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The Manitos

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"The definition of being is simply power," says a speaker in Plato's Sophist; and this is a statement to which every American Indian would accede. Each being in nature, the Indians believe, has an indwelling power by means of which this being maintains its particular character and in its own way affects other beings. Such powers may be little or great, weak or mighty; and of course it behooves a man to know which ones are great and mighty. Outward appearances are no sure sign of the strength of an indwelling potency; often a small animal or a lethargic stone may be the seat of a mighty power; but usually some peculiarity will indicate to the thoughtful observer the object of exceptional might, or it may be revealed in a dream or vision. To become the possessor of such an object is to have one's own powers proportionally increased; it is good "medicine" and will make one strong.

Every American language has its name for these indwelling powers of things. The Eskimo word is Inua, or "owner"; the Iroquois employ the word Orenda, and for maleficent powers, or "bad magic," Otgon; the Huron word is Oki; the Siouan, Wakanda. But the term by which the idea has become most generally known to white men, doubtless because it was the word used by the Indians first encountered by the colonists, is the Algonquian Manitou, Manito, or Manido, as it is variously spelled. The customary translations are "power," "mystery," "magic," and, commoner yet, "spirit" and "medicine" and the full meaning of the word would include all of these; for the powers of things include every gradation from the common and negligible to the mysterious and magical: when they pertain to the higher forces of nature they are intelligent spirits, able to hear and answer supplications; and wherever they may be appropriated to man's need they are medicine, spiritual and physical.

The Indian does not make, as we do, a sharp division between physical and spiritual powers; rather, he is concerned with the distinction between the weak and the strong: the sub-human he may neglect or conquer, the superhuman he must supplicate and appease. It is commonly to these latter, the mighty Manitos, that the word "spirit" is applied. Nor must we suppose that the Manitos always retain the same shape. Nature is constantly changing, constantly trans-forming herself in every part; she is full of energy, full of life; Manitos are everywhere effecting these transformations, presenting themselves now in this shape, now in that. Consequently, the Indian does not judge by the superficial gift of vision; he studies the effects of things, and in objects of hum-blest appearance he often finds evidences of the highest powers. Stones do not seem to us likely objects of veneration, yet many strong Manitos dwell in them perhaps it is the spark of fire in the impassive flint that appeals to the Red Man's imagination; perhaps it is an instinctive veneration for the ancient material out of which were hewn the. tools that have lifted man above the brute; perhaps it is a sense of the age-long permanence and invulnerable reality of earth's rocky foundations:

Ho! Aged One, ecka,
At a time when there were gathered together seven persons,
You sat in the seventh place, it is said,
And of the Seven you alone possessed knowledge of all things,
Aged One, ecka.
When in their longing for protection and guidance,
The people sought in their minds for a way,
They beheld you seated with assured permanency and endurance,
In the center where converged the paths,
There, exposed to the violence of the four winds, you sat,
Possessed with power to receive supplications,
Aged One, ecka.

It is thus that the Omaha began his invocation to the healing stones of his sweat lodge a veritable omphalos, or centre of the world, symbolizing the invisible, pervasive, and enduring life of all things.



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