Peyote Feather Fan

May 26, 2015

One Fan’s Long and Winding Road to the Penn Museum

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Monica Fenton

This peyote fan (object number 70-9-480) was once in the possession of a Delaware (also called Lenni Lenape or Lenape) medicine man from Oklahoma, variously named James C. Webber, War Eagle, and Wi·tapano’xwe (which translates to “walks with daylight”).[1] The geographically astute reader may realize that neither the plant peyote nor the Delaware people originally come from Oklahoma.[2] During the 19th century, many Delaware relocated westward (away from their East Coast environs), and encountered other nations who had also been expelled from their homelands. Some of their new neighbors came from peyote’s natural range of northern Mexico and southern Texas, where Indigenous people had consumed the psychoactive plant for thousands of years. The contemporary version of the peyote religion in which the fan is used sprung up in the late 19th century, after these nations introduced the concept of peyote ceremonies to the Delaware and other tribes.[3]

Peyote eagle feather fan collected from Wi·tapano'xwe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number 70-9-480.
Peyote eagle feather fan collected from Wi·tapano’xwe. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.
Museum Object Number 70-9-480.

Peyote is a small squat spineless cactus that contains alkaloids, primarily mescaline, that produce euphoria and hallucinations when consumed. As the most integral part of the Native American Church peyote ceremony, peyote is a teacher and healer and brings people closer to the spiritual realm. Some versions of the ritual incorporate a Bible and reference Jesus, but the Delaware iteration that Wi·tapano’xwe practiced avoids overt Christian syncretism. The all-night ritual usually occurs in a tipi and involves periods of singing, prayers, blessings, and quiet contemplation.[4]

The role of a peyote fan like this one varies. A handwritten note from Frank Speck accompanies the object, saying it was “used to brush impurities from persons entering and leaving Peyote ceremony,” but that purpose is not mentioned in other ethnographic accounts. According to Wi·tapano’xwe himself, the religious leader and the attendants all carry eagle tail feather fans. The leader’s fan has decorated binding, unlike this one, and the leader passes it around the room and holds it while singing peyote songs. After midnight, everyone uses their fans to draw smoke from the central fire over their heads and bodies. In 1892, an ethnographer who attended a Kiowa ceremony, similar to the Delaware one, observed the leader using the fan to splash water upon the attendees as a blessing.[5]

This fan consists of a single layer of ten golden eagle feathers in a row, arranged from longest to shortest to create an arcing shape. The base of the feather part is embellished with single cardinal and bluejay feathers. The handle that holds these feathers together—a single piece of animal hide folded in half with seam edges exposed—is stitched up the sides with thick double-ply textile fiber string. The leather is worn and crackled from handling. A two-ply leather cord, tied through a hole in the bottom of the handle, could have hung the fan on a hook. The back side of the object is lighter in color than the front, possibly due to how it was used, stored, or displayed.

Detail of underside of peyote feather fan handle. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.
Detail of underside of peyote feather fan handle. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Any number of conditions could have caused the color difference and other damage. Unlike many other Native objects at the Penn Museum, this was obviously not treated with arsenic or other pesticides, since the feathers have extensive insect damage. The worst damage is near the handle, where pieces of feather are detached from the shaft, or holding on by just a few fibers.

The Penn Museum accession number indicates that this fan was cataloged in 1970, and that it came from the estate of Samuel Pennypacker, but it was originally collected by Penn anthropologist Frank G. Speck. The records of their transactions are vague and incomplete, but it appears that Speck essentially served as an intermediary between his rich friend Pennypacker and Native people in need of money, using Pennypacker as a kind of pawnbroker. A select collection of Native American objects—primarily ceremonial masks and ritual regalia—were displayed in a dedicated “Indian Room” in Pennypacker’s mansion until 1968, when his widow donated the entire collection to the Penn Museum.[6]

The Pennypacker folders in the Archives of the Penn Museum include additional data. A 1968 line item from the estate inventory lists: “Delaware Oklahoma Turkey Wing Fan, Eagle feather Fans” collectively valued at $7.50. A 1933 note in Frank Speck’s handwriting lists one “Enoch eagle wing fan” valued at $5.00. Most poignantly, one folder contains a letter from Wi·tapano’xwe himself. On November 6, 1934, he wrote to his old friend Speck, complaining of continuing pain from a broken leg, strategizing about ceremonial revivals, and offering objects for sale to make ends meet. In closing, he writes, “I thank you every so many time to remember me in the Great Spirit’s name. we will get going again. let me know what became of those peyote things when you write.”[7]

Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano'xwe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.
Beaded peyote feather fans used by Wi·tapano’xwe. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of Penn Museum.
Museum Object Numbers 70-9-486 and 70-9-481.

Since Wi·tapano’xwe was a medicine man, and the leader of a Delaware peyote ceremony was expected to use a decorated fan, this fan with an undecorated handle was likely not his. The name “Enoch” in Speck’s 1933 list is probably Enoch Hoag, the Caddo chief and peyote roadman who taught the Oklahoma version of the adapted peyote ritual to Wi·tapano’xwe. The 1934 letter says that the peyote objects are associated with an “Enoc Moon Delaware.” This may refer to Enoch Hoag himself, or to his version of the peyote ceremony. As the two major variations of the ceremony were called the Half Moon and Big Moon, it became customary to name a roadman’s particular style after him. John Wilson’s ceremony, for example, was called the “Wilson moon.”[8] Whether the feather fan belonged to Hoag or to one of his followers, it’s difficult to speculate how or why it left Oklahoma. Perhaps Hoag gave it to Wi·tapano’xwe. Perhaps one of them was in dire financial need. Regardless, after Speck sold the fan to Pennypacker, it never returned to Oklahoma. As Dr. Bruchac notes, this matches a familiar pattern in salvage anthropology: despite their original intended use, items of ritual regalia routinely flew away from their communities of origin, coming to rest in isolated collections far from home.


[1]  Dr. Margaret Bruchac identified these various names as belonging to a single individual, based upon her research into Frank G. Speck’s relations with Indigenous informants. Wi·tapano’xwe also worked closely with Speck’s Mohegan research assistant, Gladys Tantaquidgeon.
[2] The original Lenni Lenape territory includes: Staten Island and northern New Jersey (home of the Munsee, “people of the stoney country”); parts of eastern Pennsylvania (Unami, the “people down river”); and central to southern New Jersey (Unalactgio, the “people near the ocean,” also called Nanticoke). For historical background, see the Penn Treaty Museum website.
[3] Stewart, Omer C. 1987. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p. 49.
[4] Stewart 1987, pp. 34o-344, 348.
[5] Stewart 1987, pp. 340-356.
[6] These conclusions are based on research in progress by Dr. Margaret Bruchac, who has been tracking Frank G. Speck’s collecting of ethnographic objects from multiple Native American communities, and the subsequent circulation of those objects into the hands of private collectors and museums. Bruchac’s research into correspondence at the Penn Museum Archives revealed that the entire Pennypacker collection originally came from Speck.
[7] November 6, 1934 letter from Wi·tapano’xwe to Frank G. Speck. Dr. Bruchac discovered this letter in a file folder of uncatalogued miscellaneous correspondence in the Samuel Pennypacker Papers, Penn Museum Archives, Philadelphia, PA.
[8] Stewart 1987, pp. 87-94. John Wilson was a particularly influential leader for the Caddo and Delaware peyote practitioners. Wilson’s peyote rattle, decorated with the classic “peyote stitch” style of beadwork, is currently housed in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.

NOTE: For background on the “Speck Connection” project in Museum Anthropology, see Margaret Bruchac, The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects.