The cargo cults clearly support the deprivation theory- but they give an oversimplified view of the kind of deprivation involved in millenarian movements. Not all deprivation experiences are concerned with material goods alone. A person can also be deprived of his status, his own sense of worth, and his traditional patterns of behavior. The experiences of the Navaho Indians of Arizona and New Mexico in the 1930′s demonstrate several kinds of deprivation. In previous decades the Navahos had built up herds of sheep and goats, but the herds grew so large that they were overgrazing the land and causing erosion. As a result, the United States government forced the Navahos to kill great numbers of sheep to reduce the livestock to a level that the land could support.
In the loss of their sheep the Navahos suffered also a loss of status, for the owner of a large herd could be generous to his many helpers. Now he was little better off than the others. Deprivation occurred too, because most Navahos felt that something had gone wrong, and people were no longer behaving in the traditional way: for example, Navahos with reduced herds were not as generous as formerly. Still another kind of deprivation they suffered was in their sense of worth. As their contact with the whites increased, the Navahos began to feel inferior because, for instance, they ate such “bad” food as prairie dogs.
Many Navahos reacted by becoming members of the Peyote cult. There has been considerable misunderstanding about this cult, which would eventually from the Navaho experience be incorporated as the Native American Church of North America. Peyote is a small cactus that grows in southern Texas and the northern half of Mexico. When the flesh, or root of this plant is eaten, it produces physical effects due to its morphine and strychnine-like constituents, and in most users it produces visions. Many white people believe that the prime appeal of peyote is the pleasurable experience it provides, or its addictive quality. But there is no bliss in the taking of peyote: apparently the taste is bitter and nauseating and the anxiety and depression overwhelming. It has no comparison with the relief from care provided by opiates and alcohol. Nor is it addictive. The taking of peyote is strictly a ritualized religious act, in which the individual experiences direct communication with supernatural forces.
Like other millenarian cults, Peyote, which at one time was the main religion among at least fifty major groups of Native Americans, preaches a moral code of peace and harmony. But, it provides special gifts that compensated for their lack of economic well being and status. The white man has the Bible and learning- but through peyote the Indian has direct access to God and to revelation. Peyotism makes the Indian the equal of the white, and sometimes his superior, in finding ways to obtain rewards. That is probably the primary appeal of peyote among the Navahos. It enabled the user to foresee the plans of the United States government and also to seek new wealth through supernatural help.