Native American Legends
How Grandfather Peyote came to the People
A Brule Sioux Legend
This is how Grandfather Peyote came to the Indian people.
Long ago, before the white man, there was a tribe living far south
of the Sioux in a land of deserts and mesas. These people were suffering
from a sickness, and many died of it.
One old woman had a dream that she would find a herb, a root, which
would save her people. The woman was old and frail but, taking her
little granddaughter, she went on a vision quest to learn how to
find this sacred herb. They walked away from the camp until they
Arriving at the top of a lonely hill, the grandmother made a brush
shelter for herself and the young one. Without water or food they
were weak, and as night fell they huddled together, not knowing
what to do.
Suddenly they felt the wing beats of a huge bird, an eagle flying
from the east toward the west. The old woman raised her arms and
prayed to the eagle for wisdom and power.
Toward morning they saw the figure of a man floating in the air
about four steps above their heads. The old woman heard a voice:
"You want water and food and do not know where to find it.
I have a medicine for you. It will help you."
This man's arm was pointing to a spot on the ground about four
steps from where the old woman was sitting. She looked and saw a
peyote plant - a large Grandfather Peyote Plant with sixteen segments.
She did not know what it was, but she took her bone knife and cut
the green part off. And there was moisture, the peyote juice, the
water of life. The old woman and her granddaughter drank it and
The sun went down again and the second night came. The old woman
prayed to the spirit: "I am sacrificing myself for the people.
Have pity on me. Help me!" And the figure of a man appeared
again, hovering above her as before, and she heard a voice saying:
"You are lost now, but you will find your people again and
you will save them. When the sun rises two more times, you will
The grandmother ate some more of the sacred medicine and gave some
to the girl. And a power entered them through the herb, bringing
them knowledge and understanding and a sacred vision. Experiencing
this new power, the old woman and her granddaughter stayed awake
all night. Yet in the morning when the sun rose and shone upon the
hide bag with the peyote, the old one felt strong. She said: "Granddaughter,
pray with this new herb. It has no mouth, but it is telling me many
During the third night the spirit came again and taught the old
woman how to show her people the proper way to use the medicine.
In the morning she got up, thinking: "This one plant won't
be enough to save my people. Could it have been the only herb in
this world? How can I find more?" Then she heard many small
voices calling: "Over here, come over here. I'm the one to
These were peyote plants guiding her to their hiding places among
the thorn bushes and chaparral. So the old woman and the girl picked
the herbs and filled the hide bag with them.
At nightfall once more they saw the spirit man, silhouetted against
the setting sun. He pointed out the way to their camp so that they
could return quickly.
Though they had taken no food or water for four days and nights,
the sacred medicine had kept them strong- hearted and strong-minded.
When they arrived home, their relatives were happy to have them
back, but everybody was still sick and many were dying. The old
woman told the people: "I have brought you a new sacred medicine
which will help you."
She showed the men how to use this *pejuta*, this holy herb. The
spirit had taught her the ceremony, and the medicine had given her
the knowledge through the mind power which dwells within it.
Under her direction the men put up a tipi and made a fire. At that
time there was no leader, no road man to guide them, and the people
had to learn how to perform the ceremony step by step, from the
Everybody, men and women, old and young, ate four buttons of the
new medicine. A boy baby was breast nursing, and the peyote power
got into him through his mother's milk. He was sucking his hand,
and he began to shake it like a gourd rattle.
A man sitting next to the tipi entrance got into the power and
caught a song just by looking at the baby's arm. A medicine man
took a rattle of rawhide and began to shake it. The small stones
inside the rattle were the voice of Grandfather Peyote, and everybody
understood what it was saying.
Another man grabbed a drum and beat it, keeping time with the song
and the voice inside the rattle. The drumming was good, but it did
not yet have the right sound, because in that first ceremony there
was no water in the drum.
One woman felt the spirit telling her to look for a cottonwood
After the sun rose, all the people followed her as Grandfather
Peyote guided her toward the west. They saw a rabbit jumping out
of a hole inside a dried-up tree and knew that this was the sacred
cottonwood. They cut down the tree and hollowed out the trunk like
a drum where the rabbit hole had been. At the woman's bidding they
filled it with fresh spring water - the water of life.
On the way back to camp, a man felt the power telling him to pick
up five smooth, round pebbles and to cover the drum with a piece
of tanned moose hide. He used the pebbles to make knobs around the
rim of the drum so that he could tie the hide to it with a rawhide
thong. And when he beat the drum it sounded good, as if a spirit
had gotten hold of it.
When night came, the people made a fire inside the tipi and took
the medicine again. Guided by peyote power, the old woman looked
into the flames and saw a heart, like the heart-shaped leaf of the
cottonwood tree. Thus she knew that the Great Spirit, who is also
in Grandfather Peyote, wanted to give his heart to the red men of
this continent. She told the man tending the fire to form the glowing
embers into the shape of a heart, and the people all saw it beat
in rhythm with the drum.
A little later, one helper who was under the spirit power saw that
the hide rope formed a star at the bottom of the drum. He shaped
the glowing coals of the fire into a star and then into a moon,
because the power of the star and the spirit of the moon had come
into the tipi.
One man sitting opposite the door had a vision in which he was
told to ask for water. The old woman brought fresh, cool water in
a skin bag, and they all drank and in this way came under the power.
Feeling the spirit of the water, the man who was in charge of the
fire shaped the embers into the outline of a water bird, and from
then on the water bird became the chief symbol of the holy medicine.
Around the fire this man made a half-moon out of earth, and all
along the top of it he drew a groove with his finger. Thus he formed
a road, the road of life. He said that anybody with the gift of
*wacankiyapi*, which means having love and heart for the people,
should sit right there.
And from that day on, the man who is running a meeting was called
the "road man".
In this way the people made the first peyote altar, and after they
had drunk the water, they thanked the peyote. Looking at the fire
in the shape of the sacred water bird, they prayed to the four directions,
and someone sprinkled green cedar on the fire.
The fragrant, sweet-smelling smoke was the breath of Grandfather
Peyote, the spirit of all green and growing things. Now the people
had everything they needed: the sacred herb, the drum, the gourd,
the fire, the water, the cedar. From that moment on, they learned
to know themselves. Their sick were cured, and they thanked the
old woman and her grandchild for having brought this blessing to
them. They were the Comanche nation, and from them the worship of
the sacred herb spread to all the tribes throughout the land.
- Told by Leonard Crow Dog at Winner, Rosebud Indian Reservation,
South Dakota, 1970
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