approach to spirit forces should be humble.
  • The sacred number is four.

The Kiowa particularly valued the medicinal properties of peyote and revered peyote as medicine. They used peyote for treating the flu, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and venereal disease.

External resources:

  3. Omer C. Stewart, Peyote Religion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987)
  4. “The tracks of the little deer” last modified in 1992,
  5. Willard Rhodes, "Music of the American Indians" (Washington: The Library of Congress, 1982), 15.
  6. Nettl Bruno, Music in Primitive Cultures, (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1956)
  7. McAllester David P, Peyote Music. (New York: Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, 1949)
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