Medicine Man – North American Indians

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But among the many things that are associated with the North American Indians as topics of conversation and subjects of the printer’s ink more talked about and less understood is the “Medicine Man.” On Nov. 14, 1605, the first French settlement was made in America, on the northeast coast of Nova Scotia, and they gave the name Arcadia to the country; and on July 3, 1808, Samuel Champlain laid the foundation of Quebec. The character “Medicine-Man” had its origin, according to tradition, among those early French colonists who corrupted the word “Meda” a word in the language of one of the Indian tribes of that day signifying chief, into “Medicine-Man,” and also called the religious ceremonies of the Indian “making medicine,” which was afterwards called, as the result, “medicine,” and which finally became in use among the Indians themselves, and has so continued to the present day.

It was a religious ceremony for the propitiation of invisible spirits and practiced by all of the North American Indians, with scarcely an exception. The ancient Choctaws and Chickasaws had their Medicine Men, with many of whom I was personally acquainted in the years of the long ago.

A Medicine Man Administering to a Patient - Plate 46
A Medicine Man Administering to a Patient – Plate 46

There were two kinds of Medicine (religious ceremonies) among the Choctaws and Chickasaws, the same as among all other tribes of their race, the tribal medicine and the individual, each peculiar to the individual tribe and individual person of that tribe. What the different ingredients were, which composed the tribal medicine, no one knew, or ever tried to know, except he who secretly collected and stored them away in the carefully dressed, highly ornamented and sacred deer-skin sack; yet it was held as sacred in the hearts of the entire tribe of all ages and sexes, as was the ark of the covenant among the ancient Jews. And equally so was that of the individual, whose ingredients were known only to its maker and possessor. More than once did my boyish curiosity induce me to ask a Choctaw warrior what was in his medicine sack, but only to get the repulsive reply: None of your business.

Indeed, the mission of the tribal medicine was to the Indians the same, to all intents and purposes, as that of the sacred ark to the ancient Jews when borne through the wilderness in those days of their historical pilgrimage It was regarded as the protector of the tribe, in fact, the visible embodiment of the promise of the good Great Spirit to provide for the tribe all the necessaries of life, and protect them from all enemies. So too was that of the individual medicine which he had made for himself alone, and which was indeed a part of his life, his assurance in danger, his safety in battle, and his success amid all the vicissitudes of his earthly career. If the sacred and secret articles that composed the contents of the tribal medicine bag, or those of the individual medicine bag, should become known to others, than the one who collected and placed them therein, the mystic bag at once became powerless even as Sampson, when shorn of his hair by the treacherous hands of Delilah. And was it captured in war or otherwise fell into the hands of an enemy the greatest consternation fell upon the entire tribe, and superhuman efforts were made to recover it. If they failed in this, overtures soliciting peace, even to humiliation, were made at once to the enemy.

But, if an individual was in any way deprived of his, which he always kept about his person, he made another. The making of another may seem an easy matter to the uninformed. But, not so. It entailed upon the maker a long period of utter seclusion in the solitude and silence of the forest far away from the abodes of mankind, with long continued fasting, meditation and prayer, followed by long protracted labor in finding and securing the necessary articles, such as earths of different colors, the ashes of various weeds, bones of certain birds and snakes, and various other things which his fancy may suggest. These were placed in a vessel of water prepared for the purpose, and the vessel is then placed upon a fire and the contents continually stirred with a stick as it became more and more heated. During this process he obtains a sign from some developed peculiarity, which he regards as infallible, and which enables him to interpret signs and omens, both of good and evil. A small portion of the contents of the vessel was placed in his mystic sack and accompanied him everywhere. In time of peace, the tribal medicine was placed in the care of a chief noted for his bravery, who carefully guarded it from all profanation; but in the time of war, the war-chief carried it in front of his warrior as they marched upon the warpath. The youthful warriors was always instructed in the art of making medicine by the aged men of the tribe, of which he made good use and never forgot.

The philosophy of the ancient Indian ever taught him to concentrate his mind upon the spirit land; and that the influences which surrounded him in Nature, above, beneath, around, are sent direct by the spirits that dwell in an invisible world above; that there are two kinds of spirits the good and the bad, who are continually at war with each other over him, the good directing all things for his prosperity and happiness, the bad directing all things against his prosperity and happiness; that within himself he can do nothing, as he is utterly helpless in the mighty contest that is waged over him by the good and bad spirits. Therefore, he exerts his greatest energies of mind and body to the propitiation of the bad spirits rather than the good, since the former may be induced to extend the scepter of mercy to him, while the latter will ever strive for his good, and his good alone. Therefore, when he is fortunate he attributes it to some good spirit; when unfortunate, to some bad spirit. So, when he said it is “good medicine,” he meant that the good spirit had the ascendancy; and when he said it is “bad medicine” he-meant that the bad spirit had the ascendancy.

Therefore, all thing’s in nature, as a natural consequence,, indicated to him the presence of the spirits, both good and bad, as each made, known their immediate nearness through both animate and inanimate nature. The sighing of the winds; the flight of the birds; the howl of the lone wolf; the midnight hoot of the owl, and all other sounds heard throughout his illimitable forests both by day and by night, had to him most potent significations; and, by which, he so governed all his actions, that he never went upon any enterprise, before consulting the signs and omens; then acted in conformity thereto. If the medicine is good, he undertakes his journey; if bad, he remains at home, and no argument can induce him to change his opinion, which I learned from personal experience.



MLA Source Citation:

Cushman, Horatio Bardwell. History Of The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, Texas: Headlight Printing House. 1899 AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 26 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/medicine-man-north-american-indians.htm - Last updated on Jun 7th, 2014


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