Sunday, May 27, 2012

Plains Indian Medicine and Charms

                                                                      Blackfoot Land
The Beaver Bundle
No tribe in America has a bundle to compare with the size, scope and history of the complete Beaver Bundle Ritual. Most of the rituals of other bundles evolved from this ancient ceremony.  The Beaver Bundle’s origin cannot be dated although it can be traced back several hundred years before contact with the Europeans.  There are variations in theory as to what must be present in a Beaver Bundle, but it definitely must include the skins of at least twenty-four separate species of animals and birds, often adorned in a ritual way with beads. The contents of the bundle are placed on a buffalo calf robe, hair side out, and the whole robe wrapped up in tanned elk skin painted red. It should be tied up with strings of elk skin.

                                                         The Beaver Bundle of Mad Wolf

The owner as well as those who have previously owned a bundle are referred to as beaver men and are believed to be skilled in predicting the weather. The responsibility for this bundle rests solely in the hands of one man who is assisted by his wife in the care of the bundle. It is kept in the rear of the tipi, resting against a parfleeche filled with dried meat and laying upon a bag of dried berries. In this way it differs from other bundles as it is stored on the ground. The Beaver Bundle is never taken outside except when the ashes are removed from the fire or when the camp is moved. The owner must conduct a ceremony or provide an acceptable leader for one should he be called upon by a person who has made the sacred vow to open the bundle. He must open it at tobacco planting in the spring and at the harvest when new tobacco is put into the bundle itself.

                                        Blackfoot Man and His Wife with Beaver Bundle

The beaver man enjoys great prestige among the people as it takes years to master the complete ritual. When his bundle is opened for a vow, he always receives presents. Traditionally, the gifts would include a new horse or beads with metaphysical significance. If he transfers his bundle he still may lead the ceremony for others for which he is rewarded. Far more important than any material reward the bundle may bring are the spiritual blessings that the owner and his family share. Among the Blackfoot, there is great mystical appeal in the continuing study of this ritual. It often becomes the principle meaning and ruling passion of a man’s life. It has been said that even after years of study, no man ever masters the complete ceremony.

There are many taboos that govern the life of a true beaver man. A few of  them are: he must place food before everyone entering his tipi and must never show any fear of the water as he supposedly possesses power over it. All cooking must be done inside the tipi, no matter how hot the weather is. He must not go barefoot in the tipi. When sleeping, he can only be wakened by song and cannot rise before the seventh song. He must never strike a dog or kill any bird or animal.

                                                         A Blackfoot Medicine Pipe

The Medicine Pipe Bundle
Next to the Beaver Bundle, one of the most powerful and important bundles was the sacred pipe bundle. At the turn of the 20th century there were still thought to be seventeen true bundles in use on several reservations. The primary bundle contained the ceremonial pipe stem, made of catlinite, a reddish stone mined in Minnesota that is the traditional material for all Native American pipes. The stem of the pipe was usually decorated or fully beaded in a rich ceremonial way. The primary bundle also contained a head band of white buffalo skin and an eagle feather for the owner’s head. This bundle often had an elk skin binding around its middle and a cord for suspension it was sometimes carried to war. The whole bundle was wrapped in an outer covering of hairy skin from the black bear with an inner cover of scraped elk hide. The contents are composed of two bundles, referred to as primary and secondary. There are several styles of Medicine Pipe Bundles but they all contain variations of the items classified below that were contained in a bundle collected around 1900:

  1. Wrapping for the bundle: a tanned elk hide, a bear skin (in this case it an imitation of dog skin), a number of thongs and scraps of brightly-colored calico.
  2. The carry strap: a woman’s belt because it was her duty to carry the bundle.
  3. A woman’s shawl: all pipe bundles are usually covered with such a shawl.
  4. The beaded pipe stem, chief object in the bundle.
  5. Three medicine bead necklaces.
  6. A headdress of mountain goat wool used in place of white buffalo calf.
  7. Eagle wing feather, worn crosswise on the leader’s head.
  8. Bag of muskrat skin used for a rattle.
  9. Small pipe stem for ceremonial smoking.
  10.  Rattle to be used in the singing of certain songs.
  11.  The head of a crane.
  12.  Skin of a loon in the shape of a tobacco pouch.
  13.  Fetus of a deer used as a tobacco pouch.
  14.  Three sticks used as a pipe rack.
  15.   Skins of two squirrels.
  16.   Skin of a prairie dog.
  17.  Bowl of the pipe stem
  18.  Skin of a muskrat.
  19.  Skin of a mink.
  20.  Skin of an owl.
  21.  Skins of three birds (unidentified).
  22.  Stick for securing the bundle over the door on the outside where it is occasionally placed in the morning. 
  23.  Tripod on which the bundle hangs when out of doors.
  24.  Rawhide bag with accessories.
  25.  Small bag of roots used for the smudge.
  26.  Six bags containing red paint.
  27.  Muskrat skin for whipping sweat from the face of the owner.
  28.  Bag of pine needles for the smudge.
  29.  Three paint sticks for applying designs to the face.
  30.  Tongs used for placing fire on t he smudge place.
  31.  Tobacco cutting board.
  32.  Two pipe stokers.
  33.  Wooden bowl for the pipe man’s food.
  34.   Fan made of an eagle’s wing for the owner.
  35.  Whip for owner’s horse.
  36.   Thong lariat for owner’s horse
  37.   Painted buffalo robe for the owner.

Decorated buffalo robe of a medicine pipe owner. The upper part is painted red, below which are four claws of the thunder bird and spots representing hail. Attached to the robe is a small bag of sweet pine needles.

One of the most powerful medicine pipe bundles came from the Sarsi and was used mostly in war. The pipe came from the buffalo and was given in a dream. The owner of the pipe traditionally carried it to war and took the lead when they were pursuing an enemy. The decorated pipe was wrapped in cloth with a cover of red flannel. It had a carrying strap of otter skin with brass buttons sewn on it. To the end of this was tied a small beaded bag of medicine to be used in doctoring a tired horse. It was acquired by a Piegan and used when they killed the famous Assiniboine Chief, White-Dog. As they trailed him, the pipe man made medicine while others sang the pipe songs. Although White Dog had a good start on stolen horses and the Piegan had despaired of ever subjugating him, he was overtaken. This was attributed to the power of the Medicine Pipe Bundle which was finally buried, about 1850, with its last owner, Sitting-Curled-Around-Weasel  It was never made up again.

                                                         Plains Indian Medicine Bundle

An old experienced Piegan pipe man claims that the whole ceremony came with one original pipe from the Arapaho by transfer and from that moment on, pipe men have added their dreams to the ritual, eventually evolving into many derivative pipe ceremonies. Among the Blackfoot, it is believed that the pipe proper was first handed down by thunder. The ceremonies of the Medicine Pipe Bundle are also closely linked to legends that tell of the bear handing down the bundle.

                                     The Bear is an Iconic Totem in the Legends of Many Tribes

There is a myth that once a beautiful young Blackfoot girl had taken a bear for her lover. Every day she would tell her mother that she was going into the woods for kindling, but, in fact, she would take food from their tipi to her lover and play with him all day. Her mother grew suspicious, followed her one day, and discovered the incredible situation. She fled back to camp and told her husband.  

      “Why have you taken a bear for your lover when you could marry any strong young brave from our tribe?” the distraught father asked his daughter.
     The girl did not want to cause such unhappiness in her family but she loved the bear and stood her ground.
     “Father,” she told him, “Do not be disheartened. The bear has great power and will give you a medicine pipe.”

                                                                    Blackfoot Girl

The father was somewhat appeased by the news, realizing that bears signify strength and courage. After that the girl made many visits to the bear who gave her the pipe bundle wrapped in bear skin. The girl gave the bundle to her father and instructed him in the ceremonies of its use. The bear also told the girl that the word, bear, must never be uttered in a tipi containing this bundle nor should a pipe man ever utter it. If anyone says the word, bear, in front of a pipe man, he will have bad dreams of impending danger and he must never walk in the path of a bear or he will get sore feet.

The Bear Knife Bundle
This was a famous medicine that was on the verge of extinction by the late 1800s. It appears that there were still some men in the 1920s that knew the ritual but had ceased to care for the bundle. The principle objects in the bundle were a large dagger-like knife with the handle attached to the jaws of a bear and a pair of beaded armlets for the owner’s ceremonial use. One of the reasons for the decline of this ritual was the brutality associated with the transfer ritual in which the recipient must catch the knife which is hurled at him. He is then cast naked upon a bed of thorns. Then he is ritually painted and beaten with edge of the knife. This bundle was thought to be so powerful that its owner was seldom killed for its historic powers frightened everyone into submission. This bundle supposedly originated with the Sarsi after their initial contact with the Blackfoot concept of bundles. It was used among the Piegan, Gros Ventre and Blackfoot tribes.

Three Piegan Charms
A typical example of a Piegan medicine charm would be one made from a crescent-shaped bit of deer skin which hangs rounded-side up and represents the moon with a brass button top for the Morningstar. Along the bottom edge are twelve brass nails representing stars. A pendant made from plumes and a bit of weasel fur (associated with medicine concerning the Morningstar) hangs at the center of twelve small bells bunched together at the center of the bottom edge.

                                                 Piegan War Necklace and Hair Ornament

Another Piegan charm consisted of two objects used together as medicine, a war necklace and its accompanying hair ornament.  One documented sample of this type of medicine (dated to the early 1800s) was a result of the dream experience. The necklace had been passed down to its last owner with a song designed to ward of bullets or blows.  The body of the necklace was a string of black glass beads representing the night sky. Seven small buckskin bags, edges trimmed in blue seed beads, were attached to the necklace, signifying the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The bags contained leaves of an unidentified plant. The centerpiece of the necklace was a brass disc that denoted the sun hung with strips of weasel fur and four small black buttons that resembled bells. Also suspended from the pendant, but reaching down to a greater length, were fifteen more small brass disc pendants, each ending in a red  glass bead and a brass button that represented the stars.

One of the most famous war charms was owned by One-Spot, a legendary warrior of the Blood Tribe. He carried it for many years and his feats were credited to this medicine, not his personal courage. The medicine was based on direct dream experience and had its own song. Many influential people tried to acquire it, but One-Spot refused to relinquish it. It was constructed of a wide strip of dog skin from the nose to the tip of the tail, mounted or red flannel. To the eye holes are attached disc beads and brass buttons. Over the ears are quill-covered strips of buffalo hide. At various points are feathers of owl, hawk, prairie chicken, and eagle, along with strips of weasel skin. Two bells adorn the tail piece. The tail piece was held in hand while the ritual song was sung to the accompaniment of bells.

Crow Love Medicine
 An interesting example of private medicine is the Crow Love-Medicine blanket. It was first created by a Crow named Fog and passed through several owners, becoming an inspiration for the creation of similar medicines. It was handed down to its last owner, Bear-Below who told the story of its creation:

When Fog was twenty years old, he went into the mountains and fasted. At dawn on the fifth day he had a vision of the bull elk coming up from a river. He came to the edge of the woods where he stopped in front of Fog and became transformed into a man. This man-elk spoke to Fog and said, “I am the medicine elk; when I want a woman, I can make the one I love best come to me.”   

                                                  The Elk, Giver of Powerful Love Medicine

While he spoke the man-elk pranced in front of Fog wearing a painted elk robe and proudly turned his body from left to right as he sang, “I am the medicine elk…I am staying in the mountains.” As his song progressed a female otter climbed from its den, changed into a lovely woman, and stood beside the man-elk.

“When you want the woman you love to come to you,” the man-elk said, “do as I have just done. Make a blanket of elk skin, paint it like the one I am wearing, and parade in front of the woman you want. Sing the song I have just given you. She will come to you. Before wearing the blanket, smudge it, as well as yourself, with the smoke of Mountain Holly.”

                          Crow Red and Green Wool Shirt, Circa 1870, decorated with Elk Teeth

When he returned to camp, Fog made the blanket, decorated and painted it in the manner given by the elk. The yellow spot in the center symbolized the female otter’s nest. An eagle plume was banded with beads and fastened to the blanket to symbolize the elk who had handed down the medicine. The undulating of this plume in the wind represented the turning and parading of the male in front of the female. The yellow painted border of the blanket represented the magic circle from which no female could escape. Fog said he had used the blanket successfully many times.

                                                         Land of the Crow Indians

1 comment:

  1. One bit of etiquette is that bears are never spoken of in the vicinity of medicine pipes. Yet right in the section on medicine pipes, this page abruptly adds a picture of a bear and describes them as "iconic totems". They are, of course, but placing them *right there* in that specific section is just perfectly wrong.