Jour. Rel. Psych.


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The peyote cult has a rather definite organization at the present time. There is always a leader, and generally there are four principal participants. John Rave, the Winnebago who introduced the peyote, is always the leader whenever he is present. On other occasions leadership devolves upon some older member. The four other principal participants change from meeting to meeting, although there is a tendency to ask certain individuals whenever it is possible. As we have seen, the ritualistic unit is a very definite one, consisting of a number of speeches and songs and the passing of the regalia from one to the other.

During the early hours, 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 the 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 the following prayer:

"God, His holiness."

This is what the Winnebago really means, although some of the newer members, with strong Christian leanings, translate the prayer into "God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." . . . At about twelve the peyote begins to affect some people. These generally rise and deliver self-accusatory speeches, and make more or less formal confessions, after which they go around shaking hands with everyone, asking for forgiveness. . . .

To judge from Rave’s words, his first belief in the peyote had nothing of the nature of a conversion to a new religion. It seems to have been similar to the average Winnebago attitude toward a medicinal herb obtained either as a gift or through purchase. There is only one new note—stimulation by a narcotic.

Rave goes on to say that the peyote cured him of a disease with which he had been afflicted for a long time, and that he begged his wife, who was afflicted with the same disease, to eat it. When she finally consented, he painted her face, took the rattle, and sang peyote songs while she ate peyote. Thus he cured her. Rave’s attitude throughout, both from his own testimony and from that of others, seems to have been practically the old attitude of a Winnebago shaman. According to some informants, he even offered tobacco to the peyote before using it.

We have, then, at the beginning, apparently the introduction of only one new element, the peyote; with possibly a few Christian teachings. Everything else seems to be typically Winnebago, and in consonance with their shamanistic practices. On the whole, the extension of the Winnebago cultural background seems to have been so instantaneous that as far as the specific cultural traits of the Winnebago are concerned, there was no introduction of a new element. This view does not, of course, interfere in the least with the fact that to the Winnebago themselves the presence of the peyote represented the introduction of a new element.

The elaboration of the peyote practices at Rave’s hands is the most difficult problem to trace, on account of lack of data. His attitude toward the old Winnebago life was certainly passive and unantagonistic for some time. Then it changed to one of violent hatred and antagonism. Why, and under what circumstances this took place, I do not know. It seems idle to speculate upon the specific causes. It probably represented the interaction of many elements, the hostility of the tribe, the drawing of issues sharply around certain points, and the gradual assumption on the part of Rave of the role of a prophet who had solved the problem of the adjustment of the Winnebago to the surrounding white civilization. . . .

It was apparently at a time when this hostility was at its height that a new convert, Albert Hensley, revolutionized the entire cult by introducing the reading of the Bible and positing the dogma that the peyote opened the Bible to the understanding of the people; and by adding a number of Christian practices, such as, perhaps, the interpretation of giving public testimony and Bible interpretation. He too had been in Oklahoma for a long time. He brought with him many peyote songs, generally in other languages, and dealing with Christian ideas, upon which subsequently Winnebago songs were modeled. He introduced likewise either baptism itself, or an interpretation of baptism, and induced Rave to attempt a union with the Christian church. He seems to have been the only prominent man connected with the peyote who, to my knowledge, was subject to epileptic fits. He had the most glorious visions of heaven and hell while in his trance; and these he expounded afterwards in terms of Revelation and the mystical portions of the New Testament.

Hensley’s additions represent a second stratum of borrowed elements, all of which are in the nature of accretions, as far as the peyote itself is concerned, not modifying its fundamental interpretation, but on the contrary explaining the Bible in its terms. Neither he nor his followers ever interpreted the peyote in terms of the Bible. He, his immediate followers, and even Rave himself, interpreted other elements of the old Winnebago culture in terms of the Bible. However, the elements so interpreted represented features that even in the old Winnebago cults exhibited a great variability in interpretation.

Rave’s attitude toward the innovations of Hensley seems to have been that of benevolent acquiescence. He himself could neither read nor write. Yet he immediately accepted the Bible, and added it to his other regalia. As such it seems to have remained to him essentially. To Rave, after all, the peyote was the principal element; and if Hensley chose to insist that the Bible was only intelligible to those who partook of the peyote, why, that naturally fell within its magical powers. . . .

The first and foremost virtue predicted by Rave for the peyote was its curative power. He gives a number of instances in which hopeless venereal diseases and consumption were cured by its use; and this to the present day is the first thing one hears about it. In the early days of the peyote cult it appears that Rave relied principally for new converts upon the knowledge of this great curative virtue of the peyote. The main point apparently was to induce people to try it, and I hardly believe that any amount of preaching of its direct effects, such as the hyperstimulation induced, the glorious visions, and the feeling of relaxation following, would ever have induced prominent members of the medicine bands to do so. For that reason, it is highly significant that all the older members of the peyote speak of the diseases of which it cured them. Along this line lay unquestionably its appeal for the first converts. Its spread subsequently was due to a large number of interacting factors. One informant claims that there was little religion connected with it at first, and that people drank the peyote on account of its peculiar effects.

The manner in which it spread at the beginning was quite simple and significant; viz., along family lines. As soon as an individual had become a peyote eater, he devoted all his energies to converting other members of his family. From instances that have come to my notice, this lay in an insistent appeal to family ties and personal affection. He showed unusual courtesy, showered innumerable favors upon relatives he was anxious to convert, and thereby earned the gratitude of the recipient, who at some critical moment, let us say, such as illness or mental depression, showed it by partaking of the peyote. The same methods were employed in the more general propaganda. I have known peyote people to drive out many miles in order to be present at the bedside of some old conservative, who was ill, perhaps neglected by his relatives, bring him food, and spend the night with him in the most affectionate solicitude. They would not obtrude their peyote upon him. He generally knew how to draw the inference, however—that his gratitude was to be shown by trying it. . . .

What these converts introduced individually it is quite impossible to establish; nor is it really necessary to assume that they brought any specific additions to the cult. What they did bring were Winnebago; and with that, the emotional and cultural setting of the old pagan background. To one, the eating of the peyote gave the same magical powers as were formerly associated with membership in the Medicine Dance; to another, the visions were direct blessings from God, directing him to perform certain actions. To a third, faithfulness to the teachings of the peyote cult became associated with a certainty of reaching God, of being able to take the right road in the journey to the spirit land. Even a man so thoroughly saturated with Christian doctrines as Hensley himself felt it necessary to introduce an origin myth; and although I know that it was borrowed from some southern tribe, in Hensley’s narrative it has already assumed all the characteristics of a Winnebago fasting experience and ritualistic myth, similar to those connected with the founders of the old Winnebago cult societies. In its totality, the atmosphere of the peyote cult became thus highly charged with the old Winnebago background. In 1911 it cannot be said that they had displaced the distinctively Christian elements introduced by Hensley. All that can be said is that the pagan background existed side by side with these Christian elements.

To understand correctly the relation of the peyote cult to the old cultural background of the Winnebago, it is essential first to know what part Rave played in the latter. He was a member of the Bear clan, and had participated actively in all the prominent ceremonies, with the exception of the Medicine Dance. He was thus thoroughly acquainted with the ritualistic and organization units. What relation did this old knowledge bear to the new cult he founded? Was there, for instance, a conscious substitution of the type of ceremonial organization and of the ritualistic unit of the older ceremonies; or was there a subconscious continuation of the same? I think that we are probably dealing with the latter, and that none of the units of the ceremonial complex really arose into his consciousness. It is rather important to bear this in mind; for it has a fundamental bearing on the question of the older cultural units playing the role of conscious patterns. In the same way it is quite probable that Rave’s extension to the peyote of all the associations grouped around the medicinal herbs was unconscious and instantaneous. The only really new thing that he brought back to the Winnebago for future assimilation was the peyote itself, its ceremonial eating, and its effects.

It would appear at first, that the fact that the peyote was not associated with various guardian spirits represented a new feature. But medicinal herbs, it must be remembered, were frequently purchased, and the borrowing of the peyote might belong to the same category. It is very likely that as in the case of the sacred shell of the Medicine Dance borrowed from the central Algonkin, the peyote would, under normal conditions of Indian life, have become associated with some deity. As a matter of fact, the origin myth introduced by Hensley shows a development in that direction even at the present time.

The last, and in some respects the most important, influence of the old cultural background shows itself in the gradual adoption of old observances and features. So, for example, a ceremonial circuit of the lodge was at one time associated with the peyote cult; one finds two sacred peyote, one interpreted as male, the other as female; the old sacred mound of the buffalo dance, interpreted as Mt. Sinai; the crossed lines drawn in the earth, etc. There are at the present time only a few old interpretations of the new features. However, it must be regarded as significant that some of the characteristics of the old religious experiences have become associated with the peyote—the hearing of voices, a visit to the home of God, the gift of song, etc. In a similar manner, the powers of a shaman, such as the foretelling of events, reading the thoughts of others, etc., have been connected with it.

There is also a marked influence of the new Christian upon the old Winnebago beliefs. Thus we have seen the mound interpreted as Mt. Sinai, the crossed lines as the cross with Christ upon it, and the ceremonial crook as the shepherd’s crook, or as the rod with which Moses smote the rock. There seems to be, however, one marked difference between these interpretations and the older Winnebago ones. They differ from individual to individual, while the others seem to be more generally diffused.

There are a number of cases where it is impossible to determine whether we are dealing with a reinterpretation or with a substitution. As this is an exceedingly important question, I will enumerate a few examples: baptism; the crook; confessions; and the story of the two roads.

Dipping one’s hand in water and drawing lines on the forehead of an individual sounds like the real Christian baptism, to be sure. Yet we know that painting the patient’s face was a prominent feature in the shaman’s treatment of disease; and that Rave speaks of it in connection with the conversion of his own wife. Are we then to regard the baptism here as a reinterpretation of the old Winnebago custom, or as a real substitution of Christian baptism? And if the latter alternative is accepted, what influence are we to ascribe to the older Winnebago belief in suggesting Christian baptism? The same question will have to be answered in connection with the crook, confessions, and the story of the two roads. The Bear clan had two ornamented sticks, of which Rave’s family was the keeper. In general appearance there was not much difference between these and the Christian shepherd’s crook. What is the relation of the two? In the ritualistic myth telling of the road to heaven, one finds the bifurcating road, one leading to Earthmaker, the other to the Bad Spirit. In the peyote cult we find the familiar Biblical story of the two roads, one leading to heaven, and the other to eternal damnation. Again, let us take the question of the confessions. In their present form, they certainly seem Christian, with a strong suggestion of the early Methodists. Yet giving testimony to the magical virtues of herbs in order to prove that one has been blessed by certain spirits, was characteristic of all Winnebagoes when first participating in a religious cult society. Granted even that all these things really are Christian elements, it is quite obvious that the fact that they were so readily accepted, suggests a relation between them and the older elements enumerated, and that just as in the case of ceremonial units, so here too there has been a selective borrowing, determined by the specific possessions of the recipient’s cultural background.

It would seem, then, that even this very cursory sketch of the development of the peyote cult may be of use to us in the more definite formulation of what we are really to look for in cultural contact; and to the realization that there is little significance in saying that certain beliefs, myths, objects, etc., are borrowed, when they are found in two areas between which diffusion is possible. What we want to know is, what lies at the bottom of the facts that just these have been borrowed, and how they were borrowed. How did the recipient culture and the person or persons who were the actual transmitters of new features limit the elements borrowed? Was there an inert substitution of a new for an old feature; was there a reinterpretation of the old in terms of the new; or, lastly, a reinterpretation of the old in terms of its own culture, but due to stimulation from without? These are a few of the questions that must be answered in each specific case, before we can arrive at even a preliminary concept of what really constitutes the mechanism of borrowing.1

1RadinP.n/a, n/an/an/an/a, "A Sketch of the Peyote Cult of the Winnebago: A Study in Borrowing," , 7:1–22, passim.

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Chicago: Jour. Rel. Psych. in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed November 30, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3QZXAAB9AUE5GQZ.

MLA: . Jour. Rel. Psych., in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 30 Nov. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3QZXAAB9AUE5GQZ.

Harvard: , Jour. Rel. Psych.. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 30 November 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3QZXAAB9AUE5GQZ.