by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER--No. 6.


Now for medicines or mysteries -- for doctors, high-priests, for hocus pocus, witchcraft, and animal magnetism!

In the last Letter I spoke of Pe-toh-pee-kiss (the eagle ribs), a Blackfoot brave, whose portrait I had just painted at full length, in a splendid dress. I mentioned also, that he held two medicine-bags in his hand; as they are represented in the picture; both of them made of the skins of otters, and curiously ornamented with ermine, and other strange things.

I must needs stop here -- my painting and every thing else, until I can explain the word "medicine", and "medicine-bag;" and also some medicine opertaions, which I have seen transacted at this place within a few days past. "Medicine" is a great word in this country; and it is very necessary that one should know the meaning of it, whilst he is scanning and estimating the Indian character, which is made up, in a great degree, of mysteries and superstitions.

The word medicine, in its common acceptation here, means mystery, and nothing else; and in that sense I shall use it very frequently in my Notes on Indian Manners and Customs.

The Fur Traders in this country, are nearly all French; and in their language, a doctor or physician, is called "Medicine". The Indian country is full of doctors; and as they are all magicians, and skilled, of profess to be skilled, in many mysteries, the word "medecin" has become habitually applied to every thing mysterious or unaccountable; and the English and Americans, who are also trading and passing through this country, have easily and familiarly adopted the same word, with a slight alteration, conveying the same meaning; and to be a little more explicit, they have denominated these personages "medicine-men", which means something more than merely a doctor or physician. These physicians, however, are all medicbe-men, as they are all supposed to deal more or less in mysteries and charms, which are aids and handmaids in their practice. Yet it was necessary to give the word or phrase a still more comprehensive meaning as there were many personages amongst them, and also amongst the white men who visit the country, who could deal in mysteries, though not skilled in the application of drugs and medicines; and they all range now, under the comprehensive and accommodating phrase of "medicine-men". For instance, I am a "medicine-man of the highest order amongst these superstitious people, on account of the art which I practice; which is a strange and unaccountable thing to them, and of course, called the greatest of "medicine". My gun and pistols, which have percussion-locks, are great medicine; and no Indian can be prevailed on to fire them off, for they say they have nothing to do with white man's medicine.

The Indians do not use the word medicine, however; but in each tribe they have a word of their own construction, synonimous with mystery or mystery-man .

The "medicine-bag" then, is a mystery-bag; and its meaning and importance necessary to be understood, as it may be said to be the key to Indian life and Indian character. These bags are constructed of the skins of animals, of birds, or of reptiles, and ornamented and preserved in a thousand different ways, as suits the taste or freak of the person who constructs them. These skins are generally attached to some Part of the clothing of the Indian, or carried in his hand--they are oftentimes decorated in such a manner as to be exceedingly ornamental to his person, and always are stuffed wit·h grass, or moss, or something of the kind; and generally without drugs or medicines within them, as they are relifiously closed and skaled, and. seldom, if ever, to be opened. I find that every Indian in his primitive state, carries his medicine-bag in some form or other, to which he pays the greatest Ilomage, and to wbicll he looks for safety and protection through life-and in fact, it might almost be called a species of idolatry; for it rvollld see·m in some instances, as if he actually worshipped it. Feasts are often made, and dogs and horses sacrificed, to a man's metiicine; and dags and even weeks, of fasting and penance of various liintls are often suffered, to appease his medicine, which he imagines he has in some way offended.

This curious causion has principally been done away with along the frontier, where white men laugh al the Indian for the observance of so ridiculous and useless a form: but in this country it is in full force, and every mile in the tribe carries this, his supernatural charm or bruardian, to which he looks for the preservation of His lii'e, in battle or in other danger; at which times it would be considered ominous of bad luck and an ill fate to be without it.

The manner in which this curious and important article is instituted is this: a boy, at the age of fourteen or fifteen years, is said to be making or (forming his "medicine", when he wanders away from his father's lodge, and absents himself -- if for the space of two or three, and sometimes even four or five, days; lying on the ground in some remote or seclutlcted spot, crying to the Great Spirit, and fasting the whole time, a period of peril and abstinence, when he falls asleep, the first animal, bird, or reptile, of which he dreams (or pretends to have dreamed, perhaps), he considers the Great Spirit has designated for his mysterious protector through life. He then returns home to his father's lodge, and relates his success; and after allaying his thurst, and sntiating his appetite, he serchs for with weapons or traps, until he can procure the animal or bird, the skin of which he reserves entire, and ornaments it according to his own fancy, and carries it with him tllrough life, for "good luck" (as he calls it); as his strength in battle -- and in death his guardian spirit, that is buried with him, and which is to conduct him safe to the beautiful hunting grounds, which he contemplates in the world to come.

The value of the medicine-bag to the Indian is beyond allprice; for to sell it, or give it away, would subject him to such signal disgrace in his tribe, tllat he could never rise above it; and again, his superstition would stand in the May of any such disposition of it, for he considers it the gift of the Great Spirit. An Indian carries his medicine-bag into battle, and trusts to it for his Protection; and if he loses it thus, when fighting ever so bravely for his country, he suffers a disgrace scarcely less than that which occurs in case he sells or gives it away; his enemy carries it off and displays it to his own people as a trophy; whilst the loser is cut short of the respect that is due to other young men of his tribe, and forever subjected to the degrading epithet of "a man without medicine", or "he who has lost his medicine", until he call replace it again; which can only be done, by rushing into battle and plundering one from an enemy whom he slays with his own hand, this done, his medicine is restored, and he is reinstated again in the estimntion of his tribe; and even higher than before, for this is called the best of medicine, or "medicine honourable".

It is a singular fact, that a man can institute his mystery or medicine, but once in his life; and equally singular that he can reinstate himself by the adoption of the medicine of his enemy; both of which refulttonns are strong and violent inducements for him to tight bravely in battle: the first, that he may protect and preserve his medicine; and the second, in case he has been so unlucky as to lose it, that he may restore it, and his reputation also, while he is desperately contending for the protection of his community.

During my travels thus far, I have been unable to buy a medicine-bag of an Indian, altllough I have offered them extravagant prices for them; and even on the frontier, where they have been induced to abandon the practice, tllough a white man may induce an Indian to relinquish his medicine, yet cannot bring it of him, the Indian, in such case will bury it, to please a white man, and save it from his sncrileious touch; or he will linger around the site and at regular times his visit to it -- may pay it his devotions, as long as he lives.

These curious appendages to the persons or wardrobe of an individual, are sometilues made of the skin of an otter, a beaver, a musk-rat, a weazel, a racoon, a polecat sabble, a frog, a toad, a bat, a mouse, a mole, a hawk, an eagle, a magpie, or a sparrow: -- sometimes of the skin of an animal so large as a wolf; and at others, of the skins of the lesser animals, so small that they are hidden under the dress, and very difficult to be found, even if searched for.

Such then is the medicine-bag -- such its meaning and importance; and when its owner dies, it is placed in his grave and decays with his body.

In the case of the portrait of which I spoke in the beginning of this Letter, there are seen two medicine-bags in the hand of Pe-toh-pee-kiss; the one was of his own instituting, and the other was taken from his enemy, whom he had slain in battle; both of these he has a right to display and boast of on such an occasion. This is but the beginning or incipient stage of "medicines", however, in this strange and superstitious country; and if you have patience, I will carry you a few degrees further into the mysteries of conjuration, before I close this Letter. Sit still then and read, until I relate a scene of a tragic, and yet of the most grotesque character, which took place in this Fort a few davs since, and to all of which I was an eye-witness. The scene I will relatk as it transpired precisely; and call it the story of the "doctor", or the "Blackfoot medicine-man."

Not many weeks since, a party of Knisteneaux came here from the north, for the purpose of making their summer's trade with the Fur Company; and, whilst here, a party of Blackfeet, their natural enemies (the same who are here now), came from the west, also to trade. These two belligerent tribes encamped on different sides of the Fort, and had spent some weeks here in the Fort and about it, in apparently good feeling and fellowship; unable in fact to act otherwise, for, according to a regulation of the Fort, their arms and weapons were all locked up by McKenzie in his "arsenal", for die purpose of preserving die peace amongst these fighting-cocks.

The Knisteneaux had completed their trade, and loitered about the premises, until all, both Indians and white men, were getting tired of their company, wishing them quietly off. When they were ready to start, with their goods packed upon their backs, their arms were given them, and they started; bidding everybody, both friends and foes, a hearty farewell. They went out of the Fort, and though the party graduallv moved off, one of them undiscoveretl, loitered about the Fort, until he got an opportunity to poke the muzzle of his Sun through between the picluets; when he fired it at one of the chiefs of the Blackfeet, who stood within a few paces, talking with Mr. McKenzie, and shot him with two musket bullets through the centre of his body! The Blaclifoot fell, and rolled about upon the ground in the ngonies of death. The Blackfeet who were in the Fort seized their weapons and ran in a mass out of the Fort, in pursuit of the Knisteneanx, who were rapidly retreating to the bluffs. The Frenchmen in the Fort, also, at so flagrant and cowardly an insult, seized their guns and ran out, joining the Blackfeet in the pursuit. I, at tllat moment, ran to my painting-room in one of the bastions overlooking the plain, where I had a fair view of the affair; many shots were exchanged back and forward, and a skirmish ensued which lasted half an hour; the parties, however, were so far apart that little effect was produced; the Knisteneaux were driven off over the bluffs, having lost olie man and had several others wounded. The Blackfeet and Frenchmen returned into the Fort, and then, I saw what I never before saw in my life -- I saw a "medicine-man" performing his mysteries over a dying man. The man who had been shot was: still living, though two bullets had passed through the centre of his body, about two inches apart from each other; he was lying on the ground in the agonies of death, and no one could indulge the slightest hope of his recovery; yet the medicine-man must needs be called (for such a personage they had in their party), and hocus pocus applied to the dying man, as the dernier resort, when all drugs and all specifics were useless, and after all possibility of recovery was extinct!

I have mentioned that all tribes have their physicians, who are also nledicine (or mystery) men. These professional gentlemen are worthies of the highest order in all tribes. They are regularly called and paid as physicialls, to prescribe for the sick; and many of them acquire great skill in the medicinal world, and gain much celebrity in their nation. Their first prescriptions are roots and herbs, of which they have a great variety of species; and when these have all failed, their last resort is to "medicine" or mystery; and for this purpose, each one of them has a strange and unaccountable dress, conjured up and constructed during a life-time of practice, in the wildest fancy imaginable, in which he arrays himself, and makes his last visit to his dying patient, -- dancing over him, shaking his frightful rattles, and singing songs of incantation, in hopes to cure him by a charm. There are sonle instances, of course, where the exhausted patient unaccountably recolers, under the application of these absurd forms; and in such cases, this ingenious son of Indian Esculapius will be seen for several days after, on the top of a wigwam, with his right arm extended and waving over the gaping multitude, to whom he is vaunting forth, without modesty, the surprisiIlg skill he has acquired in his art, and the undoubted effcacy of his medicine or mystery. But if, on the contrary, the patient dies, he soon cllanges his dress, and joins in doleful lamentations with the mourners; and easily, with his craft, and the ignorance and superstition of his people, protects His reputation and maintains his influence over them; by assuring them, that it was the will of the Great Spirit that his patient should die, and when sent for, his feeble efforts must cease.

Such was the case, and such the extraordinary means resorted to in the instance I am now relating. Several hundred spectators, including Indians and traders, were assembled around the dying man, when it was announced that the ''medicine-man" was coming; we were required to "form a ring", leaving a space of some thirty or forty feet in diameter around the dying man, in which the doctor could perform his wonderful operations; and a space was also opened to allow him free room to Pass through the crowd mitllout touching any one. This being done, in a few moments his arrival was announced by the death-like "hush-----sh---" through the crowd; and nothing was to be heard, save the light and casual tinkling of the rattles upon his dress, which was scarcely perceptible to the ear, as he cautiously and slowly moved through the avenue left for him; which at length brought him into the ring, in view of the pitiable object over whom his mysteries were to be performed.

Readers! you may have seen or read of the witch of Elder -- or you may imagine all the ghosts, and spirits, and furies, that ever ranked amongst the "rank and file" of demonology; and yet you must see my painting of this strange scene before you can form a just conception of real frightful ugliness and Indian conjuration -- yes, and even more: you mlmst see the magic dress of this Indian "Le big bug" (which I have this day procured In all its parts), placed upon the back of some person who can imitate the strides, and swells, the grunts, and spring the rattles of an Indian magician.

His entrke and his garb were somewhat thus :-he approached the ring witll his body in a crouching position, With a.slow and tilting step-his body and head we-re entirely covered with the skin of a yellow bear, the head of which (his own head being inside of it) served as a mask; the huge claws of which also, were dangling on his wrists and ancles; in one hand he shook a frightful rattle, and in the other brandished his medicine-spear or magic wand; to the rattling din and discord of all of which, he added the wild and startling jumps and yelps of the Indian, and tire horrid and appalling grunts, and snarls, and growls of the grizzly bear, in ejaculatory and guttural incantations to the Good and Bad Spirits, in behalf of his patient; who was rolling and groaning in the agonies of death, whilst he was dancing around him, jumping over him, and pawing him about, and rolling him ill every direction.

In this wise, this strange operation proceeded Ibr half an hour, to the surprise of a numerous and death-like silent audience, until the man died; and the medicine-man danced off to his quarters, and packed up, and tied and secured from the sight of the world, his mystery dress and equipments.

This dress, in all its parts, is one of the greatest curiosities in the whole collection of Indian manufactures which I have yet obtained in the Indian country. It is the strangest medley and mixture, perhaps of the mysteries of the animal and vegetable kingdoms that ever was seen. Besides the skin of the yellow bear (which being almost an anomaly in that country, is out of the regular order of nature, and, of course, great medicine, and converted to a medicine use), there are attached to it the skins of many animals, which are also anomalies or deformities, which render them, in their estimation, medicine; and there are also the skins of snakes, and hogs, and bats, weasels and tails of bird, -- hoofs of deer, goats, and antelopes; and, in fact, the odds and ends," and fag ends, and tails, and tips of almost everything that swims, flies, or runs, in this part of the wide world.

Such is a medicine-man or a physician. And such is one of his wild and ridiculous mancurres, which I have just witnessed in this strange country.

These men, as T before remarked, are valued as dignitaries in the tribe, and the greatest respect is paid to them by the whole community; not only for their skill in their "materia medicine"; but more especially for their tact in magic and mysteries, in which they all deal to a very great extent. I shall have much more to say of these characters and their doings in future epistles, and barely observe in the present place, that no tribe is without them -- that in all tribes their doctors are conjurors -- are magicians -- are sooth-sayers, and I had like to have said, high-priests, inasmuch as they superintend and conduct all their religious ceremonies -- they are looked upon by all as oracles of the nation. In all councils of war and peace, they have a seat with the chiefs -- are regularly consulted before any public step is taken, and the greatest deference and respect is paid to their opinions.

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