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By Dr. Robert Bergman
Several states have passed laws against possession and use of peyote.
However, very little evidence has been reported on this subject...My
familiarity with the Native American Church has resulted from the day-
to-day work of the mental health program on the Navajo area of the
Indian Health Service working with the 125,000 Navajo Indians, the
largest tribe in the United States...We provide consultation to many
community organizations, including the Native American Church. As a
result, we seem to have good success in case finding, and in general
there is little reluctance to refer cases to us. Nevertheless, we have
seen almost no acute or chronic emotional disturbance arising from
For a period of four years we have followed up every report of psychotic
or other psychiatric episodes said to have arisen from peyote use. There
have been about 40 to 50 such reports, most of which were hearsay that
could never be traced to a particular case. Some have been based on a
physician's belief that Navajo people use peyote and that if a
particular person became disturbed it must have been for this reason.
There has been one relatively clear-cut case of acute psychosis and four
cases that are difficult to interpret. (The "acute psychosis" occurred
when a Navajo man attended a peyote meeting after drinking alcohol-Ed.)
Assuming that all five of our cases represent true reactions to peyote
and that we hear about half of the cases occurring, the resulting
probably over-estimated rate would be approximately one bad reaction per
70,000 ingestions...This rate is much lower than others that have been
reported for the use of hallucinogenic agents.
We have seen many patients come through difficult crises with the help
of this religion. The Peyotists themselves are proud in particular of
the help the church has been to Indian people who have drinking
problems. In fact, Levy and Kunitz (1970) report a greater success rate
for the Peyotists than for any other agency working with alcoholics in
one part of the Navajo reservation.
--Dr. Robert Bergman, Chief U.S. Public Health Service Navajo
Discussion: I concur in all that Dr. Robert Bergman has said. I see the
legal persecution that keeps cropping up as typical of the reactionary
regression of the day...Peyote is not harmful to these people; it is
beneficial, comforting, inspiring, and appears to be spiritually
nourishing. It is a better antidote to alcohol than anything the
missionaries, the white man, the American Medical Association, and the
public health services have come up with. It is understandable that
these organizations should be a bit envious of the success of
this...natural native remedy.
--Dr. Karl A. Menninger Topeka, Kansas
From material contributed to the Library by Tom Leonard, a member and
director of the Ponca Chapter of the Native American Church of Oklahoma.
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