Mirror of the soul: Cultural psychiatry, moral socialization and the development of the self in the Native American Church

Joseph II D. Calabrese
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Chicago
July, 2006


This dissertation is an ethnographic study of healing and socialization in the Native American Church (NAC) based on two years of fieldwork within the Navajo Nation. The NAC uses the psychedelic Peyote cactus as a sacramental medicine. This practice clashes strongly with Euro- American norms. As such, this study was structured according to a reflexive, dialectical philosophy that approaches conflict in search of a more encompassing understanding (which in this case involves an appreciation for the cultural multiplicity of psychiatric normality). The overriding theoretical dialectic in this study is cultural psychiatry: the dialectical interplay of the cultural and the clinical. The central methodological dialectic is clinical ethnography: clinically informed and self-reflective immersion in local worlds of suffering, healing, and normality. This dissertation contributes to the literature on the NAC in several areas. First, it provides descriptions of Peyotist family life subsequent to the development of multigenerational NAC families and it elucidates the distinctive socialization practices used in the NAC. Socialization of children in the NAC has a safety/survival focus aimed at avoidance of alcohol and the risks associated with it. If socialization is successful, the child will learn that the Peyote Spirit knows his or her activities, which discourages alcohol use. This study describes several individuals who are examples of positive outcomes of Peyotist human development. This study documents the movement of the Peyote Meeting into clinical programs serving Native American communities from the unique vantage point of my work as a clinician at one of these programs. Another contribution is my analysis of the symbolic structure and therapeutic process of the Peyote Meeting, which involves a therapeutic emplotment of the death/rebirth type supported by a technique of consciousness modification. The paradigm of psychopharmacology used in the NAC may be described as semiotic/reflexive in contrast to Euro- American psychiatry's molecule-focused agonist-antagonist paradigm. These realities call for a more advanced understanding of mental health in its diverse cultural contexts, with an accompanying reflexive awareness of the cultural and ideological biases of our own clinical and social sciences.