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Introduction to Grand Medicine Society

 Native American Nations | The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society                   

Pl. II

The Ojibwa is one of the largest tribes of the United States, and it is scattered over a considerable area, from the Province of Ontario, on the east, to the Red River of the North, on the west, and from Manitoba southward through the States of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. This tribe is, strictly speaking, a timber people, and in its westward migration or dispersion has never passed beyond the limit of the timber growth which so remarkably divides the State of Minnesota into two parts possessing distinct physical features. The western portion of this State is a gently undulating prairie which sweeps away to the Rocky Mountains, while the eastern portion is heavily timbered. The dividing line, at or near the meridian of 95° 50' west longitude, extends due north and south, and at a point about 75 miles south of the northern boundary the timber line trends toward the northwest, crossing the State line, 49° north latitude, at about 97° 10' west longitude.

Minnesota contains many thousand lakes of various sizes, some of which are connected by fine water courses, while others are entirely isolated. The wooded country is undulating, the elevated portions being covered chiefly with pine, fir, spruce, and other coniferous trees, and the lowest depressions being occupied by lakes, ponds, or marshes, around which occur the tamarack, willow, and other trees which thrive in moist ground, while the regions between these extremes are covered with oak, poplar, ash, birch, maple, and many other varieties of trees and shrubs.

Wild fowl, game, and fish are still abundant, and until recently have furnished to the Indians the chief source of subsistence.

Tribal organization according to the totemic system is practically broken up, as the Indians are generally located upon or near the several reservations set apart for them by the General Government, where they have been under more or less restraint by the United States Indian agents and the missionaries. Representatives of various totems or gentes may therefore be found upon a single reservation, where they continue to adhere to traditional customs and beliefs, thus presenting an interesting field for ethnologic research.

The present distribution of the Ojibwa in Minnesota and Wisconsin is indicated upon the accompanying map, Pl. II. In the southern portion many of these people have adopted civilized pursuits, but throughout the northern and northwestern part many bands continue to adhere to their primitive methods and are commonly designated “wild Indians.” The habitations of many of the latter are rude and primitive. The bands on the northeast shore of Red Lake, as well as a few others farther east, have occupied these isolated sites for an uninterrupted period of about three centuries, as is affirmed by the chief men of the several villages and corroborated by other traditional evidence.

Father Claude Alloüez, upon his arrival in 1666 at Shagawaumikong, or La Pointe, found the Ojibwa preparing to attack the Sioux. The settlement at this point was an extensive one, and in traditions pertaining to the “Grand Medicine Society” frequent allusion is made to the fact that at this place the rites were practiced in their greatest purity.

Mr. Warren, in his History of the Ojibwa Indians,1 bases his belief upon traditional evidence that the Ojibwa first had knowledge of the whites in 1612. Early in the seventeenth century the French missionaries met with various tribes of the Algonkian linguistic stock, as well as with bands or subtribes of the Ojibwa Indians. One of the latter, inhabiting the vicinity of Sault Ste. Marie, is frequently mentioned in the Jesuit Relations as the Saulteurs. This term was applied to all those people who lived at the Falls, but from other statements it is clear that the Ojibwa formed the most important body in that vicinity. La Hontan speaks of the “Outchepoues, alias Sauteurs,” as good warriors. The name Saulteur survives at this day and is applied to a division of the tribe.

According to statements made by numerous Ojibwa chiefs of importance the tribe began its westward dispersion from La Pointe and Fond du Lac at least two hundred and fifty years ago, some of the bands penetrating the swampy country of northern Minnesota, while others went westward and southwestward. According to a statement2 of the location of the tribes of Lake Superior, made at Mackinaw in 1736, the Sioux then occupied the southern and northern extremities of that lake. It is possible, however, that the northern bands of the Ojibwa may have penetrated the region adjacent to the Pigeon River and passed west to near their present location, thus avoiding their enemies who occupied the lake shore south of them.

From recent investigations among a number of tribes of the Algonkian linguistic division it is found that the traditions and practices pertaining to the Mide´wiwin, Society of the Mide´ or Shamans, popularly designated as the “Grand Medicine Society,” prevailed generally, and the rites are still practiced at irregular intervals, though in slightly different forms in various localities.

In the reports of early travelers and missionaries no special mention is made of the Mide´, the Jes´sakkid´, or the Wâbeno´, but the term sorcerer or juggler is generally employed to designate that class of persons who professed the power of prophecy, and who practiced incantation and administered medicinal preparations. Constant reference is made to the opposition of these personages to the introduction of Christianity. In the light of recent investigation the cause of this antagonism is seen to lie in the fact that the traditions of Indian genesis and cosmogony and the ritual of initiation into the Society of the Mide´ constitute what is to them a religion, even more powerful and impressive than the Christian religion is to the average civilized man. This opposition still exists among the leading classes of a number of the Algonkian tribes, and especially among the Ojibwa, many bands of whom have been more or less isolated and beyond convenient reach of the Church. The purposes of the society are twofold; first, to preserve the traditions just mentioned, and second, to give a certain class of ambitious men and women sufficient influence through their acknowledged power of exorcism and necromancy to lead a comfortable life at the expense of the credulous. The persons admitted into the society are firmly believed to possess the power of communing with various supernatural beings—manidos—and in order that certain desires may be realized they are sought after and consulted. The purpose of the present paper is to give an account of this society and of the ceremony of initiation as studied and observed at White Earth, Minnesota, in 1889. Before proceeding to this, however, it may be of interest to consider a few statements made by early travelers respecting the “sorcerers or jugglers” and the methods of medication.

In referring to the practices of the Algonkian tribes of the Northwest, La Hontan3 says:

When they are sick, they only drink Broth, and eat sparingly; and if they have the good luck to fall asleep, they think themselves cur’d: They have told me frequently, that sleeping and sweating would cure the most stubborn Diseases in the World. When they are so weak that they cannot get out of Bed, their Relations come and dance and make merry before ’em, in order to divert ’em. To conclude, when they are ill, they are always visited by a sort of Quacks, (Jongleurs); of whom ’t will now be proper to subjoin two or three Words by the bye.

A Jongleur is a sort of Physician, or rather a Quack, who being once cur’d of some dangerous Distemper, has the Presumption and Folly to fancy that he is immortal, and possessed of the Power of curing all Diseases, by speaking to the Good and Evil Spirits. Now though every Body rallies upon these Fellows when they are absent, and looks upon ’em as Fools that have lost their Senses by some violent Distemper, yet they allow ’em to visit the Sick; whether it be to divert ’em with their Idle Stories, or to have an Opportunity of seeing them rave, skip about, cry, houl, and make Grimaces and Wry Faces, as if they were possess’d. When all the Bustle is over, they demand a Feast of a Stag and some large Trouts for the Company, who are thus regal’d at once with Diversion and Good Cheer.

When the Quack comes to visit the Patient, he examines him very carefully; If the Evil Spirit be here, says he, we shall quickly dislodge him. This said, he withdraws by himself to a little Tent made on purpose, where he dances, and sings houling like an Owl; (which gives the Jesuits Occasion to say, That the Devil converses with ’em.) After he has made an end of this Quack Jargon, he comes and rubs the Patient in some part of his Body, and pulling some little Bones out of his Mouth, acquaints the Patient, That these very Bones came out of his Body; that he ought to pluck up a good heart, in regard that his Distemper is but a Trifle; and in fine, that in order to accelerate the Cure, ’t will be convenient to send his own and his Relations Slaves to shoot Elks, Deer, &c., to the end they may all eat of that sort of Meat, upon which his Cure does absolutely depend.

Commonly these Quacks bring ’em some Juices of Plants, which are a sort of Purges, and are called Maskikik.

Hennepin, in “A Continuation of the New Discovery,” etc.,4 speaks of the religion and sorcerers of the tribes of the St. Lawrence and those living about the Great Lakes as follows:

We have been all too sadly convinced, that almost all the Salvages in general have no notion of a God, and that they are not able to comprehend the most ordinary Arguments on that Subject; others will have a Spirit that commands, say they, in the Air. Some among ’em look upon the Skie as a kind of Divinity; others as an Otkon or Manitou, either Good or Evil.

These People admit of some sort of Genius in all things; they all believe there is a Master of Life, as they call him, but hereof they make various applications; some of them have a lean Raven, which they carry always along with them, and which they say is the Master of their Life; others have an Owl, and some again a Bone, a Sea-Shell, or some such thing;

There is no Nation among ’em which has not a sort of Juglers or Conjuerers, which some look upon to be Wizards, but in my Opinion there is no Great reason to believe ’em such, or to think that their Practice favours any thing of a Communication with the Devil.

These Impostors cause themselves to be reverenced as Prophets which fore-tell Futurity. They will needs be look’d upon to have an unlimited Power. They boast of being able to make it Wet or Dry; to cause a Calm or a Storm; to render Land Fruitful or Barren; and, in a Word to make Hunters Fortunate or Unfortunate. They also pretend to Physick, and to apply Medicines, but which are such, for the most part as have little Virtue at all in ’em, especially to Cure that Distemper which they pretend to.

It is impossible to imagine, the horrible Howlings and strange Contortions that those Jugglers make of their Bodies, when they are disposing themselves to Conjure, or raise their Enchantments.
Marquette, who visited the Miami, Mascontin and Kickapoo Indians in 1673, after referring to the Indian herbalist, mentions also the ceremony of the “calumet dance,” as follows:

They have Physicians amongst them, towards whom they are very liberal when they are sick, thinking that the Operation of the Remedies they take, is proportional to the Presents they make unto those who have prescrib’d them.

In connection with this, reference is made by Marquette to a certain class of individuals among the Illinois and Dakota, who were compelled to wear women’s clothes, and who were debarred many privileges, but were permitted to “assist at all the Superstitions of their Juglers, and their solemn Dances in honor of the Calumet, in which they may sing, but it is not lawful for them to dance. They are call’d to their Councils, and nothing is determin’d without their Advice; for, because of their extraordinary way of Living, they are look’d upon as Manitous, or at least for great and incomparable Genius’s.”

That the calumet was brought into requisition upon all occasions of interest is learned from the following statement, in which the same writer declares that it is “the most mysterious thing in the World. The Sceptres of our Kings are not so much respected; for the Savages have such a Deference for this Pipe, that one may call it The God of Peace and War, and the Arbiter of Life and Death. Their Calumet of Peace is different from the Calumet of War; They make use of the former to seal their Alliances and Treaties, to travel with safety, and receive Strangers; and the other is to proclaim War.”

This reverence for the calumet is shown by the manner in which it is used at dances, in the ceremony of smoking, etc., indicating a religious devoutness approaching that recently observed among various Algonkian tribes in connection with the ceremonies of the Mide´wiwin. When the calumet dance was held, the Illinois appear to have resorted to the houses in the winter and to the groves in the summer. The above-named authority continues in this connection:

They chuse for that purpose a set Place among Trees, to shelter themselves against the Heat of the Sun, and lay in the middle a large Matt, as a Carpet, to lay upon the God of the Chief of the Company, who gave the Ball; for every one has his peculiar God, whom they call Manitoa. It is sometime a Stone, a Bird, a Serpent, or anything else that they dream of in their Sleep; for they think this Manitoa will prosper their Wants, as Fishing, Hunting, and other Enterprizes. To the Right of their Manitoa they place the Calumet, their Great Deity, making round about it a Kind of Trophy with their Arms, viz. their Clubs, Axes, Bows, Quivers, and Arrows. Every Body sits down afterwards, round about, as they come, having first of all saluted the Manitoa, which they do in blowing the Smoak of their Tobacco upon it, which is as much as offering to it Frankincense. This Preludium being over, he who is to begin the Dance appears in the middle of the Assembly, and having taken the Calumet, presents it to the Sun, as if he wou’d invite him to smoke. Then he moves it into an infinite Number of Postures sometimes laying it near the Ground, then stretching its Wings, as if he wou’d make it fly, and then presents it to the Spectators, who smoke with it one after another, dancing all the while. This is the first Scene of this famous Ball.

The infinite number of postures assumed in offering the pipe appear as significant as the “smoke ceremonies” mentioned in connection with the preparatory instruction of the candidate previous to his initiation into the Mide´wiwin.

In his remarks on the religion of the Indians and the practices of the sorcerers, Hennepin says:

As for their Opinion concerning the Earth, they make use of a Name of a certain Genius, whom they call Micaboche, who has cover’d the whole Earth with water (as they imagine) and relate innumerable fabulous Tales, some of which have a kind of Analogy with the Universal Deluge. These Barbarians believe that there are certain Spirits in the Air, between Heaven and Earth, who have a power to foretell future Events, and others who play the part of Physicians, curing all sorts of Distempers. Upon which account, it happens, that these Savages are very Superstitious, and consult their Oracles with a great deal of exactness. One of these Masters-Jugglers who pass for Sorcerers among them, one day caus’d a Hut to be erected with ten thick Stakes, which he fix’d very deep in the Ground, and then made a horrible noise to Consult the Spirits, to know whether abundance of Snow wou’d fall ere long, that they might have good game in the Hunting of Elks and Beavers: Afterward he bawl’d out aloud from the bottom of the Hut, that he saw many Herds of Elks, which were as yet at a very great distance, but that they drew near within seven or eight Leagues of their Huts, which caus’d a great deal of joy among those poor deluded Wretches.

That this statement refers to one or more tribes of the Algonkian linguistic stock is evident, not only because of the reference to the sorcerers and their peculiar methods of procedure, but also that the name of Micaboche, an Algonkian divinity, appears. This Spirit, who acted as an intercessor between Ki´tshi Man´ido (Great Spirit) and the Indians, is known among the Ojibwa as Mi´nabo´zho; but to this full reference will be made further on in connection with the Myth of the origin of the Mide´wiwin. The tradition of Nokomis (the earth) and the birth of Manabush (the Mi´nabo´zho of the Menomoni) and his brother, the Wolf, that pertaining to the re-creation of the world, and fragments of other myths, are thrown together and in a mangled form presented by Hennepin in the following words:

Some Salvages which live at the upper end of the River St. Lawrence, do relate a pretty diverting Story. They hold almost the same opinion with the former [the Iroquois], that a Woman came down from Heaven, and remained for some while fluttering in the Air, not finding Ground whereupon to put her Foot. But that the Fishes moved with Compassion for her, immediately held a Consultation to deliberate which of them should receive her. The Tortoise very officiously offered its Back on the Surface of the Water. The Woman came to rest upon it, and fixed herself there. Afterwards the Filthiness and Dirt of the Sea gathering together about the Tortoise, there was formed by little and little that vast Tract of Land, which we now call America.

They add that this Woman grew weary of her Solitude, wanting some body for to keep her Company, that so she might spend her time more pleasantly. Melancholy and Sadness having seiz’d upon her Spirits, she fell asleep, and a Spirit descended from above, and finding her in that Condition approach’d and knew her unperceptibly. From which Approach she conceived two Children, which came forth out of one of her Ribs. But these two Brothers could never afterwards agree together. One of them was a better Huntsman than the other; they quarreled every day; and their Disputes grew so high at last, that one could not bear with the other. One especially being of a very wild Temper, hated mortally his Brother who was of a milder Constitution, who being no longer able to endure the Pranks of the other, he resolved at last to part from him. He retired then into Heaven, whence, for a Mark of his just Resentment, he causeth at several times his Thunder to rore over the Head of his unfortunate Brother.

Sometime after the Spirit descended again on that Woman, and she conceived a Daughter, from whom (as the Salvages say) were propagated these numerous People, which do occupy now one of the greatest parts of the Universe.

It is evident that the narrator has sufficiently distorted the traditions to make them conform, as much as practicable, to the biblical story of the birth of Christ. No reference whatever is made in the Ojibwa or Menomoni myths to the conception of the Daughter of Nokomis (the earth) by a celestial visitant, but the reference is to one of the wind gods. Mi´nabo´zho became angered with the Ki´tshi Man´ido, and the latter, to appease his discontent, gave to Mi´nabo´zho the rite of the Midewiwin. The brother of Mi´nabo´zho was destroyed by the malevolent underground spirits and now rules the abode of shadows,—the “Land of the Midnight Sun.”

Upon his arrival at the “Bay of Puans” (Green Bay, Wisconsin), Marquette found a village inhabited by three nations, viz: “Miamis, Maskoutens, and Kikabeux.” He says:

When I arriv’d there, I was very glad to see a great Cross set up in the middle of the Village, adorn’d with several White Skins, Red Girdles, Bows and Arrows, which that good People had offer’d to the Great Manitou, to return him their Thanks for the care he had taken of them during the Winter, and that he had granted them a prosperous Hunting. Manitou, is the Name they give in general to all Spirits whom they think to be above the Nature of Man.

Marquette was without doubt ignorant of the fact that the cross is the sacred post, and the symbol of the fourth degree of the Mide´wiwin, as will be fully explained in connection with that grade of the society. The erroneous conclusion that the cross was erected as an evidence of the adoption of Christianity, and possibly as a compliment to the visitor, was a natural one on the part of the priest, but this same symbol of the Mide´ Society had probably been erected and bedecked with barbaric emblems and weapons months before anything was known of him.

The result of personal investigations among the Ojibwa, conducted during the years 1887, 1888 and 1889, are presented in the accompanying paper. The information was obtained from a number of the chief Mide´ priests living at Red Lake and White Earth reservations, as well as from members of the society from other reservations, who visited the last named locality during the three years. Special mention of the peculiarity of the music recorded will be made at the proper place; and it may here be said that in no instance was the use of colors detected, in any birch-bark or other records or mnemonic songs, simply to heighten the artistic effect; though the reader would be led by an examination of the works of Schoolcraft to believe this to be a common practice. Col. Garrick Mallery; U.S. Army, in a paper read before the Anthropological Society of Washington, District of Columbia, in 1888, says, regarding this subject:

The general character of his voluminous publications has not been such as to assure modern critics of his accuracy, and the wonderful minuteness, as well as comprehension, attributed by him to the Ojibwa hieroglyphs has been generally regarded of late with suspicion. It was considered in the Bureau of Ethnology an important duty to ascertain how much of truth existed in these remarkable accounts, and for that purpose its pictographic specialists, myself and Dr. W. J. Hoffman as assistant, were last summer directed to proceed to the most favorable points in the present habitat of the tribe, namely, the northern region of Minnesota and Wisconsin, to ascertain how much was yet to be discovered. The general results of the comparison of Schoolcraft’s statements with what is now found shows that, in substance, he told the truth, but with much exaggeration and coloring. The word “coloring” is particularly appropriate, because, in his copious illustrations, various colors were used freely with apparent significance, whereas, in fact, the general rule in regard to the birch-bark rolls was that they were never colored at all; indeed, the bark was not adapted to coloration. The metaphorical coloring was also used by him in a manner which, to any thorough student of the Indian philosophy and religion, seems absurd. Metaphysical expressions are attached to some of the devices, or, as he calls them, symbols, which, could never have been entertained by a people in the stage of culture of the Ojibwa.

1 Coll. Minn. Hist. Soc., 1885, vol. 5, p. 130.

2 Reproduced from the ninth volume of the New York Colonial Documents, pp. 1054, 1055.

3 New Voyages to North America, London, 1703, vol. 2, pp. 47, 48.

4 London, 1689, p. 59, et seq.

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The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society, 1891

The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society


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