Hallucinogens in North America

In the preceding two posts, I have argued that there is little convincing evidence that shamans outside the extended culture area of the Upper Amazon have ever used hallucinogens in their shamanic work; and, in the immediately preceding post, I argued against the belief that shamans in Siberia used the fly agaraic mushroom Amanita muscaria for shamanizing.

There is also, I believe, little evidence for the shamanic use of psychoactive plants or mushrooms among the indigenous peoples of North America. As among the Khoryaks, non-shamans may attempt to emulate shamans by using psychoactive plants or mushrooms that shamans themselves do not use. For example, among the Chumash and other indigenous peoples in south central California, it can be important to acquire a dream helper, not just for shamans but for ordinary people as well: falcon helps gamblers, bobcat can help hunters, otter can make one a good swimmer, roadrunner helps midwives. Sometimes a dream helper appears in an ordinary dream; this is especially true of shamans, whose powers first appear in dreams during childhood. Conversely, to obtain a dream helper, common people rely heavily on Datura, which plays only a marginal role in the acquisition of shamanic power.

Keewaydinoquay Peschel

There are similar problems with the claimed fly agaric use by shamans among the Anishinaabeg — often called the Ojibwe — of the Great Lakes area. The claim, first put forward by R. Gordon Wasson in 1978, rests entirely upon the testimony of a single person, an Anishinaabe herbalist and university-trained ethnobotanist named Keewaydinoquay Peschel. She claimed that she herself had been initiated into the shamanic use of the mushroom, and had herself used the mushroom three to five times a year for the past fifty years. She prepared a birch bark scroll containing a legend of how the mushroom came to the Anishinaabeg, which, Wasson said, evidenced its shamanic use.

There are some significant problems with this claim. There is no description of fly agaric use in any detailed ethnography of Anishinaabeg shamanism. When she first met Wasson, Keewaydinoquay apparently was living a solitary and unhappy life, spending much of her time alone on an isolated island; in any event, it is difficult to say to what extent she was, at that time, integrated into Anishinaabeg culture.

R. Gordon Wasson

Further, Keewaydinoquay admitted that many Anishinaabeg were in fact strongly opposed to the consumption of fly agaric; indeed, her own revered teacher of herbalism, a woman named Nodjimahkwe, apparently knew about the mushrooms and prohibited her student from eating them. Moreover, versions of the legend told by other Anishinaabeg differ substantially from that given by Keewaydinoquay, including versions that prohibit the eating of any mushrooms at all.

Indeed, the mushroom legend itself, even as retold by Keewaydinoquay, contains little that would connect its use to shamanizing. The story tells how the Anishinaabeg discovered the mushrooms, and points out that those who use the mushroom are happy and pure, while those who do not are worried and unhappy. Although the mushroom reveals the supernatural and other knowledge to those who use it, the story provides no reason to believe that those who reportedly used the mushroom were shamans in any sense.

Further doubt is cast on the claim by the fact that Wasson and Keewaydinoquay were, apparently, lovers, or at least enmeshed in a highly charged personal relationship — one that seems, from her letters, to have been deeply important to Keewaydinoquay. And both derived ancillary benefits from this relationship: Wasson helped Keewaydinoquay obtain a doctorate in anthropology, a teaching position, and the publication of her writings on ethnomycology by the Harvard Botanical Museum; Keewaydinoquay gave Wasson an apparently idiosyncratic account of Anishinaabeg hallucinogen use that happened to be consistent with his theories. In the absence of confirmatory evidence, it is probably fair to view this account with caution.


  1. Once again, syncretism and availability of ceremonies is good. However people forget how and where the first nations ceremonies came to be. The Anashinabe have the Mide lodge and the little boy water drum, cedar and rattle. And their medicine society is called the Midewiwin
    There are people in the plains and northern tribes that have pseudo Yuwipi ceremonies and bring specific plants to ceremony that the spirits come to see. When they show up the person running the ceremony makes the audience believe they are there for him, when in reality they have come to see the plant. Pretty clever! It also shows some degree of understanding of ceremonial use of certain plants and calling songs.

    The further north one ventures, the less use of many other “mystical” plants that one sees. Ceremonies involve (to the sadness of those looking for the pink neon buffalo) water, tobacco, corn, squash, sage, maple syrup and a few unlucky salmons. However in urban populations is not uncommon to find chapters of the Native American church. This is happening a lot in places like Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Brasil as well. It is common to have traditional elders recognize that there’s god medicine in the NAC and the Yage drinking, but to also remind people that their own ways are there for them as well.

  2. How can you claim the geographic limitation of entheogen use to South/central America when there has been continous use of iboga in western africa by pygmy tribes since neolithic times?

  3. As far as I know -- and I would be grateful for any reference that proves me wrong -- iboga use is limited to a specific group -- the Bwiti religion in Gabon. More important, the question is not whether people use entheogens all over the world. There is no doubt that they do, for all kinds of reasons -- personal exploration, recreational inebriation, initiatory ordeals. The question I am asking is whether these plants and fungi are used for *shamanizing*, and I still have not seen evidence that persuades me to abandon the idea that *shamanic* use of psychoactive plants and fungi are uniquely part of a culture area radiating out from the Upper Amazon. Here is an example: ayahuasca is used in several new religious movements in Brazil, but in none of them would I consider its use to be shamanic. Believe me, my mind is not closed; that's why I put my thoughts out there on this blog. Please, if you have any references that show iboga used for shamanizing -- the way, say, ayahuasca is used in Western Amazonia -- let me know.

  4. As far as I know the modernised Bwiti cult which is often syncretised with christianity in Gabon, is a more recent adoption of Iboga for religious ritual/healing by the full sized african people of the locality.
    The original usage of the entheogen in that region was exclusively by the pygmy tribes who still live their traditional hunter gatherer existence in the equatorial rain forests of Gabon & Cameroon. They follow the traditional animistic Bwiti religion.

    The plant is worshipped as "the source of spiritual knowledge and as a tool for accessing the wisdom of the ancestors". They have their shamans that use the plant for healing, sorcery and communicating with the dead, but also make general use of it for initiations ceremonies.

    There is limited information about their way of life available on the net, but I first learned of them via an fascinating BBC program called 'Tribe', a documentary that follows Bruce Parry as he undegoes a traditional bwiti initiation with iboga in a Babonga pygmy village.

    Check out the bbc site :-