Objects of Purpose—Objects of Prayer: Peyote Boxes of the Native American Church*
Abstract: Peyote boxes are the containers that members of the Native American Church use to store and transport the ritual and personal objects used by participants in the night-long religious services of the Church. Peyote boxes can be classified into two basic forms; boxes specifically produced for use by Peyotists and a wide range of containers adapted for such use. In addition to their functional value, Peyote boxes also provide an additional arena for the expressive culture of Peyotism through the various media and methods employed to decorate and embellish their exterior surfaces. Through a lifetime of use, Peyote boxes become highly intimate, portable records of personal experience, both spiritual and secular. Peyote boxes provide a rich context for an examination of the criteria used by museums to collect objects and the potential for biased representations of the material world.
[Keywords: Native American Art, Plains, Southwest, Oklahoma, Native American Church, Peyote, Woodworking, Painting, Material Culture Studies, Collections]
In January 1999, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma (USA), working in collaboration with a group of community advisors from Oklahoma's Native American communities, opened the exhibition Symbols of Faith and Belief: The Art of the Native American Church. The exhibition focused on the traditional, folk, and fine arts practices associated with the manufacture and decoration of ritual instruments, accoutrements, and accessories used by Peyotists (Native American Church participants) in religious worship.1 The exhibition, its associated publications, and public programs provided an opportunity for Peyote artists to share their life histories and to discuss the various way in which religious participation and experience inspire and influence their work. In this contribution to the journal's "Object Studies" section, I want to discuss the boxes that are used to store and transport many of these objects and items. Referred to as "Peyote boxes," "kits" or "grips" by members of the Native American Church, these containers are an interesting element in the material culture of Peyotism.2 Peyote boxes perform utilitarian functions, present an additional platform for aesthetic expression, and, when considered with their contents, provide insight into the personal experiences and practices of individual members of the Church. The history, diversity, and collectability of Peyote boxes are well illustrated by examples drawn from the collections of Gilcrease Museum and other institutions.3
Almost every participant in the Peyote religion uses some type of container to store and carry the various objects, items, and materials that worshippers need during the all-night ceremony, or "meeting," as these ritual gatherings are called by members.4 The first containers associated with Peyotism to gain mention in the anthropological literature are satchels or bags used to house and transport the ritual instruments of Roadmen, or leaders, of religious services (Figure 1). Referred to as kits, these containers of cloth, carpet, and leather were later replaced by valises and commercially made wooden boxes (Slotkin 1952:589; Bittle 1969:74; Spindler and Spindler 1971:102; La Barre 1989:66). Omer Stewart (1989:344-45, 358) found these "paraphernalia satchels" to be universal among the tribal communities included in his comparative study of the religion, its ceremonies and material attributes. A Menominee Peyotist has provided a description of the precursors of the Peyote box and the clear rationale for its introduction:
The instrument bag where they kept their sacred tools, as far back as I can remember—I used to see my old folks—it was made out of some calico goods… it had a string on the top so it could draw together… And then they used to make it out of cedar wood; they just made kind of a box… carved it by hand. And sometimes they used a stiff rawhide leather, formed it into a box with a sort of lid… They used to have it wrapped up… in the form of a bag… 'till they started getting these instrument cases, you know; they're handier. [Spindler 1952:589]
Thus Roadmen, or leaders of the Peyote religion, were among the first individuals to use musical instrument cases, valises and small suitcases to house the expanded set of ritual objects and ceremonial materials required to "run" a Peyote meeting (Figure 2). A similar logic would suggest that the use of Peyote boxes in general became more widespread as the customary rules governing the use of personal fans, gourds, and other ceremonial items by congregants became more relaxed over time. Museum collections and associated documentation suggest that boxes constructed from wood for the specific use of Peyotists were common by the late 1940s, with examples of decorated boxes appearing early in their history (Denver Art Museum nd.).
Peyote boxes are generally of two types, either commercially made containers adapted for use by Peyotists or boxes of wood or leather that are constructed for such use. The former type includes musical instrument cases, toolboxes, small valises, and commercially manufactured wooden boxes of various types.5 Boxes constructed specifically for use by Peyotists have a distinct history that can be reconstructed through a combined examination of ethnographic narrative and museum collections, with their associated documentation.
Peyote boxes spend most of their functional lives "put up" in closets, bureaus and other domestic storage areas where they provide a safe and secure place for an individual's personal ceremonial objects. In the context of their source communities, the "use" of Peyote boxes is generally restricted to services and events of the Native American Church. Among their most important contents are gourd rattles, prayer feathers, fans, drumsticks, botanicals, and other ceremonial items. Boxes are also used to store an array of non-ceremonial items that are useful throughout the nightlong services of the religion. These include jewelry, neckties, combs, mirrors, handkerchiefs, and other personal items. It is also usual for a box to contain a pen or pencil and some notepaper, important for the exchange of names and addresses with newly made friends and to record the dates and locations of future meetings, with invitations commonly extended at the close of services. Peyote boxes also serve as repositories for personal mementos, photographs of friends and family members and other objects of individual significance and meaning. Among such objects are baby moccasins, Christian medals and crosses, military ribbons and insignia, personal letters and important documents (Figures 3-4).
Today, almost all Peyote boxes are constructed from red cedar and are available for purchase in stores and galleries in and around Indian Country and over the Internet.6 In the 30 years that I have attended religious services of the Native American Church, and in my personal relationships with Peyotists, I have only encountered three or four decorated boxes in current use. This is in sharp contrast to the boxes found in museum collections, which are almost all highly decorated with carvings, paintings, and appliqués effected in a variety of media and techniques. My review of relevant collections and their associated documentation indicates that the Peyote boxes contained in museum collections were largely purchased from the artist or through an intermediary retailer and do not exhibit any indications of use or wear. While it is clear that Peyotists have in the past used such decorated boxes, and that they continue to do so today, I would suggest that undecorated boxes have always been more common. My impression is that in Oklahoma, decorated boxes, and the artists who created them, were at their greatest number in the 1940s and 1950s, a period of general fluorescence of Peyote arts in Oklahoma. More recently, the Native American Church and its associated arts have been particularly vibrant on the Navajo Nation (since the late 20th century) and it is here that the production of decorated Peyote boxes is currently (ca. 2010) most active.
Peyote boxes are also interesting in context, for the ways in which they are used in connection with religious services. It is the common practice for worshippers to gather together prior to the service for a supper provided by the host or sponsor of the meeting. As people finish eating, they socialize and complete final preparations for their participation in the nightlong ceremony. This is when the cushions and blankets upon which the people will sit are unloaded from cars and trucks and taken into the tipi or other place of worship. Peyote boxes are also transported into the ceremonial space at this time where they are placed behind their owners' seats. Many women, particularly elders, continue to use a variety of satchels and bags to carry shawls, blankets, fans and a range of practical objects into religious services. Participants access their boxes just prior to the beginning of the service and then infrequently during the religious ceremony, until after midnight, when it is appropriate to use individual gourds, fans, and drumsticks. The approaching dawn is also a time of more intense accessing of Peyote boxes as participants sometimes change to feather fans that employ the feathers of "morning" birds, including macaws and scissortails.
The religious service generally concludes in early- to mid morning with a ritual breakfast. This is then usually followed by a noon meal attended by participants, family members, and other members of the community. The time between the close of the service and the meal is spent in casual conversation, with men often staying in the tipi or other places of worship while the women generally retire to the shade outside or to a nearby residence. It is during this period that the participants put feathers, fans and other materials away in their boxes. This is also the time when individuals might offer an object for examination by others. In this casual environment it is appropriate to inquire as to the maker of a particular piece and to learn of the circumstances through which it was acquired. Stories accounting for the gift of a particular object within the context of close personal relationships between individual participants are a common part of such discussions.
On a special occasion, based on nothing other than individual decision, someone will share his box with another member of the congregation, most often the one that he sat beside during the meeting. This event is a quiet moment spent between friends as one shares the memories of relatives, the story of a fan or drumstick, and events and friendships from the past. The contents of a box provide material testament to a life spent in religious fellowship and spiritual devotion. They are very personal assemblages treated with humility and interpersonal respect, strong virtues in the doctrine of the Native American Church. As objects, and as assemblages of objects, Peyote boxes thus are examples of what Janet Hoskins (1998) has characterized as "biographical objects." Among their other characteristics, they both prompt and shape autobiographical reflection and facilitate autobiographical narration.
Finally, Peyote boxes provide a good example of the ways in which museum collections can sometimes fail to adequately reflect the multiple contexts in which objects are created, used and collected. As curators we tend to overemphasize the context of the collector, which in this case focuses on the aesthetic of decorated boxes to support the goals of a public exhibition of Peyote arts. While decorated Peyote boxes are certainly important pieces in the larger context of the expressive culture of the religion, we must remain mindful of their narrow range and distribution given the demographic and geographic breadth of the Peyote religion over the past century. It is in their functional contexts that boxes provide the richest sources of meaning and interpretation. In addition to the external patina derived of age and use, Peyote boxes gradually mature into material assemblages of a life devoted to religious participation and spiritual pursuit. The richness of such assemblages is reflected here most clearly in the collection presented as Figures 3-4. Non-decorative but complexly assembled and richly curated by its former owner, examples such as this one (discussed in more depth below) are extremely rare in museum collections but extremely common in the lived experience of members of the Native American Church.
A portfolio of 26 figures begins below. Notes, references cited, and other materials follow this collection of images and annotations. Higher resolution versions of these images are being made available as supplementary data via the Museum Anthropology Review website.
Ute, Colorado, United States, ca. 1937
University of Colorado Archive
Omer Stewart Papers
Navajo, Ya-Ta-Hey, New Mexico,
United States, ca. 1955
Wool, aniline dyes
Gilcrease Museum 97.277
Peyote Box and Contents
Osage, Oklahoma, United States, ca. 1940-1960
Gilcrease Museum 84.1166.
|B||commercial valise||X||finger ring|
|C||silk scarf||Y||flint arrowhead|
|D||owl wing fan||Z||arrowhead tip|
|E||prayer feather||aa||photograph pin|
|F||prayer feather||bb||Indian head penny|
|G||pheasant feather||cc||Indian head penny|
|H||rosary||dd||Indian head penny|
|J||otter fur strips||ff||hawk wing fan|
|L||tobacco and cigarette papers||hh||drumstick|
|M||paper flower||ii||metal comb|
|N||pearl stickpin||jj||dried cedar|
|P||cloth bundle||ll||defense bond book, war ration book, bus ticket,
receipt, letters and selective service card, lease
|Q||Navajo rug||mm||loose fan|
|R||cloth religious medal||nn||bank book|
|T||sacred heart medallion||pp||pencil|
|U||pouch with Peyote, crucifix,
and religious medals
|V||crucifix with religious medals||rr||hawk feather|
Dolores Thompson (Navajo)
Navajo, Arizona, United States, ca. 1997
Cedar Wood, Balsa Wood, Brass Hardware, Paint, Felt<
Gilcrease Museum 84.2977
Dolores Thompson (Navajo)
Navajo, Arizona, United States, ca. 1998
Cedar Wood, Brass Hardware, Balsa Wood, Paint
Gilcrease Museum 84.2983
Anadarko, Oklahoma, United States, ca. 1950
Cedar Wood, Brass Hardware
Museum of the Great Plains 92.11.1912
Oklahoma, United States, ca. 1955
Gilcrease Museum 73.250
Osage, Oklahoma, United States, ca. 1940
Cedar Wood, Brass Hardware, Leather, Glass Beads, Paint
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology 59.14.59
Gus Mac Donald (Ponca)
Ponca, Oklahoma, United States, ca. 1954
Plywood, Brass Hardware, Drawer Handle, Paint
Milwaukee Public Museum 65024a
James H. Howard Collection
George "Dutch" Silverhorn (Kiowa)
Kiowa, Anadarko, Oklahoma, United States, ca. 1950
Plywood, Brass Hardware, Paint
Museum of the Great Plains 92.11.1165a
Yankton (Sioux), South Dakota, United States, ca. 1965
Commercial Pencil Box, Brass Hardware, Paint
Gilcrease Museum 84.2857a
Johnny Hoof (Arapaho)
Kiowa, Oklahoma, United States, ca. 1975
Leather, Metal Hardware, Paint
Harding Big Bow Collection
Gilcrease Museum 87.60
Oklahoma, United States, ca. 1955
Pine Wood, Paint, Steel Hinges
Gilcrease Museum 7327.249
Plains (Oklahoma?), United States, ca. 1960
Wood, Aluminum, paint, commercial hardware
Gilcrease Museum 84.3100
Peyote Box and Contents
Shawnee, Anadarko, Oklahoma,
United States, ca. 1940-1970
Wood, paint, commercial hardware
Oklahoma Historical Society
83.124.1, 3-15, 17-18
Delbert Blackhorse (Navajo)
Navajo, Utah, United States, 2010
Commercial steel toolbox, paint, felt
Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History E/2010/6/1
Comanche, Lawton, Oklahoma,
United States, ca. 1950
Plywood, Paint, Commercial Hardware
Gilcrease Museum 84.2858
The exhibition Symbols of Faith and Belief and its associated collecting project, publications, and programs were made possible through the generous support of the Phillips Petroleum Company, Founders and Associates, Incorporated, and the Oklahoma Arts Council. See Swan (1999a, 1999b). The author extends appreciation to Duane King, Vice President of Museum Affairs and Executive Director of Gilcrease Museum, University of Tulsa for permission to re-print portions of this article that were originally published in the Gilcrease Journal (Swan 2000). The author would also like to thank Kathryn Barr for production assistance and Jim Cooley with acquisitions documentation.
1. Referred to as Peyote art, this important genre of Native American art subsumes a wide range of media, techniques, and forms, ranging from the metalsmithing of jewelry to easel paintings. Peyote arts often incorporate multiple media and a wide range of techniques. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the gourd rattles and feather fans that are emblematic of the religion and its expressive culture. Their design and construction incorporates carving, bead working, leatherworking and the cleaning, preparation and decoration of the natural materials utilized. See Wiedman (1985), Ellison (1993) and Swan (1999a).
2. The name "Native American Church" is used in contemporary American Indian communities as both a generic term for the religion of all Peyotists and in reference to the numerous, chartered organizations that provide formal representation for their members. Today, these organizations include the Native American Church of Oklahoma, the Native American Church of the United States, the Native American Church of North America, the Azeé Bee Nahgha of Diné Nation, the Native American Church of South Dakota, and numerous other state and tribal organizations and hundreds of local chapters. For the history of these see Slotkin (1956), Stewart (1987), and La Barre (1989). For background on the arts, practices and beliefs of the Native American Church, see Swan (1999a). An ethnographic and historical overview of the Native American Church is available in Swan (2008b).
3. Descriptions and photographs of decorated Peyote boxes can be found in Feder (1967), Fintzelberg (1969), Coe (1976, 1986), Ellison (1993), and Swan (1999a).
4. Individuals without boxes utilize a variety of methods to protect prayer feathers and fans in storage and transport. These include thin cardboard sleeves and tie boxes. Women often bring canvas tote bags into meetings to carry cardboard feather sleeves, shawls, and other personal items.
5. One of my favorite boxes of this type is one used by a Church member from South Dakota whom I met at a meeting in Hominy, Oklahoma. It is a red enameled metal toolbox from the Craftsman product line manufactured and marketed by the retail firm Sears. The box, in the style with a hipped lid, has been customized by adding red and blue felt as a lining for the box and lid. A single photograph of the owner's brother, who was serving in the U.S. Navy, was secured at the center of the lid on the box's inside.
6. Similar cedar and other wooden boxes are also used by powwow dancers and participants in the modern Gourd Dance to house feathers, fans, jewelry, sashes, rattles, and other items.
7. James Howard (1965: 51) suggests that Peyotism is largely responsible for the continuation of several traditional art techniques, and in particular bas-relief carving as seen on Peyote boxes, drumsticks and other items.
8. Tingley's Indian Store was an important outlet for Indian arts from ca. 1903 until it closed in the 1980s. Many museum collections benefited from acquisitions made at the store. In the 1940s, the Denver Art Museum, under the leadership of Curator Frederick Douglas, built an excellent collection of Peyote arts through Jake Tingley, the original proprietor of the store. The contents of the store as they existed in the early 1990s were acquired by the Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton, Oklahoma. The majority of the inventory, fixtures and furnishings from the store were installed in an interpretive exhibition at the museum.
1969 The Peyote Ritual: Kiowa-Apache. Bulletin of the Oklahoma Anthropological Society 18:69-78.
Coe, Ralph T.
1976 Sacred Circles: 2000 Years of American Indian Art. London: Arts Council of Great Britain.
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1993 Masters of Beauty: Native American Church Art. [Exhibition brochure.] Anadarko, OK: Southern Plains Indian Museum and Crafts Center.
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1998 Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Story of People's Lives. New York: Routledge.
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1952 Menomini Peyotism. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 42(4):565-680.
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1999a Peyote Religious Art: Symbols of Faith and Belief. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
1999b Peyote Arts in the Collections of Gilcrease Museum. American Indian Art Magazine 24(2):36-45.
2000 Unpacking Peyote Boxes: The Peyote Boxes of the Native American Church. Gilcrease Journal 7(2):54-64.
2008a Contemporary Navajo Peyote Arts. American Indian Art Magazine 34(1):44-55.
2008b The Native American Church. In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 2: Indians in Contemporary Society. Garrick A. Bailey, ed. Pp. 317-326. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
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1985 Staff, Fan, Rattle and Drum: Spiritual and Artistic Expressions of Oklahoma Peyotists. American Indian Art Magazine 10(3):38-45.
Young, Gloria A.
2001 Intertribal Religious Movements. In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 13: Plains. Raymond J. DeMallie, ed. Pp. 996-1010. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.
Daniel C. Swan holds a joint appointment as Associate Curator of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the University of Oklahoma's Department of Anthropology. He is the author of numerous works, including Peyote Religious Art: Symbols of Faith and Belief (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999) and (with Garrick Bailey) Art of the Osage (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004). Since 1980, he has pursued collaborative ethnographic and museum-based research projects with American Indian communities in Oklahoma, the Great Lakes, and the Southwest. He is currently pursuing a new project on the music of the Native American Church while continuing his ongoing studies of Osage ethnography and ethnohistory.
* This peer-reviewed paper was accepted for publication in Museum Anthropology Review on September 18, 2010. An earlier version was published in the member’s magazine of the Gilcrease Museum as Swan (2000). This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.