Native American Church, mind-body healing

   In 1990 I became a registered lobbyist, employed by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (a non-profit organization established in Washington, D.C. by American Friends, i.e., Quakers). Central to my lobbying work was mobilizing support for or against major national legislation pertaining to American Indians. Within a few hours of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling (on April 17, 1990) in the Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith case I made a telephone call to Reuben Snake, who was at that time a well-known religious leader (Roadman) of the Native American Church (NAC). That misguided Supreme Court ruling, not to grant first amendment constitutional protection for religious rituals practiced by members of the NAC, was based on the fact that peyote, a small spineless cactus venerated by members of the NAC, was classified as a Schedule One Controlled Substance, i.e., an illegal drug (Fikes 1993, 1996, 2001). A few weeks later I met Reuben Snake, Emerson Jackson and other NAC leaders when they arrived in Washington, D.C. to discuss with Senator Daniel Inouye (Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee) a strategy for passing legislation to protect their religious freedom. At the invitation of Reuben Snake I attended my first NAC prayer meeting in June of 1990 on the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) reservation, near Omaha, Nebraska. 

   When the opening prayer for that peyote meeting on the Winnebago reservation began, around 8:30 p.m., I was sitting on the north side of the tepee next to Darren Snake (Reuben Snake’s eldest son). During the night I ate as much peyote as I possibly could. I was enjoying the singing, in various languages, and the fire at the center of the tepee. Sometime early in the morning I began feeling badly, as if I might vomit. At the same time I started praying to Tamatzi, the divine spirit incarnate in deer and peyote, who is the ancestor Huichol shamans revere as their tutelary spirit (Fikes 1993, 2011).  I confessed to Tamatzi that I wanted to repent for all the errors in my life; that I wanted to atone for my mistakes and partner with him. Just after I finished praying I began vomiting. A few minutes later I was done. Darren Snake then asked me if I wanted “some more medicine”. I told him that I did want more. I immediately ate one or two more whole, fresh peyotes. I soon felt much better. Before that prayer meeting ended I spoke briefly about what the divine medicine, peyote, meant to me, based on what Huichol shamans had revealed to me in addition to my peyote experiences with them (Fikes 2011). By 9 a.m., as we worshippers walked out of the tepee, I was feeling completely well physically, mentally and spiritually.

For nearly all non-Native Americans peyote is considered a dangerous drug, with no medical benefits whatsoever. Yet for more than 300,000 Native Americans it is revered as a teacher and a divine medicine. The late James Slotkin (1956, 1956b), an anthropologist and NAC member whom I deeply respect, understood perfectly our (NAC) belief: vomiting during a peyote meeting eradicates evil or purges illness. With one’s conscience clear, eating more peyote will make one well. For us peyote is a healer and comforter. If I had thought peyote was a dangerous drug, my vomiting would have “verified” for me that the federal law making peyote illegal (a Schedule One Controlled Substance) was justified. As I used to explain to my university students in Istanbul, our judgments typically control our inferences and emotions. Hence fearing that peyote was a dangerous drug would have prevented me from eating more peyote. I would have stayed sick, recovering only partially after vomiting. But my prayers were accompanied by catharsis, not simply vomiting. That was because at that NAC meeting in 1990 I had already learned much about the meaning of myths and songs Huichol shamans use when performing their peyote rituals. Having already eaten peyote several times with the Huichol had convinced me that the spirit incarnate in peyote was worthy of veneration, not fear. Eating peyote during several Huichol rituals and in two all-night vigils I made to contact their ancestor-deities (in 1976 and 1986) had prepared me for the purification that occurred as I prayed and vomited. My experience of mind-body (integrative) medicine in 1990 was rooted in reverence for our teacher, Tamatzi, whose spirit-mind we know is incarnate in peyote.

   By the time I left Washington, D.C. in June of 1993 I had participated in numerous NAC meetings. During most of those all-night prayer meetings I cried quietly at sunrise, often for several minutes, while listening to speeches and prayers being made by a woman the Roadman appoints to finalize each particular meeting. This woman (usually the Roadman’s wife) embodies the Rain Mothers (whose everlasting water gives life), Mother-Earth or Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  Their prayers always penetrated deeply into my heart.   Reflecting on those profoundly emotional moments, I know now that hearing them talk humbly about deprivations & injustices they were suffering did much to empower me to speak boldly about the prejudice most immigrant Americans needed to overcome if NAC religious freedom was to gain full legal protection. Those women’s words, the beauty of NAC peyote rituals & the divine spirit in peyote accomplished exactly what Reuben Snake wanted for me; transforming me into a heartfelt advocate (not merely a “lobbyist”) for religious freedom for all members of the NAC. As a sign of respect, Reuben Snake adopted me as his brother shortly before he died (Fikes 1996: 29-30). My lobbying was considered beneficial enough that the NAC honored me for my contributions to passing Public Law 103-344, signed by President Clinton in October of 1994, to guarantee first amendment rights of worship to all NAC members. 

   While attending NAC rituals I observed that members frequently share anecdotes about personal transformations or healings which happen during certain peyote meetings. Two such “spontaneous healings” witnessed by Reuben Snake are worth quoting. After Reuben Snake was ordained as a Roadman in 1974, he directed a meeting intended to heal a woman whom medical doctors had scheduled for a hysterectomy. While Reuben prayed that the peyote he was preparing for her would be blessed and would heal her, so that she could have more children, he suddenly heard voices praying along with him. “They were speaking in the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) language and saying, ‘Bless my daughter, bless my granddaughter.’ . . . When we concluded our service she got up and said, ‘I know that I am well.’ . . . The doctor told her, ‘Evidently you don’t need an operation.’. . .  About a year later she had another little boy” (Fikes 1996: 216). 

   Another meeting for healing occurred when Reuben Snake was 18 years old. His elder brother was in extreme agony, dying of scleroderma. Doctors said they could do nothing more for him. Reuben, seated right next to his brother, noticed his brother was in constant pain, moaning and groaning inside the tepee most of the night. After gradually ingesting some 150 peyote buttons his older brother began praying. 

“’You don’t have to make me well God. … Let me be of service. …I want to get married. I want to have children’. … and he stood up at the foot of the fireplace and picked up a large red coal….with his bare hands. …saying that God had heard him and God was going to give him another chance at life.” Reuben’s brother was healed of scleroderma. He went on to get married, have children, become the vice-chairman of the Winnebago tribe and earn a “national reputation for his work in health activities for Indian people” (Fikes 1996: 217-18). 

   Reuben Snake’s remarks on these two examples of "spontaneous healing" clearly indicate that each person was immediately & permanently healed. My long-term studies with four Huichol shamans did not include interviewing their “patients” before and after their healings. Reflecting on my omission, I wonder what if any longitudinal studies anthropologists have completed, by collecting information from & about "patients" whose illnesses were cured (permanently) by a shaman, or during healing rituals led by part-time leaders such as Roadmen. I will be grateful to anyone who can provide references to well-documented longitudinal studies involving “spontaneous healing” which endured. Please write me.

     As part of my work to persuade Congress to enact national legislation to protect the religious freedom of Native American Church members, I edited the biography of Reuben Snake, a prominent political activist & spiritual leader. To buy Snake’s biography please click on this link:



Fikes, Jay. C. (1993). Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism & the Psychedelic Sixties. Victoria, B.C.: Millenia Press.

Fikes, Jay C. (Ed.). (1996). Reuben Snake, Your Humble Serpent. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.

Fikes, J. C. (2001) “Peyote Religion: Opening Doors to the Creator's Heart.” Entheos, 1(2), 75-81.

Fikes, Jay C. (2011). Unknown Huichol: shamans and immortals, allies against chaos. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press.

Slotkin, J.S. (1956). The Peyote Religion: A Study in Indian-White Relations. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Slotkin, J.S. (1956b). “The peyote way.”  Tomorrow: Quarterly Review of Psychical Research, 4(3), 64-70.


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