Sunday, January 15, 2012

Blackfoot Medicine Bundles

                                                           Blackfoot Indian Reservation

The Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsitapi (original people) is the collective name of three First Nations in Canada and one Native American tribe in Montana.  Their land originally reached from the North Saskatchewan River in Canada, to the Yellowstone River in Montana and from the Rocky Mountains to the current Alberta-Saskatchewan border.  Legend tells us that the name ‘Blackfoot’ came from the practice of painting the soles of their moccasins black.   Medicine bundles are a significant part of Blackfoot culture and spirituality.  In modern times the people revived the Black Lodge Society, charged with preserving the songs and dances associated with ancient rituals. They continue to announce the arrival of spring by opening five medicine bundles at the arrival of the first thunder of the season.

                       Edward Curtis Photograph of Plains Indian Medicine Bundles

A medicine bundle is any object kept in wrappings when not in use and protected by its owner with a definite ritual containing one or more songs. To a Blackfoot the term denotes a wide range of objects from a few ancient beads to the more complex construction of a necklace of glass beads, hanging leather pouches of herbal medicine, dangling pendants of trade beads and hanging fur pelts.

                                  Blackfoot Indian Standing Near Medicine Bundle, Circa 1890

The concept of bundles extends from war charms, love medicine, medicine pipes, headdresses, suits, shields, through the large and elaborate Beaver Bundle which includes such external paraphernalia as the sacred medicine bead necklace for a man and his wife along with over fifty-five separate items.  In the bundle will be found such things as fourteen rattles, two pipes with beaded bowls, a bag for buffalo hooves and paint, two beaver skins, an otter skin, eight short sticks about six inches long that beavers have chewed, three loons, one white swan, wristlets of buckskin with blue beads, two magpie feathers, two rat skins, a large turnip, etc.

                                         Blackfoot Couple with Beaver Bundle

Medicine Bundles are power objects that have the ability to ward off evil or danger in battle, bring good health, secure your beloved, or a variety of other purposes. The dream is source of all true medicine and a bundle becomes tangible evidence of the power of that vision. If the creator of a bundle was a man of little experience, he would call on a medicine man to aid in its formulation, along with the liturgy and song.

                           Plains Indian Medicine Man Holding Incense Over Medicine Bundle

In general, most bundles include skin or bones from various animals and birds, a bit of Pacific shell, printed calico (preferable a small floral, plaid, or paisley print), red flannel, bells, brass buttons and a variety of beads from small seed beads sewn on leather to larger beads such as old Venetian glass beads that will be seen hanging on a fringe from the leather covering a sacred rock in a man’s private bundle. 

 Blackfoot Loop Necklace w. glass seed beads sewn on cotton cord, brass beads in center, each loop attached to leather strips embellished w. brass tacks, circa 1870

The Crow Indians favored small Venetian millifiori glass beads for their bundles. These beads held great importance as a medium for the prayers which the bundle would help answer.

                                                      Blackfoot Family, Circa 1890

Of all the tribes who used and participated in the creation of medicine bundles and their rituals, none appear to have developed it to the degree that the Blackfoot did.  There are three political divisions within the Blackfoot people: the Northern Blackfoot, the Blood, and the Piegan.  Grouped together they are sometimes collectively referred to as Blackfeet Indians.  The Omaha, Arapahoe, Crow, Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Menominee, Sauk and Fox, Winnebago, Osage, Pawnee, Lakota (Sioux), Gros Ventre, Cheyenne, and the Hidatsa, all participated in the use and ceremonies of sacred medicine bundles. 

                                                     Lakota War Shirt

Very old Blackfoot bundles were found among the Sarsi, Gros Ventre and the Fort Belknap Assiniboine in the1800s which seem to support the Blackfoot claim of priority in their development due to the age and genealogy of the bundles.

                                                            Blackfoot Tipi, Circa 1890

 Among the Menominee are true bundles which have their songs inspired by supernatural visions and dreams.  These are chiefly war bundles.  The Winnebago, Sauk and Fox, and the Omaha all had similar bundles but little authentic information has come down to the outside world of their esoteric use.  The Hidatsa had a kind of bundle which was actually a medicine bag that contained small fetish-like objects such as scalps, sticks, glass beads, bones, stone and hide.  This paraphernalia would all be considered separate bundles or a whole doctor’s outfit by the Blackfoot.

                                           Montana, Once Exclusively Blackfoot Indian Land

The Cheyenne practiced rituals of the medicine bundle very similar in content to that of the Blackfoot.  Many of their taboos in the handling of bundles are strikingly similar such as moving around in the direction of the sun while handling a bundle and creating a smudge.  The Pawnee shared with the Blackfoot a tradition for opening a sacred bundle at the first thunder in the spring.

                                         Blackfoot Warrior On The Bow River

George Bird Grinnell, in his book, Pawnee Hero Stories, says:

“In the lodge or house of every Pawnee of influence, hanging on the west side, and so opposite the door, is the sacred bundle neatly wrapped in buckskin, and black with smoke and age.  What these bundles contain we do not know.  Sometimes, from the ends protrude bits of scalp, and the tips of pipe stems and slender sticks, but the whole contents of the bundle are known only to the priests and to its owner…perhaps, not always even to him.  The sacred bundles are kept on the west side of the lodge, because, being thus furthest from the door, fewer people will pass by them than if they were hung in any other part of the lodge.  Various superstitions attach to those bundles.  In the lodges where certain of them are kept it is forbidden to put a knife in the fire; in others a knife may not be thrown; in others, it is not permitted to enter the lodge with the face painted; or again, a man cannot go in if he has feathers in his head. On certain sacred occasions the bundles are opened, and their contents form part of the ceremonial of worship.”

                                                             Pawnee Medicine Bundle

                                                        Pawnee National Grasslands

Among the Blackfoot the concept of individual ownership and the transfer of ownership is prevalent while the Pawnee kept village bundles that were protective medicine for the whole community.  Among the Winnebago, bundles were in the possession of the clans and keepers of the bundles were chosen exclusively from within their respective clans.

                      Wabokieshiek, Winnebago Prophet And Medicine Man With His Family

  Clan tradition about the possession of bundles and medicine bead necklaces was strong among the Sauk and Fox and the Hidatsa.  Blackfoot medicine, however, was always individual and open for transfer among their cultural affinities.  In transfer Blackfoot bundles pass from Piegan to Blood or Northern Blackfoot or even to a Sarsi or Gros Ventre.  The Sundance of the Blackfoot is inseparably linked to the ceremony of a bundle.  This practice has it counterpart in the ritual life of the Hidatsa, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Kiowa.  Bundles and their accompanying rituals are not practiced in the pueblos of the southwest. Navajo shamans have something that might look like Blackfoot bundles, but is actually only a receptacle for objects used in certain ceremonies.
                                                                In A Blackfoot Camp

The innumerable number of bundle rituals among the Blackfoot and their neighboring tribes seem to spring from one parent concept that traces its lineage initially through the Blackfoot Beaver Bundle ritual.  Objects captured in war or beads acquired in some unusual or interesting way were often regarded in themselves as bundles for which rituals were subsequently dreamed of.  The concept of the bundle is so strong among Plains Indians that they historically regarded an object prized by another as some sort of bundle and expected to participate in an accompanying ritual. This is how many bundle ceremonies initially came into being.

                Montana Landscape, Part of The Country Where Blackfoot Indians Once Roamed Freely

This posting is part one of a seven part series.  Coming soon: Origin of Blackfoot Medicine Bundle, Ceremonies of The Bundle, The Beaver Bundle, The Medicine Pipe Bundle, The Bear Knife Bundle, Crow Love Medicine, Common Types of Beads Found in Blackfoot Bundles.


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  2. Thank you so much for all the information! It was very interesting to me. Apparently one of my ancestors was one of the last people to flee to Canada after Custer's battle . She was Lakota Sioux. And I thoroughly enjoy your writing regarding the past. Thank you, Karen