“A Negro Peyote Cult”

by Maurice G. Smith

07/07/2014

Excerpted from the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Vol. 24, No. 10, October 15, 1934. 


In the fall of 1930 an Iowa Indian gave Dr. Smith a lead regarding a negro peyote group which the writer endeavored to follow up in the spring of 1931. After much fruitless inquiry in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla., the daughter of the negro leader was finally located in the latter city. Her father, John Jamison, had died in 1926 as a result of concussion of the brain after being struck by “a half-crazed negro.” The cult did not survive his death.

From the daughter Mabel it was learned that the cult never became very popular outside of a small group, though now and then the meetings were attended by persons who were attracted by the healing and doctoring which Jamison sometimes attempted just as the Indians do. Even some of the devoted ones became suspicious of the new religion when they learned that the government had taken steps to prohibit the transportation of peyote. “They figured there must be something wrong with it or the government would not prohibit its transportation,” Mabel remarked. This attitude on the part of the negroes is doubly interesting in view of the rebellious attitude which the Indians displayed under the same circumstances, and their resort to illegal procedures to obtain peyote.

Jamison was born in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. Both of his parents were evidently allotted, and consequently, Jamison grew up among Indians.[1] He had worked for a number of them, including the Iowa who first gave us the lead, and who seemed to resent the fact that negroes were taking up “the old Indian religion.”[2] His daughter claimed that he spoke several Indian languages mentioning particularly Iowa, Pawnee, and Comanche. She also testified to the fact he was “some talker” and that he was a devoutly religious man.

The ritual of the negro cult was very similar to the Indian ritual,[3] though there were, of course, some important omissions and more use of the white man’s hymns and Bible than is customary in Oklahoma. The meeting was continued all night, preferably in an Indian tipi. Jamison carried a canvas cover of his own along with the other paraphernalia which consisted of a drum, sacred dishes for the food served for breakfast, gourd rattle, medicine feathers, cane, sage, cedar and chief peyote button. He sometimes dressed in Indian costume, consisting of a feather head-dress (chief’s bonnet), blanket, and sometimes moccasins. Whether or not he dressed thus when attending the Indian meetings or only after he himself became a leader and had his negro group, I did not ascertain. Nor do I know how he became a leader. Mabel said he did not become a healer and doctor till about three years before he died, but that he had meetings as far back as “before the riot” (1920, I believe) attended by both Indians and colored people which he sometimes led. At other times an Indian would be the leader. Occasionally the Indians would send for Jamison to lead their meetings.


LISTEN: Hear an archival recording of a different kind of religious performance.


In the center of the tipi was a fire built in front of an earth crescent. On the center of the crescent mound was the chief peyote button which remained there till midnight. At that time the leader ate it. The chief button is never eaten during the Indian ceremony as far as I know. The meetings began between eight and nine o’clock with the members filing in in a prescribed order to certain places. The leader faced the door of the tipi, four “sisters” on his right who took care of the morning repast, and four “brothers” on his left, the first being designated the drummer, the next the cedar man, the other two having no equivalents in the Indian ceremony. The “fireman” was placed at the right of the door and also served as doorkeeper. Jamison always had the same doorkeeper, if possible, which was in line with the relationship existing between an Indian peyote chief and his fireman. The meeting proceeded as follows:

1. The leader sang a song, usually a hymn, but if Indians were present he sang an Indian song. The leader, sitting “goat fashion,”[4] then announced the purpose of the meeting and prayed.

2. Scripture passage read by the leader or one of the male helpers. Toward morning one of the members talked on this passage.

3. Peyote passed to everyone by one of the sisters and eaten. The order of passing was from right to left. The order among the Indians is from left to right, but Mabel was certain she was correct on this point.

4. Then followed a period of speaking, praying, and singing. Questions of a religious nature might be asked and answered. At midnight the leader ate the chief peyote button, but I do not know whether this was done before or after 5.

5. At midnight, the leader burst the heart of the fire. This signified the end of the day and was done in the following manner: As the sticks of the fire burned down the ashes assumed a rough heart shape, though it was very open at one end. While the midnight song was being sung, the leader took the fireman’s fire-sticks and made these ashes more heartshaped after which he deliberately destroyed the heart by smoothing the ashes to the sides except for a few live coals with which a new fire was built. In the Indian ceremonies no one but the fireman ever touches the fire.

6. Water which had been standing near the door during the first part of the ceremony was now passed to the chief who drank and passed it right.  This was equivalent to the Indian “Midnight water ceremony.”

7. A recess for 15 or 20 minutes followed. Participants might leave the tipi via the right and eat fruit or anything else provided it was not salty. No Indian ceremony I have attended makes allowances for formal recess though the participants may leave when they desire if they ask permission of the leader.

8. Drummer summoned devotees by beating on the drum when the leader signified that the recess was ended. The rest of the night was spent in singing and praying and eating peyote if anyone wished more. It had been passed perhaps several times before midnight. When the leader saw the sun rising, the door was thrown open and everybody stood and sang the closing song which was usually Till we meet again, if Jamison was running the meeting. In the Indian ceremony the leader always sings Quitting Song alone. Incidentally, the fire was supposed to be built so that the sun’s rays struck the center of the “heart” of the fire. The four sisters then departed, but soon returned with the morning repast which had been prepared the evening before and consisted of four dishes, all of which must be saltless and sweetened. First there was fruit, then beef prepared the Indian way, either fresh roasted meat ground up and sweetened, or dried meat soaked, stewed, ground up, and sweetened. The order of partaking of these foods does not seem to have been as important as in the Indian ceremonies. The service ended with another drink of water passed ceremoniously as before and “everybody was happy.”

The negro ritual differed from the Indian in a few other details. In the first place, there was no ceremonial smoking of cigarettes and very little smoking with cedar. Both of these customs bulk large in most of the peyote rituals. By the latter I refer to the practice of throwing cedar on the fire at intervals and the members wafting the smoke which arises back upon themselves by means of the feathers. Cedar was only put on the fire once in the negro service by the cedar man appointed by Jamison for this purpose. It was done when the first pile of sticks on the fire had burned completely down. Feathers were always part of Jamison’s regular equipment but they served more important functions in his “doctor” meetings. The drum was used for all the singing, but the rattle only for the Indian songs. The leader held the ceremonial cane in his left hand during the entire ceremony, while the Indians pass the cane along with the drum and rattle around the circle to those who sing.

Jamison always took epsom salts Friday night before the meeting on Saturday and a hot bath before going to the meeting. This was in the nature of a purification rite and in line with various similar practices among the Indians.[5] He ate no salt in the evening meal before the meeting. “If these rules were followed they didn’t see spooks or crazy things,” Mabel remarked.

Those acquainted with the variations in the peyote ceremony in the different tribes, both in and out of Oklahoma, will recognize the many similarities and other differences which I have not mentioned in this interesting attempt to adapt the religious cult of one racial group to the needs of another.


Footnotes:

1. During the delirium which preceded his death he sang Indian songs and prayed all the time, the nurses in the hospital informed Mabel.

2. My informant remarked that the older Indians were more friendly toward the colored people than the younger Indians.

3. Cf. Gunter Wagner’s study of the peyote cult entitled, Entwicklung und Verbreitung des Peyotes-kultes, ein Beitag zum problem der Akkulturation, Hamburg, 1931.

4. The manner of sitting while the leader is opening the meeting is considered very important to the Indians. He must sit resting on his knees. This is also the position which everyone must take when eating the peyote any time during during the night and is known as “goat fashion.”

5. The Osage build a sweathouse as an integral part of their peyote Church set-up. This is situated directly east of the octagonal-shaped church building and still farther east and in direct line with the center of the altar inside the church is the fireplace upon which the stones are heated.


Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 10, May 15, 2014.