Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dakota Nakota Lakota / Beliefs & Customs

Article: Men with Magic

As described by First Boy - James Larpenteur Long, Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux, in The Assiniboine: From Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpenteur Long), edited by Michael Stephen Kennedy , University of Oklahoma Press, 1961, p 157-164 (originally published as Land of the Nakoda by the Montana Writer Program in 1942)

The term Medicine Man when applied to Indian custom, meant a person who possessed divine power. He treated the sick, forecast events, conducted religious ceremonies, and took part in many gatherings of a religious nature.

The people had confidence in the acts of the medicine man because they knew that if he performed a false rite, he or a member of his family would meet with some kind of misfor-tune. Therefore, he could do no wrong.

The medicine men and women were taught by supernatural Beings that appeared to them in dreams or visions. These visits by the Beings were prompted by a prolonged fast and by the many sacrifices made to them.

There were many ways of practicing these powers granted by the Beings, so each man and woman conducted ceremonies differently and according to the way they had been instructed. The use of different objects and the rules governing the people who attended the gatherings had to be followed strictly.

Some old medicine men and women had been given the right to teach younger persons. Often the person chosen was a child who had been cured of a very serious illness by the medicine man or woman. In order to cure the child, the medicine man had imparted his power to it, and that was the reason the child had to carry on when it was old enough.

These children were always brought to religious events and taught to take part. Their parents saw to it that then sat beside their benefactors and instructors. They also wore sacred bags made by the healers.

To call a medicine man or woman, relatives of a sick person took him a medicine pipe filled with tobacco and other gifts. If the illness was grave, they brought one or more horses to the -lodge of the medicine man. The visitors placed their hands on his head and beseeched him to accept the fee and treat their sick one. If he accepted, he lit the pipe and smoked it, and the goods were left in his lodge or the horses were tied outside.

A call was always paid for in advance. The people understood the rule: "Goods and horses that make up the fees are sacri-fices made to the Beings who give the medicine men and women the power to heal." So no one murmured, and the fees were left with the medicine man for the Being who must be pleased.

The medicine man made the call and, with the help of one or more singers, administered to the sick. He also prayed aloud and mentioned that he was honored to be the agent of the Being whom he named. After a time he converted the fees to his own use. "The Being was through with them," he said.

Medicine men did not name their fees, but either hinted or had someone else suggest them. Sometimes, it is told, a wicked one, who coveted certain objects or the horses of another and had the power to charm, caused a member of the family owning those things to become afflicted with some form of illness.

After others had been called in and had failed to make a cure> he passed word around in such a way that it would reach the family that if he were called, he could cure the sick person. After he was called and had attended the sick person, he caused the affliction to remain if the coveted object was not presented. But when the desired fee was given, he lifted the charm and the patient recovered. So he not only received what he wanted, but he was praised because of his cure.

There were good medicine men, too, who, by means of their power, saw the works of the wicked ones and told of the kind of spell that was cast; but, for some reason, they never revealed the identity of the charmer. They always said: "I could not get a glimpse of his face to know who he is. He always covers his face with his blanket and turns his back to me."

If a sick person died and a charmer was suspected, relatives of the deceased sometimes plotted and killed that medicine man.

Besides the medicine men, there were also herb doctors in each tribe who treated the sick with herbs. Many old women dealt in that kind of thing.

Some medicine men and women also used herbs with their magic treatments. After the religious performance, they gave the patient herbs with directions for their use. Usually these directions were rigid and had to be followed to the letter if a cure was to be effective.

Treatments with herbs were restricted to certain rules laid down by the doctor, which had to be followed. A fee was paid, the same as to a medicine man. Anyone could collect different kinds of herbs for their own use. If persons wanted to know the kind of plants from which certain herbs were obtained, they paid a large fee to a herb doctor who showed them the plants.

The herb doctors got their knowledge of the different kinds of plants for medicinal use in visions, and the informer [a Being] was promised the fees received. After the herbs were dug, offer-ings were deposited in the hole and carefully covered with dirt.

Young men who coveted certain maidens paid large fees to herb doctors to charm the girls so that they would return their af-fection. The love medicine was administered either with or with-out a ceremony. There were many kinds of charms. Some were made of a mixture of herbs and objects placed in a small orna-mented bag, which was carried on the person only during court-ing time. If the rules were not followed to the letter, the charm would not work.

Some paid a fee to a charmer who performed a ceremony. A form of a male and another of a female were cut out of birch-bark and marked as the man and woman. The charmer men-tioned the name of each party and then tied the two pieces together face to face in the form of a dummy package. If the young man was fortunate and obtained a lock of the maiden's hair (sometimes the lover paid someone to steal a lock of hair for him), this was wrapped around to bind the two together. The dummy was usually hidden in the woods. After the charm worked, if the maiden was dissatisfied with the man, she went to another charmer who released her for a fee.

Sometimes a woman who was bought or given in marriage to an older man whom she did not love left her husband and went to the lodge of her parents. If she refused to come back, the husband paid a charmer who sang and beat on a small high drum for several evenings. He predicted that the woman would return of her own accord before the fourth day. No herbs were used; only the fee was offered as a sacrifice.

The northern bands were noted for their possession of a med-icine which increased speed and gave stamina to runners. The medicine was made from herbs, but the mixture and directions for its use were known only to certain medicine men. Runners gave useful articles to those men and obtained the medicine for use on special occasions. The northern Assiniboine runners were always accused of using medicine if they won at a gathering where two or more bands entered their best runners. But they were not disqualified, because no one had proof that medicine was used.

Runners carried a small ornamented bag which contained the mixture attached to the belt at the hips. But since other kinds of medicine were also carried in the same way, the bags did not always contain the medicine the runners had used. Just before a race, the owner secretly chewed some of the herbs and, unobserved, smeared a little of the juice on his feet. When the race started, he ran just behind the other runners and in their tracks, so that the medicine would charm them. When near the goal, he speeded up and won.

Some suspicious runners always kept far to either side in case someone in the group used a charm, for it is told that the medicine worked only when the keeper ran over the tracks of the others.

Charms used for fast horses were made from parts of fast animals and swift-flying birds-such as the tips of the tails of foxes, the short prongs from the horns of antelopes and, for long-winded horses, the ends of wolves' tails. The tail feathers from swift hawks or falcons were the most popular among the charms made from birds.

These animal charms were attached to plain buckskin strings or to ornamented narrow bands. They were hung around the necks of horses, far down, so that the charm lay between the points of the shoulders. Bird-feather charms were always tied somewhere on the tails of horses.

There was no secret about the charms used for horses. Even in a gathering where the horses ran for wagers, the chasms were openly attached to the horses. But to win over a horse wearing a charm was also an achievement known to have happened at times.

Men who were skilled in magic were often paid to locate lost horses and other objects for their owners.

This story about magic was told by Shoots Them, of the Rock Band:

“I am a half-blood. My father was white (Alverz, a Spaniard), and my mother was an Assiniboine.

Johnson Ryder and I were born the same night, and we grew up together among the whites at Fort Union. We learned the Assiniboine language from our mothers and English from our fathers. So, naturally, we did not believe in all that the medi-cine men said or did.

After we moved to Wolf Point, Montana, we both were em-ployed in the Indian agency's blacksmith shop. We were still unmarried.

For several weeks Johnson's mother was very sick. As there was no white doctor near, in desperation they finally called in a medicine man name Cuwicoga or Center of the Body, who was considered a noted healer and charmer. He was much feared because he made magic many times openly before different crowds.

He instructed that a large rock be brought and a lodge erected over it in which he would perform his magic.

We wanted to find out if the sick woman would react to his treatment and said, "I am going to ask my helper [Being] if this woman is going to get well."

He did not attempt to treat Johnson's mother, but first made magic in the lodge.

So we plotted together to test the power of the man. We hitched a team to a stone boat and brought a rock that prob-ably weighed six hundred pounds.

We sat together inside the dodge near the entrance and watched every move. There were several singers who also played on drums.

It was not dusk. The man stripped to just a clout. His body was painted all over with vermilion-colored paint. He instructed his men to tie him with long rawhide thongs. They laced his fingers and toes together with smaller thongs and fastened his hands behind him by tying the two thumbs together.

They next wrapped a blanket around him and wound the larger thongs over the blanket from head to foot. A half-hitch was made each round at the back, so when they were finished, there was a row of half hitches from the back of his neck to his feet.

A stout thong was tied across the lodge, and he hopped over to it and gently sat down on the thong as in a swing.

The singers started up and the fire was allowed to die down so we were in semidarkness.

What followed never was clear to either of us. The man kept saying, "Do not stop the singing, he is trying to take me with him," meaning his Spirit Helper.

When the large rock moved about in that charmed lodge, we were scared out of our wits and huddled together in fear. Johnson claimed I crowded him, while I said the same thing of him.

The rock actually hit the floor of the lodge twice in succession as though it had been raised up and allowed to drop.

The medicine man shrieked in a distressed voice and said to light up the fire at once. The fire was quickly lit, and, when our eyes became accustomed to the light, we saw him high up in the lodge and tucked behind the poles.

The singers hurried over and helped him down. The thongs had already been removed and coiled together into neat piles, each size in a separate pile on the floor of the lodge with the blanket alongside. He came near the fire and complained of the rough treatment accorded him by the Being. Then he spoke to us and to those who sat outside. He said that the sick woman was even now on the way to complete recovery.

Johnson's mother lived many years after that. The rock that scared us so badly is still at the old ruins, where he used to live, east of Wolf Point.”