By Daniel Garrett
The Kiowa Peyote Meeting, Songs and Narratives…
Popularizing the Native American Church
Featuring Winston Catt, Everett Cozad, Ray and Blossom Coza, George Saloe, and Henry Teimausaddle
Recorded and Edited by Harry Smith
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1973/2009
One can make a religion of anything, of course; a fact that the faithful or pious do not like to recognize. The Kiowa people, a Native American group, have made the cactus herb called peyote part of their religious observance. Peyote or mescal, found in the southwestern United States, is thought to have healing properties and it inspires hallucinations: it looks like a turnip and has little buttons that can be eaten, brewed, powdered, or smoked. It has been used by indigenous people since before Columbus, and has been brought into their conversion to Christianity. It can be fascinating to hear Kiowa church members talk about their reconciliation of spiritual practices, as they do on the two-disk recording of The Kiowa Peyote Meeting. One member says the Natives were influenced by meeting Bible-reverent Mexicans, and that each person has to find his own path to worship—but that their god (“God”) has not failed them. There is no starchy piety: a member speaks of his drinking, but of not wanting to embarrass himself with inebriation, and then of smoking peyote as part of spiritual preparation. Water, bread, meat, and fruit are part of the communal meeting too. Praise is given to nature—to the winds, the land, the seasons, and to time, with gratitude for human existence. Obviously, there is a blend of traditional Native and western Christian thinking; and there are musical demonstrations of differing quality.
There is a droning kind of chanting, earthy, intimate, intense. The songs are dedicated to particular times—such as morning and midnight, with prayers for “everybody.” The chants with both male and female voices have a greater appeal than those with only male voices—there is more complexity, and clearly more community. God planted the herb, the peyote, says a woman. She cites the biblical book of Romans that commends the herb be used as a brew for illness. “This peyote is a cure for all ills,” she claims. So much of human culture is fable, fantasy, fiction—that becomes a fighting matter when believed. Religion is a lasting force, but it may be no more, at root, than a primitive hope, a way of calming fears about death and the perpetual emptiness of life.
One man talks about worshipping several gods—ten gods. One man talks about worshipping “God the father” and talks about that god making him “feel good”—and he explains that he was sick with tuberculosis—doctors had given up on him—but the herb peyote helped him. He sings a song received from another tribe, adding Kiowa words. The percussion of another song is so ringing it is almost a dance song.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.