Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/September 1886/Indian Medicine
By G. ARCHIE STOCKWELL, M. D.
THOUGH it speaks little for modern civilization, the masses of the people are wont to esteem the savage as preternaturally wise in the secrets of Nature, more especially in the prevention and elimination of disease, accrediting him with knowledge botanical, pharmacal, and therapeutical, that if possessed of but a shadow of reality would be little less than divine. In this we have interesting evidence of man's tendency to reversion, and of lingering attributes of the final state of his awe in the presence of the occult, and inherent worship of the unknown; for how frequently one encounters, in all ranks and classes of society, individuals who, in spite of refined teachings and surroundings, exhibit an unmistakable taste for charlatanism in some of its many forms, secular and spiritual!
"Medicine" as exemplified among the savage races and tribes of America is practically one and the same with the "shamanism" of the European and Asiatic nomad, the "fetich" of the native African, and the "obi-rites" and "voudoo-worship" of West India blacks and negroes of the Gulf States; a careful examination of all reveals not only a common origin, but a unity of purpose.
The "medicine" of the Indian is his religion and philosophy; and it comprises everything in life and Nature, real or imaginary, superstitious or occult; and withal it is a mystery so subtile in its many factors as utterly to defy specific definition, or perfect elucidation.
The "medicine-man" is no more a physician, in the modern and enlightened acceptation of the term, than an ape is a man because it chances to assume the erect posture and mimic the attributes of the human race; there is a blight analogy, but nothing more. The savage knows absolutely nothing of the relationships existing between cause and effect, of the action of remedies as remedies, of physiological conditions and phenomena, or indeed of any agency that is not directly born of the occult. He supposes the world and its circumambient ether to be permeated by spirits, good, bad, and indifferent, who determine the fortunes of men and regulate the phenomena of Nature in accordance with individual will and fancies; and who also bear some mysterious and indefinable relationship to each other, and to one "Great Spirit" or Supreme Power who figures under a variety of guises and titles, according to circumstances and surroundings, such as "The Old Man," "Nine-bouzche," "Si-ce-ma-ka," "Kitche-Manito," "Great Manito," etc. Manito, Manit, or Manitou, however, is not an appellation alone singular to the Supreme Power, but under certain conditions is equally applicable to any and all spirits; in other words, it may be used generically as well as specifically. Then, too, there are certain sprites or gnomes, "Little Men," invisible dwarfed inhabitants of portions of the earth, who would seem to be satellites of the spirits proper, but whose position in savage demonology is by no means satisfactorily defined.
Good spirits receive little attention, and are never objects of worship, since their acts, influence, and purposes are obviously for the best. But the evil and half-way malevolent demand constant supervision and placation, lest the smooth workings of Nature be interfered with, and the normal destinies of man perverted. A journey through the Indian country affords ample evidence of this belief in frequently recurring offerings suspended from trees, bushes, and wands, or conspicuously exposed upon rocks, knolls, and open places, such as broken or discarded glass, metal and bead ornaments, shreds of skins, bits of painted leather, bright ribbons, strips of gay calicoes, feathers, pieces of tobacco, and bundles of human and animal hair.
The true "medicine-man" (for there are charlatans and pretenders in savage as well as civilized circles) is one of a fraternity most mysterious and despotic in its ways and workings, membership therein being limited to those who exhibit more than ordinary fitness therefor, backed by powerful family and tribal influence. In one sense "medicine" is an autocracy; and it is also the nobility of the savage, no way limited by tribal power, and is forbidden to women except for very extraordinary and specific reasons. Its apprenticeship, too, is long and arduous, beset throughout by trials and stumbling-blocks, calculated to tax to the utmost the patience, faith, endurance, and fortitude of the candidate, and to betray the inner consciousness and latent foibles of the individual. Having passed the prescribed ordeals, he is admitted into full fellowship amid ceremonies calculated to be most solemn, impressive, and binding. One of the labors prescribed, and frequently performed in public on the evening of the annual "goose-feast," is as hideous as it is sickening. It consists in devouring a live dog, and is a proceeding that especially obtains among the Chippewyans, Crees, and Ojibways; and a more horrible or fiendish scene, as viewed by the flickering fire-light amid sounding drums and rattles, the shrieks of the victim, and the frenzied howls of the assemblage, can not be imagined.
Disease, from a savage standpoint, is not a mere morbid phenomenon, but the specific manifestation of some demon or spirit of evil, who through a kind of occult intelligence or agency has obtained control of the person; and, naturally, relief is deemed possible only through agencies that have their inception in the miraculous and supernatural. Under such circumstances the most absurd ideas obtain both among laity and fraternity, and remedial measures are irrelevant, crude, and not infrequently most barbarous. Think, for instance, of the fauces, including the soft palate and muscular tissues of the throat, being forcibly wrenched out by a pair of bullet-molds in the hands of an "Indian doctor" or medicine-man, and for the relief of a tickling cough due to an elongated uvula! Such is a veritable occurrence; and yet the operation was not due to an appreciation of the difficulty, but was intended to dislodge a spirit that had taken possession of the part! It is perhaps needless to remark that it was successful, in that it not only dislodged the spirit of the disorder, but that of the sufferer as well.
All medicine-men of first rank are clairvoyants and psychologists (mesmerists, if you like) of no mean pretensions, as a rule capable of affording instruction to the most able of their white confrères; and to be a medicine-man at all demands that the individual be not only a shrewd student of human nature capable of drawing deductions from matters seemingly most trifling, but also an expert conjurer and wizard. I have repeatedly known events in the far future to be predicted with scrupulous fidelity to details, exactly as they subsequently occurred; the movements of persons and individuals to be described in minutiae who had never been seen, and were hundreds of miles away, without a single error as to time, place, or act; and I have witnessed feats of legerdemain and necromancy that would appall a Houdin or a Heller, executed in broad daylight, without mystic aids or surroundings. I have seen guns, manifestly in perfect order, fail to execute their mission while in the hands of most expert marksmen, merely through a look, a touch, a word, or a bit of incantation; and yet again restored by a like process. But here, as may readily be surmised, the trouble was not with the weapon, but with the man behind it, whose will-power was not equal to the task of overcoming his native and inherent superstition. Again, it has been my fortune to witness feats so astounding that I dare not place them upon record lest I be accused of romancing; some, to be sure, susceptible of explanation under physical and psychical laws; others not so easily or satisfactorily disposed of, except perhaps as tricks of the imagination, "optical delusions," etc.; and even as to these few would be willing to admit that, of an audience numbering some scores, all could be successfully deluded.
Having already intimated that the Indian relies chiefly on incantation and conjuration to produce specific effects, it is readily understood that success is due to the impressions produced upon the great nerve-centers. Just as the ancients esteemed the ear and nose the highways and emunctories of the brain, the special senses of hearing and smell become the foundation of all savage physiology, and consequently are appealed to in the most emphatic and comprehensive manner. Noise and odor are ever the prime factors in the armamentarium therapeuticum of the medicine-man, and it is no exaggeration when I assert that whole families, especially during the ravages of epidemics, are frequently and literally drummed, rattled, stank, and powwowed out of existence. Conceive of a child with its peculiarly sensitive nervous organization, prostrated with burning fever, kept in a close and stifling atmosphere and subjected to combinations of sounds and smells fit to launch an adult in full tide of health into the very depths of lunacy! Why, the din is so very infernal in character, the odors so intensely nauseous and suffocating, that the wonder is that any recover. Seemingly the most obstreperous of spirits, even the "Old Harry" himself, would be forced in self-defense to stop ears, clap fingers to nose, and flee to the uttermost confines of space!
The demonology of the red-man seemingly provides for various classes of spirits possessed of like attributes (but more exaggerated) with man. Some are strong, bold, persistent, revengeful, malevolent beyond measure, and but sparingly amenable to discipline. Others, again, are mild, weak, vacillating, forgiving, indifferent, easily placated. One of the latter may be got rid of, sometimes, with little trouble and ceremony; but an old and accomplished individual not infrequently demands the combined wisdom and efforts of a dozen or more conjurers, while days and even weeks may be consumed ere a successful (or fatal) issue is reached. Then there are various creeds, or articles of faith, that would appear not to be definitely settled (theologians and physicians the world over will disagree!), and it is a somewhat mooted question as to how the evil ones are disciplined, and whether they are coaxed or frightened from their hold upon the victim, altogether annihilated, or amenable to all three measures. In one thing, however, the fraternity is united; in any event, the treatment is the same!
The medicine-man is no sooner summoned, than he begins to enact the part of a leech in very truth. Above all things, he must feast, and that, too, almost incessantly, and upon the very best the surroundings afford, else he can not sustain the strength necessary to a struggle with the denizens of the spirit-world; and it frequently happens that not only the family of the sufferer, but all his blood relatives even to the most remote degree (and this is enforced by a very nice point of savage honor), are thereby rendered hopelessly bankrupt!
An examination, to determine the condition of the sufferer, is not at all essential, since the conjurer possesses an infallible means of diagnosis in the charms and amulets that stuff to repletion the "medicine bag" that is constantly worn suspended from the neck; through these he derives power to mingle with the inhabitants of the unseen world, and to bring before his mental vision the entire physical and spiritual economy of any individual of earth or air at will. Summoning to his aid an assistant or assistants, he proceeds to his incantations without the least questioning or circumlocution, beginning with a low, monotonous chant rising and falling with abrupt inflections, wherein he begs, implores, and commands the spirit to abjure the mortal clay and assume his own proper form, alternately humoring, coaxing, and threatening, as circumstances seem to demand, at the same time using set songs whose significance is unknown outside of his own mystic calling. In the mean time a running accompaniment is kept up by means of drums, bells, and gourd and parchment rattles. By-and-by the song waxes louder and more violent; the drums are pounded harder and faster, and the rattles and bells are shaken more forcibly. Higher and higher the sounds rise; shriller and shriller his voice is pitched; and faster and fiercer the accompaniment sounds, until the one becomes a frantic shriek, the other a pandemonium of most fiendish character, together crazing, piercing, and excruciating beyond computation; and, finally, exhausted by the violence of his efforts, fairly black in the face, with perspiration streaming from every pore, he pauses and—eats! A starved wolf is a miracle of satiety by comparison; and he is ably seconded in his gormandizing feats by the assembled and admiring audience.
Over and over again is this performance repeated, while the smoke and fumes of burning gunpowder, fish-entrails, human excreta, buffalo chips, and animal hair, fill the interior of the lodge to suffocation, producing stinks that may fairly be felt. And, finally, when the excessively tormented and vexed spirit is sufficiently placated or frightened, and on the point of departure, his exit is facilitated by rapidly recurring discharges of musketry in and about the dwelling and over the body of the sufferer. When the friends are sufficiently wealthy, the fusillades are frequently prolonged for hours or days, to prevent a return of the (demon) malady.
But the spirit does oftentimes return in spite of every precaution; for naturally a relapse is coincident with the cessation of the incantations and the departure of the "medicine-man," or rather with the subsidence of the nervous excitement induced by such extraordinary procedures. Such unfavorable result matters little, however, as the superstitions inculcated render the officiating conjurer practically unassailable. It is to be expected that a demon or spirit imbued with a proper amount of pride and self-respect will return with the first opportunity, requiring new and perhaps varied incantations. The stronger and more persistent the demon, the greater evidence of power on the part of the medicine-man. Everything is made to redound to his credit; consequently, the spirit is effectually disposed of only when sufficiently bribed, thoroughly overreached, or utterly annihilated—only when Nature comes to the aid of the unfortunate and affords the necessary relief, or death intervenes and claims his victim! If a fatal issue results, numberless excuses, always most reasonable, are at hand. There may have been a new spirit, or the Supreme Power may have interfered in behalf of the old, decreeing that it should work its full will, probably in retaliation for some vow made in the remote past and neglected or forgotten—hence, a just punishment! Under any circumstances nothing remains to be said, and the philosophy proves most satisfactory and comforting all around. One thing, the Indian never changes "doctors"; and, if another conjurer is summoned, it is always by or in consonance with the wish of the one in attendance.
One "powwow" that I witnessed among the Ojibways—my first experience by the way—engaged the talent of no less than a dozen "medicine-men" and nearly double the number of tyros still in their novitiate. Gathered from remote distances and points wide apart, some coming more than two hundred miles, they rallied under the leadership of one most famous in his day, so much so that his reputation traveled far beyond the precincts of his tribe; and, when gathered together, a more grewsome and spookish crew it would be difficult to imagine outside of Pluto's especial domain.
The leader or "great man" certainly deserved the distinction accorded him, if for no other reason than size and stature, he being a veritable son of Anak, considerably more than a "Saul among his people," and above thirty stone in weight. He was gorgeously figged out, and presented all the extremes of savage grandeur and frippery. From his shoulders hung a massive robe of black bears' skins lined and elaborately trimmed with scarlet; fringed blue-cloth leggins, a miracle of beaded work, and moccasins of caribou-skin ornamented with the same and with the dyed quills of the porcupine, clothed his nether extremities; ornaments of metal, of glass, of wampum, along with little bells, were artistically draped and hung from every available point; an elegantly wrought "medicine-bag" of mink-skin, and a large silver medallion of "her Most Gracious Majesty" hung suspended from broad ribbons about his neck; paints of various colors, green and vermilion predominating, daubed with no sparing hand, hid the natural hues of flesh wherever exposed; and, to cap all, his crown supported the head of a wapiti stag or Canadian elk, prepared in life-like manner as a helmet, and surmounted by immense antlers more than five feet, high. Gurth's "Visions in Dreamland" ne'er produced so wild a "huntsman," or figure more Satanic; and, all in all, the costume was as striking and bizarre as one could ask to see.
His following were in a general way his humble imitators, but less grand and imposing. All displayed marked originality and taste in producing the hideous and striking. There was, of course, a profusion of unique ornaments and of paint, distributed with a view to the effect that might be produced upon patient and audience, and varying and bewildering results were obtained. One had his face completely hidden with transverse bars of yellow and vermilion, and a ring of black about the eye; a second had daubed his countenance with black, painting the orbits white; another employed white and black in alternate horizontal bars, with eyes set in a deep border of bright vermilion; still another hid his face behind a mask of ochre; and a fifth wore a wolf-skin robe, the head of which supplied a covering for his own. The acolytes, or assistants, save for the instruments they bore, and the medicine-bags suspended from their necks, differed little from their brethren of the laity.
The scene was night, close upon the "witching hour"; the place a natural opening, less than thirty yards in diameter, in the midst of spruces, cedars, and towering Norway pines; a bright moon threw but fitful gleams of light, the rays straggling in here and there only serving to render "darkness visible"; even a small fire kindled near the center in no way tended to disperse the gloom of the surroundings, its beams but magnifying all within their radius into ghastly shades and shadows that danced fitfully and spectrally over the dark evergreen background, giving the solemn and weird character demanded in such proceedings, aiding to impress the beholders with the idea of the mysterious and supernatural.
The unfortunate in whose behalf the medicine council was instituted was a man just past the prime of life, who but a short time before had been stricken with paralysis that involved in varying degrees the entire right half of the body; the hand and arm were entirely dead to sensation, and no way amenable to the will. He had for some time been under the care of local conjurers, who, failing to relieve by their incantations, demanded a great powpow that should embrace the most noted of the fraternity; they assumed that their failure was due to insufficient power, since a half-dozen or more of malevolent spirits were implicated in the production of the malady.
The poor fellow was finally introduced into our midst, when he was submitted to a searching cross-examination as to forgotten or unfulfilled vows; then, after a few uneventful preliminaries, such as looking into amulets in order to determine the number and character of the demons involved, he was placed in the center of the circle of conjurers who had thus ranged themselves to the left of the fire.
Pou-ni-ka-ma-ta, the "Medicine Elk," he of the antlered head, led the jig, circling round and round the invalid, followed by the entire conjuring crew in single file chanting a refrain that ever ended with a line indicative of the unity of purpose and power of the Supreme Manitou on earth, giving a peculiar inflection and intonation to the final word. This was repeated over and over and over again, with unvarying monotony, only to be replaced after a measured period by another higher in key, and more emphatic in enunciation and movement; and this in turn gave way to a third that embodied still more prominently the peculiarities of the last. During all this marching the performers, each and severally, at varied intervals, cast into the blaze articles taken from their "medicine-bags" or amulet-pouches, offerings that consisted for the most part, as our olfactories afforded abundant evidence, of shreds of skins, bits of bone, horn, hair, and other animal matters, selected without regard to uniformity, but in accordance with the taste or fancy of the individual through some act or incident that was supposed to imbue the same with "medicine."
Turn and turn about these chants were repeated to a running accompaniment of drums, rattles, and bells in the hands of the acolytes or apprentices seated at the opposite side of the fire for the purpose and who varied their music in accordance with the rise and fall of the voices of their superiors, now and again instituting foul scents on their own account, or chorusing the din with responsive shrieks and howls.
In this way the powwow was carried on for an hour or more, when the entire chorus came to an abrupt stand, and with a final flourish of instruments face inward toward the sufferer. With another flourish each stretched forth his right arm, the hand holding the sacred medicine-bag, which was directed point-blank at the object of conjuration, a position that was maintained so long that it caused my arm to ache through sympathy. And then the leader uttered a sharp and authoritative "Hugh!—begone!" when march and tune were resumed as before.
Three times these ceremonies were gone over in all detail, and three times the obnoxious spirits were bidden to depart. Then, in response to queries propounded by Pou-ni-ka-ma-ta, the sufferer admitted some little benefit—that sensation was in some measure restored, or, as he expressed it, the arm felt as if awakening from a "big sleep."
Simultaneously with the expiration of the ninth series of ceremonials and the final "Begone!" the poor paralytic became animated by a species of ecstasy, as it were, and sprang into the air several times in rapid succession, whirling the maimed member around his head violently with apparently perfect command, at the same time uttering blood-curdling yells and screeches: then fell to dancing violently to music of his own improvising, more remarkable for volume and pitch than for harmony or sentiment; conducting himself for all the world as if possessed by an infinite number of those gentry that, in Scriptural times, were accredited with an unusual and somewhat precarious fondness for pork.
No one interfered. Indeed, all appeared to regard the matter as one of course. And when the poor crazed paralytic sank to the ground exhausted and helpless, frothing at the lips and every muscle tense and spasmodically twitching and quivering, not a hand was lifted for his resuscitation; after a few moments' gazing, audience and performers dispersed, while the friends of the unfortunate merely lifted and carried him to his lodge, and there left him alone, to recover or die as the case might be. Justice compels me to add, however, that this apparent stoicism was not so much the result of indifference as of the fact that the man was esteemed "medicine," and hence should not be meddled with; any interference might not only be fatal to the spell that had been worked, but would jeopard the welfare of the individual, bringing the wrath of the spirits upon his own head!
I visited the subject of conjuration the day following, and found him up, "clothed and in his right mind." Accepting an invitation to a seat beside him, conversation soon turned on the events of the night before, when he assured me, and I presume truthfully, that he had no remembrance of what had occurred subsequent to the moment he announced the partial restoration of sensation, until in the gray of the morning, when he awoke to find himself reclining on the skins in his own lodge. I also availed myself of the opportunity offered for investigation, when I found, much to my amazement, that, save for a slightly atrophied condition of the diseased side, the two halves of the body were coequal in sensation and control. He was confident that permanent relief had been obtained, which I was by no means willing to concede, though I kept my opinions strictly to myself. Subsequently my diagnosis and prognosis were confirmed by a return of the malady, which became even more assertive than before: for now the leg, which before had been in a degree amenable to the will, became perfectly unmanageable, and even the muscles of the face were rigidly set. When I left the neighborhood, a second powwow was proposed, to be conducted on a still grander scale; but I have no means of knowing more of the case or its subsequent treatment. There were, however, reasons convincing to any qualified medical man why there should be no permanent change save for the worse: the case was simply incurable.
One conjurer, whom I knew intimately, and whose adopted brother I was, surpassed by far the most able and expert of the civilized exponents of necromancy. Wa-ah-poos, or "The Rabbit," as he was mellifluously known, would perform the most difficult and astounding feats at an instant's notice, regardless of preparation or surroundings. He would allow himself to be bound hand and foot with rawhide thongs, even the whole body enveloped, pinioning the arms and hands to back and sides, yet the very instant a blanket or robe was cast over him he would bound to his feet free, with the bonds gathered in his hands., with the fastenings thereof intact. Once I bound his naked form with powerful strips of green moose-hide, drawing them so tightly that the blood threatened to burst from the ridges of unimprisoned flesh; but it made not the least difference so far as I could discover. On another occasion, in the middle of the day, he was even more elaborately pinioned—wound and rewound until he appeared an improvised mummy—employing knots and turns innumerable, such as had been suggested by naval experience; and he passed from my hands only to be lifted into a small tent or "medicine-lodge" erected for the purpose in the midst of an open prairie, which was devoid of all furnishings save a rattle and drum suspended from the interlocking poles at the apex. Scarcely was he concealed from view, however, when both instruments began a low accompaniment to a chant he sang, and the air all about became vocal with a multitude of noises and sounds, some high overhead, some apparently far away, and others in the grass at our feet; and these sounds were not heard singly and in succession, but altogether in one chorus: bisons bellowed, bears growled, wolves howled, wapiti stags roared, frogs croaked, deer stamped and whistled, horses neighed and galloped, dogs and foxes barked, serpents rattled and hissed, squirrels and hares squealed and rustled, the cat tribe spat and swore, and even wild-fowl flapped their wings and uttered their accustomed cries—a feat of ventriloquism, if ventriloquism it was, and I can assign no other cause, unparalleled in all my experience. When the uproar subsided, Wa-ah-poos appeared at the entrance of the tent unbound; but the thongs, for which most thorough and diligent search was made, were missing. Calling to him an Iroquois, an utter stranger to all but myself, who had arrived but the day before from beyond the Great Lakes in the province of Ontario, he directed him to a certain tree he pointed out growing on a bluff more than a mile away, bidding him bring what would there be found suspended from a designated branch. The latter, much to the general amazement, returned with the bonds apparently intact; and were I not assured of the impossibility of transporting them to that distance, I should have had no hesitancy in making affidavit that they were those with which the conjurer had been bound, so exactly did every turn and knot appear to be my very own.
A few days later, the same wizard, while conjuring a squaw in the final stage of phthisis (consumption), suddenly thrust his hands beneath the blanket that covered her emaciated form, and dragged forth the carcass of a full-grown gray wolf, which he flung outside into the midst of assembled relatives and friends, by whom it was quickly pounded and trampled into an almost unrecognizable pulp. "The Rabbit" now announced the recovery of the woman as assured. In making this assertion, however, he was "a trifle out," since she died the same night! I had warned him of the probable result, but he responded that it "mattered little." It evidently was not his first experience of the kind, and he found ready excuse in another spirit, a near relative of the first, who had returned unexpectedly from a long journey, and whose presence consequently could not have been foreseen, who took advantage of his (Wa-ah-poo's) temporary absence to work its foul purpose!
How the old rogue managed to duplicate the bonds so cleverly and place them in the tree before a knot had been placed in the original, is a problem I leave others to solve, though to my mind it is not so difficult as might be imagined. But how or where he obtained his dead wolf is entirely beyond my conjecture. There was no wolf beneath the blanket five minutes before it came to light, for I had but just given the sufferer a careful examination, and could not have failed to detect its presence. There was but one other occupant of the lodge besides the patient and ourselves—the husband—and he sat too far away for collusion. He had not moved for more than an hour, and no one had passed in or out for double that period of time. The violence of the conjurer's exertions had reduced his apparel until it rivaled that of the historic Georgia major; and a breech-clout and medicine-bag would scarce account for anything larger than a small rodent. There was no available place of concealment: then where did it come from?
Subsequently I questioned Wa-ah-poos upon the subject, but he would give me no other satisfaction than might be derived from a series of baboonish chuckles and grins, and a repetition of the words, "Medicine—big medicine!"