Peyote Religion in Sundown by John Joseph Mathew

Chal the main character was born into a time and place where his culture was being destroyed. His blood is not pure Osage, mixed with white, but the Indian blood is powerful inside him. The blood that runs through him takes him to days of the past, days lost, heritage lost, role models lost, and a dying culture. Chal is a perfect example of a lost sole.

Throughout this book, Sundown, by John Joseph Mathew, Chal is faced with choices. Challenges, may be the right word though. His father John named him Chal, short for challenge, “He shall be a challenge to the disinheritors of his people,” (Pg. 4). Maybe his name led his life in other directions, and challenges were to fill his life. In his choices he is torn between the mixed bloods that are running through him. The Indian blood and culture, in the expanding, dominating, white mans society.

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Chal is filled with confusion, it the theme of the book and his character. He represents that generation of turmoil. The transition to white America, through his euro-american education and loss of the warrior role has clouded his mind. The novel starts with Chal as a young child daydreaming of fighting the English. He is a General, a warrior, leading the charge and then giving an inspirational speech to his men. Chal knows only the stories of the past, going on hunts and wars against “England.” The wars against England taught to him by his father. He knows nothing of the roles of the future because his culture has no role models of Eastern white dominated society to come. He hasn’t grown up with the Eastern white society role models. Chal sees his father trying to be a businessman, and he enjoys listening to that kind of talk throughout his life. It may be because his father is the only role model he has seen. For the most part though while he is young and throughout the book he looks to the past, those glorious stories of the past.

Chal is educated in the euro-american way trying teach the Indian out of him. He is confused of what his glorious past really was. Were his people really the savages and pagans he grew up hearing about in school. He grows up ashamed of his Indian blood, and tries to adapt to the white society. Chal’s friends at college embarrass him. His friend, Son on His Wings, accepts his Indian and is proud. Chal joins the Air Force because that is American and it may replace some his lost feelings of the warrior role, but he is still filled with torment.

Toward the end of the story you believe Chal may finally be all right when he visits the sweat lodge with Son on His Wings. It is there when Chief Watching Eagle spoke of the “roads” to White Deer during the sweat lodge ritual. He was not only trying to ease the pain of the loss of Running Elk, White Deer’s son; he was explaining the choices one must make according to their heritage or blood. It was as if he was speaking to Chal directly.

“Long time ago there was one road and People could follow that road. They said, ‘There is only one road. We can see this road. There are no other roads.’ Now it seems that road is gone, and white man has brought many roads. But that road is still there. That road is still there, but there are many other roads there too. There is a White man’s road, and there is road which comes off from forks. The bad road which no white man follows – the road which many of the People follow, thinking it is the white man’s road. People who follow this road say they are as the white man, but this is not white man’s road. People who follow this road say that road of Indian is bad now. But they are not Indians anymore, these people who follow that road…The road of our People is dim now like buffalo trail across the prairie…” (271).

Watching Eagle was not only speaking of Running Elk, but of all Indians. This directly applies to Chal. Obviously there was a great problem with the men of that age, not having direction. Running Elk was Chal’s boyhood friend and schoolmate who had the same problems with the changing times. They had lost their warrior role; they only had dreams of the past. They did not have the guidance they were confused by the “roads.” Chal should have been listening to this for himself; he needed this advice or knowledge.

The sweat lodge ritual was a cleansing process the night before Peyote Church. Chal participated in this with Sun on His Wings. In many ways this cleansing process helped, he was feeling good and comfortable with himself. Within a few days though his old friends had brought him right back to the bad road.

Chal needed something to let him know who he was, where he was, and where he was going. Son on His Wings offered him this. The Peyote Church, Peyote Religion, or Peyotism, all names of the practice which has been healing the North American Indians for over one hundred years. It has been a way the North American Indians have been healing themselves not only medically but also spiritually. Through peyote they are able to get in touch with what has been lost, where their at now, and what is to come.

The use of peyote has only been helping North American Indians for over one hundred years, but peyote use in Mexican tribes is believed to be thousands of years old. “The religious use of peyote is very ancient. One cache of dried peyote found in a Texas cave, has been dated at approximately 7000 years old. The use of peyote in ceremonies among Mexican tribes was a well established tradition by the time of the European entrance into the continent,” (Ref.1, pg.1).

It is believed that the peyote did not spread North until the early to mid 1800’s. Coincidentally this is parallel to the genocide that was taking place to the Native American population. This came at a time when the indigenous people were in dire need of spirituality, guidance, and some cultural strength. “It was the Kiowa and Comanche Indians, apparently, who in visits to native group in northern Mexico, first learned of the sacred American plant. Indians in the United States had been restricted to reservations… and much of their cultural heritage was disintegrating and disappearing. Faced with disastrous inevitability, a number of Indian leaders, especially from tribes re-located in Oklahoma, began actively to spread a new kind of Peyote,” (H & S pg.4).

The spreading of peyote usage promoted the American government, like the Spaniards earlier, to take notice. The use of peyote was being adopted and integrated into Christianity. There was a strong opposition from missionary and governmental groups. This caused legislation to be produced to repress the use of peyote. That was when they organized it as an official religion “Native American Church.” This religious movement, unknown in the United States before 1885, numbered 13,300 members in 1922,” (H & S pg.5). The membership now in NAC, Native American Church, is over 250,000 members.

The Spaniards outlawed peyotism because they linked it with “cannibalism and witchcraft,” (James pg.2). Today, there are still challenges of the use of peyotism, but surprisingly, it has been held as a religious freedom. Much of the conflict comes from the idea that it is abused and it is compared with LSD. “Peyote contains more than fifty psychoactive ingredients, the most powerful of which is mescaline… peyote and mescaline are best known for their unique hallucinogenic properties, which many users report as less disorienting-and hence more manageable-than LSD and other synthetic psychedelics,” (James pg.3).

Peyote, Lophophora Williamsii, is a small cactus that looks like a button, it is dried, and that is what is eaten. The Peyote Religion believes that special powers are given to the users. An ability to get in touch with a spiritual power a guidance, true sight of what is reality that may be blinded by outside distractions. The ceremony is most often drumming mixed with music and prayer in a ceremonial dwelling, house, or at a sight. The experience is lead by the Road Chief or Road Man who oversees the group. He leads the others “On the Peyote Road, the way of learning to live life well,” (Ref.1, pg.1). In Sundown this was Watching Eagle.

The sweat lodge ritual from Sundown resembles very much the actual ritual from the account of “Peyote Night,” by Humphry Osmond. This was an article written of the true happenings of a peyote ritual. This story is a walk through a peyote ritual from a man experiencing it with a congregation of the Native American Church of Canada, the Red Pheasant Band. The similarities between the two are very interesting. The purging of themselves through drink releasing the evils, the Road Man leading it, and the healing done by the Road Man took place in both of the stories. An amazing thing that struck very similar was in the healing story of the young man in Osmond’s “Peyote Night”.

“I watched the young man, and I think I experienced some of the queasiness that peyote induced in him. Like most young men, he longed for a life that meant something-a life of action, danger, pain, defeat, torture, and death at the hands of his enemies if necessary. A life like that of his ancestors who live on the prairies for centuries before. Anything rather than the humiliating meaninglessness of the present. But the drumming told him, “You cannot go back. You can go forward. It will be rough, but it can be done.” It is sad to be a warrior from generations of warriors with nothing warlike to do-an Achilles without Troy, staying at home among his mother’s spinning women…The young man still cannot bear his fate. All the warrior in him is assailed by it and revolts against it. But he must listen to the voice of music, which is greater than man. He sings again, this time in high falsetto. There is a note of triumph in it, perhaps peyote has dissolved the aching in his heart, (Osmond pg.6).

Healing, Running Elk needed healing, like that given to White Deer. Chal will follow the same bad road if peyote healing is not found, if he does not accept it. Chal is confused like the young warrior of the Red Pheasant Band. The loss of the warrior role, the changing times. He fights himself, trying to adopt white mans society, abandoning his blood, embarrassed.

Peyote is a way of healing ones soul but also brings closeness, a feeling of belonging, and a brotherhood to many. “Subjective effects can include rapid changes in mood, feelings of empathy and kinship with others…and deeply moving, even profound, introspective spiritual experiences, (James pg.3). Chal has never felt that feeling of belonging it talks about, that kinship. He has always just slipped in and out of his relationships in life. The one thing that may save him is he has returned home.

Chal is a lost soul, a mixed blood full of confusion. He was born in a time of turmoil for not only his people but also all Indian people. Their traditional roles were gone and the next generation was supposed to either assimilate or fail. That was the government’s idea with such things as the Dawes Act. Out of that disheartening strife came an answer, a way to see the road; the road that had been covered by so many wrong roads or bad roads. Watching Eagle said “We cannot fight white man, but we are Indian; we cannot be white men. We must use our time to fight our troubles. To fight the evil which comes on inside of us,” (pg.277). Peyote could have brought Chal the answers like it did so many others, but he refused. A Challenge was what his life was, and that is what it was to be.

Reference 1, The Peyote Religion,

“The Tracks Of The Little Deer”. Schultes Richard, Hoffman Albert.

Their Sacred Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers. Healing Arts Press, 1992,Vermont.

Divine Cactus. James Jennifer.

“Peyote Night”. Osmond Humphry. Tomorrow, 1961,

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Peyote Religion in Sundown by John Joseph Mathew. (2018, Sep 01). Retrieved from