Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Indian Medicine Man


The Indian Medicine Man

Understanding Nature's Ways

Because they lived in a seemingly limitless land, under a wide and mysterious sky, the Plains Indians of North America had great respect for nature and its forces. From life-giving rains to violent storms, and from blizzards to searing droughts, they tried to live in harmony with nature.

To attain this goal, they looked to the spirits on high to give them aid and ad­vice. Most members of the tribe sought supernatural help through visions that came to them after a solitary vigil and long fasting. A man who had especially . strong visions, and who then took special training in conducting tribal rituals, became a shaman.

He was known as a medicine man, because it was believed he had the ability to cure the sick.

As a healer of the sick, the medicine man, dressed in animal skins, would perform cures in which tribal dances and incantations were the major part of the treatment. But he also prescribed herb remedies and performed simple surgery, often with considerable skill.

But his power went beyond the mere treatment of illness, for he could also look into the future and predict events. He spoke to the spirit world and called on a supernatural power one of the great spirits to aid the tribe in times of trouble.

The great spirits of the Plains tribes were the Sun, the Thunderbird, and Napiwa, the Old Man of the Dawn. The Sioux called these spirits the wakan tanka, meaning "the greatest sacred ones." Among the Sioux, Sitting Bull was perhaps the most famous medicine man. Shortly before the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, in which Lt. Col. George A. Custer was killed, Sitting Bull told his people that he had a vision predicting the defeat of the white soldiers.

Some Plains tribes gave the medicine man the added responsibility of caring for, and protecting, the sacred objects of the tribe. These were wrapped up in a medicine bundle, which usually con­ tained the skins and skulls of animals and birds, a pipe and tobacco, a wooden food bowl, braids of scented grass, strangely shaped stones, and a rattle made from a buffalo bladder.

The tribal medicine bundle was treated with great reverence, because it brought bountiful harvests, successful buffalo hunts, and victories in battle. The bundle was hung outdoors in good weather and taken inside in bad weather. And each time it was moved the proper prayers had to be chanted, for the Plains Indians believed that supernatural power existed everywhere and in everything.

Illustration: Mandan medicine man in full dress with body paint and feathers

© 1979. Panarizon Publishing Corp, USA Illust: G. Catlin, Smithsonian Institution
Printed in Italy 03·012·01·21

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