American Indian Myths and Legends

When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. American Indian Myths and Legends is one of my sources.

The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.

If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.


Tobacco and peyote were ritual drugs for tribes that had access to them. Their legends tell of the discovery of rites that made the drugs more useful for insight and medicine.

The Sacred Weed

Tobacco was a “sacred weed”, “meant to be shared.” This Blackfoot story “retold from several nineteenth-century sources” tells of how to plant “in a sacred manner”.

For longer than anyone knows, Indians throughout the Americas have smoked tobacco and other plants for pleasure and for praying. The smoke was the Great Spirit’s breath taking the prayers up to the Ones Above. With a pipe in his hands, a man could speak nothing but the truth. Sir Walter Raleigh learned the use of tobacco from the Indians. When he first had a smoke in a London inn, the bartender, thinking that he was on fire, emptied a tankard of ale over him. To the white man, smoking became an addiction; but to the native American, pipe and tobacco were sacred and smoking was a holy ritual. A man who had killed a member of his own tribe could not smoke ritually with the others. He had to smoke a mean little pipe all by himself-hard punishment.

There once were four brothers, all spiritual men who had power. In a vision the oldest of them heard a voice saying: “Out there is a sacred weed; pick it and burn it.” The man looked around, saw the strange weed, and put it in the fire. It gave off a very pleasing aroma.

Then the second brother had a dream in which a voice said: “Take this herb. Chop it fine. Put it into a hide bag.” The man did what he was told, and the dry herb in his hide bag was wonderfully fragrant. The third brother had a vision in which he saw a man hollowing out a bone and putting the strange weed into it. A voice said, “Make four pipes like this,” and the third brother carved four pipes out of an animal’s leg bones.

Then the youngest of the four brothers had a vision. A voice told him: “You four men light your pipes and smoke. Inhale the smoke; exhale it. Let the smoke ascend to the clouds.” The voice also taught him the songs and prayers that went with smoking.

So the four medicine men, born of the same mother, smoked together. This was the first time that men had ever smoked, and they sang and prayed together as they did so.

The brothers, who called the sacred weed nawak’osis, were meant to teach its use to the people. But nawak’osis made them powerful and wise and clear-minded, and they did not want to share it with others. They plante the sacred weed in a secret place that only they knew. They guarded the songs and prayers and rituals that went with smoking. They formed a Tobacco Society, just the four of them.

So there was anger, there was war, there was restlessness of spirit, there was impiety. Nawak’osis was meant to calm anger, to make men worship, to make peace, to ease the mind. But without the sacred herb, unity and peace were lacking.

A young man called Bull-by-Himself said to his wife: “These four powerful ones have been given something good to share with the people, but they are keeping it for themselves. So things are bad. I must find a way to plant and reap the sacred weed they call nawak’osis.”

Bull-by-Himself and his wife went to a sacred lake and set up their tipi close by its shore. The man left every day to hunt and look for the plant nawak’osis. The woman stayed in the lodge to quill, tan, and prepare food. One day while she was alone, she heard somebody singing beautifully. She searched everywhere to find the source of the music and discovered that it was coming from a beaver house close by the shore. “It must be the beavers singing,” she thought. “Their songs are lovely. I hope they don’t stop.”

Though her husband came home with plenty of meat, he had not found nawak’osis. The woman called his attention to the music, but he said, “I hear nothing. It’s your imagination.”

“No,” she said, “I can hear it clearly. Put your ear to the beaver house.” He did, but still heard nothing.

Then the wife took her knife and made a hole in the beaver lodge. Through it they could not only hear the beavers sing, but also watch them performing a strange, beautiful dance.

“My young brothers,” the wife called to them, “be of a sharing spirit. Teach me your wonderful song and your medicine!”

The Beavers answered: “Close the hole you have made, because it lets the cold in. Then we’ll come out and visit you.” So she sealed their wall up, and that night four beavers came to Bull-by-Himself’s lodge. As soon as they were inside they turned themselves into humans-four nice-looking young men. One asked: “What have you come here for?”

“I have come,” said Bull-by-Himself, “to find the sacred weed called nawak’osis.”

“Then this is the right place,” said the man-beavers. “We are water people, and nawak’osis is water medicine. We will give you this sacred herb, but first you must learn the songs, the prayers, the dances, the ceremonies that go with it.”

“There are four powerful men in our tribe,” said Bull-by-Himself, “who have the medicine and the knowledge, but keep them from us.”

“Ah,” said the man-beavers, “that is wrong. This sacred weed is meant to be shared. Here is what you must do. By day, go out and get the skin of every four-legged and two-legged creature that lives in and around the water-except, of course, beaver. You must get the skins of the muskrat and otter, of the duck and kingfisher, of all creatures like that, because they repesent water. Sun and water mean life. Sun begets life, and water makes it grow.”

So every day Bull-by-Himself went out for the skins, while his wife scraped, tanned, and smoked them. And every night the four man-beavers came to teach them the prayers, songs, and dances that go with nawak’osis. After a while the beavers said: “Now all is ready. Now you have all the skins, and now you have the knowledge. Make the skins, which represent water power, into a bag, into a medicine bundle. Tomorrow night we’ll come again for the last time to tell you what to do.”

The following night the beavers came as they had promised. They brought with them the sacred weed nawak’osis. The top of the stalks was coverd with little round seeds, and the man-beavers put the seeds into the medicine bundle the woman had prepared.

“It’s planting time now,” said the Beavers. “Don’t touch nawak’osis before you’re ready to plant. Choose a place where there is not too much shade and not too much sunlight. Mix plenty of brown earth with plenty of black earth, and keep the soil loose. Say the prayers we have taught you. Then you, Bull-by-Himself, must take a deer horn and with its point make holes in the earth-one for each seeds. And you, his wife, must use a buffalo-horn spoon to drop one seed into each hole. Keep singing the songs we taught you all the while. Then both of you dance lightly over this earth, tamping down the seeds. After that you just wait for nawak’osis to grow. Now we have taught you everything. Now we go.” The nice-looking young men left, turning back into beavers as they went.

Bull-by-Himself and his wife planted the sacred weed as they had been told. The four medicine-men brothers said to one another: “What can this man, Bull-by-Himself, and his wife be planting? Their songs sound familiar.” They sent somebody to find out, and this person came back saying: “They are planting nawak’osis, doing it in a sacred manner.

The four powerful men began to laugh. “No, it can’t be. It’s some useless weed they’re planting. No one but us can plant nawak’osis. No one but us can use it. No one but us has its power.”

But when it was time to harvest nawak’osis, a great hailstorm destroyed the secret tobacco patch of the four medicine brothers. Nothing was left, and they had not saved a single seed. They said to each other: “perhaps this man and his wife did plant nawak’osis after all. Perhaps the hail hasn’t destroyed their tobacco patch.”

Again the four brothers sent someone to find out, and that person came back saying: “This man and his wife had no hail on their field. Here is what they have been growing.” He showed the brotehrs some leaves. “It is indeed nawak’osis,” they said, shaking their heads in wonder.

Thus with the help of the beaver people, Bull-by-Himself and his wife brought the sacred tobacco to the tribes, who have been smoking it in a sacred manner ever since.

How Grandfather Peyote Came to the Indian People

This legend of the Brule Sioux, told by Leonard Crow Dog at Winner, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, in 1970, tells of the use of peyote for visions and the power of drumming.

Vision quests in which an individual seeks spiritual power are common to many Indian tribes. The peyote plant is often used by the Sioux and Cheyenne in the rituals associated with such quests-the sweat lodge, a solitary vigil, a flesh offering. The plant is often considered to be a human spirit and is a sacrament in the Native American Church, founded by a Comanche chief in the last century. Henry Crow Dog, the father of the man who told this story, was among those who introduced the peyote religion to the Sioux in the 1920s.

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 were lost. 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 wingbeats 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 hwere 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 were refreshed.

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 the 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 find them.”

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 things.”

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 pick.” These were peyote plants guiding her to their hiding places among the thorn bushes and chaparral. So the old owman 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 roadman, to guide them, and the people had to learn how to perform the ceremony step by step, from the ground up.

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 Grandfater 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 tree. 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 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 peole made a fire inside the tipi and took the medicien 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 flowing 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 th 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 “roadman.”

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 Grandfater 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.