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Peyote Rattle made by Nishkû´ntu (John Wilson or Moonhead, Caddo/Delaware ca. 1845–1901)
ca. 1885
Gourd, wood, hide, glass beads, brass bells, feathers
80 x 10 x 9 cm
Collected by Mark R. Harrington

“Keep your mind on peyote and don’t think anything about the people around you or anything outside. Look at peyote and the fire all the time and think of it. Sit quiet and do not move around or be uneasy. Then you will not get sick or see visions. Visions and nausea are signs of bad self-adjustment to the proper religious attitude.”
—John Wilson’s instructions to his nephew George Anderson on how to find the peyote way

While the rattle has always played significant roles in American Indian ceremonial life, it is particularly important in the Native American Church, used with the water drum to accompany the songs performed during the all-night peyote ceremony.

John Wilson, or Moonhead, a Caddo member, was a very early adherent to the ceremony, which was newly popular in Oklahoma in the late 1800s. Borrowed over many generations from Indian peoples on the Mexican border, the ceremony came to Wilson via the Comanche peyote leader Quanah Parker. Wilson redefined the church through an appropriation of the Europeans’ Jesus as a key figure in what was nevertheless conceived of as a traditional Indian ritual. The ceremony was, thus, not yet Christian; rather, Wilson’s use of Jesus was an attempt to appropriate the spiritual power of the colonizer.

Like Parker, who made the ceremony Comanche in many respects, Wilson modified it to reflect traditional Caddo ceremonial life. His most striking innovation was to change the altar from Parker’s half-moon or crescent to what is known as the cross-fire altar. This shift, rooted in the Caddo symbolic world, represented the four directions—a symbol common in a great many indigenous American communities. Only decades later did the altar come to be seen as representing the cross of crucifixion. While this is certainly a violation of Wilson’s intention, the Christian interpretation of the cross-fire altar has become firmly entrenched in an important segment of the church, among Indian adherents who seek to reconcile traditional Indian practices with missionary Christianity.

—George E. “Tink” Tinker (wazhazhe [Osage Nation])
Clifford Baldridge Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions, Iliff School of Theology

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