Raymond Lewis, a retired mechanic living in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, tucks away his rosary and rises from kneeling and praying in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary in his living room, “Tonight, I take peyote and maybe see the Mother Mary,” he says.
Lewis, a 67-year-old full-blooded Navajo, who preferred not to use his real name, says he’s not unlike many Native Americans who practice their Catholic faith alongside their native religion. “There’s no contradiction. Both religions speak of being kind and living in harmony with one another, the Creator and nature,” Lewis says as he straightens a picture of a Navajo goddess, hanging behind the statue of Mary.
The Peyote Way
Lewis says taking peyote (a hallucinogenic) has always been a way for him to deepen his Christian convictions by allowing himself to meditate on Christ and occasionally see visions of the Mother Mary and other Christian saints, including Saint Francis and Saint Anthony. “Peyote is a sacrament. When I consume it, I feel holy and more open to holy things.”
But Lewis emphasizes that the purpose of peyote—which federal law protects the right of Native Americans to use in religious ceremonies—is not to get high or see visions. “If you see something, that’s fine, but it’s more important that you use the experience to look objectively at yourself and see how you can become more holy, more righteous, more Christian.”
Knowing nothing about Catholicism, Lewis says he converted to the Catholic Church thirty-one years ago after seeing a vision of the Mother Mary while on peyote. The next day, a Sunday, he says he went into a Catholic Church and saw the same image of Mary on the wall and knew he had to be a Catholic. “You can’t tell me that didn’t mean something,” says Lewis, who was formally baptized less than a year after his vision and today still regularly attends Mass and confession. “Just like Quanah Parker, I saw something holy that changed my life.”
Quanah Parker, a Comanche chief in the late 1800s, was important in the promotion of peyotism to Native Americans. Parker claimed that while dying from an illness he was given peyote, healed and saw a vision of Christ that told him to give up violence and spread the word to Native Americans about the peyote religion, which not only advocated the use of peyote to gain spiritual insight but encouraged commitment to family, self-sufficiency and avoidance of alcohol.
In a typical peyote meeting (which varies among tribes), 25 to 30 individuals gather on a Saturday evening around a fire in a tepee or similar structure. A roadman (officiator of the ritual) addresses the members, and peyote in raw, crushed or liquid form is passed around and consumed. The members sing, drum, pray and meditate until dawn, experiencing an array of phenomena from feeling closer to God to seeing visions of dead relatives. After the meeting, a large meal is eaten.
Parker is credited with saying: “The White Man goes into church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into his tepee and talks with Jesus.”
By the early 1900s, the peyote religious movement developed into the Native American Church (NAC), which today boasts over 250,000 Native American members, making it the biggest pan-Native American religious organization. There is no formal church hierarchy and meetings are usually held in tepees on a need basis, usually when a member seeks healing for an illness. Today one-fourth of Native Americans participate in NAC ceremonies.