Shamans in Cherokee Culture

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Of late years, especially since the establishment of schools among them, the Cherokees are gradually beginning to lose confidence in the abilities of their own doctors and are becoming more disposed to accept treatment from white physicians. The shamans are naturally jealous of this infringement upon their authority and endeavor to prevent the spread of the heresy by asserting the convenient doctrine that the white man’s medicine is inevitably fatal to an Indian unless eradicated from the system by a continuous course of treatment for four years under the hands of a skillful shaman. The officers of the training school established by the Government a few years ago met with considerable difficulty on this account for some time, as the parents insisted on removing the children at the first appearance of illness in order that they might be treated by the shamans, until convinced by experience that the children received better attention at the school than could possibly be had in their own homes. In one instance, where a woman was attacked by a pulmonary complaint akin to consumption, her husband, a man of rather more than the usual amount of intelligence, was persuaded to call in the services of a competent white physician, who diagnosed the case and left a prescription. On a second visit, a few days later, he found that the family, dreading the consequences of this departure from old customs, had employed a shaman, who asserted that the trouble was caused by a sharpened stick which some enemy had caused to be imbedded in the woman’s side. He accordingly began a series of conjurations for the removal of the stick, while the white physician and his medicine were disregarded, and in due time the woman died. Two children soon followed her to the grave, from the contagion or the inherited seeds of the same disease, but here also the sharpened sticks were held responsible, and, notwithstanding the three deaths under such treatment, the husband and father, who was at one time a preacher, still has faith in the assertions of the shaman. The appointment of a competent physician to look after the health of the Indians would go far to eradicate these false ideas and prevent much sickness and suffering; but, as the Government has made no such provision, the Indians, both on and off the reservation, excepting the children in the home school, are entirely without medical care.

Medicine Dances

The Cherokees have a dance known as the Medicine Dance, which is generally performed in connection with other dances when a number of people assemble for a night of enjoyment. It possesses no features of special interest and differs in no essential respect from a dozen other of the lesser dances. Besides this, however, there was another, known as the Medicine Boiling Dance, which, for importance and solemn ceremonial, was second only to the great Green Corn Dance. It has now been discontinued on the reservation for about twenty years. It took place in the fall, probably preceding the Green Corn Dance, and continued four days. The principal ceremony in connection with it was the drinking of a strong decoction of various herbs, which acted as a violent emetic and purgative. The usual fasting and going to water accompanied the dancing and medicine-drinking.

Description Of Symptoms

It is exceedingly difficult to obtain from the doctors any accurate statement of the nature of a malady, owing to the fact that their description of the symptoms is always of the vaguest character, while in general the name given to the disease by the shaman expresses only his opinion as to the occult cause of the trouble. Thus they have definite names for rheumatism, toothache, boils, and a few other ailments of like positive character, but beyond this their description of symptoms generally resolves itself into a statement that the patient has bad dreams, looks black around the eyes, or feels tired, while the disease is assigned such names as “when they dream of snakes,” “when they dream of fish,” “when ghosts trouble them,” “when something is making something else eat them,” or “when the food is changed,” i.e., when a witch causes it to sprout and grow in the body of the patient or transforms it into a lizard, frog, or sharpened stick.

The Pay Of The Shaman

The consideration which the doctor receives for his services is called ugista´’ti, a word of doubtful etymology, but probably derived from the verb tsi´giû, “I take” or “I eat.” In former times this was generally a deer-skin or a pair of moccasins, but is now a certain quantity of cloth, a garment, or a handkerchief. The shamans disclaim the idea that the ugistâ´’ti is pay, in our sense of the word, but assert that it is one of the agencies in the removal and banishment of the disease spirit. Their explanation is somewhat obscure, but the cloth seems to be intended either as an offering to the disease spirit, as a ransom to procure the release of his intended victim, or as a covering to protect the hand of a shaman while engaged in pulling the disease from the body of the patient. The first theory, which includes also the idea of vicarious atonement, is common to many primitive peoples. Whichever may be the true explanation, the evil influence of the disease is believed to enter into the cloth, which must therefore be sold or given away by the doctor, as otherwise it will cause his death when the pile thus accumulating reaches the height of his head. No evil results seem to follow its transfer from the shaman to a third party. The doctor can not bestow anything thus received upon a member of his own family unless that individual gives him something in return. If the consideration thus received, however, be anything eatable, the doctor may partake along with the rest of the family. As a general rule the doctor makes no charge for his services, and the consideration is regarded as a free-will offering. This remark applies only to the medical practice, as the shaman always demands and receives a fixed remuneration for performing love charms, hunting ceremonials, and other conjurations of a miscellaneous character. Moreover, whenever the beads are used the patient must furnish a certain quantity of new cloth upon which to place them, and at the close of the ceremony the doctor rolls up the cloth, beads and all, and takes them away with him. The cloth thus received by the doctor for working with the beads must not be used by him, but must be sold. In one instance a doctor kept a handkerchief which he received for his services, but instead sold a better one of his own. Additional cloth is thus given each time the ceremony is repeated, each time a second four days’ course of treatment is begun, and as often as the doctor sees fit to change his method of procedure. Thus, when he begins to treat a sick man for a disease caused by rabbits, he expects to receive a certain ugista´’ti; but, should he decide after a time that the terrapin or the red bird is responsible for the trouble, he adopts a different course of treatment, for which another ugista´’ti is necessary. Should the sickness not yield readily to his efforts, it is because the disease animal requires a greater ugista´’ti, and the quantity of cloth must be doubled, so that on the whole the doctrine is a very convenient one for the shaman. In many of the formulas explicit directions are given as to the pay which the shaman is to receive for performing the ceremony. In one of the Gatigwanasti formulas, after specifying the amount of cloth to be paid, the writer of it makes the additional proviso that it must be “pretty good cloth, too,” asserting as a clincher that “this is what the old folks said a long time ago.”

The ugista´’ti can not be paid by either one of a married couple to the other, and, as it is considered a necessary accompaniment of the application, it follows that a shaman can not treat his own wife in sickness, and vice versa. Neither can the husband or wife of the sick person send for the doctor, but the call must come from some one of the blood relatives of the patient. In one instance within the writer’s knowledge a woman complained that her husband was very sick and needed a doctor’s attention, but his relatives were taking no steps in the matter and it was not permissible for her to do so.



MLA Source Citation:

Mooney, James. Sacred Formulas Of The Cherokees. Published in the Seventh Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology, pp. 301-399. 1886. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 11 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/shamans-in-cherokee-culture.htm - Last updated on Jun 11th, 2013


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