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Medicine

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



To make the impersonal and pervasive life of nature more particularly his own, the Indian seeks his personal "medicine" half talisman, half symbol. Usually the medicine is revealed in a fast-induced vision, or in a dream, or in a religious initiation. It then becomes a personal tutelary whose emblem is borne in its possessor's "medicine-bag" to which miraculous powers are often attributed. "A skin of a weasel, heads and bodies of different birds stuffed, images made of wood and stone, of beads worked upon skin, rude drawings of bears, of buffalo bulls, wolves, serpents, of monsters that have no name, nor ever had an existence, in fact everything animate and inanimate is used, according to the superstition and belief of the individual. This object," continues Father De Smet, "is enveloped in several folds of skin, with a lock of some deceased relative's hair and a small piece of tobacco enclosed and the whole placed in a parfleche [buffalo skin stripped of hair and stretched over a frame] sack neatly ornamented and fringed, and this composes the arcanum of the medicine-sack. This sack is never opened in the presence of any one, unless the owner or some of his family fall dangerously ill, when it is taken out and placed at the head of his bed and the aid of the Great Spirit invoked through it. Ordinarily this sack is opened in secret; the medicine smoked and invoked and prayers and sacrifices made in its presence, and through it, as a tangible medium to the Great Spirit, who is unknown and invisible."

The Indian's "medicine" is, in fact, a symbol of superhuman power, just as his pipe is a portable altar of sacrifice; having these articles with him, he is equipped for all ordinary religious service. As the medicine was so often revealed in vision, so its potencies were partly to extend the knowledge of its owner by giving him guidance in the hour of need. Indeed, the fundamental demands underlying the Indian's use of his medicine were, first, for clairvoyance, the power to see behind the screen of appearances and to give man a longer time for adaptation to exigencies than his mere physical vision might allow, and, second, for prowess, the strength to cope with environing perils, be they human enemies, elemental dangers, or the insidious onslaughts of disease. The means for thus raising the tension of man's native abilities is the concentration of diffuse natural forces by means of the emblem, be it image or relic. With the more advanced Indians such "medicine" is regarded as no more than a symbol of the greater Medicine of nature though still a symbol which is, in some vague sense, a key for the unlocking of nature's larger store.

Nor is "medicine" limited to private possession. Every Indian had his own "medicine-bag," but tribe and clan and religious society all owned and guarded sacred objects not differing in character from the individual's magic treasure, except for their greater powers and the higher veneration attached to them.

The "medicine" potency of objects is not limited to personal talismans and sacred things. The various tokens, such as eagle feathers, animal skins or teeth or claws, with which the Indian adorned his costume, were also supposed to have powers which entitled them to be treated with respect. Similarly, the painting of face and body, of robe and tipi, followed the strictest of rules, and was for the specific purpose of increasing the potencies of the owners of the decoration. The Indian's art was in a curious sense a private possession. If a man invented a song, it was his song, and no other had a right to sing it without his permission usually, only after a formal ceremony of teaching. In similar fashion, societies had songs which could be sung only by their members; and there were chants that could be sung only at certain periods of the day or at fixed seasons of the year. So also in respect to pictorial design: certain patterns were revealed to the owner in dream or vision, and thereafter they were for his person or clothing or dwelling, and might not be copied or appropriated by any other, at least not without a proper transfer. All this was a part of the Indian's implicit belief that all nature, including human thought and action, represents one web of interknitted forces whose destined order may not be broken without peril. White men call this belief superstition, but in its essence it is not radically different from their own notion of a nature fabricated of necessity and law.



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