Object: Peyote Box

Navajo: Peyote Box
Utah, United States
Materials: Steel, paint, felt

Peyote boxes are the containers that members of the Native American Church use to store and transport the ritual and personal objects used by participants in the night-long religious services of the Church. Peyote boxes can be classified into two basic forms; boxes specifically produced for use by Peyotists and a wide range of containers adapted for such use. In addition to their functional value Peyote boxes also provide an additional arena for the expressive culture of Peyotism through the various media and methods employed to decorate and embellish the exterior surfaces of Peyote boxes. Through a lifetime of use peyote boxes become highly intimate, portable records of personal experience, both spiritual and secular. Peyote boxes provide a rich context for an examination of the criteria used by museums to collect objects and the potential for biased representations of the material world.

Almost every participant in the Peyote religion uses some type of container to store and carry the various objects, items, and materials that worshippers need during the all-night ceremony, or “meeting,” as called by members. The first containers associated with Peyotism to gain mention in the anthropological literature are satchels or bags used to house and transport the ritual instruments of Roadmen, or leaders, of religious services. Referred to as kits, these containers of cloth, carpet, and leather were later replaced by valises and commercially made wooden boxes. Others found these “paraphernalia satchels” to be universal among the tribal communities included in his comparative study of the religion, its ceremonies and material attributes.

Among their most important contents are gourd rattles, prayer feathers, fans, drumsticks, botanicals, and other ceremonial items.  Boxes are also used to store an array of non-ceremonial items that are useful throughout the nightlong services of the religion. These include jewelry, neckties, combs, mirrors, handkerchiefs, and other personal items. It is also usual for a box to contain a pen or pencil and some notepaper, important for the exchange of names and addresses with newly made friends and to record the dates and locations of future meetings, with invitations commonly extended at the close of services. Peyote boxes also serve as repositories for personal mementos, photographs of friends and family members and other objects of individual significance and meaning. Among such objects are baby moccasins, Christian medals and crosses, military ribbons and insignia, personal letters and important documents.

This commercial toolkit box was made by Delbert Blackhorse. Delbert Blackhorse is a Dine (Navajo) artist from Crow Springs, Utah.  He was raised in the traditions of the Native American Church and is well known for his painted water buckets, breakfast bowls and other objects used in the services of the Church.  Blackhorse is also a renowned musical artist, composing and recording numerous works in the Peyote and other genres of Native American Music.  This is a commercial steel toolbox that has been painted using airbrush and traditional painting techniques.  The designs employed include ribbon work patterns derived from the use of overlaying strips of ribbon or cloth that have been cut ands folded to create intricate geometric patterns and designs.  Ribbon work has a very recent history among the Navajo, introduced through their exposure to its use in Oklahoma and other regions to decorate Peyote blankets, ties and shawls.  The hummingbird is an important figure in Navajo cosmology and a common design element in Navajo painting, sculpture, jewelry and other art forms. For a sample of Delbert Blackhorse’s music, watch the video below! To read an article by Daniel Swan on Peyote Boxes click here.

References: Slotkin 1952:589; Bittle 1969:74; Spindler and Spindler 1971:102; La Barre 1989:66; Stewart 1989:344-45, 358); Swan 2008:51.

[Daniel C. Swan]



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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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