Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a comparatively small, spineless cactus indigenous to the Rio Grande valley of Texas and to northeastern Mexico. Roma, Texas, is a center for its collection. The entire plant is carrot-shaped, with a slightly flattened, hemispherical head, depressed in the center, which protrudes above the ground for an inch or two. This head, grayish-green in color and covered with small tufts of silky hairs, is cut off and dried and is commonly known as a button and erroneously called a mescal button. Its importance lies in its narcotic properties and its use by Indians over a wide area. The innocent-looking plant has an amazing reputation. To the missionary it is a diabolic root and an insidious evil; to the Indian it is a panacea, a giver of visions, the door to an earthly paradise; to the scientist it is a potential medicinal drug whose properties and whose effects on the human system are not completely understood. Chemical analysis shows that the plant contains nine narcotic alkaloids of the isoquinoline series, some of them strychnine-like in physiological action, the others morphine-like. The plant has not proved to be of commercial value in this country except as it is used by the Indians. In parts of Europe it seems to have the status of a patent medicine. The physiological reaction usually is visual hallucinations (frequently color visions), as well as kinaesthetic, olfactory, and auditory derangements. There are no ill after-effects, and the drug is not known to be habit-forming. The Tarahumara, Huichols, and other Indian groups of northern Mexico have used peyote for as long as they can remember. The Carrizos and Lipan Apaches also knew of its use before historic records. In more recent years the use has spread to other groups. The Kiowa Apaches say they obtained the plant and its ritual from the Lipans in the 1880s and then introduced it to the Kiowas and Comanches. The Tonkawas are reported to have obtained it from the Carrizos. In the late 1880s and early 1890s it spread rapidly throughout most of the plains area.
With the extermination of the buffalo the Indians' old way of life with its accompanying rituals rapidly disappeared, and the Indians grasped at any cultural straw that seemed to give meaning to a disintegrating way of life. Peyote, because of its narcotic properties and the resulting visions, with the accompanying rite functioning as an integrating factor, gave meaning and euphoria to an almost completely disorganized people. The rite, differing slightly from group to group but with the same basic pattern throughout the plains area, is held infrequently, usually when someone is ill and occasionally to celebrate an anniversary. Meetings usually last one night, although the Tonkawas' rites are said to have lasted four days and nights. After proper ceremonial cleansing, prayers, and ceremonial smoking of tobacco, the peyote buttons are passed. Whether dried or green the plant is bitter and nauseating, and the retching that frequently results is considered as cleansing, physically and spiritually. Individual reactions differ according to the participant's constitution, his physical condition, the amount of peyote eaten, and cultural factors that condition the visions. The ceremonial is repeated until about sunup when it concludes with four morning prayers. Then comes the ceremonial breakfast, relaxation, and a tribal dinner at noon. The rite is a combination of two or three basic complexes, depending on the tribe. Christian influences include prayers addressed to Jehovah through Christ. Some few tribes place the Bible on the altar.
The importance of the rite lies in its giving the individual participant a feeling of contentment, of peacefulness, of the worthwhileness of life. It brings the tribe together and gives it a sense of unity as a people. The cult is dying out because of the rigors of participation and the acquisition of White ways by younger members of the tribe, which make them look down upon peyotism. As the ceremonialism is discontinued, the use of the plant by individuals as a medicinal cure-all seems to be increasing. In the 1960s Texas passed an anti-peyote law but later provided for an exemption to the Texas Narcotics Law of 1969. The exemption allowed members of the Native American Church who had 25 percent or more Indian blood to use the plant in religious ceremonies. Even though suppliers had to register with the state, the law was difficult to enforce.
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Edward Anderson, Peyote, the Divine Cactus (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980). Weston La Barre, Peyote Cult, 5th ed., enlarged (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989). Christopher Vecsey, ed., Handbook of American Indian Religious Freedom (New York: Crossroad, 1991).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
J. Gilbert McAllister,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 30, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
January 8, 2021