Hallucinogens & Native American Spirituality
Among ancient cultures, divine inspiration did not come only from the heavens and celestial powers but also from the earth—especially plants and fungi with spectacular mind-altering properties. Ancient shamans, medicine men and women, and conjurers used these plants and fungi to open their minds to more profound insights, to heighten their senses to the spiritual world, to reach harmony with the universe, to see into the future. And to see God.
As with all ancient aboriginal civilizations around the globe, Native Americans lived close to the earth and lived in concert with Nature. Over eons, they learned to appreciate the strange and powerful gifts of divine inspiration the earth could provide through plants and fungi. On the North American continent, Native Americans found these “entheogens” among many plant sources with hallucinogenic and mind-altering powers: Psilocybin mushrooms and other fungi, peyote, mescal beans, saguaro cactus, sweet flag grasses. Many flowers could be ingested with profound effects: poppies, belladonna, morning glories, trumpet flower, jimson weed, prairie salvia, genista, Toloache, maiden’s acacia. In addition, tobacco, sage, and marijuana were also smoked or “smudged” to enhance their rituals.
Anthropologists and historians believe hallucinogens have been used as early as 9000 B.C. Early cave paintings and pictographs by indigenous people on rocks in North America and other areas of the world are believed to have been inspired partially from hallucinogenic influences. (Psychedelic art is often extremely colorful, surreal and filled with ornate iconography.) When Spanish Conquistadors and missionary priests came to the New World in the 1500s, they wrote of the use of psychotropic plants by Indians, especially peyote, morning glory seeds, and mushrooms. The Aztecs and Mayans in Central America called mushrooms teonanácatl, meaning "flesh of the gods,” because ingesting them helped them to “see God.”
There are many anthropological theories that entheogens played a crucial role in the history of the world’s major religions and the foundation of religion itself. There is speculation that the “manna” of the Hebrew Bible was entheogenic, as well as “soma,” the Hindu ambrosia mentioned in the Vedas. There is very compelling evidence that many Flemish Renaissance painters who painted some of civilization’s most iconic religious paintings were hallucinating due to a fungal infection while they were making their vibrant surrealist depictions of heaven and hell.
Ancient cultures around the world have used hallucinogens in concert with their religion to connect with the divine, to see visions, even to perceive events in the future, and to resolve pathways for the survival of their people.
In most cases, when colonial powers began to overtake the lands and cultures of indigenous people—not just in North American but all over the world—newer religions, especially Christianity, regarded their ancient indigenous ways as evil, ignorant and abhorrent to “civilized” ways. When the Spanish first came to the shores of North, Central and South America, Catholic priests associated peyote with "heathen rituals and superstitions,” conjuring "evil spirits through diabolic fantasies.” Natives were punished, tortured or killed for practicing their ancient traditions. So began a historic distrust of hallucinogens among newer religions, especially Christianity.
PEYOTE is one of the most famous psychoactive plants first employed by tribes in Mexico. The Comanche and Kiowa brought peyote use to North America through their trade and interactions with tribes in Mexico. Comanche Chief Quannah Parker, once one of the most feared Native warriors in Texas, founded the Native American Church, which uses peyote legally yet today as part of its ceremonies. Quannah helped spread peyote use across North America as a medicine and sacrament. (In later years, the chief became a good friend to Theodore Roosevelt.) Peyote is from a sacred cactus that induced realistic and very vivid hallucinations. It was used by many North American tribes for religious ceremonies, rituals and vision-quests.
MESCAL BEANS date historical usage back as far as nine thousand years ago. In North America, the Arapaho and Iowan tribes in the U.S. have long used the beans, especially as a hallucinogen for their “Red Bean Dance” as well as for story-telling.
SWEET FLAG has been used mostly by Native American tribes of Northern United States and Canada, especially the Cree. It is used in a number of religious ceremonies and produced effects similar to LSD. In smaller quantities, it also helps with anti-fatigue, minor pain relief (such as against toothache and headache), and for treating asthma. Typically the roots are chewed.
SAQUARO cactus grows in the Southwest United States and Mexico. It has important medicinal and psychoactive properties and has been used in a number of religious ceremonies throughout many Native tribes. Its also popular for treating rheumatism.
MAIDEN’S ACACIA is prevalent in traditional Native American medicine and used in conjunction with other plants for various hallucinogenic or psychoactive uses. Medicine men and women and shaman use it in a number of Native American tribes.
TOLOACHE (also called “Datura”) is used mostly by tribes in Southwest America, especially the Zuni. It's a strong hallucinogen but also has many medicinal uses. Considered a sacred plant, priests and shamans use it for many spiritual purposes.
POPPIES have been used by Native tribes especially in the west and western coastal regions since prehistoric times. All parts of the plant have been used for sedative and psychoactive effects, as well as medicinal uses. The Pomo tribes used the crushed seeds topically, the Mendocino people used the roots as an external cleansing agent. Although it is a true poppy and related to its cousin, the opium poppy, the North American poppy is not an opiate, or addictive. In fact, it can help with opioid withdrawal and PTSD and promotes sleep and muscle relaxation.
MORNING GLORIES have been used since ancient times by many Native tribes to communicate with the spirits, to predict the future or to achieve an understanding of incomprehensible events. The psychoactive effects of morning glories are very similar to LSD. And with good reason: their primary psychoactive substance is D-lysergic acid amide (LSA), similar to LSD’s D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
In the 1940s, scientists and medical experts began to realize the medical and psychiatric benefits of psychoactive plants, and leading research laboratories made some drugs available to treat psychosis and to use with psychotherapy. The CIA and U.S. Army began a wave of psychedelic drug research when they discovered the Soviets had purchased 50 million doses of LSD from American laboratories. Through the 1950s and 1960s more than 1,000 research papers were written about fascinating research findings based on more than 40,000 subjects using LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelic drugs to treat depression, alcoholism, and other chronic illnesses.
But, in addition to the traditional distrust of hallucinogens, especially by Christian theologians, hallucinogens incited more distrust among government officials and law enforcement when it became associated with the counter-culture, insurgence, the anti-war movement, and the drug epidemic in the 1960s. The political winds blew against the use of hallucinogens. A government and legislative crackdown declared such substances as marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin mushrooms, peyote and other psychoactive drugs as Schedule 1 drugs and illegal to use by the general public.
As a result, Native Americans got caught in the middle of the war on drugs and lost their rights to use such drugs in their religious ceremonies. In 1990 the Supreme Court heard a case involving Native use of hallucinogens but ruled against Native Americans’ rights to ingest psychoactive drugs, even for religious use. But, in 1994, Congress amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to allow Native Americans to use certain psychoactive plants crucial in their religious ceremonies.
With changing cultural mores and the legalization of marijuana across many states in the nation, the benefits of psychoactive drugs were once again revisited.
In August 2018, the American Psychological Association released an official statement declaring that “Combined with psychotherapy, some psychedelic drugs like MDMA or psilocybin may improve symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.” The announcement also mentioned that end-of-life terminally ill patients with deep anxiety, as well as patients with eating disorders, one of the most difficult emotional disorders to treat, have responded well to early experiments. The statement also highlighted a study of participants “who reported on their past use of hallucinogens, a higher level of spirituality and relationship with their emotions. Using hallucinogens was related to greater levels of spirituality, which led to improved emotional stability and fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression and disordered eating, the study found.”
In October 2018, the Food & Drug Administration granted permission to research mushrooms as a treatment for depression. Through psilocybin, researchers hope to find better ways to combat treatment-resistant depression, which they say affects about 100 million people worldwide.
In September 2019, Johns Hopkins University unveiled its huge Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. There, scientists plan to evaluate psilocybin as a possible treatment for everything from opioid addiction, Lyme disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, nicotine and alcohol dependency, and many other ailments.
The revolutionary discoveries in medical research today regarding hallucinogenic plants are stunning and early experiments promise relief for millions who suffer. But should these newfound results really surprise us? Early American indigenous people and other ancients had unlocked the divine powers and medical mysteries of the mystical plants thousands of years before. Perhaps, after all, they had helped Native Americans to touch the face of God?
For related posts, go to NotesfromtheFronter.com
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- Native American Sacred Places
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