ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Following the Medicine: Peyote Road Man Kelly Daniels
By Floyd Favel (Cree)
“ I was five years old when I started bringing in water for my father. We used to walk from our reserve to the next reserve for a meeting. I would get tired and start to cry but we had to keep walking. In those meetings, at first I didn’t say anything as I sat there with the water, but after a few years I began to pray. Once I said, Ni mamowi notawenan/Father of All...the prayers just went on from there.”
Tina Daniels is telling me this story as she drives me back to my reserve—the Poundmaker Reserve just south of Cutbank, Saskatchewan. The moment of bringing in water during a Native American Church (NAC) ceremony happens towards dawn. A woman sits behind a pail of water and she prays for the purpose of the meeting, for Natives across the land, and for the world as a whole. The woman, it is said, completes the ceremony and the prayers; after all, it is said that it was to a woman that this ceremony was first given to in the distant past far to the south in the desert country.
The land here is covered with snow and the cold is bitter, in contrast to where I had just come from—the Navajo lands where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico intersect. I had travelled there with Kelly Daniels, the president of the Native American Church of Canada and ceremonial road man from the Red Pheasant Reserve in the Battlefords region of Saskatchewan. Tina Daniels, Kelly’s mother, was born into the church, as her father was also a road man and her mother also used to bring in the water.
“Peyote helps people, as they must begin to examine themselves and their lives, then strive to be a better person every day,” says Tina. “They say that peyote will make a big cross across this land; coming from the south it will go north, then east and west...” Her words mingle with thoughts and impressions of my journey.
Road Trip to Navajo Rez
The Navajo Nation is a rugged and beautiful land of brown and ochre cliffs and mesas interspersed with juniper forests and stands and sagebrush prairie. It is equal in size to the state of West Virginia, making it the largest Indian reservation in the United States. It takes as long as four hours to get from one end of the reservation to the other, and it feels like being in a separate country, with its own language, newspapers and radio stations.
We visited the home of road man Wilbert Mike and Juanita Wilson in the southern portion of the reservation. The family raise sheep and spin and weave wool into blankets and saddle blankets. On the wall I noticed a few ears of miniature corn hanging and Juanita explained this was Indian corn. “When you hang corn in the house, you will never out of food,” she related. Serving some deer soup, she noted, “Deer are sacred to us. If deer soup is hot we don’t blow on it, and the bones can’t be thrown away but are carefully buried.”
This acknowledgement of the importance of traditional foods parallels Kelly Daniels beliefs about the ceremonial foods--water, corn, berries and meat--served at the end of a peyote meeting. Kelly believes that these traditional foods will never run out, unlike the food in the supermarket, which could easily vanish in a time of crisis. This belief is central to NAC beliefs and I think it has value to all Indian people, as we need to be responsible for our own food and not be dependent on the dominant consumer society. We must think ahead for the sake of our children. Not so long ago, our people used to go hungry. The buffalo disappeared soon after the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876. Many of our people starved to death. The threat and fear of hunger is very real for Cree people.
NAC Still Hidden in Canada
There are three primary communities on the Navajo Nation: Shiprock, Window Rock and Tuba City. Here Navajos run most businesses. NAC ceremonial objects and instruments can be bought in roadside flea markets and in downtown shops. “Wouldn’t it be nice, if up in Canada we could be so open about our church, if we could buy our gourds, ceremonial buckets, blankets and CD’s out in the open,” said Kelly during our visit. There are still many misconceptions about the NAC in Canada. In Canada, the use of peyote for NAC ceremonies became legal in 1953. In the following year the Native American Church of Canada was incorporated under provincial laws, and in 1956 it was incorporated under traditional Cree law during a prayer service at Fort Battleford. Prior to the legalization of peyote, these ceremonies were suppressed. Despite this, many NAC members in Canada keep their participation confidential. It was an inspiration for us both to be in a land where our beliefs and our church were honoured as just another aspect of Native ceremonial life.
On our journey to Arizona and back we passed through the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. It was here that George Lightfoot, from the Mosquito Reserve in Saskatchewan, first encountered peyote in the 1930’s. Here he studied the protocols of the NAC with Shoshone and Bannock practitioners. In 1938, one of the first NAC ceremonies was conducted in Canada on the Mosquito Reserve. But Kelly believes that the first use of peyote among the Cree happened long before the 1930’s, as Crees travelled extensively. For instance, it is documented that Maskepitoon, a Plains Cree chief, was part of a delegation of Indian leaders that met with President Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C., in 1831. During this trip, Maskepitoon’s portrait was painted by celebrated artist George Catlin. Maskepetoon was also present at the first Fort Laramie Treaty Council with the Plains Tribes in 1851, in Wyoming.
One of Kelly’s goals during his term as Canadian president of NAC is to develop understanding about the church and its beliefs. His singing group, Meewasin Oma, has been nominated for the Native American Music Awards in the Native Church category for the past three years. “When we first decided to make a CD, we had a ceremony for this. Elders told us what to do. Making CDs is not about me, it’s about the church and the future,” he says.
Healing, Love & Gifts
Kelly visited Arizona to conduct prayer meetings. “I come for the medicine and it is the medicine which will take me back,” he said during our trip. “I follow the medicine. I don’t come for the money. If I get given gas money then that is good; if I don’t, then that is all right also. This trip is about the medicine, about faith, hope, charity and love. If it was about the money, then we wouldn’t make this trip.”
Kelly conducted two meetings, on Christmas night and on Boxing Day (Dec. 26). The first meeting was held in a tipi, despite the temperature hovering around 32 degrees and snow on the ground. The next meeting convened in a hogan, a traditional Navajo structure. Raining Bird, Kelly’s five-year old daughter traveled with us and it is she who brought in the water at dawn. It was a very moving moment as I was privileged to witness Raining Bird come in and sit behind the water. In doing so, she was following in the footsteps of her mother, her grandmother and her great grandmother. Both meetings are full to capacity and there was a strong feeling of intertribal solidarity. Comanche, Kiowa, Cree, Sauk/Fox, Lakota and Navajo prayer songs were sung. Indeed, the NAC has the ability to unite tribes and bring them together in prayer and song.
Sam Woody, a well known road man and singer, drums for Kelly on Boxing Day. His drumming is subtle and masterful, as is his singing. Afterwards, he asked us to his homestead, a ranch in an isolated part of the reservation. His wife prepared us Navajo style fried bread and Sam gave us gifts--Kelly a drum kettle. Drum kettles are hundred of years old, some dating back to the 16th century and have been used by NAC members as water drums. This is a Kiowa drum, formerly owned by Old Man Cozad, a legendary Kiowa singer and drummer. Kelly is deeply moved by this and said, “I will never give this drum away; it will stay in the family.”
We drive back loaded with gifts. Our trip has been a success. But despite the hospitality of the Navajo people and the beauty of their land, we are both happy to be going home; there is nothing like going home. We are proud to be bringing back a Kiowa drum to our people. There the drum will sound out, carrying forth our prayers and songs to strengthen the coming generations.
Floyd Favel (Cree) is a Canada-based theatre director, writer and performer. He wrote a Viewpoint piece for our Nov/Dec 2005 issue.