The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian: Life, Ways, Acculturation and the Peyote Cult Paperback – June 1, 1963
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The autobiography is contained in Part I. A much briefer Part II is described in its title: "My Father's Teachings".
We learn of S.B.'s life from early boyhood to a late marriage. Many books have been written on the external injustices inflicted on native tribes with the coming of the white man. This book relates the interior suffering and disintegration of a branch of the Winnebago tribe based in Wisconsin, but seasonally on the move to favorable hunting and fishing areas.
The major spiritual and psychological problems for S.B. during his childhood and young manhood were related to both the customary War-Bundle Feast and later the Medicine Dance. In the War-Bundle experience, S.B. was to fast with his brother in a lodge for four nights to obtain blessings from the spirits (victory and the power to cure the sick); S.B. expected the spirits to speak to him. But nothing happened. He attributed this to the fact that "through it all, my thoughts were centered on women. I was never lowly at heart and never really desired the blessing of the spirits." But this began the living of a lie, for he henceforth pretended that he did have an interior experience and was a holy person.
His second disillusionment was in regards to the initiation into the Medicine Dance. Again, he expected through the initiation rites in a ceremony in the wilderness to become like the holy medicine men who showed him how to fall down and lie quivering on the ground and how to appear dead (a death and rebirth motif). And, again, S.B. had no interior experience (but only feigned death) as did his elder predecessors. He felt that he had been deceived and the rites were only performed to make money, which was expected at the beginning of each rite, and was prepaid by S.B.'s father.
The only way in which a person could join the Medicine Dance was by replacing some deceased member. S.B.'s father was expected to be the replacement for his deceased father, but he asked his son to do it instead, stating: "I am getting old and besides I cannot control my desire for drink any longer and under these conditions I would not be able to live up to the teachings of the lodge." This reveals the interior trouble of not only S.B., but the previous generation as well.
It's sad to read of the tribal members going into towns wearing signs asking for money, and considering themselves lucky whenever they were invited into a home to share a meal. Some of the treatment described of Indian women I found very difficult to bear emotionally as well.
So, lost, seemingly in every way, S.B. enters into adulthood and begins a downward spiral through a life of extreme dissipation: heavy and constant consumption of alcohol, many marriages and arrangements, wandering from here to there with no aim in life. He had a fine singing voice and this it was that kept him going financially. For a while he even travelled with a circus. Finally, to use contemporary vernacular, he "hit rock bottom," experiencing delirium tremens and landing in jail accused of murder.
After he extricates himself from this chaos, he returns home. He finds that his mother, father and other family members have joined the peyote cult in Nebraska. He goes to visit them, attends peyote meetings, but is very reluctant to ingest peyote. When he finally does, he experiences a lot of sickness before at last having what he was supposed to have during the tribal rites which no longer held their power -- an ecstatic and holy vision.
He is converted, finds a lasting marriage and admits: "Before my conversion I went about in a pitiable condition, but now I am living happily, and my wife has a fine baby." The story ends here. One hopes that S.B. did truly find a lasting state of centeredness due to his finally being able to become alive in the old-new way.
The Wikipedia Encyclopedia notes that Peyote (a spineless cactus) was used in Mexico in pre-Columbian times to commune with spirits, and as a medicine, and eventually it spread to the Great Plains. In Southern Texas, "Indians are permitted to purchase peyote to supply the Native American Church", and three peyoteros (harvesters) are licensed "by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and are required to be registered with the State of Texas Department of Public Safety for a fee of over $1,200 per year". Also the churches have to be registered to purchase, transport or cultivate peyote.
Whatever happened to the separation of church and state? I guess that doesn't apply to the religion of the approximately 50 Indian tribes and 250,000 adherents. Imagine having to register and pay big time for being a Christian!
The 22-page chapter of folkways based upon the instructions given by the tribal elders is invaluable to the modern reader/researcher. These cover the Winnebago religion, social etiquette, "medicine," marriage and sex, precepts for women, and the wisdom of the old men.