About American Indian Medicine Men And Secret Societies.
All Indians believe in spirits. Some are good and help men who please them; others are bad and always anxious to do harm. The spirits are all about us. They are in plants, and trees, and rustling leaves; they are in the wind and cloud and rain; they are in the mountain and in the brook. It is spirits that cause trouble, suffering, and death. When a man is ill, some bad spirit has taken away his soul or has entered into him.
It is not strange, then, that the Indians should wish to gain power over these spirits. If a man knows some words, the saying of which will protect him against them, he is fortunate; fortunate is he, too, if he knows some object which, carried, will disarm them, or if he can perform some trick which will put them to flight. Such knowledge is what the Indians mean by “medicine” or “mystery.” Men who spend their lives in trying to gain such knowledge are called medicine men, mystery men, or Shamans.
Rattles and Masks: Alaska. (From Originals in Peabody Museum.)
The Shaman among the tribes of the Northwest Coast is an important person. He decided, when a boy, that he would become a Shaman. He selected some old Shaman for his teacher and learned from him his secrets. By experiments, by dreaming, and by trading with other Shamans he got other secrets. To help him in his dealings with spirits the Shaman makes use of many devices. He sleeps upon a wooden pillow, which is carved with otter heads; these are believed to whisper wisdom to him while he sleeps. Upon his dancing-dress little carved figures, in ivory, are hung, which give him spirit influence, partly by the forms into which they are cut, and partly by the jingling noise they make when he dances. He wears a mask, the animal carvings on which control spirits. He uses a rattle and a tambourine to summon spirits. He has a spirit pole or wand quaintly carved, with which he fences, fighting and warding off spirits which he alone can see. The people sitting by see his brave fighting and hear his shrieks and cries; in this way only they can judge how many and how powerful are the spirits against whom he is fighting, for their good.
Sometimes when dancing the Shaman becomes so excited that he falls in a fit—quivering, gasping, struggling. It is believed, at such times, either that some mighty spirit has taken possession of him, or that his own soul has gone to the land of spirits. Sometimes when he comes to himself he tells of his wonderful journeys and battles.
Among the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands, when a sick man is to be cured, three or four Shamans come together at his side. All sing and rattle until they find out where the soul of the sick man is. It may be in the possession of the salmon or the oolachen fish, or it may be held a prisoner by some dead Shaman. They go to the place where it is supposed to be, and by singing and charms succeed in getting it into a carved hollow bone used only for this purpose. Various precious things are then burned and the soul bone held in the smoke. The bone is then laid by the side of the patient's head that his soul may return.
Many astonishing stories are told of the powers of medicine men. A missionary among the Crees, Edgerton R. Young, told me of a white man who was once out hunting. He came upon an old medicine man, who begged him for game, as he was hungry. The white man made sport of him, saying, “You are a great medicine man; why not get game for yourself?”The old man was enraged. He cried out, “White man, see yonder goose,” and pointed his finger into the air. The goose fell fluttering at their feet, and the old man picked it up and walked away. The white man really thought this thing happened. Perhaps the old medicine man had hypnotized him; if so, the only goose anywhere around was probably the white man.
The eastern Algonkins were fond of medicine or mystery. Two great medicine men would have a contest to see which was more powerful. Many of their stories tell of such contests. Two powers, which they did seem to have, attracted much attention and caused much terror. These were screaming and sinking into the ground. Leland quotes an Indian regarding these: “Two or three weeks after, I was in another place, we spoke of m'teoulin [mystery men]. The white folks ridiculed them. I said there was one in Fredericton, and I said I would bet ten dollars that he would get the better of them. And they bet that no Indian could do more than they could. So the m'teoulin came, and first he screamed so that no one could move. It was dreadful. Then he took seven steps through the ground up to his ankles, just as if it had been light snow. When I asked for the ten dollars, the white men paid.”
Ojibwa medicine men have often been tested by white men who doubted their powers. Thus one old medicine man had two little houses built at some distance apart. He was shut up in one, and the whites built a ring of fire around it. Then, no one could tell how, he appeared unharmed walking out of the other house. These things are no doubt tricks or delusions, but the medicine man's apparent ability to do them greatly increased his influence among the people.
Much use is made of words as charms and of sacred numbers. Four and seven are sacred numbers among the Cherokees. Once, wishing to see his method of curing disease, I asked the old medicine man to treat my lame arm. He sent out for four kinds of leaves, which were to be fresh and young, and one other sort which was to be dry and dead. The latter had little thorns along its edges. The old man pounded up the four kinds in warm water. He then scratched the arm with the other, nearly drawing blood. The arm was rubbed with the bruised leaves. The medicine man then blew upon my arm seven times. He went through this operation of rubbing and blowing four times, thus combining the numbers four and seven. He repeated charms all the time as he rubbed.
The Shaman does business as an individual. He expects pay from those who employ him. His knowledge and power over spirits is individual and for individuals. Among some tribes we find not single medicine men, but great secret societies which have learned spirit wisdom to use for the benefit of the society, or for the good of the whole tribe. Such secret societies are notable in the Southwest—and elsewhere. They may work to cure disease in individuals; they also work for the whole tribe. Among the Moki Pueblos, the societies of the Snake and of the Antelope carry on the snake dance, that the whole people may have rain for their fields.