Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Origin of Blackfoot Medicine Bundles

                                        Blackfoot Indian Country Near Browning, Montana

 The transfer of power, which is the only source for the creation of a true bundle, takes place through the dream experience.  All power in the universe is centered in the sun (Natoji) and pervades the earth. This power communicates with individuals by making itself manifest through dreams.

An anonymous Blackfoot medicine man, speaking to Clark Wissler (Social Organization and Ritualistic Ceremonies of The Blackfoot Indians, The American Museum of Natural History, Volume VII, 1912) says:

            “The shell bead necklace of which I speak was given to me in a dream at the time of the Sundance.  An old man with white hair and very old clothes came to me and said, ‘This medicine lodge is ours, and when you wish the weather to be good you must go to the water and dive.  Now I give you this power and you must give me what I ask for.’  Since this time I have kept the beads and have exercised my power over the weather.  At the time of the Sundance I keep the rain away.”

                                           Blackfoot Tipis Set Up For The Sundance Ceremony

Cloaked as animate objects such as a person or animal, Natoji appears in the dream and confers power for some specific purpose.  This is done in the dream (and later faithfully reproduced in the material world in all its detail) with an accompanying ceremony.  The hands and feet of the recipient are usually painted, songs are sung and the directions are given for invoking the power.  The obligations or taboos attached to the medicine are fully explained.  This is regarded as a sacred covenant between the dreamer and the spirit being.  Each is expected to honor the obligations that help maintain the power of the medicine.

                                           Blackfoot Elder With Ceremonial Pipe, Circa 1890
A man has the right to transfer this medicine to another but in doing so he must relinquish any of the benefits derived from it. It would be useless to appeal to the medicine in his moment of need for its power has passed out of his life.  When such a transfer occurs, the original ceremony is reproduced for the new owner and he becomes custodian of the power of the medicine until death or transfer.  The most vital part of the ritual is the song and the initial transfer of power achieves its climax in the presentation of the song.  Occasionally you will find a man willing to sell his charm or medicine to an outsider but never will he sing the sacred song that accompanies it.  The object itself might be replaced without gravely offending the power concerned, but if the songs were revealed, that was the end of the medicine.

                                                      Blackfoot Man With Medicine Pipe

The dream experience in which medicine is given is one of the most desired events in the life of a Blackfoot.  Many, in apparent good faith, have sought this experience without success.  This event is sought by going out to a lonely place and fasting night and day until the vision comes.  A young man seeking the vision usually comes under the guidance of a man of medicine experience who will initiate a preliminary ceremony to encourage a dream,  but the young man must make his journey alone.  At the appointed place where he awaits his dream he prays to all things of the sky, earth, and water to take pity on him.  He cries out in a mournful dirge-like wail with words composed spontaneously.

                               Chief Mountain In Blackfoot Country, Site of Many Vision Quests

The only object that accompanies him on his journey is the filled medicine pipe which is kept in hopeful anticipation of the dream person.  The majority of people fail in this quest because of unexplained and unreasonable fears that assails them on the first night, causing them to flee from their post.  Even older and more experienced men often find this ordeal more than they can bear.  A man of medicine rarely resorts to this trial because dreams of the necessary quality come to them in normal sleep.  Most men secure their charms or various medicines from others who do have dreams or from bundles that are available for transfer.  Yet every man of significance within the tribe is expected to have one experience in which he receives a supernatural helper and acquires a song.  Of this, he will never speak directly except to one intimate friend to whom he will say, ‘When I am about to die, please paint me in the sacred way and sing this song. That way I may recover.’  This song is absolutely secret and never used except in the face of death. 

                                                Blackfoot Cermeonial Gathering, Circa 1850

If a man owning an important bundle loses a loved one, he may become distraught and vengefully cast the bundle into the fire or otherwise desecrate it because it failed to prevent the death.  Many bundles were destroyed or lost in this manner.  A previous owner, if he is near, will come and removed the bundle at once.  After awhile medicine men will approach the grieving man and suggest that he again take up the care of his bundle.  A sweat lodge is then performed, the owner freshly dressed and painted, and returned to his tipi with the bundle to resume his former functions with regard to its care. 

Ceremonies of the Medicine Bundle

A medicine bundle, even if it is nothing more than a few ancient shell beads or old Venetian glass trade beads, is always wrapped and hidden from careless viewing.  Its sole purpose is spiritual in origin.  It should never be regarded as ‘decorative’ or ‘artistic’ as this is only incidental and often detracts from realizing the full significance of beads or sewn beadwork used in a medicine bundle.

                       Old Venetian Glass Trade Beads Such as These Might Be Found in Medicine Bundles

Originally soft animal pelts were used for this purpose but today brightly-colored calicos are favored and occasionally silk, trade cloth, or red flannel.  The bundle can only be opened in a ceremonial way and each bundle has its own private ritual, some of which involve sweat lodges and days of fasting prior to the ceremony itself.  The ceremony can last for hours or days. 

                                              Traditional Blackfoot Sweat Lodge, Circa 1850

In general, all rituals of the bundle contain at least two or more of the following elements:
  1. Opening the Bundle.  In Blackfoot ceremonialism every knot and cord protecting the sacred bundle is literally sung off before the contents are exposed to view. A small smoky fire called the smudge is ignited with charcoal and the bundle is brought down from its place in the tipi.  It is customarily tied up high to a pole and not kept on the ground.  It is then put into ceremonial position with each movement punctuated by certain phases in the passage of the song.  This proceeds in a gradual fashion until the bundle is completely undone.  With a small bundle the ceremony will often be limited to the smudge and the unwrapping accompanied by a song.

    Blackfoot Medicine Bundle
2.       Dancing.  In most of the longer rituals dancing is incorporated, although it is not central to the   ceremonial theme.  After the bundle has been opened, the ritual will progress to dancing accompanied by songs with or without words.  A bone whistle, rattles, bells or drums may be used.  There was no exact pattern for these dances and each movement sprang from the spirit of the moment.  Dancers were encouraged to improvise their own steps.  Sometimes more than one would dance around the bundle.  In many ceremonies, the guests will dance with the bundle or the ex-owner may take it up to dance with, but this is regarded as risky business.
3.      Face Painting.  Few bundle ceremonies exist without their own definite style of painting for the face and hands.  Bundles of power or significance include many bags of paint.  The dream person always paints or exhibits a style of painting to the one receiving power and explains the symbolism of the design.  The dreamer is charged with the duty to do likewise and no medicine ceremony can be effective without this ritual painting of the face and occasionally the hands.  As the Blackfoot were very well clothed, there is no highly developed form of body-painting outside of the face and hands.

                                                     Traditional Blackfoot Shirt, Circa 1850

                                    Face Painting is a Significant Part of Blackfoot Ceremonialism

4.      Prayers.  The Blackfoot are very involved in prayer as a primary part of their lives.   Any unusual or serious venture requires prayers of permission.  He will pray for authority to speak sacred things or to narrate a religious story. The whole bundle ritual can be seen as a prayer, yet within the structure of the ceremony, formal prayers occur in the execution of the liturgy:

Okohe! Okohe! Iyo!* Painted-buffalo-tipi, Ear-rings,
The-only-medicine-pipe man, Calf Bull, help me,
help me.  Red Eagle, I call on you especially to help
me.  Help me for this now, that my family may
prosper, that my children may prosper.  Okohe!
Okohe! Naatoji! Iyo! Sun, take pity on me; take pity
on me!  Old age, old age, we are praying to your old
age, for that I have chosen.  Your children, Morningstar,
seven stars, the bunched stars, these and all stars, we
call upon for help.  I have called upon all of them.  Take
pity on me that I may lead a good life.**

*Expressions used only in prayer, meaning to listen or we beseech you.
**Social Organization and Ritualistic Ceremonies of The Blackfoot Indians. By Clark Wissler. Anthropological Papers of The American Museum of Natural History,1912

                                         Blackfoot Medicine Man, Circa 1850

The words and content of the prayers are not fixed and each ritual develops its prayers spontaneously based on the individual bundle owner’s hopes and desires.  During the prayer an officiator of the ceremony must focus intensely and keep a pure heart, his attention centered on the ritual.  This is believed to be paramount for the effective performance of the medicine ceremony.

  1. The Smudge Altar.  At every bundle ceremony some vegetable substance is burned on an altar to create considerable smoke or ‘make the smudge.’  The most commonly used smudge is sweetgrass (Sevastana Odorata) or sweet pine (Abies Lasiocarpa), but wild parsnip (Leptotaenia Multifolium) is also required in certain liturgies.  The customary procedure is for an assistant to remove an ember from the fire with wooden tongs made from a forked stick and place it on the smudge altar.  The ceremonial leader then places the plant smudge on the ember and all who are about to handle the bundle or wear a medicine necklace hold their hands over the smoke.  A new smudge is often made for each stage of the ceremony.  Powerful bundles can require two daily smudges in the tipi where they are kept.  The usual place for a smudge altar is to the rear of the fire where grass and topsoil are cleared away to form the altar.  They can be rectangular,  triangular, or circular in shape as the ritual requires.  The surface of the smudge altar is often worked into symbolic designs with colored earth which suggests some indirect relationship to the sand paintings of the Navajos.

                                                          Blackfoot Medicine Pipe

An altar can be as simple as that used in a Beaver Bundle ceremony which is only a cleared circular space with a slight depression that emphasizes the round ridge of earth on its perimeter.  In the more elaborate Hair-Lock Suit ceremony the altar is created by clearing a space two feet square and covering it with white earth.  A crescent moon is then laid out in black with a yellow border.  The circular designs in the same color represent the sun and Morningstar while two narrow rectangles in red represent either sun dogs or sunbeams.  To the back of the altar is set a row of buffalo chips covered with sage grass.

  1. The Sweat Lodge.  The sweat lodge is a purification ritual (similar in physical effect to the modern sauna) which usually precedes all important bundle ceremonies. When a man first acquires an important bundle or powerful medicine necklace he is required to perform the sweat lodge ceremony before the medicine is transferred to him by the previous owner. He is also expected to give the form owner a fine horse (or more) as part of the ceremonial obligation imposed on him. The usual form is twelve to fourteen willow poles t wined into an oval frame and covered with blankets and robes. The Sundance bundle, however, requires the use of 100 willows in its frame. The beads or complete bundle are never taken inside the lodge, but in some rituals they are left wrapped on the top of the lodge.

                                                  Blackfoot In Front Of Lodge, Circa 1913
A hole is dug in the center of the lodge for hot stones and the dirt from the hole must be placed on the west side of the outer wall. The shape of this hole varies between square, rectangular, heart-shaped, triangular or circular, depending on the ceremony. The opening must face the east and the fire for heating the stones is prepared outside, to the east of the lodge. The stones are carried in with two straight sticks. If a heated stone drops it must remain where it fell or else it will bring bad luck. A smudge is made at the beginning and sixteen songs are usually sung in the lodge while water is poured on the stones in seven splashes, using a buffalo horn spoon. As the vapor rises, participants use an eagle wing or buffalo tail to beat their skin. The covering of the lodge is raised four times.

The frame of the lodge may be used again and again, but new stones are required with every separate ceremonial sweat lodge. Young men made the sweat lodge when they first acquire a medicine. By the early years of the 20th century many men had never experienced a sweat lodge.  As part of the resurgence of interest in traditional ways, the sweat lodge came back into widespread use.  Returning Native Americans servicemen and stressed urban dwellers found this purification ceremony immensely helpful in achieving balance and harmony.

               Young Blackfoot Men Preparing for a Twelve Step Recovery Sweat Lodge

To make a sweat lodge and offer the invitation to another to participate lays a ceremonial obligation on both the giver and the receiver. A sweat lodge will be offered by an esteemed elder if his guest is the owner of some important medicine. When a child is given a name or when offerings are made to the sun a ritual sweat lodge will also be performed. Usually they are incorporated into the myriad ceremonial activities of different Plains Indian tribes which mark the significant events of a person’s life such as birth, death, marriage, or the transfer of a bundle.

                                                   Blackfoot Pipe Bag, Circa 1850

  1. Songs.  There are no important medicine beads or bundle that do not have their own secret song which is primary and central to their power and effectiveness. All songs come directly from visions or the dream experience. There is no concept in early Blackfoot or related Plains culture that would allow one to spontaneously or deliberately compose a sacred song. A man walking the woods may hear the bird’s song and claim it was given to him for his music or he may get a song from a ghost. Then there are songs learned from other tribes that are acquired with medicine bundles. But the most powerful song is the one that is acquired during pure cosmic vision or union with the sun force, Natoji. The following fragment of song is one of a limited number recorded around 1900 AD. It is part of a song used in the transfer of a medicine bundle:
            The above, he hears me. It is powerful
            The wind is my medicine.
            The water is my home.
            The rain is my medicine.
            The below (earth), he hears me.

            Man, he says, my tipi is powerful.
            Woman, he says, my tipi is powerful
            Rain is my medicine.
            The children (all the water animals), they hear me.
            The below (earth), it is powerful.

            Man, he says, the water is our home.
Woman, she says, the water is our home. 
                                       The Snake River, Home to the Blackfoot People

Coming soon: The Beaver Bundle, Crow Love Medicine