Lessons from an ancient spirit

Why I participated in a peyote ritual

Can participating in a story ever be justified? This reporter believes that on rare occasions it can be and his situation was one of them.

By Ben Winton

Ben Winton is religion reporter for The Phoenix (AZ) Gazette.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


There I stood in the desert south of Phoenix staring at a teepee glowing orange from a fire inside, wondering what to do.

Inside, a dozen or so Indians were about to ingest peyote — a hallucinogenic drug as part of a religious ritual. And I, as religion reporter for The Phoenix Gazette, faced an ultimatum by the Indians: Either come inside, partake of the “medicine” and learn about their religious traditions — or leave.

I chose to come inside — but not without some soul-searching on the ethics of what I was doing.

There were both personal and professional reasons for wanting to participate. On a personal level, I wanted to learn more about my own Yaqui Indian roots, which had not been discussed much when I was growing up.

On a professional level, I wanted to understand why Indians were so upset with a U.S. Supreme Court decision a week earlier, on April 17, regarding sacramental peyote. The court ruled 6-3 that two Indian drug-rehabilitation counselors in Oregon fired for using peyote in religious rituals were not entitled to unemployment benefits.

The Indians complained that the justices failed to understand the sacramental nature of peyote. In arguments before the Supreme Court, attorneys for the Indians said peyote carries about the same significance as sacramental wine at a Roman Catholic Mass. Roman Catholics believe in transubstantiation, in which the wine turns into the blood of Christ and bread wafers become his body. The Indians say the peyote becomes a spirit, a grandfatherly figure, that helps them return to a positive road of life. Many use it to overcome drug and alcohol addictions.

“The only way to understand it is to do it,” Nelson Fernandez, a “Road Man,” a shaman who conducts Indian rituals involving peyote, told me in an interview following the court’s decision.

Even though I had been told that observing a ceremony was forbidden before I drove to the reservation, I thought I might be able to change their minds. It was my intention to watch the ceremony, talk to the Indians about their feelings and document how the peyote affected the Indians physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I had discussed this with an editor, and gotten permission to sit in on a ceremony where peyote was in use. I had not discussed taking part.

When the Indians couldn’t be persuaded, I called my boss, metro editor Dave Wagner, for advice. He said the paper, for a multitude of ethical, legal and technical reasons could not use a story I was a part of.

If I participated, I believed I would not be breaking any laws, since Arizona permits using peyote in Indian services. But I wondered out loud to Wagner whether I’d violate company anti-drug policies. Neither Wagner nor I were sure.

I took a big chance. I participated in the ceremony for personal reasons — without my editor’s consent and without knowing if a story would ever come from it.

Two days after the all-night ceremony, after the powerful emotional effects of peyote had worn off, I began to write a first-person story. I submitted the story at the end of the week not knowing how editors would react.

They reacted cautiously. It took five months of internal discussions but the final decision by managing editor Pam Johnson, made after talking with the publisher and a company attorney, was to publish the story.

Johnson said her main concern was the paper’s credibility. Would my participation in a peyote ceremony become the story, rather than the ceremony itself?

To try to keep that from happening, several steps were taken: The story was held until the next news peg made it relevant to readers. It played below the fold on page one, rather than on the religion page. An editor’s note explained my personal interest in the subject.

Johnson said it is doubtful whether she would approve another participatory story. “. . . Were it not for Ben’s heritage, his recent personal quest to understand it and an overwhelming sincerity and respect exhibited in his article, his account never would have been published. There were rare aspects that came together in this one situation,” Johnson said.

Reaction from the journalism community has been predictable. A local debate ensued over the ethics of participatory journalism.

The basic questions: Can a reporter who takes part in a news story remain objective? Is the reporter altering the outcome of the news by becoming a participant? Will readers trust the reporter and will the publication’s credibility suffer? They’re not easy questions to answer.

My credibility among my news sources has not suffered. In fact, mainline religious leaders in the Phoenix area have praised the story, as providing valuable insight into Indian religions.

The office of U.S. Representative Stephen Solarz, D-New York, requested a copy of the story, which was published shortly after Solarz introduced a bill to restore religious freedoms stripped by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

I can say that I believe it is possible to remain objective if the basic reason for getting involved is a sincere desire to learn. In almost every case, I would say it is unethical to participate in a news story. But there are real exceptions. This was one of those. Then and now, I believe that taking part in the peyote ceremony resulted in a valuable story to our readers.