A Vision of Color: Contextualizing a Peyote Rattle in Time and Space

January 17, 2018

Object Analysis by Margaret Bruchac and Sheridan Small

Peyote rattle, object # 59-14-62, Penn Museum. Photo by Sheridan Small.

During the era of American westward expansion, many Native American peoples were forced from their ancestral lands and confined to reservations. The Winnebago people, for example, went through several territorial dislocations as a result of three major cession treaties with the fledgling United States. They were removed from Wisconsin to Iowa between 1836 and 1840, to Minnesota in 1846, to South Dakota in 1862, and finally to their current location in Nebraska in 1865.[1] There, they often suffered the effects of hunger and disease, in addition to geographical and cultural dislocations. Despite pressures to assimilate, they sought ways to preserve their traditions, beliefs, and communities.

Object 59-14-62, a Winnebago peyote rattle, embodies this history of cultural dislocation and re-integration. Although it is unclear when it was made, this rattle is wrapped up in a larger web of history that shaped the movements of peoples and things. The name of the artisan who made this rattle is unknown. It traveled an unknown route (presumably from Nebraska where the Winnebago reservation is located) before being sold by collector Albert Green Heath in Chicago to the Denver Art Museum in 1936. It came to the Penn Museum during an exchange with the Denver Art Museum in 1959. Along the way, it traversed cultural contexts and acquired new meanings.

The Native ceremony that utilized this rattle also crossed cultures and boundaries. The “Cross Fire” peyote ritual, as practiced by the Winnebago, is a hybrid of Mexican horticulture, traditional Native vision quests, Christian religion, and therapeutic practice all wrapped up in a modern expression of religious freedom. During the early 1900s, John Rave, a prominent member of the Winnebago Bear clan, adopted the use of the peyote ceremony after being introduced to it in Oklahoma.

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small, spineless cactus indigenous to the lower valley of the Rio Grande. Containing many psychoactive alkaloids, peyote is classified by pharmacology as a hallucinogen that can induce “colored visual hallucinations and abnormal synesthesia” as well as “disturbances in space and time perception, and auditory hallucinations.”[2] Because visions already held a prominent place in their religious practices, some of the Winnebago people embraced peyote.[3]

Peyote was also valued for its connotations of healing. The Winnebago people, weakened by malnutrition, suffered from diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and scarlet fever.[4] Peyote has long had therapeutic associations in Mexico, where it is said to strengthen the body against future ills and to cleanse the soul, and in Oklahoma, where it is believed to cure intestinal ills, rheumatic pains, and fevers.[5] Peyote is also used, within a ceremonial cultural practice, to cure alcohol addiction.[6] Today, peyote is used in ritual by the members of the Native American Church, a legally constituted religion protected by law.[7]

Details of “peyote stitch” designs. Photo by Sheridan Small.

The peyote ceremony, in effect, became a cure for physical and cultural struggles alike, providing an effective way of dealing with the dislocation induced by colonization, and a way of keeping Native beliefs alive in a syncretic form. Some elements of the Native American Church are also multi-cultural, linking traditional Indigenous symbolism with elements of Christian beliefs.[8] George E. Tinker (Osage) notes that the inclusion of Christian symbols was, in part, “an attempt to appropriate the spiritual power of the colonizer.”[9]

Peyote ceremonialism is heavily laced with symbolism. While strikingly beautiful in its delicacy and vibrancy, this rattle also holds cultural meanings. The beautiful beadwork designs and colorfully dyed quills represent elements of the peyote ceremony. The beads are held in a style of interlocked, net beading—referred to as “gourd” or “peyote stitch”—used on other peyote tools, such as feather fans. The designs and themes echo those of other objects associated with the Native American Church. Like the ceremony itself, there is a general structure of common elements, with considerable latitude for accommodating a diversity of local and personal interpretations. Designs are commonly obtained through ceremony, with artists “quick to credit their religious experiences and fellow worshippers for their accomplishments and inspiration.”[10]

These subtle details are silenced, however, by the containment of the rattle in a museum context. Gourd rattles are “first and foremost musical instruments,” with the thickness of the gourd shells, the size and number of pebbles placed inside, and the overall balance between handle and gourd carefully matched and manipulated in order to produce the right tone and tempo for the singing style and vocal qualities of their handlers.[11]

Museums have long struggled with the dichotomy between art and artifact. In the past, Native American art sometimes suffered from a lack of attention, being relegated to museums as somehow less sophisticated than Euro-American art. Yet, it is undeniable that Native American art is both “art” and “more-than-art,” especially when linked to powerful belief systems. In fact, many Native people see the Western distinction “between art and artifact is inappropriate, that it is a European-derived concept imposed on Indian material.”[12]

Details of beadwork design, dyed deer hair and leather braid. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The aesthetic value of this peyote rattle can only be truly appreciated by situating it within its appropriate cultural and ceremonial context. However, because this is an artifact in a museum, there is an inherent tension between appreciating the rattle from a visitor’s standpoint and truly understanding the rattle’s purpose and power. We are left to use our imaginations, to picture the dyed deer hair and leather tassels swishing through the air, the rattle of the beads accompanied by drumming and singing, the bright colors adding layers of sensation through the synesthesia-effect of the peyote. As Curtis Zunigha (Delaware) wrote about a peyote fan in the Penn Museum’s collection, such a ceremonial object is not as silent as it seems. It “may be lying dormant since coming into the collection, but it can be brought out in the appropriate ceremonial setting and its power released once again.”[13]

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2017 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

Sources Cited:

[1] Jeff G. Hart, “Exploring Indigenous Tribal Leadership: The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.” PhD dissertation (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2004): 23-24.
[2]  Richard E. Schultes, “The Appeal of Peyote (Lophophora Williamsii) as a Medicine,” American Anthropologist 40, no. 4 (October 1938): 700-701.
[3] Ruth Shonle, “Peyote, The Giver of Visions,” American Anthropologist 27, no.1 (January 1925): 59.
[4] Thomas W. Hill, “Peyotism and the Control of Heavy Drinking: The Nebraska Winnebago in the Early 1900s,” Human Organization 258, no. 3 (Fall 1990): 258.
[5] Schultes, “The Appeal of Peyote (Lophophora Williamsii) as a Medicine,” 705.
[6] Hill, “Peyotism and the Control of Heavy Drinking,” 261.
[7] Lucy Fowler Williams and William Wierzbowski, eds., Native American Voices on Identity, Art, and Culture: Objects of Everlasting Esteem (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2005): 103.
[8] Paul Radin, “A Sketch of the Peyote Cult of the Winnebago,” Journal of Religious Psychology 7, no. 1 (January 1914): 21.
[9] George E. Tinker (Osage), comment on Peyote Rattle made by Nishkû´ntu (John Wilson or Moonhead, Caddo/Delaware ca. 1845–1901), object # 6/1651. Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian (New York: National Museum of the American Indian/George Gustav Heye Center, ongoing website).
[10] Daniel Swan, Peyote Religious Art: Symbols of Faith and Belief (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 46, 94.
[11] Ibid, 90.
[12] Michael Kimmelman, “Indian Art vs. Artifact: Problem of Ambiguity,” The New York Times, May 1, 1989.
[13] Curtis Zunigha in Williams and Wierzbowski, Native American Voices on Identity, Art, and Culture, 103.

Note: for an additional post on a Peyote ceremonial object in the Penn Museum collections, see:
• Monica Fenton, “One Fan’s Long and Winding Road to the Penn Museum,” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, May 26, 2015.

For an overview of the 2017 object studies in the Anthropology of Museums class, see:
Margaret Bruchac. “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, December 4, 2017.