Peyote Jokes

Image: Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) grafted on a San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) stock, retrieved from Lophophora.

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" (sponsored) the gathering. 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...
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 ... jokes of this type:

..."Koshiway (Oto) told a joke in the morning about a particially deaf man's misunderstanding of 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 song. 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 her, 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!"...

[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 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.
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 thell fringes on his moccasins again. He grabbed something besides the fringes this time, and it made him mad- 'Shit, he said, shit, shit!'".

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 the 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 [alter] 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 a 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...
More typical of the jokes told at the present time is one currently making the rounds:

"A young Indian... 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 the blue and green yarn, has a dark shirt and trousers, moccasins, and a while sheet wrapped around his waist in lieu of a blanked. The young man thinks, "Aha, here is an old-timer who can help me out. These old-timers 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 a pie a la monde, Uncle? Wouldn't that go good about now?" Again the old Indian gratefully accepts. Then, "Would you like a cigar to top off 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 ahold 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!"

- pp. 10-14, Peyote Jokes by James H. Howard, for The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 75, No. 295 (Jan. - Mar. 1962)

San Padro, Peyote, graft