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Descriptive Notes

 Native American Nations | The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society                    

The mī´gis referred to in this description of the initiation consists of a small white shell, of almost any species, but the one believed to resemble the form of the mythical mī´gis is similar to the cowrie, Cyprća moneta, L., and is figured at No. 1 on Pl. XI. Nearly all of the shells employed for this purpose are foreign species, and have no doubt been obtained from the traders. The shells found in the country of the Ojibwa are of rather delicate structure, and it is probable that the salt water shells are employed as a substitute chiefly because of their less frangible character. The mī´gis of the other degrees are presented on the same plate, but special reference to them will be made. No. 2 represents the mī´gis in the possession of the chief Midē priest of the society at Leech Lake, Minnesota, and consists of a pearl-white Helix (sp?).


Plate XI. Sacred Objects.

The Midē´ sack represented in No. 7 (Pl. XI.) is made of the skin of a mink—Putorius vison, Gapp. White, downy feathers are secured to the nose, as an additional ornament. In this sack are carried the sacred objects belonging to its owner, such as colors for facial ornamentation, and the magic red powder employed in the preparation of hunters´ songs; effigies and other contrivances to prove to the incredulous the genuineness of the Midē´ pretensions, sacred songs, amulets, and other small man´idōs—abnormal productions to which they attach supernatural properties—invitation sticks, etc.

In Fig. 19 is reproduced a curious abnormal growth which was in the possession of a Midē´ near Red Lake, Minnesota. It consists of the leg of a Goshawk—Astur atricapillus, Wilson—from the outer inferior condyle of the right tibia of which had projected a supernumerary leg that terminated in two toes, the whole abnormality being about one-half the size and length of the natural leg and toes.

This fetish was highly prized by its former owner, and was believed to be a medium whereby the favor of the Great Thunderer, or Thunder God, might be invoked and his anger appeased. This deity is represented in pictography by the eagle, or frequently by one of the Falconidć; hence it is but natural that the superstitious should look with awe and reverence upon such an abnormality on one of the terrestrial representatives of this deity.

A Midē´ of the first degree, who may not be enabled to advance further in the mysteries of the Midē´wiwin, owing to his inability to procure the necessary quantity of presents and gifts which he is required to pay to new preceptors and to the officiating priests—the latter demanding goods of double the value of those given as an entrance to


Fig. 19.—Hawk-leg fetish.

the first degree—may, however, accomplish the acquisition of additional knowledge by purchasing it from individual Midē´. It is customary with Midē´ priests to exact payment for every individual remedy or secret that may be imparted to another who may desire such information. This practice is not entirely based upon mercenary motives, but it is firmly believed that when a secret or remedy has been paid, for it can not be imparted for nothing, as then its virtue would be impaired, if not entirely destroyed, by the man´idō or guardian spirit under whose special protection it may be supposed to be held or controlled.

Under such circumstances certain first degree Midē´ may become possessed of alleged magic powers which are in reality part of the accomplishments of the Midē´ of the higher degrees; but, for the mutual protection of the members of the society, they generally hesitate to impart anything that may be considered of high value. The usual kind of knowledge sought consists of the magic properties and use of plants, to the chief varieties of which reference will be made in connection with the next degree.

There is one subject, however, which first-degree Midē´ seek enlightment upon, and that is the preparation of the “hunter’s medicine” and the pictographic drawings employed in connection therewith. The compound is made of several plants, the leaves and roots of which are ground into powder. A little of this is put into the gun barrel, with the bullet, and sometimes a small pinch is dropped upon the track of the animal to compel it to halt at whatever place it may be when the powder is so sprinkled upon the ground.

The method generally employed to give to the hunter success is as follows: When anyone contemplates making a hunting trip, he first visits the Midē´, giving him a present of tobacco before announcing the object of his visit and afterwards promising to give him such and such portions of the animal which he may procure. The Midē´, if satisfied with the gift, produces his pipe and after making an offering to Ki´tshi man´idō for aid in the preparation of his “medicine,” and to appease the anger of the man´idō who controls the class of animals desired, sings a song, one of his own composition, after which he will draw with a sharp-pointed bone or nail, upon a small piece of birch bark, the outline of the animal desired by the applicant. The place of the heart of the animal is indicated by a puncture upon which a small quantity of vermilion is carefully rubbed, this color being very efficacious toward effecting the capture of the animal and the punctured heart insuring its death.

Frequently the heart is indicated by a round or triangular figure, from which a line extends toward the mouth, generally designated the life line, i.e., that magic power may reach its heart and influence the life of the subject designated. Fig. 20 is a reproduction of the character drawn upon a small oval piece of


Fig. 20.—Hunter’s medicine.

birch bark, which had been made by a Midē´ to insure the death of two bears. Another example is presented in Fig. 21, a variety of animals being figured and a small quantity of vermilion being rubbed upon the heart of each. In some instances the representation of animal forms is drawn by the Midē´ not upon birch bark, but directly upon sandy earth or a bed of ashes, either of which affords a smooth surface. For this purpose he uses a sharply pointed piece of wood, thrusts it into the region of the heart, and afterwards sprinkles upon this a small quantity of powder consisting of magic plants and vermilion. These performances are not conducted in public, but after the regular mystic ceremony has been conducted by the Midē´ the information is delivered with certain injunctions as to the course of procedure, direction, etc. In the latter method of drawing the outline upon the sand or upon ashes, the result is made known with such directions as may be deemed necessary to insure success.


Fig. 21.—Hunter’s medicine.

For the purpose of gaining instruction and success in the disposition of his alleged medicines, the Midē´ familiarizes himself with the topography and characteristics of the country extending over a wide area, to ascertain the best feeding grounds of the various animals and their haunts at various seasons. He keeps himself informed by also skillfully conducting inquiries of returning hunters, and thus becomes possessed of a large amount of valuable information respecting the natural history of the surrounding country, by which means he can, with a tolerable amount of certainty, direct a hunter to the best localities for such varieties of game as may be particularly desired by him.

In his incantations a Wâbeno´ uses a drum resembling a tambourine. A hoop made of ash wood is covered with a piece of rawhide, tightly stretched while wet. Upon the upper surface is painted a mythic figure, usually that of his tutelaly daimon. An example of this kind is from Red Lake, Minnesota, presented in Fig. 22. The human figure is painted red, while the outline of the head is black, as are also the waving lines extending from the head. These lines denote superior power. When drumming upon this figure, the Wâbeno´ chants and is thus more easily enabled to invoke the assistance of his man´idō.


Fig. 22.—Wâbeno´ drum.

Women, as before remarked, may take the degrees of the Midē´wiwin, but, so far as could be ascertained, their professions pertain chiefly to the treatment of women and children and to tattooing for the cure of headache and chronic neuralgia.

Tattooing is accomplished by the use of finely powdered charcoal, soot or gunpowder, the pricking instrument being made by tying together a small number of needles; though formerly, it is said, fish spines or sharp splinters of bone were used for the purpose. The marks consist of round spots of one-half to three-fourths of an inch in diameter immediately over the afflicted part, the intention being to drive out the demon. Such spots are usually found upon the temples, though an occasional one may be found on the forehead or over the nasal eminence.

When the pain extends over considerable space the tattoo marks are smaller, and are arranged in rows or continuous lines. Such marks may be found upon some individuals to run outward over either or both cheeks from the alć of the nose to a point near the lobe of the ear, clearly indicating that the tattooing was done for toothache or neuralgia.

The female Midē´ is usually present at the initiation of new members, but her duties are mainly to assist in the singing and to make herself generally useful in connection with the preparation of the medicine feast.


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The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society, 1891

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