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Descriptive Notes

 Native American Nations | The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society                   

The amount of influence wielded by Midē´ generally, and particularly such as have received four degrees, is beyond belief. The rite of the Midē´wiwin is deemed equivalent to a religion—as that term is commonly understood by intelligent people—and is believed to elevate such a Midē´ to the nearest possible approach to the reputed character of Mi´nabō´zho, and to place within his reach the supernatural power of invoking and communing with Ki´tshi Man´idō himself.

By reference to Pl. III, A, No. 98, it will be observed that the human figure is specially marked with very pronounced indications of mī´gis spots upon the head, the extremities, and more particularly the breast. These are placed where the migis was “shot” into the Midē´, and the functions of the several parts are therefore believed to be greatly augmented. All the spots are united by a line to denote unity and harmony of action in the exercise of power.

The mī´gis, typical of the fourth degree, consists of small pieces of deer horn, covered with red paint on one end and green upon the other. Sometimes but one color is employed for the entire object. The form is shown on Pl. XI, No. 6. No. 2, upon the same plate, represents a shell, used as a mī´gis, observed at White Earth.

Figs. 5-11, on Pl. XV, present several forms of painting Midē´ posts, as practiced by the several societies in Minnesota. Each society claims to preserve the ancient method. The cross, shown in No. 7, bears the typical colors—red and green—upon the upper half, while the lower post is square and colored white on the east, green on the south, red on the west, and black on the north. The Midē´ explain the signification of the colors as follows: White represents the east, the source of light and the direction from which the sacred mī´gis came; green, sha´manō the southern one, refers to the source of the rains, the direction from which the Thunderers come in the spring, they who revivify the earth; red refers to the land of the setting sun, the abode of the shadows or the dead; and north being black, because that is the direction from which come cold, hunger, and disease.

The words of the Midē´ priest alluding to “the path that has no end” refer to the future course and conduct of the candidate for the last degree, as well as to the possibility of attaining unlimited powers in magic, and is pictorially designated upon the chart on Pl. III, A, at No. 99. The path is devious and beset with temptations, but by strict adherence to the principles of the Midē´wiwin the Midē´ may reach the goal and become the superior of his confrères, designated Mi-ni´-si-nō´-shkwe, “he who lives on the island.”

A Midē´-Wâbĕnō´ of this degree is dreaded on account of his extraordinary power of inflicting injury, causing misfortune, etc., and most remarkable tales are extant concerning his astounding performances with fire.

The following performance is said to have occurred at White Earth, Minnesota, in the presence of a large gathering of Indians and mixed bloods. Two small wig´iwams were erected, about 50 paces from each other, and after the Wâbĕnō´ had crawled into one of them his disparagers built around each of them a continuous heap of brush and firewood, which were then kindled. When the blaze was at its height all became hushed for a moment, and presently the Wâbĕnō´ called to the crowd that he had transferred himself to the other wig´iwam and immediately, to their profound astonishment, crawled forth unharmed.

This is but an example of the numerous and marvelous abilities with which the Wâbĕnō´ of the higher grade is accredited.

The special pretensions claimed by the Midē-Wâbĕnō´ have already been mentioned, but an account of the properties and manner of using the “love powder” may here be appropriate. This powder—the composition of which has been given—is generally used by the owner to accomplish results desired by the applicant. It is carried in a small bag made of buckskin or cloth, which the Wâbĕnō´ carefully deposits within his Midē´ sack, but which is transferred to another sack of like size and loaned to the applicant, for a valuable consideration.

During a recent visit to one of the reservations in Minnesota, I had occasion to confer with a Catholic missionary regarding some of the peculiar medical practices of the Indians, and the implements and other accessories employed in connection with their profession. He related the following incident as having but a short time previously come under his own personal observation:

One of the members of his church, a Norwegian, sixty-two years of age, and a widower, had for the last preceding year been considered by most of the residents as demented. The missionary himself had observed his erratic and frequently irrational conduct, and was impressed with the probable truth of the prevailing rumor. One morning, however, as the missionary was seated in his study, he was surprised to receive a very early call, and upon invitation his visitor took a seat and explained the object of his visit. He said that for the last year he had been so disturbed in his peace of mind that he now came to seek advice. He was fully aware of the common report respecting his conduct, but was utterly unable to control himself, and attributed the cause of his unfortunate condition to an occurrence of the year before. Upon waking one morning his thoughts were unwillingly concentrated upon an Indian woman with whom he had no personal acquaintance whatever, and, notwithstanding the absurdity of the impression, he was unable to cast it aside. After breakfast he was, by some inexplicable influence, compelled to call upon her, and to introduce himself, and although he expected to be able to avoid repeating the visit, he never had sufficient control over himself to resist lurking in the vicinity of her habitation.

Upon his return home after the first visit he discovered lying upon the floor under his bed, a Midē´ sack which contained some small parcels with which he was unfamiliar, but was afterward told that one of them consisted of “love powder.” He stated that he had grown children, and the idea of marrying again was out of the question, not only on their account but because he was now too old. The missionary reasoned with him and suggested a course of procedure, the result of which had not been learned when the incident was related.

Jugglery of another kind, to which allusion has before been made, is also attributed to the highest class of Jĕs´sakkīd´. Several years ago the following account was related to Col. Garrick Mallery, U.S. Army, and myself, and as Col. Mallery subsequently read a paper before the Anthropological Society of Washington, District of Columbia, in which the account was mentioned, I quote his words:

  Paul Beaulieu, an Ojibwa of mixed blood, present interpreter at White Earth Agency, Minnesota, gave me his experience with a Jĕs´sakkīd´, at Leech Lake, Minnesota, about the year 1858. The reports of his wonderful performances had reached the agency, and as Beaulieu had no faith in jugglers, he offered to wager 277 $100, a large sum, then and there, against goods of equal value, that the juggler could not perform satisfactorily one of the tricks of his repertoire to be selected by him (Beaulieu) in the presence of himself and a committee of his friends. The Jĕs´sakkân´—or Jĕs´sakkīd´ lodge—was then erected. The framework of vertical poles, inclined to the center, was filled in with interlaced twigs covered with blankets and birch-bark from the ground to the top, leaving an upper orifice of about a foot in diameter for the ingress and egress of spirits and the objects to be mentioned, but not large enough for the passage of a man’s body. At one side of the lower wrapping a flap was left for the entrance of the Jĕs´sakkīd´.

A committee of twelve was selected to see that no communication was possible between the Jĕs´sakkīd´ and confederates. These were reliable people, one of them the Episcopal clergyman of the reservation. The spectators were several hundred in number, but they stood off, not being allowed to approach.

The Jĕs´sakkīd´ then removed his clothing, until nothing remained but the breech-cloth. Beaulieu took a rope (selected by himself for the purpose) and first tied and knotted one end about the juggler’s ankles; his knees were then securely tied together, next the wrists, after which the arms were passed over the knees and a billet of wood passed through under the knees, thus securing and keeping the arms down motionless. The rope was then passed around the neck, again and again, each time tied and knotted, so as to bring the face down upon the knees. A flat river-stone, of black color—which was the Jĕs´sakkīd´’s ma´nidō or amulet—was left lying upon his thighs.

The Jĕs´sakkīd´ was then carried to the lodge and placed inside upon a mat on the ground, and the flap covering was restored so as to completely hide him from view.

Immediately loud, thumping noises were heard, and the framework began to sway from side to side with great violence; whereupon the clergyman remarked that this was the work of the Evil One and ‘it was no place for him,’ so he left and did not see the end. After a few minutes of violent movements and swayings of the lodge accompanied by loud inarticulate noises, the motions gradually ceased when the voice of the juggler was heard, telling Beaulieu to go to the house of a friend, near by, and get the rope. Now, Beaulieu, suspecting some joke was to be played upon him, directed the committee to be very careful not to permit any one to approach while he went for the rope, which he found at the place indicated, still tied exactly as he had placed it about the neck and extremities of the Jĕs´sakkīd´. He immediately returned, laid it down before the spectators, and requested of the Jĕs´sakkīd´ to be allowed to look at him, which was granted, but with the understanding that Beaulieu was not to touch him.

When the covering was pulled aside, the Jĕs´sakkīd´ sat within the lodge, contentedly smoking his pipe, with no other object in sight than the black stone mánidō. Beaulieu paid his wager of $100.

An exhibition of similar pretended powers, also for a wager, was announced a short time after, at Yellow Medicine, Minnesota, to be given in the presence of a number of Army people, but at the threat of the Grand Medicine Man of the Leech Lake bands, who probably objected to interference with his lucrative monopoly, the event did not take place and bets were declared off.

Col. Mallery obtained further information, of a similar kind from various persons on the Bad River Reservation, and at Bayfield, Wisconsin. All of these he considered to be mere variants of a class of performances which were reported by the colonists of New England and the first French missionaries in Canada as early as 1613, where the general designation of “The Sorcerers” was applied to the whole body of Indians on the Ottawa River. These reports, it must be 278 remembered, however, applied only to the numerous tribes of the Algonkian linguistic family among which the alleged practices existed; though neighboring tribes of other linguistic groups were no doubt familiar with them, just as the Winnebago, Omaha, and other allied tribes, profess to have “Medicine Societies,” the secrets of which they claim to have obtained from tribes located east of their own habitat, that practiced the peculiar ceremony of “shooting small shells” (i.e., the mī´gis of the Ojibwa) into the candidate.

In Pl. XVIII is shown a Jĕs´sakkīd´ extracting sickness by sucking through bone tubes.


Plate XVIII. Jes´akkid´ Removing Disease.


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The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society, 1891

The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society

 

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