Critical Essays Pueblo Ceremonies and The Peyote Way


Major events in House Made of Dawn are tied to the seasonal ceremonies of the Pueblo agricultural year. Abel recollects an early sexual encounter that took place at a New Year's ceremonial dance, and his sickness of soul appears in his killing of the captured eagle during the Bahkyush Eagle Watchers ceremony, long before he went off to war. Angela attends the Cochiti corn dance, a fertility ritual which she, a pregnant woman, perceives as a nihilistic vision. At the end of the novel, Abel correctly carries out the rituals for burial of his grandfather, and his ability to undertake the dawn run that is a striking emblem throughout the book signifies his reintegration into the whole life of the community.

As has been noted, Pueblo ceremonial life is closely tied to the agricultural year, and, in particular, to the life cycle of corn. All of the traditional arts and sciences are interwoven in a total cosmogony that relates all elements of the universe — human, animal, plant, mineral — into a cohesive whole. Ceremonies and other activities are undertaken to maintain this integrated, holistic universe and community. For instance, in House Made of Dawn, one of Francisco's last memories is of taking his young grandsons to watch the sun come up over a particular point on the distant mountain ridge. This is a lesson in astronomy: The boys are to mark the point at which the sun will appear at the summer solstice, and also learn other points at which sunrise will mark days for the performance of specific activities. Prehistoric and historic records of Pueblo culture demonstrate a highly developed astronomy which was essential to maintaining the agricultural cycle. For instance, as is again noted in the novel's text, it is necessary to know when to construct the dikes that will divert seasonal rainwater onto the flood plain to irrigate the crops and control erosion. The day for doing this is indicated by another of the sunrise points on the mountain ridge that Francisco identifies for the boys.

The feast of Saint James, which is the occasion for the homicide that sends Abel into a second exile, exemplifies the separate and diverse elements in the observances of the pueblos. The people of Walatowa have included Christian saints and have enacted a secular European folk tale within the time prescribed for the realization of an indigenous ceremony, and they participate in both. This coincident participation in two separate ceremonies from two different and intact traditions is an example of syncretism, whereas the blending of Christian and Native traditions into a single, new worship in the peyote way constitutes a synthesis.

One of the religious traditions depicted in House Made of Dawn is the peyote religion. The peyote ritual presided over by Tosamah is the ceremonial expression of a religious movement that originated in north central Mexico, from where it spread northward through the southern plains and eventually became diffused throughout North America. In the course of adaptation to conditions in the United States, the peyote religion incorporated Christian elements. For instance, it is clear in House Made of Dawn that the ceremony is a communion ritual similar to other Christian communion services. The testimonials offered by each of the participants are reminiscent of the personal testimony of conversion or salvation, which is so important in some evangelical Protestant denominations. However, other elements such as the use of feathers and smoked herbs, the eagle-bone whistle, and the ingestion of the peyote — a mild hallucinogen found in a succulent plant native to Mexico — derive from Native traditions.

Historically, the peyote religion has been suspect to outsiders. Conservative tribal people opposed peyote worship because it superseded and threatened the continuance of traditional religious practice. Non-Indians were disturbed by the use of a hallucinogenic substance, in particular, and the expression of any "pagan" belief system, in general. The peyote religion of the Native American Church has been described as the first important pan-Indian movement, and early adherents sought to win converts to the peyote religion as an alternative to the pagan practices, which were not only under official attack from government policies but were also perceived as ineffectual in preventing alcoholism and family violence. Books like Crashing Thunder and The Winnebago Indians (both edited by Paul Radin) printed the testimony of Indians who believed that the peyote religion had helped them conquer dependence on alcohol and maintain family lives. Until a Supreme Court decision in the early 1990s permitted the states to restrict religious practices, the peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church received the same protection under the First Amendment as other religious services.

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