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  Friend to the Ute

    Omer C. Stewart Crusades for Indian Religious Freedom

        Colorado Heritage, The Journal of the Colorado Historical Society, 1982, issue 1.

"Strange as the religion of Peyote may seem to some people,
it is, nevertheless, their form of worship, and it should not be banned."
OMER C. STEWART, distinguished professor emeritus of anthropology at the university of Colorado at Boulder, is a recognized authority on Native American cultures. Since receiving his Ph.D. in 1939, he has devoted much of his professional career to furthering the understanding of Ute customs, including practice of the peyote religion.

    WHILE STILL A GRADUATE STUDENT in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley in January 1938, I was invited to be a participant-observer in an all-night peyote meeting, held near Towaoc on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southwestern Colorado. This was my third experience with the Ute peyote religion in a few months, experiences that were to have a profound effect on the course of my career. Since that time my continuing research on the Ute and on the peyote religion has uncovered a great deal of information about this little-understood Native American religion. Over the years I have recorded the similarities in the ceremonies and rituals of the peyote religion in more than twenty-seven tribes from Oklahoma to Canada and from Wisconsin to California. Especially have I fought to protect the religious freedom of those who practice the peyote religion as formalized in the Native American Church.
    Those early experiences in 1937-38 made me acutely aware of the vast public misunderstanding over peyote and its use. This prompted me to do a radio broadcast later in 1938 for a University of California radio program over NBC in San Francisco. I then wrote an article about the ceremony in Colorado and Utah, which was published in a local newspaper. These were my initial efforts at applying my discipline of anthropology to further general public education. In the meantime I continued with my scholarly research, writing my Ph.D. dissertation on Washo-Northern Paiute peyotism in 1939.
    Following my discharge from the army in 1945, I returned to academic work with an appointment to the University of Colorado in Boulder. As a professor there, I worked to inform the general public as well as my students and fellow anthropologists about peyote and the peyote religion. Late in 1946 I began lecturing, and it seems like I lectured on the peyote religion in at least twenty towns, demonstrating the ritual objects—drum, fan, staff, and rattle—and singing several peyote songs in the American Indian style that I had learned. The questions and discussions that followed my demonstrations revealed that the old prejudices against the word "peyote" remained. I became well aware that a single lecture would probably change none of these long-held opinions.
    Throughout my professional career as an anthropologist, I have published a number of works on the subject of the peyote religion. In 1948 the first volume in the University of Colorado Studies Series in Anthropology was my "Ute Peyotism: A Study of a Cultural Complex," completed in 1938, but its publication was delayed by World War II. Over the years I have published extensively in the American Anthropologist, Southwestern Lore, the Delphian Quarterly, and other scholarly journals. My book-length, definitive study, "History of the Peyote Religion," is being published by the University of Utah Press.
    Although my research has uncovered many documented facts on the early use of peyote, much of what I have learned comes from oral tradition. While it is most inexact at fixing dates and is also limited in accuracy, I have received information from old Southern Ute informants that supplements the early written documents and also serves as a corrective to some of the written reports.
    Peyotism has been practiced by the two southwestern Colorado Ute tribes—the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute—since the turn of the century. Yet peyote and its use are not native to Colorado. The peyote cactus grows in a limited area near Laredo in Texas and in Mexico from the Rio Grande to the region of San Luis Potosi. While it can be documented that peyote was widely used in ceremonies in Mexico in the sixteenth century, the development of the rituals associated with its use in the United States occurred near Laredo, Texas, and came from the Lipan Apache. They invented new Apache-style ritual songs and music and may have added some ritual elements to the Carrizo Indian peyote ceremony they learned. The peyote ceremonies contain Christian features and qualities. Since the religion indigenous to the Ute contained none of these concepts or ritual elements, the peyote religion spread to them as a cultural complex.
    The documents establish that both the Lipan and the Mescalero Apache knew about peyote and Christianity by 1770—nearly a century before the earliest documented evidence of peyotism in the United States. The transmission of the peyote ceremonies were direct from Laredo by known Lipan Apache, who were named as the first teachers of peyotism to the Kiowa and the Comanche on their reservation in Oklahoma in the late 1870s and early 1880s.
    Buckskin Charlie, a Southern Ute chief, was one of the first to become acquainted with the use of peyote. Oral tradition states that he was introduced to the peyote ceremony while visiting the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian agency in Oklahoma in 1896.1 The Kiowa and Comanche then introduced the peyote ceremony to their neighbors, the Arapaho and Cheyenne.
    The accounts differ as to when the Ute first learned the peyote ceremony; all of them document its introduction by the Cheyenne and Arapaho into southern Colorado. Over the years the Southern Ute have been questioned on the early history of peyotism. In 1948 Tony Buck, Buckskin Charlie's son, stated that in 1900 an Arapaho came to Ignacio two or three times and stayed for extended periods, bringing peyote and teaching the ritual. Tony also said that he had attended ceremonies for forty-eight years and that his father was an early leader. In 1949 it was again stated that peyotism began among the Southern Ute in the Ignacio area and spread to the Ute Mountain Ute at Towaoc, reiterating that the first leader was Buckskin Charlie, who had been visited by Cheyenne Indians who taught him its use.
    In 1948 Isaac Cloud was recognized as the leader of the peyote religion among the Southern Ute. In an interview he stated that he commenced directing services in 1915, having learned the ritual from Buckskin Charlie and his wife Emma Buck. Emma had obtained a supply of peyote from Sam Lone Bear, the notorious Sioux peyote supplier and missionary who had settled among the Uncompaghre Ute at Dragon, Utah, in early 1914.
    During these early years of peyote use, the Ute must have been very secretive or the officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) were very nonobservant In 1916, and again in 1919, the Bureau of Indian Affairs agents of both the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute denied its existence on these reservations.2
    It is indeed surprising, then, that in 1917 the Colorado state legislature would pass the Crowley Bill, prohibiting the use of peyote in the state. This law, of course, did not effect peyote use on the reservation, where the Ute were subject only to federal laws, but did prohibit its transfer through the United States mails and use outside reservation boundaries. Colorado became the first state to pass an antipeyote law. The year before, federal legislation in the form of the Gandy Bill had failed to pass the United States Congress. The campaign against peyote in Colorado was led by women's organizations such as the Parent Teacher Associations and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The precipitating force for the final passage of the Crowley Bill, however. was Gertrude Bonnin, a Yankton Sioux who had worked for fourteen years as a social worker among the Ute of Utah. While in Utah, she became an opponent of the Sioux peyote proselytizer, Sam Lone Bear, who appears to have been a peyote supplier also to the Southern Ute. Bonnin lobbied to have the Gandy Bill passed in Washington, D.C., in 1916, and following its defeat, transferred her efforts to Colorado, where she met with success.
    The passage of the law did not, however, prevent the practice of the peyote religion among the Ute. In fact, in a 1926 letter to the BIA, Mrs. C.W. Wiegel, who was chairman of the committee on Indian welfare of the Colorado Federation of Women's Clubs in Denver, stated that "it has been reported to me that during the past winter the practice of using Piota (sic) medicine and the form of worship that goes with it has been introduced to the Ute Indian Reservation at Ignacio and is spreading rapidly among them. The better class of Indians are filled with consternation and are appealing for help to stamp it out before it ruins all the young people."3 In answering the accusations to the BIA, E. E. McKean, the superintendent at Ignacio, defended peyotism, stating that "it is very clear that her information is indefinite and exaggerated. It is true that there has been a small amount of peyote coming at different times to a few of the Indians on this reservation. I would also add that these Indians are among the better class, both from the point of industry and abiding by the law.... There is small grounds for alarm of its spreading among these Indians. "4
    Many years later, while testifying in 1953, Isaac Cloud used the period of 1919 to 1928 when E. E. McKean was in charge of the BIA in Ignacio, as a time marker. Isaac said that about that time Sam Lone Bear brought peyote and ran meetings three times in Ignacio, but he knew that Sam had been convicted and had spent time in prison. Isaac also named men from Oklahoma who came to Ignacio for meetings: Sam Buffalo, Claude Hill, George Hill, Albert Hofman, Brown Flocko, and John Peak Heart. In addition to being the first important and continuous peyote proselytizer to the Ute Mountain Ute, John Peak Heart had attended the well-known Indian school at Carlisle in 1886-87 and was a peyote leader among the Cheyenne. Although Sam Lone Bear had visited the Ute at Ignacio and at Towaoc about 1915 or 1916, it was Heart who, repeatedly each summer, brought peyote to the Ute Mountain Ute and remained with them for weeks to teach them how to conduct the peyote ritual.
    The first local peyote leader at Towaoc appears to have been James Mills, a twenty-seven-year-old Ute Mountain Ute. He had impressed Heart sufficiently to be invited to return to Oklahoma with him and to be an apprentice in peyotism. Beginning in 1918, Mills was Heart's assistant in Colorado each summer and remained as the resident peyote leader between his visits, which continued until the early 1950s.5
    While peyote ceremonies continued to be held, subsequently formalized in the incorporation in various states as the Native American Church, such rituals, dependent upon the use of peyote, were illegal in Colorado and in several other states. In 1962 the antipeyote law was challenged in California, and although my testimony was stricken from the record, it was restored by the California Supreme Court in 1964 and was used when that court ruled that the state had an obligation to protect the religious freedom of the Native American. The 1917 law in Colorado was then challenged in 1967 following the arrest of Mana Pardeahtan for possession of peyote. I also testified in this case. Citing the precedent of the California case along with the other evidence and documents provided, the Colorado court declared the 1917 law unconstitutional.6
    Bringing the First Amendment fight to an end, this 1967 ruling greatly influenced the Colorado state legislature to amend its narcotic law in 1969 to permit the use of peyote in the religious services of the Native American Church. After fifty years, the right of a people to practice their religion in freedom had been upheld. The struggle to educate and to inform people about cultural practices that are different from their own, however, continues.


A Peyote Ceremony

    (Text is excerpted and edited from Stewart, "Ute Peyotism," pp 8-18.)

    The meeting place is a tipi with its entrance to the east. A crescent-shaped altar and fire are prepared according to custom. A drum, feather fan, eagle humerus whistle, gourd rattle, Bull Durham tobacco, and sagebrush complete the necessary ritual equipment. The chief or leader usually supplies the peyote for the meeting. Members bathe before the meeting, and about nightfall they gather in small groups outside the tipi—first the chief, then the chief-drummer, the cedarman, next the men, then the women and children with the fire-chief last—all making their way into the tipi.
    The leader places the "chief peyote" upon some sagebrush leaves on the top of the altar and prays. Everyone is invited to speak of their ills and struggles, so that prayers may be voiced in their behalf. The Bull Durham tobacco is passed and cigarettes are made and lit from the glowing firestick. Each person blows the first four puffs of smoke toward the "chief peyote" on the altar and prays. The cigarette butts are then placed at the base of the altar.
    Next sprigs of sagebrush are passed and the leaves are rubbed between the hands, sniffed rubbed over the limbs, and beaten four times against the chest to purify the body. A sack of peyote follows the sage, and each adult takes four buttons. Since the peyote is extremely bitter and nauseous, coughing and spitting often succeed the arduous swallowing. Everyone sits as still as possible until all have finished eating the medicine, because the partaking of the divine plant during meetings is a sacred procedure and supposed to be accompanied by silent prayer.
    After the eating, the chief holds the staff and fan, shakes the rattle, and sings the Opening Song, accompanied by the chief-drummer's rapid drum beats. Only four songs have to be sung at fixed times: the Opening Song, the Midnight Water Call, the Morning Water Call, and the Closing Song. During the remainder of the ritual each man sings any song he wishes when it is his turn to lead, holding the staff and fan in one hand and shaking the rattle with the other. Women neither hold the staff to lead the singing nor beat the drum.
    With midnight and the Midnight Water Call, the fire-chief replenishes the fire, the Midnight Song is sung, and prayers are offered through four puffs of smoke. All drink water. Singing then continues with renewed vigor each using their own equipment. Personal supplies of peyote may be consumed after midnight, and prayers continue to be offered.
    A special morning ritual duplicates some features of the Midnight Water Call; the fire is refueled and the central altar area cleaned. The chief then sings the Morning Water Call, and following the four blasts on the whistle, a woman, usually the chiefs wife, brings in the water and kneels. After ceremonial duties, the water is again spilled on the ground, a breakfast follows, and the Closing Song is sung, followed by more lengthy prayers and blessings. All equipment is dismantled and put away, and then the fire-chief leads the exit, followed by the chief. Once the ritual is over, the women leave to prepare the noon feast and the men to rest, relating their spiritual experiences and visions.



    1. Woodson, Darlington, Oklahoma, to Day, Ignacio, Colorado 13 July 1896. Federal Records Center, Denver.
    2. West to Larsen, 2 November 1916, from Ignacio; also denied by Simons to Larsen, 14 November 1916, from Towaoc; McKean to BIA, 14 April 1919; Johnson to BIA, 15 April 1919, Federal Records Center, Denver.
    3. In 1926 Sioux antipeyotist Gertrude Bonnin was a national lecturer for the National Federation of Women's Clubs and may be suspected of having been the "better class of Indian" who spurred Mrs. Wiegel to action. Wiegel to Burke, 19 May 1926 Federal Records Center. Denver.
    4. McKean to BIA, 9 June, 1926. Federal Records Center, Denver.
    5. David F. Aberle and Omer C. Stewart, Navaho and Ute Peyotism: A Chronological and Distributional Study, University of Colorado Studies, Series in Anthropology, No. 6, 1957.
    6. In the County Court in and for the City and County of Denver and State of Colorado, Criminal Action No. 9454, The People v. Mana Pardeahtan, finding of June 27, 1967, Judge William Conley. Reported, with photo of Judge Conley and attorneys Deikman and Cook, Denver Rocky Mountain News, 28 June, 1967.

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