Records of Native Mysteries from the 1800s
BY RICHARD IRVING DODGE
We have elsewhere remarked that it is difficult for a Christian to draw the line between religion and morality, but unless he can do so, it will be impossible for him to understand the Indian. He must even go further; he must tone his mind to the consideration of a people not only without a code of morals, but without a God in our sense of the term. Religion is by us understood to be the love and reverence borne towards the Supreme Creator of all things, and a performance of all those duties which are presumed to be in accordance with his will. In this sense the Indian has no religion.
Abstractly, religion is the disposition implanted in the inner constitution of man to bow down before the Unknowable. In this sense, man is so universally a religious being, that travellers’ tales of finding a people in Africa, so low in the scale of humanity as to have no religious belief or superstition of any kind, have met with doubt, if not absolute discredit.
Polytheism would seem to be the first and most natural form in which religious belief would manifest itself, and this first idea would naturally, after a time, be modified according to circumstances of locality, or the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the people.
This is eminently the case among the Indian tribes. Some believe in a great many gods, some in but few. There is not to my knowledge a single Indian tribe that believes in but one. Some believe in gods of mountains, of rivers, of plains, etc., others believe that these are not gods but subordinate spirits. It would be a life-time labor for many men to collect all the shades and gradations of belief among Indians. I will give here the religion of the Southern Cheyennes, premising that, for every individual Indian of this or any other wild tribes, who has mounted above the plane of religious belief here set forth, a hundred are still below it.
In a letter to Schoolcraft, Major Neighbors asserts that the Comanches believe in “one Supreme Being, the author of both good and bad, who lives beyond the sun, and rules the world.”
I knew Major Neighbors well, while he was agent of the Comanches, and had frequent conversations with him as to the habits and beliefs of those Indians. The ideas expressed to Schoolcraft were those entertained by both of us while we were comparatively unacquainted with the Indians.
Subsequent study and better opportunities for forming a correct opinion, convinced me that the Comanches believe, as do most of other Plains tribes, in two gods, but are more than ordinarily indisposed to speak of the Bad God.
The Good and the Bad Gods
The Indian is as religious as the most devout Christian, and lays as much stress on form as a Ritualist. He believes in two gods, equals in wisdom and power.
One is the Good God. His function is to aid the Indian in all his undertakings, to heap benefits upon him, to deliver his enemy into his hand, to protect him from danger, pain, and privation. He directs the successful bullet, whether against an enemy, or against the “beasts of the field.” He provides all the good and pleasurable things of life. Warmth, food, joy, success in love, distinction in war, all come from him.
The other is the Bad God. He is always the enemy of each individual red man, and exerts to the utmost all his powers of harm against him. From him proceed all the disasters, misfortunes, privations, and discomforts of life. He causes all the pain and suffering, he brings the cold, he drives away the game, he deflects the otherwise unerring bullet; from him come defeat and wounds and death.
The action of these two gods is not in any way influenced by questions of abstract right or morality, as we understand them.
The Good God is always the Indian’s friend and assistant in everything that he wishes or proposes to do. If the Indian desires to steal a horse, or the wife of a friend, to kill another Indian, or to raid a settlement of whites, it is the Good God to whom he turns for countenance, and it is by his assistance that he hopes to accomplish his purpose.
The Bad God always thwarts; and from the lameness of a horse to final death, every annoyance, mortification, or disaster is attributed to the direct influence of the Bad God.
No Future Punishment
Having no sense of right or wrong (as we understand those terms), no innate consciousness, no idea of moral accountability, either present or future, the Indian ascribes to the direct action of one power all the good, and to that of the other power all the bad, that may happen to him.
Why, or wherefore, the Indian knows not, but he is firmly convinced that not an hour, not a moment passes, without a struggle between the two gods, of which he is the immediate cause and subject.
The Good God is not an exacting or jealous god. For his unremitting labors, his devoted services, his constant watchfulness in behalf of the Indian, he demands nothing in return. No prayers are necessary, for he does the very best he can without being asked. No thanks are necessary, for he does these things because he chooses to do them. He is the Indian’s friend as the Bad God is his enemy, for some reason of his own, impenetrable, inscrutable.
These two gods are the gods and rulers of the life only in this world, for while the Indian firmly believes in the immortality of the soul, and life after death, the power of these gods does not extend to it. Their function is restricted entirely to benefits or injuries in this life, and the Indian’s condition after death does not in any way depend either on his own conduct while living, or on the will of either of the gods.
All peccadilloes and crimes bring, or do not bring, their punishment in this world, and whatever their character in life, whatever the actual “deeds done in the flesh,” the souls of all Indians reach, after some days’ journey, a paradise called by them “The Happy Hunting Grounds,” unless debarred by accident.
There are two ways in which the Indian soul can be prevented from reaching this paradise. The first is by scalping the head of the dead body. Scalping is annihilation; the soul ceases to exist. This accounts for the eagerness of Indians to scalp all their enemies, and the care they take to avoid being themselves scalped. Not unfrequently Indians do not scalp slain enemies. This comes from their belief that each person killed by them (and not annihilated by scalping) will be their servant in the next world. It will be found invariably that the slain enemies were either very pusillanimous or remarkably brave. The Indian reserves the first to be his servant, because he expects to have no trouble in managing him, and the last, to gratify his vanity in the future state by having a servant so well known as a stalwart and renowned warrior in this world.
This superstition is the occasion for the display of the most heroic traits of Indian character. Reckless charges are made and desperate chances taken to carry off unscalped the body of a chief or friend. Numerous instances have occurred when many were killed in vain efforts to recover and carry off unscalped the bodies of slain warriors. A Homer might find many an Indian hero as worthy of immortal fame as Achilles for his efforts to save the body of his friend, and no Christian missionary ever evinced a more noble indifference to danger, than the savage Indian displays in his efforts to save (as he thinks) his friend’s soul. Let the scalp be torn off, and the body becomes mere carrion, not even worthy of burial.
This was, only a few years ‘ago, almost the universal orthodox belief of the Plains Indians. It will be seen in a subsequent chapter on scalping, that this belief is rapidly losing ground.
The Indian Hell
The other method the Indian can be off from the Happy Hunting Grounds is by strangulation. The Indian believes that the soul escapes from the body by the mouth, which opens of itself at the moment of dissolution to allow a free passage. Should death ensue by strangulation, the soul can never escape, but must always remain with, or hovering near the remains, even after complete decomposition.
As the soul is always conscious of its isolation, and its exclusion from participation in the joys of paradise, this death has peculiar terrors for the Indian, who would infinitely prefer to suffer at the stake, with all the tortures that ingenuity can devise, than die by hanging.
This is the only hell that Indian religion or philosophy has arrived at, and it will be noticed that this terrible and endless disaster may be a mere matter of accident. The unfortunate sufferer might be a man of probity and wisdom (from the Indian standpoint), a woman of virtue, or an innocent child, but should one or the other chance to become entangled in the lariat of a grazing horse and strangled, the soul would surely suffer the Indian hell.
Believing that no line of conduct of his own can avail him for good or evil; feeling his helplessness and entire dependence on the relative powers of the two Great Beings who fight continually for or against him; the Indian’s first and most important concern is to find some sure means by which he can discover which of the gods has the ascendancy for him at any particular time. For this he resorts to divination.
The Medicine Mystery
Every Indian language has a word expressive of the attitude of the gods towards the Indian. For lack of a better term, this is translated into the English word “medicine.”
Catlin, writing from among the Crows and Blackfeet, says, “Medicine” is a great word in this country….In its common acceptation here it means mystery and nothing else.…The fur traders in this country are nearly all French, and in their language a doctor or physician is called ‘medecin.’ The Indian country is full of doctors, and as they are all magicians, and skilled, or profess to be skilled, in many mysteries, the word ‘medicine’ has become habitually applied to everything mysterious or unaccountable.”
There is probably no room to doubt this to be the true origin of the term, but Catlin’s explanation of its meaning is not correct, or rather not complete.
The Indian thinks that he perfectly understands his religion, and believes himself to be as intimately acquainted with his gods as many of our ministers assume to be with theirs.
“Medicine” not only means “mystery,” but religious mystery. The word differing in each Indian language, but universally mistranslated “medicine” expresses the relation of the gods to each other, with reference to a tribe or particular individual.
The gods are always hostile to each other. One is always the Indian’s friend, the other always his enemy. This much is known with absolute certainty.
Certain things in nature are pleasing and helpful to the Good God; other things to the Bad God. Common use and habit have decided the religious status of all things to which the Indians are accustomed, but of anything new and therefore mysterious they are always in doubt. It may be “good medicine,” that is, pleasing to the Good God, but it may be the reverse. As the Indian stands in no fear of the Good God, but in most abject and dreadful awe of the Bad God, it is but natural in him to receive all innovations with the utmost caution and dread.
The term “medicine” is applied to every condition of the Indian life, to almost every object of its surroundings. A man gets up all right in the morning, feels splendidly, everything goes well with him. His “medicine” is good, that is, the Good God is in the ascendant for him that day. Another man does not feel very well, things go wrong, he misses a good shot at a deer, or his sweetheart shows him the cold shoulder. His “medicine” is bad, that is, the Bad God has him in his power for the time.
Everything supposed lucky or healthful, or indicative in any way of the presence and supremacy of the Good God is “good medicine,” everything the reverse is “bad medicine.”
Being, like all primitive people, extremely superstitious, there is scarcely anything that does not indicate the presence and pleasure of one or the other of the gods. The flight of a bird through the air, the course of a snake in the grass, the yelping of a fox, or the manner in which his pony carries his tail or cocks his ears, each and all have to the Indian a spiritual significance and meaning. Differing in this from the early Romans and some other primitive nations, he requires no augur, but can himself interpret all signs, at least to his own satisfaction. A party starting out on a dangerous foray will watch carefully every sign, and should something occur unusually ominous, it will return to camp to repeat the attempt under more favorable auspices.
For a more intimate knowledge of the immediate future, the Indian depends upon a process of making “medicine,” general in its entirety, but varying in its details, according to the peculiar ideas and superstition of each individual.
Earth or sands of different colors, ashes of certain plants, or of particular bones or portions of birds, animals, or reptiles, and other ingredients, varying with the special superstition of each individual Indian, are mixed together in a shallow dish or pan kept for that sole purpose, and gently stirred with a stick. From the combination of colors, or some other peculiarity developed by the process, the Indian believes he can infallibly divine which god is to him in the ascendant at the time.
Should the “medicine” be good, a small quantity is put up in tiny bags of dressed deer-skin and tied in the hair of the warrior, in the tail of his war-horse, and on the necks of his women and children. Should any be left over it is carefully burned in the lodge fire. Should the process develop “bad medicine,” the mixture is carried outside the camp and carefully buried in the ground, no one touching it.
There is no necessary similarity either in the results attained by different individuals, or in the conclusions deduced from them. Each Indian has been taught by his father, or nearest old warrior relative, the general principles involved in making “medicine,” and the general rules for determining its good and bad qualities.
The Momentous Question
At least one ingredient in the “medicine” of each Indian must be special to himself and a secret from all the world beside. On his initiation as warrior he has gone off alone to some solitary mountain or secluded thicket, spending many long and anxious hours in deep religious meditation of the question, the most momentous of his life, “What shall that ingredient be?” When hunger and thirst have exhausted his vital powers, he falls into a trance, during which the important secret is revealed to him.
Thenceforward he is not only man and warrior, but priest for himself and family (if he has one), makes his own “medicine,” and by oft-repeated experiment becomes as expert in reading the secret involved in the combination as were the augurs of Rome.
According to the best authorities and to tradition, it was the custom thirty or forty years ago for an Indian to select the special ingredient of his “medicine” but once in his life, sticking to and believing in it through all subsequent years of good or ill fortune. This is changed at the present time, and an Indian who has an unusually long or severe turn of bad luck, attributes his misfortune to the failure of his “medicine,” and going off alone will starve himself into a trance in the hope of having a new and more efficacious ingredient revealed to him.
The special and secret ingredient used by each Indian in his “medicine” is kept in a little pouch always on his person, and concealed even from his wives or most intimate friends.
This secret ingredient of each warrior’s “medicine” must not be confounded with his “totem.” The “medicine” is a purely religious matter, a secret between himself and his gods. The totem is not in any sense religious. It is the “coat-of-arms” of the individual, carried about with him on all occasions of ceremony or display, to be shown, examined, admired, handled. The two are frequently confounded even by persons who ought to know better.
No Indian will commence anything, or undertake a hunt or trivial journey of a few days, without first making “medicine.” If “good,” he goes away happy and sure of success, unless bad omens should subsequently disconcert and turn him back. If “bad,” he remains at home. In spring, summer, and autumn, when the Indian life is active, every head of a lodge will make “medicine” probably at least once a week.
The power of earnestness is well exemplified in the influence that the Indian religion obtains over the white trappers and “squaw-men” who live with them. Nine-tenths are sooner or later converted to the Indian idea, and many have firm faith in their power of making “medicine.”
The Great Spirit
The Indians believe in the existence of spirits, invisible beings, in no way connected with either of the gods. These spirits are neither good nor bad, and can do no serious injury to man, but delight in mischief. They live in rocks, mountains, woods, and deserts. It is the elf of our forefathers. Whatever of love or reverence may be in the Indian nature is bestowed on the Good God; and in speaking of the Great Spirit, it is to this god that they allude. Of his friendship and assistance to the extent of his ability they are always assured.
Of the Bad God they stand in most abject fear, and are constantly devising’ expedients by which they hope to evade or turn aside some portion of his wrathful power. They rarely speak of him; never, if it be possible to avoid it, mention his name.
Those most pious, or timid, put severe and oft-times ridiculous penances on themselves. One man will never allow some certain meat or game to be cooked for food, another will allow no loaded gun in his lodge, nor permit any man to enter it with a pistol on his person. One will always sit down in a certain way, or facing in a certain direction; another will always spit over his left shoulder, or take things given to him with his left hand. There is scarcely a warrior above the middle age who has not some peculiarity special and self-imposed by way of propitiation of the Evil One.
They believe that the Bad God may be sometimes bribed into an act of favor; and in the extremity of danger will vow, if permitted to escape, to consecrate a pony to his service.
These vows are faithfully and publicly carried out, and the pony consecrated becomes thenceforward a sacred animal, no extremity of need ever inducing any Indian of the band either to mount or strike him with a whip. I have seen several of these sacred ponies, and can aver that the Indian drives a shrewd bargain with the devil, the pony consecrated being invariably the most worthless old bag of bones in the whole herd.
Youdouism [voodoo] and Fetichism, being simply forms of belief in magic or idolatry, are discarded as forms of religion; and accepting Polytheism as the starting point of religious belief, the Indians, for so utterly savage a race, have made remarkable progress in their religious tenets, which supplemented by a code of morals, might have produced good results.
I do not think that they are dependent on contact with Christianity for any portion of their belief. They have worked out for themselves a theology, which, if I am informed by officers who have served in Oregon and Washington that the Pacific Indians are more honorable in carrying out their vows to the Evil One, the consecrated pony being always a first-class animal.
There is a curious point of resemblance between the beliefs of the wild Indian and the Christian. Both believe in two great beings. The former believes in a God and a Devil, equals in power and wisdom. Christians believe in an Omnipotent and All-merciful God, but are so inconsistent as to believe in a Devil, who, over human conduct and human souls, has ten times as much power as the Good God.
It is this one point of similarity that makes the conversion of the Indian to Christianity so extremely difficult. He cannot possibly be made to understand how the All-good God, if also all-powerful, can permit the All-bad God to do so much evil, and win so many souls. Might being always right with the Indian, he takes immediate issue on this paradox, and cannot be made to believe what is so entirely inconsistent with his established ideas.
Indians are great sticklers for form and lovers of ceremony, consequently the only Christian denomination that has made any perceptible progress in their nominal conversion is the Roman Catholic. I say nominal advisedly; for while I have known many Indians who professed Christianity, I have never yet met one who in his conversion had really quitted his ancient faith. He is a Christian just so far as it is expedient or useful to him.
Spotted Tail’s Religion
Three years ago, when Spotted Tail was using all his fine intellect, his tact, his social and official influence, to prevent his people from joining Sitting Bull, a conference was one day held, at which were assembled a few whites and a large number of Indians Sioux.
The principal white man present was an officer of the army, only a captain (for higher rank presumes either special good fortune or a life-time of service), but who, in knowledge of Indians and success in their management, is second to no man on the frontier. His Indian name is Black Beard.
After satisfactorily settling the questions of policy which had arisen, the conference closed, and its members engaged in familiar conversation.
Spotted Tail turned to the captain and said: “Black Beard, I have a serious question to ask you about religion. Can you answer it?”
“I am not very good authority on religious matters,” replied Black Beard,” and I don’t know whether I can answer it or not. But put your question, and I will give you my honest opinion.”
“Well,” said Spotted Tail, “I am bothered what to believe. Some years ago a good man, as I think, came to us. He talked me out of all my old faith; and after a while, thinking that he must know more of these matters than an ignorant Indian, I joined his church, and became a Methodist. After a while he went away; another man came and talked, and I became a Baptist; then another came and talked, and I became a Presbyterian. Now another one has come, and wants me to be an Episcopalian. What do you think of it?” “I was brought up an Episcopalian,” said Black Beard, “but I can’t give you any advice in the matter. I think that religion must be a matter of conscience, and that sect has little to do with it.”
“That,” said Spotted Tail, “is just what I am beginning to think. All these people tell different stories, and each wants me to believe that his special way is the only way to be good and save my soul. I have about made up my mind that either they all lie, or that they don’t know any more about it than I did at first. I have always believed in the Great Spirit, and worshipped him in my own way. These people don’t seem to want to change my belief in the Great Spirit, but to change my way of talking to him. White men have education and books, and ought to know exactly what to do, but hardly any two of them agree on what should be done.”
Origin Of Creation
The Plains tribes are extremely poor in tradition of any kind, and have no general belief as to the origin of Creation. To the inquiry, “Who made the world?” the reply is usually a fixed stare and a doubtful shake of the head, as if the question were a new one.
Occasionally I have been answered: “The white man says his God made it, and I guess it is so. I don’t know who else could have done it.”
I once talked with a grave and dignified Indian of such great age that he was no longer able to number his years. My questions were answered in a way which quite delighted me, and I began to believe I had found a treasure of Indian theological erudition. I finally asked him, “Who made the world?”
“The Great Spirit,” answered he, promptly.
“Which Great Spirit,” I continued, “the Good God or the Bad God?”
“Oh, neither of them,” answered he; “the Great Spirit that made the world is dead long ago. He could not possibly have lived as long as this.”
The Medicine Chief—Power and Influence Won By Reckless
Daring, Idol of the Squaws
From the lowest form of Fetichism to the Church of Christ, there has been no religion without its priests.
The faint glimmer of a spark of religious sentiment is no sooner awakened in the breast of the savage, than there immediately appears one “clothed with authority” to tell him all about it.
Priestcraft has been in all ages the strongest of earthly powers, and man is so constituted that it will probably remain so until “time shall be no more.”
In the preceding chapter I have described the religious belief of the Indian, and gone with him through the ordinary routine of his private devotions. But though each warrior head of a lodge is the priest for himself and family, there is in each tribe a “Medicine Chief,” whose word, in spiritual affairs, is all-powerful. He is necessarily a man of strongly marked character, with brains, dignity, and knowledge of men. He is not necessarily a chief by birth, nor even the head of a band, though his position as Medicine Chief always gives him a following.
His sacerdotal dignity brings no immunity from the dangers of war. On the contrary, the fighting force of the tribe never takes the field without his presence. In battle, his are the most reckless dashes on the enemy, for, to prove to his flock the efficacy of his medicine, he must show the perfect safety it affords him even in the midst of the greatest dangers. He claims to have power to overcome the devices of the Bad God, and his standing amongst his people depends on the ease and certainty with which he makes his claim good.
The reduction of the power of the head chief and the subsequent breaking up of the tribe into small bands has reduced the temporal standing of the medicine chief, and may have had some little effect towards diminishing his priestly authority; but the religious sentiment is so strongly implanted in the Indian nature, that he must always be the man of his tribe most worthy of consideration.
Formerly he relied upon his influence with the head chief for prompt punishment of any contempt or violation of his orders. Now their respect and obedience depend on the estimation in which he is held by his people, and on their religious training and enthusiasm.
The Indian has no Sabbath or Sunday; no regular time is set apart for the ordinary duties of religion. The Nez Perces, and one or two other small fragments of tribes, observe Sunday as a church day, and have a form of worship, corrupted from that taught them by Roman Catholic priests long years ago; but among the Plains Indians the priest is not expected at ordinary times to hold any meeting for worship, or to perform any ceremonies.
He has one or more wives, a fine herd of ponies, for he is always rich, and lives as do the other Indians. He has no social intercourse with the commons of the tribe, never entering (unless in sickness) any lodge except that of the chief or head men, and permitting no inferior warrior to enter his lodge, except on business. He maintains a grave and dignified demeanor, suited to his sacerdotal office and functions. He is a great favorite with the women of the tribe, all of whom have free access to his lodge, and to them he owes something of his power over the husbands. He is the recipient of constant offerings, nothing specially nice being cooked in any lodge that the women do not bring him a share of it.
Priest and Physician
Besides being the chief priest, he is also the physician of the tribe. This requires no special knowledge of the healing art, for as all disease is only a manifestation of the presence of the Bad God, if “He” can be exorcised by the spiritual power of the priest, the patient will get well at once.
Almost all Indians have some rude knowledge of herbs and simples in the treatment of wounds, so that the medicine chief is only called in sickness, and in extreme cases. He is paid only in case the patient recovers, a rule which it might be well to adopt in civilized life.
Exorcism of Spirits
The exorcism of the evil one is accomplished by incantation. In each tribe and band there are more or less old women who do the howling in all cases of sickness, and who stand only a little lower than the priest in power over the Bad God. These are immediately sent for in any alarming illness, and whether the patient is dying of consumption, or suffering from an acute attack of cholera morbus [gastroenteritis], the treatment is the same. Howls, only howls, most doleful and lugubrious. As the patient gets worse, the women of the lodge “lift up their voices” and howl in chorus; then the women of other lodges come around and join the howl, until the whole camp is a pandemonium of howls. If all this does no good, the medicine chief is sent for. He mutters incantations, performs some mysterious ceremonies, and finally putting a tom-tom into the hands of a lusty young acolyte, has it beaten with all force immediately over the head of the patient. This treatment generally very promptly finishes the matter one way or the other.
The Indians have an idea that strangers, particularly white strangers, are ofttimes accompanied by evil spirits. Of these they have great dread, as creating and delighting in mischief. One of the duties of the medicine chief is to exorcise these spirits. I have sometimes ridden into or through a camp where I was unknown or unexpected, to be confronted by a tall, half-naked savage, standing in the middle of the circle of lodges, and yelling in a sing-song, nasal tone, a string of unintelligible words.
At the first sound of his cry, the women and children huddle into their lodges, and in a moment no evidence of life can be seen, except the lank figure of the priest, the black, beady eyes of the occupants of the lodges, as they watch the new-comers through the partially closed doors, and the half-famished curs that sniff and yelp around.
The position or office of medicine chief is not hereditary (though there are a few instances where a father and son have held it), and is not conferred by chief or council. A man gains it by general, and not unfrequently, tacit consent of the people of the tribe.
The constant thought of every Indian man or woman is, “How shall I evade or counteract the power of the Bad God?”
The medicine chief is dead; the tribe in mourning. A warrior comes forward who says, “I have found the proper ‘medicine.’ I set at naught the power of the Bad God.”
In time of war every opportunity is given him to prove his assertion. Every risk that a man can run he has to take. Time and again he must put himself in the “imminent deadly breach,” and his “hair-breadth ‘scapes” must be so numerous and so marvellous as to be accounted for in no other way than that his medicine is perfect. That point once conceded beyond doubt, and his character and standing being satisfactory, he glides into the coveted position by general acquiescence.
When the native honors and dignity of hereditary chief are united with the acquired honor, military renown and spiritual power of the medicine chief, the result is an individual most dangerous, most potent for good or bad. Such an one was Black Hawk, and such an one is Sitting Bull. Other than the last named (of whose personal history little is known) the medicine chief most renowned of late years for his power over the Bad God was the Cheyenne, Medicine Arrow (Min-vitz-in-nan-epivomanist).
His father was medicine chief before him. Early in life the young man had gained such renown for his wonderful daring and marvellous escapes from apparently certain death, that when the father died he had no competitor for the vacant place.
He ascribed his wonderful immunity from wounds and sickness to his discovery of the secret of making an arrow so potent in its charm against the “evil one,” that no warrior who carried one could ever be hurt in any way.
Fortune favored him, and in the later years of his life, he found a ready sale in the spring, at a pony each, for all the arrows he could make during the winter. The fame of his arrows extended to all the tribes of the Plains; Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, Pawnees, all became his customers, and contended for the privilege of buying one of the life-preserving arrows.
A Famous Drunkard
More than any Indian on this continent since Black Hawk, he had the power to have united tribes, hostile to each other, in one grand crusade against the whites.
Fortunately for them, and for the Indians, he was a confirmed drunkard. The ponies gained so easily in spring and summer, were drunk up in autumn and winter. He would give a pony for a gallon, or if specially thirsty, even for a bottle of whiskey. On those terms he, of course, always got what he wanted.
He died on Tongue River in 1874, retaining to the end (in spite of his drunkenness) more repute for spiritual power, and more influence over the Plains tribes, than any Indian before or since.
Faith to the Death
A vacancy in the office of medicine chief is not necessarily or even usually filled at once.
The Indian sets much store by his life, and a position reached and retained only by most reckless exposure to an endless series of dangers, has attractions for few except the most ambitious, or those who really believe in themselves or their powers.
I have already spoken of the earnest effort made by each individual warrior to discover the proper secret ingredient of his medicine. Should the Indian have a “run of bad luck,” he accounts for it at once; his special ingredient is not good. He therefore tries some other, and keeps trying until his luck changes, when he has, of course, found the proper thing at last. The Indian is in solid earnest, and childish as all this appears to us, he has firm faith in himself and his medicine. The medicine that has enabled a warrior to pass unscathed through all the dangers of the road to the position of medicine chief, must be perfect, and the faith in it of its fortunate possessor is supreme.
The medicine chief is not an impostor or hypocrite. In 1868 when Forsyth’s little band, buried in their rifle pits, were holding at bay an overwhelming force of red-skins, a Cheyenne medicine man, ambitious to be medicine chief, and firmly believing in the efficacy of his medicine, dashed alone almost into the lines of the whites. His medicine failed him at the critical moment, for he was shot and killed.
Any specially remarkable and long continued run of good luck is attributed at once to the medicine of the fortunate warrior. Others begin to look upon him as a medicine man, and not to be outdone in faith, he firmly believes it himself. These men drop into the practice of medicine, and become healers of the sick by the same gradual process, already described, and under the influence of the same belief in the efficiency of their medicine.
Recollect, “good medicine” does not argue any special preference of the Good God (who is already as good and kind to all Indians as he can be); it shows power over the Bad God or devil.
All disease is simply the manifestation of the presence and power of the devil.
An unfortunate Indian is stretched upon a bed of sickness, tortured with fever, or racked with rheumatism. The devil has him in his power. What more natural than to send for the warrior of the tribe, whose medicine is known to be the most efficacious charm against the power of the evil one?
And just here is where the hypocrisy and deceit come in. While he may really believe in the power of his medicine, he has sufficient knowledge of human nature to be aware that its effect on the patient depends somewhat on the mental condition of the latter. Like the civilized doctor who gives a bread pill when medicine is not really necessary, or like the French surgeon, who cut off the leg of a dying man “to amuse him,” the ordinary Indian doctor resorts to every humbuggery that he can invent.
Socially and pecuniarily the office of medicine man is a good one, and when from lack of success with his patients, he has lost faith in the power of his own medicine, he carefully hides the knowledge in his own heart, and keeps up appearances by increase of noise and mystery, and redoubled activity in “blowing” about his powers, advertising himself.
The power of faith can be no more strongly exemplified in any race or sect than is manifested among these ignorant people.
The Nez Perces are a superior race of Indians, and their Chief, Joseph, a man of courage, intelligence, quick perception, and other qualities sufficient to make him much above the average man, either white or red.
When Joseph and his band were held as prisoners of war at Fort Leavenworth, his favorite child, about a year old, was seriously ill. Though he and his band claimed to be Roman Catholics, and though they had the attendance of white physicians, as able as the country affords, when the latter pronounced the case critical, their services were dispensed with, and the medicine chief (who is also priest of the tribe) was called in. All night long a tom-tom was beaten immediately over the head of the poor baby; this music accompanied by the sing-song incantations of the priest and the mournful howls of half a dozen old women. Joseph’s good judgment was demonstrated, whatever we may think of his humanity. The child got well.
The medicine chief of the Plains tribes is an essentially different person from the medicine men of the Pacific coast, or those most commonly described by writers on the North American Indian. He does not descend to the tearing and eating of human flesh, or other horrible practices designed to strike terror into the beholders. He ignores posturing dances, or conjuring tricks, and rarely has recourse even to excess of absurdity in dress. His influence is a moral one, founded on belief in himself and knowledge of human nature, and his means are (with a difference) very similar to those practised by civilized doctors and ministers. He gives no drugs, but he beats his tom-tom; he makes no prayers, but sings his incantation.
He is the outgrowth, the expounder and interpreter of that higher order of religion of which I have given account.
But by far the largest portion of the Indians are not on that higher plane of religious belief. Just as our ignorant communities select or accept the spiritual ministrations of some self-sufficient donkey, as ignorant, but more brazen than themselves, so most of the Indians put their faith in some one of the number of pretenders who eagerly thrust themselves forward.
From the highest to the lowest, human nature is the same. Be he civilized or be he savage, man delights in being humbugged, and any pretender to mysteries, either medical or spiritual, is sure to find some one to believe him.
In the Indian tribes can be found all grades of medicine men, from the chief, with the firmest faith in himself and his medicine, to the lowest conjuror, without character or standing as a warrior, and who relies, like the fortuneteller of civilized life, on hocus-pocus, and his skillful execution of a few stale tricks of legerdemain. All these quacks, both white and red, make a living, or they would not follow the trade.
From Our Wild Indians by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, 1882.