When I was discussing the archaeoacoustics of Chaco earlier, I mentioned that I was a little dubious about some of the stuff John Stein and Taft Blackhorse had said about Navajo connections to the Chaco Amphitheater. They associate it with a ceremonial tradition involving the ritual use of datura. There’s an immense anthropological literature on Navajo religion, and I have read only a tiny portion of it, but from what I had read I had gotten the impression that the use of hallucinogenic substances in ritual was not characteristic of the Navajos, and I had certainly not seen any reference to ceremonies involving datura specifically. So I was initially skeptical about this claim, although the origin legend for the ceremony that they described did fit well into the usual pattern for Navajo ceremonies.
Looking into this a bit more closely, however, I found an article that sheds some more light on the issue and seems to partly vindicate John and Taft, or at least point in the direction of material vindicating them. The article, from 1945, is by Leland Wyman and Betty Thorne, and it mainly talks about suicide (a topic of unfortunately continuing importance on this blog) among the Navajo. The overall conclusion is that suicide is rare and subject to at least moderate social disapproval. Of more interest to me, however, is the finding that poisoning is virtually unknown as a method of suicide. This is despite the presence of various poisonous plants in the Navajo country, the most widespread and well-known of them being datura. Wyman and Thorne address the puzzling absence of datura as a means of suicide in a way that is very important to my purposes:
Since this plant is employed in medicine, in certain ceremonials, and especially in a form of witchcraft (frenzy witchcraft), perhaps this avoidance arises from a configuration which might be expressed as “avoidance of the misuse of ceremonial appurtenances.” This would be especially cogent if the appurtenances were likewise misused by “witches.” One often hears concerning Datura, “they (the Navaho) are kind of afraid of it,” and this refers to mere handling as well as to more intimate contact.
The references to the use of datura in medicine and witchcraft are footnoted, while the reference to its ceremonial use is not. The witchcraft note refers to Clyde Kluckhohn’s classic study of Navajo witchcraft, while the medicine note refers to a work (co-authored by Wyman) on Navajo medicinal ethnobotany. I intend to follow up on these references when I get a chance. Just from the way they are presented here, however, it seems clear that there is in fact a tradition of ceremonial use of datura, but that it is likely relatively obscure and not well documented, probably because of the generally fearful attitude toward the plant and its association with witchcraft. It seems there is something to this datura connection after all, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.
Wyman, L., & Thorne, B. (1945). Notes on Navaho Suicide American Anthropologist, 47 (2), 278-288 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1945.47.2.02a00070