This is how Grandfather Peyote came to the Indian people.
Long ago, before the white man, there was a tribe living far south of the Sioux in a land of deserts and mesas. These people were suffering from a sickness, and many died of it.
One old woman had a dream that she would find a herb, a root, which would save her people. The woman was old and frail but, taking her little granddaughter, she went on a vision quest to learn how to find this sacred herb. They walked away from the camp until they were lost.
Arriving at the top of a lonely hill, the grandmother made a brush shelter for herself and the young one. Without water or food they were weak, and as night fell they huddled together, not knowing what to do.
Suddenly they felt the wing beats of a huge bird, an eagle flying from the east toward the west. The old woman raised her arms and prayed to the eagle for wisdom and power.
Toward morning they saw the figure of a man floating in the air about four steps above their heads. The old woman heard a voice: "You want water and food and do not know where to find it. I have a medicine for you. It will help you."
This man's arm was pointing to a spot on the ground about four steps from where the old woman was sitting. She looked and saw a peyote plant - a large Grandfather Peyote Plant with sixteen segments. She did not know what it was, but she took her bone knife and cut the green part off. And there was moisture, the peyote juice, the water of life. The old woman and her granddaughter drank it and were refreshed.
The sun went down again and the second night came. The old woman prayed to the spirit: "I am sacrificing myself for the people. Have pity on me. Help me!" And the figure of a man appeared again, hovering above her as before, and she heard a voice saying: "You are lost now, but you will find your people again and you will save them. When the sun rises two more times, you will find them."
The grandmother ate some more of the sacred medicine and gave some to the girl. And a power entered them through the herb, bringing them knowledge and understanding and a sacred vision. Experiencing this new power, the old woman and her granddaughter stayed awake all night. Yet in the morning when the sun rose and shone upon the hide bag with the peyote, the old one felt strong. She said: "Granddaughter, pray with this new herb. It has no mouth, but it is telling me many things."
During the third night the spirit came again and taught the old woman how to show her people the proper way to use the medicine. In the morning she got up, thinking: "This one plant won't be enough to save my people. Could it have been the only herb in this world? How can I find more?" Then she heard many small voices calling: "Over here, come over here. I'm the one to pick."
These were peyote plants guiding her to their hiding places among the thorn bushes and chaparral. So the old woman and the girl picked the herbs and filled the hide bag with them.
At nightfall once more they saw the spirit man, silhouetted against the setting sun. He pointed out the way to their camp so that they could return quickly.
Though they had taken no food or water for four days and nights, the sacred medicine had kept them strong- hearted and strong-minded.
When they arrived home, their relatives were happy to have them back, but everybody was still sick and many were dying. The old woman told the people: "I have brought you a new sacred medicine which will help you."
She showed the men how to use this *pejuta*, this holy herb. The spirit had taught her the ceremony, and the medicine had given her the knowledge through the mind power which dwells within it.
Under her direction the men put up a tipi and made a fire. At that time there was no leader, no road man to guide them, and the people had to learn how to perform the ceremony step by step, from the ground up.
Everybody, men and women, old and young, ate four buttons of the new medicine. A boy baby was breast nursing, and the peyote power got into him through his mother's milk. He was sucking his hand, and he began to shake it like a gourd rattle.
A man sitting next to the tipi entrance got into the power and caught a song just by looking at the baby's arm. A medicine man took a rattle of rawhide and began to shake it. The small stones inside the rattle were the voice of Grandfather Peyote, and everybody understood what it was saying.
Another man grabbed a drum and beat it, keeping time with the song and the voice inside the rattle. The drumming was good, but it did not yet have the right sound, because in that first ceremony there was no water in the drum.
One woman felt the spirit telling her to look for a cottonwood tree.
After the sun rose, all the people followed her as Grandfather Peyote guided her toward the west. They saw a rabbit jumping out of a hole inside a dried-up tree and knew that this was the sacred cottonwood. They cut down the tree and hollowed out the trunk like a drum where the rabbit hole had been. At the woman's bidding they filled it with fresh spring water - the water of life.
On the way back to camp, a man felt the power telling him to pick up five smooth, round pebbles and to cover the drum with a piece of tanned moose hide. He used the pebbles to make knobs around the rim of the drum so that he could tie the hide to it with a rawhide thong. And when he beat the drum it sounded good, as if a spirit had gotten hold of it.
When night came, the people made a fire inside the tipi and took the medicine again. Guided by peyote power, the old woman looked into the flames and saw a heart, like the heart-shaped leaf of the cottonwood tree. Thus she knew that the Great Spirit, who is also in Grandfather Peyote, wanted to give his heart to the red men of this continent. She told the man tending the fire to form the glowing embers into the shape of a heart, and the people all saw it beat in rhythm with the drum.
A little later, one helper who was under the spirit power saw that the hide rope formed a star at the bottom of the drum. He shaped the glowing coals of the fire into a star and then into a moon, because the power of the star and the spirit of the moon had come into the tipi.
One man sitting opposite the door had a vision in which he was told to ask for water. The old woman brought fresh, cool water in a skin bag, and they all drank and in this way came under the power. Feeling the spirit of the water, the man who was in charge of the fire shaped the embers into the outline of a water bird, and from then on the water bird became the chief symbol of the holy medicine.
Around the fire this man made a half-moon out of earth, and all along the top of it he drew a groove with his finger. Thus he formed a road, the road of life. He said that anybody with the gift of
- wacankiyapi*, which means having love and heart for the people,
should sit right there.
And from that day on, the man who is running a meeting was called the "road man".
In this way the people made the first peyote altar, and after they had drunk the water, they thanked the peyote. Looking at the fire in the shape of the sacred water bird, they prayed to the four directions, and someone sprinkled green cedar on the fire.
The fragrant, sweet-smelling smoke was the breath of Grandfather Peyote, the spirit of all green and growing things. Now the people had everything they needed: the sacred herb, the drum, the gourd, the fire, the water, the cedar. From that moment on, they learned to know themselves. Their sick were cured, and they thanked the old woman and her grandchild for having brought this blessing to them. They were the Comanche nation, and from them the worship of the sacred herb spread to all the tribes throughout the land.
- Told by Leonard Crow Dog at Winner, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, 1970
Go Back To: Sioux Nation