Anthropology, Peyote-Eaters, and the Shifting Morals of Intoxication (1880-1919)

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Abstract Summary
Anthropologists studying American Indians groups in the 1880s and 1890s occasionally remarked on community sects dedicated to the consumption of peyote (Lophophora williamsii) for spiritual purposes. These “peyote cults,” which spread from Mexico into the central US in the late nineteenth century, were first seen negatively, as anthropologists worried the hallucinogenic drug would cause significant cultural disruption, akin to the effects of alcohol. This paper evaluates the developing picture of peyote cults in Native American communities from the perspective of visiting ethnographers, tracing the evolving justification for peyote use that practitioners conveyed to inquiring anthropologists. Over time, some anthropologists came to see peyote use as actually beneficial to stabilizing Native communities they studied, as a replacement for alcohol. In this paper, I show how the growing discipline of anthropology’s acceptance of the “Peyote Religion” was linked to a broader re-evaluation of spiritual syncretism and its place in the anthropology of religion. Specifically, I argue that ethnographic fieldworkers such as James Mooney recast understandings of indigenous spiritual “purity” by studying the consciousness-altering effects of peyote among their Native hosts. Mooney’s advocacy of peyote-eating culminated in his support for the practice’s formalization in the Native American Church (1919)—ratified, ironically, on the eve of Prohibition—which legally protected peyote use for church members while also ensuring (from the perspective of anthropologists) greater social stability in dry Indian communities.
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Chronological Classification :
20th century, early
Self-Designated Keywords :
anthropological fieldwork, indigenous knowledge systems, intoxicants

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