Black drink

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Chief Saturiwa prepares his men for battle, from Plate XI of Jacques le Moyne des Morgues' engraving of Fort Caroline", Jacques le Moyne and Theodor De Bry. Photo credit The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida

The black drink is a name for several kinds of ritual beverage brewed by Native Americans in the Southeastern United States. Traditional ceremonial people of the Caddo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Musogee and some other Indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands use the black drink in purification ceremonies. The black drink usually contains emetic herbs, which are used with the express purpose of inducing vomiting.

While the recipe can vary between tribes, and the full formula is not published or given to outsiders, a prominent ingredient in many formulas is the roasted leaves and stems of Ilex vomitoria (commonly known as Yaupon Holly) native to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.[1] An example of the black drink is the Muscogee ássi.

Contemporary Use[edit]

Map of the geographical extent of Black Drink use by indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands, prior to 19th century Indian Removal

A number of tribes across the Southeastern United States use a form of the black drink in their ceremonies. Muscogee Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Ais, Guale, Chickasaws, Chitimacha, Timucua and others are documented users of a type of black drink. Although rituals vary amongst the different tribes, there are some common traits among them.

In the ceremonies of some cultures that use the drink, after its preparation it is passed out to the highest status person first, then the next highest status, and so forth. During each persons turn to drink, ritual songs may be sung (Yahola,[2] the ritual name Asi Yahola or Black Drink Singer is corrupted into English as Osceola).[3]

The black drink is a purifier that removes spiritual and physical contamination from the drinker, and as such is never taken casually. Those who use it practice ritual vomiting after its consumption.[2]

Precontact use[edit]

Archaeologists have demonstrated the use of various kinds of black drink among Native American groups stretching back far into antiquity, possibly dating to Late Archaic times. During the Hopewell period, the shell cups known from later black drink rituals become common in high status burials along with mortuary pottery and engraved stone and copper tablets. The significance of the shell cups may indicate the beginning of black drink ceremonialism. The fact that both the shells and the yaupon holly come from the same geographical location may indicate they were traded together in the Hopewell Interaction Sphere.[4] The appearance of shell cups can be used as a virtual marker for the advent of Hopewell Culture in many instances.[5] During the Mississippian culture period, the presence of items associated with the black drink ceremony had spread over most of the south, with many hundreds of examples from Etowah, Spiro, Moundville and Hiwassee Island.


In 1696, Jonathan Dickinson witnessed the use of a beverage brewed from the Yaupon Holly among the Ais of Florida. Dickinson later learned that the Spanish called the plant casseena. The Ais parched the leaves in a pot, and then boiled them. The resulting liquid was then transferred to a large bowl using a gourd that had a long neck with a small hole at the top, and a 2-inch-wide (51 mm) hole in the side. On the occasion Dickinson witnessed, he estimated that there was nearly three gallons of the beverage in the bowl. After the liquid had cooled, the chief was presented with a conch-shell of the beverage. The chief's associates were then served in turn.[citation needed]

Black drink at Cahokia[edit]

Ceramic beaker from Cahokia with woodhenge motif

Archaeologists working at Cahokia, the largest Mississippian culture settlement located near the modern city of St. Louis, found distinctive and relatively rare pottery beakers dating from 1050 to 1250 CE. The beakers are small round pots with a handle on one side and a tiny lip on the opposing side. The surfaces of the unfired vessels was incised with motifs representing water and the underworld and resemble the whelk shells known to have been used for the consumption of the beverage during historic times. The inside of the vessels were found to be coated with a plant residue, which when tested was found to contain theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid in the right proportions to have come from the ilex vomitoria.[citation needed] The presence of the black drink in the Greater Cahokia area at this early date pushes back definitive use of the black drink by several centuries. The presence of the black drink hundreds of miles outside of its natural range on the East and Gulf coasts is evidence of a substantial trade network with the southeast, a trade that also involved sharks teeth and whelk shells.[6][7][8]


Cherokee black drink is taken for purification at several traditional ceremonies. Made with emetics, the complete recipe is not shared with the public. The black drink induces vomiting for purification purposes. Other ritual medicinal beverages are also used in the ceremonies.

Shell cups[edit]

Engraved conch shell cup from Spiro Mounds

In historic accounts from the 16th and 17th century, black drink is usually imbibed in rituals using a cup made of marine shell. Three main species of marine shells have been identified as being used as cups for the black drink, lightning whelk, emperor helmet, and the horse conch. The most common was the lightning whelk, which has a left-handed or sinistral spiral. The left-handed spiral may have held religious significance because of its association with dance and ritual. The center columnella, which runs longitudinally down the shell, would be removed, and the rough edges sanded down to make a dipper like cup. The columnella would then be used as a pendant, a motif that shows up frequently in Southeastern Ceremonial Complex designs. In the archaeological record columnella pendants are usually found in conjunction with bi-lobed arrows, stone maces, earspools, and necklace beads(all of which are motifs identified with the falcon dancer/warrior/chunkey player mythological figure).[9] Artifacts made from these marine shells have been found as far north as Wisconsin and as far west as Oklahoma. Several examples of cups from Moundville and Spiro have been found to have rings of black residue in the bottoms, suggesting they were used for black drink rituals. Many examples of shell cups found in Mississippian culture mounds are engraved with S.E.C.C. imagery. A few examples portray what is theorized to be black drink rituals, including what some anthropologists have interpreted as vomit issuing from the mouths of mythological beings.[4]


16th-century engraving by Jacques le Moyne of a Timucua ceremony involving the black drink

Among the Timucua, a type of black drink was called cacina by the Spanish. Preparation and consumption of the drink was strictly limited to the community council house. Women (other than an occasional female chief) were normally excluded from the council house except for activities such as dances, but did prepare the cacina. In 1678 a bedridden cacica (a female chief) was given permission to brew and consume cacina in her house, on the condition that no one else could be present while she did so.[10]


Preparing Black Drink, engraving by Joseph-François Lafitau, 1723
Yaupon Holly

The Yaupon leaves and branches are collected and prepared in a manner traditional to the peoples who use them in ceremony. While there are recipes available online and in books, by observers of the cultures in question, most leave out key steps and can result in beverages that are toxic or poisonous. Kidney failure is one possible outcome of consuming beverages containing holly leaves.[citation needed] While there are reports of early colonists drinking holly leaves as "a coffee substitute," these accounts seem to be unaware that the beverage is intended to be vomited back up, not left to go through the digestive system. Due to concerns of people poisoning themselves as well as protection of Indigenous intellectual property, recipes found online or in books should not be assumed to be safe.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gibbons, E. (1964). Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop. David McKay Company, Inc. ISBN 0-911469-05-2.
  2. ^ a b Hudson, Charles M. (1979). Black Drink: A Native American Tea. University of Georgia Press. pp. 126–137. 
  3. ^ "Native Americans". Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  4. ^ a b Hudson, Charles M. (1979). Black Drink: A Native American Tea. University of Georgia Press. pp. 83–112. 
  5. ^ Griffin, James B. (1952). Culture Periods in Eastern United States Archaeology. University of Chicago Press. p. 360. 
  6. ^ Diana Yates (2012-08-06). "Researchers find evidence of ritual use of 'black drink' at Cahokia". University of Illinois. 
  7. ^ Thomas H. Maugh II (2012-08-06). "Cahokia people had caffeine drink made from holly 900 years ago". Los Angeles Times. 
  8. ^ Charles Choi (2012-08-06). "Caffeinated 'Vomit Drink' Nauseated North America's First City". LiveScience. 
  9. ^ F. Kent Reilly and James Garber, ed. (2004). Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms. University of Texas Press. pp. 86–96. ISBN 978-0-292-71347-5. 
  10. ^ Hann, John H. (1996). A History of the Timucua Indians and Missions. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. pp. 2, 26, 90–91, 328. ISBN 0-8130-1424-7. 


  • Hudson, Charles M. (1979). Black Drink: A Native American Tea. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-0462-X
  • Hale, Edwin Moses (1891). Ilex Cassine: The aboriginal North American tea : its history, distribution, and use among the native American Indians. Bulletin U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Division of Botany.
  • Andrews, Charles Mclean and Andrews, Evangeline Walker (1945). Jonathan Dickinson's Journal or, God's Protecting Providence. Being the Narrative of a Journey from Port Royal in Jamaica to Philadelphia between August 23, 1696 to April 1, 1697. Yale University Press. Reprinted 1981. Florida Classics Library.

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