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

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

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.