Peyote Jokes

The Peyote Cult or religion has become well known to the American Indian through a series of excellent monographs and descriptive papers. The religion, which entered the Plains area from Mexico around 1870, features an all-night ceremony in which the peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii, is consumed to the accompaniment of prayers and ritual music. Although peyotists have sometimes been persecuted, and the possession of peyote is illegal in some states and provinces, the cult continues to flourish and spread in both the United States and Canada.

As has been the case with other religions, the peyote cult has extended its influence to areas of culture far outside the religious sphere. Thus, at a Plains Indian Grass or War Dance, one sometimes sees an older peyote man dressed in the costume of the religion, even though war dancing and peyotism have no formal connection. The influence of the peyote cult is also quite evident in contemporary Plains Indian art. In most peyote-using groups it has also given rise to a particular genre of humor known as the "peyote joke," which is the subject of this paper.

The usual time for telling such jokes is in the morning after the all-night ritual or "meeting." In many peyote-using tribes the ceremony formally ends with a breakfast of coffee, sweet rolls, and bread, provided by those who have "put up" (i.e., sponsored) the gathering. [This breakfast follows the "sacred breakfast" at which water, parched corn, pounded meat, fruit, and nuts are served to the participants in small amounts.] At this breakfast participants may stand up and stretch their cramped limbs, smoke, and chat freely. In contrast to the seriousness of the previous night's worship, this is a very relaxed affair, and those present are encouraged to tell of their past experiences in peyotism, either serious or humorous. As Weston La Barre notes in his monograph The Peyote Cult: "Complete social informality now reigns as the food is passed to the man south of the door and thence clockwise. Much joking goes on during this meal, which has none of the seriousness of the Christian partaking of the Host."

The small collection of stories given below is a fair sample of the type of joke often heard on these occasions. Unlike the typical Euro-American joke, which depends on a terminal "punch line" for most of its effect, the peyote joke builds up slowly from one ridiculous situation to the next, and the "punch line," if present at all, appears rather weak to one accustomed to the machine-gun delivery of the television or night club comic. Because of this structure, a joke which is hilariously funny when told by one peyote jokester may fall flat in the hands of a less gifted raconteur. The gifted storyteller, however, can keep his audience convulsed for minutes on end, and the ability to tell amusing jokes most certainly adds to the stature of a peyote "road man" or leader.

One may wonder how these ribald and often obscene anecdotes have become attached to such an intensely devout form of worship as the peyote ritual. Perhaps the very seriousness of the ordinary peyote ceremony, lasting through some eleven hours, calls forth a release of this sort once the ceremony is ended. Likewise, they provide the peyotists with yet another body of common experience not shared by nonmembers. A familiarity with the peyote ritual is essential to the complete understanding of many of the jokes, and hence the jokes serve to bind together those whose knowledge makes the circumstances of the joke intelligible.

Many peyote jokes find their humor in human miscalculation and error and in this respect are similar to certain Euro-American jokes. La Barre cites two jokes of this type:

"A Comanche told me a Kiowa ate a lot of peyote once and tried to sing a Comanche song. He sang the wrong words, which meant 'Mentula exposita est, Mentula exposita est!'"


"Koshiway (Oto) told a joke in the morning about a partially deaf man's misunderstanding the song 'Jesus in the glory now, he ya na ha we,' and singing 'Jesus in Missouri now.' Jack said laughing, 'He must be getting close; He's just over the river now!'"

A story heard by the writer among the Prairie Potawatomi in Kansas involves not human, but animal error. As told by a Potawatomi peyotist the story went as follows:

"It used to be the custom at meetings down here for the road man to gather up everybody's feathers [wands of feathers carried by peyotists in the meeting] just before closing. He would put them down in a pile behind the altar, pray, and then sing the quitting songs. After the meeting everyone would come up and get his feathers back.

"Well, this one time they were having a meeting at a place out in the country here, a place where they raised chickens. It was just getting light and the road man had gathered up all the feathers and had them in a pile beside him. There was a little banty rooster running around in the yard outside. It would crow a little, scratch around a bit, then wander in a little closer to where the temple [the peyote tipi] was set up. Finally it saw the big pile of feathers by the road man, and mistook it for a hen. It gave a big run and jumped right on top of the feathers. Boy, you've never seen such a disappointed rooster in all your life!"

Several peyote jokes, however, do more than recount a comic mischance, and go on to point a moral. La Barre cites a story of this type, told by O. W. (Comanche) to E. R. (Delaware):

"The leader of a Wichita Easter meeting had a fine watch, costing from $150 to $200. At daylight, before water time, wanting to display it, he put it down by the feathers. A man to the north was singing and making vigorous punches toward the peyote. When he looked at his watch later, 'it was just a mess of works in there loose, and the hands dropped off,' though nobody touched it. "It don't pay to go in there and they try to show off.'"

Two jokes collected by the writer among the southern Ponca were also concerned with the vanity of wealthy peyotists, and its sad consequences:

"Once an old peyote man, an Osage, decided to attend a meeting that was being held on his reservation that night. His companion [peyote term for wife or mistress] told him, 'Here, take this money old man and get yourself some new clothes before you go in; you look a disgrace.' So he went into Pawhuska and bought himself a new shirt, slacks, belt, socks, and finally a pair of those fancy shoes with the tick crepe rubber soles.

"When he showed up at meeting that night the boys [other peyotists] teased him about his new clothes, and it made him kind of sore. Finally he wouldn't talk to them any more. Since he was old, fat, and kind of stiff in the joints, he sat with his legs straight out to the fire instead of folded under him goat style. Well, his shoes were awfully close to the fire, and pretty soon those crepe soles on his shoes began to melt. Finally they came loose from the uppers, sort of drooped down, and fell off [teller uses comical gestures at this point to show drooping and falling]. The old man's circulation was poor, so he didn't feel anything was wrong.

"After midnight he asked the road man if he could go outside. As he got up to leave the boys pointed to his shoes, which were just shoe tops now. He thought they were still teasing him about his new duds and wouldn't pay any attention. Well, he walked out of the tipi and right into a patch of prickly pear. Man, you could hear his screams for miles!"

The second "vanity" joke involves more aboriginal footgear:

"Once an old man came to meeting in brand new buckskin clothes. He was particularly proud of his peyote moccasins. They had fringes at least six inches long. Every now and then he would run his fingers through the heel fringes to straighten them out and get rid of the grass and burrs they had picked up.

"Well, after midnight he went out of the tipi to defecate. He forgot about the heel fringes on his moccasins and squatted right over them. When he was finished he came back into the meeting and sat down in his place. Pretty soon he reached down to fuss with the heel fringes on his moccasins again. He grabbed something besides the fringes this time, and it made him mad—'S--t,' he said, 's--t, s--t!'"

Many peyote jokes tell of serious devotional acts being interrupted by some ludicrous occurrence. Perhaps the jokes of this type reflect an unconscious resentment of the hardship and the composure which attendance at a ceremony entails. Here is an example from the Kiowa:

"Once some young men in our tribe decided they wanted to hold a peyote meeting. None of them owned a tipi, so they just built a windbreak, about waist high, using old blankets, pieces of canvas, and sticks. The young man sitting chief [i.e., acting as the leader of the ceremony] was pretty good at peyote talk. When he prayed to the Almighty, everyone sat up and listened.

"Well, the meeting was just getting underway, and this young man was praying. There was a young drunk wandering around outside, and he came stumbling up just at that time. He stood right behind the moon [altar] and leaned over the windbreak, gaping down at the leader and breathing wine fumes on his neck. The leader didn't notice him at first, and he was praying, 'Our Father, who art in heaven—' and just then he turned a little and saw the drunk, and said, without even pausing for breath, 'What in hell are you doing here?'"

A similar joke from the Crow in Montana has the prayer interrupted by an old horse, which had been grazing outside the peyote tipi, flatulating loudly at a critical point in the prayer.

Sometimes a situation occurring during the meeting itself is later recalled and told as a joke, such as the following:

Frank D. [northern Iowa] and his wife Sue [Potawatomi] went to a Potawatomi meeting in Kansas. Frank is a good singer, but it sometimes takes him a little while to get warmed up and ready to go. While he is "waiting for the song to come," he shakes the peyote gourd and sings an introductory phrase 'He ne ne ne, he ne ne ne' over and over. He did it so long on this occasion that his companion, seated next to him, leaned over and whispered in his ear, in a tone audible to all present, "Come on Frank, sing! You sound like an old hound scratching for fleas."

Stories frequently have to do with strange happenings resulting from one or another individual suffering from "peyote effect" after eating an unusually large number of "buttons" (the dried tops of the peyote cactus). La Barre notes that "Jonathan Koshiway (Oto) laughingly told me of a meeting in Kansas where the singer's jaw became locked; the whole meeting was upset while they shook and fanned him with cedar incense until his jaw 'came back.'"

La Barre comments that this may have been the effect of the strychnine-like alkaloids in peyote. Another story concerning "peyote effect" was told by William C. (Ojibwa), about an old man he had seen at a Potawatomi meeting in Kansas. This old man wandered from group to group the morning after a peyote meeting. At each stop he would tell the first part of a peyote joke, but due to the amount of peyote he had eaten, he would always forget to finish them. After telling a part of each joke he would laugh loudly, and walk on to the next knot of people and begin again.

A classic peyote joke from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and one told in several versions, involves the interruption of a religious procession. It was apparently the custom when peyote first reached Pine Ridge for the adherents to stage these processions, perhaps in imitation of Roman Catholic processions. Various peyotists would take the parts of biblical characters. One such procession which took place in the twenties involved many individuals still prominent in the cult of that area. A male leader took the part of Christ, swathed in a white sheet and riding a mule. Close behind was the Virgin Mary, played by a female devotee. Others were dressed to resemble shepherds, Roman soldiers, and so on. The shepherds, who followed closely behind Christ and the Virgin, had several sheep and a goat for added realism.

The procession wound impressively through the hills near Pine Ridge until it neared an Indian cabin. Just as it was passing this cabin, a large dog chased a cat directly under the mule ridden by Christ, causing it to buck the rider into the dust. Worse yet, every time the rider attempted to stand up and remount, the goat would butt him over again from behind. Soon the entire procession was in an uproar, with horses bucking, sheep bleating, and the biblical characters cursing and swearing as they attempted to bring order out of chaos.

Later an old Indian woman, scolding the owner of the dog and cat for not keeping them under control as the "holy" procession went by, commented: "It was bad enough when Christ got bucked off his mule, and the billy goat butted him in the rear end. But when the Holy Virgin tore her dress on the barbed wire fence, that was a terrible thing!"

More typical of the jokes told at the present time is one currently making the rounds. A young Indian (variously described as a Potawatomi, a Winnebago, or an Omaha) has just come into a bit of money from a land sale, and decides to go "girling" in Oklahoma. He buys himself a new suit of clothes and hops the first bus to Anadarko.

Getting off the bus, he sees an old Indian man, obviously of the old school, standing on the corner. The old man wears his hair in braids, neatly wrapped with blue and green yarn, has a dark shirt and trousers, moccasins, and a white sheet wrapped around his waist in lieu of a blanket. The young man thinks, "Aha, here is an old-timer who can help me out. These old-times know all about love medicines, and that's what I want right now."

Accordingly, he approaches the old man, introduces himself, and in Indian fashion invites the old man to a restaurant for a fine meal. "Order the biggest steak in the house, Uncle," he urges. "Way ahead!" [i.e., good], answers the old-timer, and does as suggested. After the main course the young man says, "How about pie à la mode, Uncle? Wouldn't that go good about now?" Again the old Indian gratefully accepts. Then, "Would you like a cigar on top of your meal?" Again the old man gladly accepts.

"You have been very nice to me, Nephew," he comments at last. "And I appreciate what you have done for a poor old man. Now in our Indian way that might mean that you want me to help you out in some way."

"That's true, Uncle" the young man replies, "I do need your help. I am down here for social purposes, and I know you old people are wise in these old Indian medicines. Could you get hold of some love medicine for me?"

At this point the old man smiles, reaches under the sheet around his waist and into his trousers pocket. Pulling out four peyote "buttons" he hands them to the young man, saying, "Here, take these and love everybody!"

James H. Howard, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks