Note on Richard Schultes’ “The Appeal of Peyote”


by Weston La Barre

Richard Schultes’ paper on “The Appeal of Peyote,” in the recent Anthropologist, is ably argued, but contains some misconceptions, I think, which should be pointed out. Mr Schultes’ general thesis is (p. 704) that “the peyote vision has been incidental while the medicinal reputation of peyote has been fundamental in the establishment, spread, and, to some extent, in the maintenance of the peyote cult in the United States.”

In section IV, paragraph 4, he argues that even in Mexico the medicinal virtues of the plant over-topped the importance of the visions. This may be so, yet the preceding paragraphs of evidence he cites for this do not appear to me to support the thesis, for it was the visions which accounted for the use of peyote in prophecy etc. (compare the “death vine,” datura, cohoba snuff, yahé etc. in native America). Indeed, even in Mexico some of the authorities Schultes cites mention the vision. Further, Lumholtz’ term “curing” in Mexican peyotism is used in a special sense: it is a prophylactic “baptism-”ceremony, rather than a therapeutic medicinal cure, a ritual to protect a group, not to cure an individual invalid. Furthermore (p. 706), the use of peyote in battle is surely as much for its supernatural vision-produced “power” as for its “stimulating” properties.

Again, Mr. Schultes argues (p. 707) that the healing power of peyote was the most important element in enabling peyotists to sweep aside conservative tribal opposition, and cites Radin to this end; but Radin mentions in the quotation “the glorious visions” of peyote-intoxication also. I think, indeed, a mere new plant medicine, without the authority of the visions peyote produces, could not have made its way against such resistance (the Kiowa, I believe, are typical for the Plains in saying, “We don’t get medicine power from any plants except peyote.”) A new plant remedy, of which the Plains Indians already had many, did not crush this opposition; the supernatural authority of the visions produced by peyote appealing to an older vision-valuing culture did. In the Plains, as is well established, the epistemological authority for behavior is the supernatural vision-experience, quite as the experimental laboratory method is for our scientific culture. It is, I repeat, this element, at least in the Plains, which overcame individual tribal resistance, and which indeed convinced them it had medicinal curing-power! Schultes’ own quotation of Petrullo (p. 708) notes that the devotees “hope to win the attention of the spiritforces and their intercession for the sick person.” Via the vision!

As for the argument that the new plant medicine succeeded chiefly on the basis of its medicinal virtues, Schultes quotes John Wilson to the effect that “as the peyote worshipper progressed in knowledge, he could ignore the effects of the native pharmacopeia and effect his cures upon himself and others by the sole use of peyote.” Why could one plant cause the casting-out of use of all other plants, if not because of its additional vision-power? And whence the “knowledge” if not through the vision-experience?

As a matter of fact, however, I believe the difference between Mr Schultes and myself derives from the ambiguity of meaning of the familiar term “medicine power” in Plains ethnography. To be sure in peyotism supernatural power vouchsafed in the vision-experience often is power to cure illness; yet the term “medicine power” encountered in the literature should by no means be read always as “power to cure illness.” It is far more generalized, as I think I have shown in “The Peyote Cult,” to mean on occasion power over the enemy in war, witchcraft prophylaxis, power to prophesy, to be clairvoyant, to find lost articles, etc. I think Mr Schultes is mistaken to equate “medicine-power” with medicinal-power, so far as peyote is concerned. And I think he is surely mistaken in believing that in Oklahoma there is a “disinterest in the peyote vision” or that there is “no indication of the pursuit of visions during peyote ceremonies” (p. 711). I collected 75 or so visions in the field and mentioned in the literature; Sunday forenoons after meetings, indeed, are usually spent in telling about ones peyote-visions!

Mr Schultes (p. 709) states that “The importance of the curing ritual in the peyote ceremony has been completely overlooked by those who have written on the subject.” This statement has the appearance of being gravely unfair to the extensive discussion of curing and doctoring by peyote which I undertook to make in “The Peyote Cult.” The facts are otherwise. The manuscript for Mr Schultes’ article was prepared at a time when “The Peyote Cult” was unavailable to him, being then in press; this appeared before the publication of Mr Schultes’ article, but subsequent to his absence on a field trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.

Incidentally Mr Schultes’ authoritative work on the botany of peyote has been capped on this field trip by his discovery in Oaxaca of the mushroom “teonanacatl,” which Safford erroneously identified with peyote. My own critique of Safford was based entirely on textual criticism, which could only have become conclusive through Mr Schultes’ authoritative botanical evidence.

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