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 Native American Nations | The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society                   

The Midē´wiwin—Society of the Midē´ or Shamans—consists of an indefinite number of Midē´ of both sexes. The society is graded into four separate and distinct degrees, although there is a general impression prevailing even among certain members that any degree beyond the first is practically a mere repetition. The greater power attained by one in making advancement depends upon the fact of his having submitted to “being shot at with the medicine sacks” in the hands of the officiating priests. This may be the case at this late day in certain localities, but from personal experience it has been learned that there is considerable variation in the dramatization of the ritual. One circumstance presents itself forcibly to the careful observer, and that is that the greater number of repetitions of the phrases chanted by the Midē´ the greater is felt to be the amount of inspiration and power of the performance. This is true also of some of the lectures in which reiteration and prolongation in time of delivery aids very much in forcibly impressing the candidate and other observers with the importance and sacredness of the ceremony.

It has always been customary for the Midē´ priests to preserve birch-bark records, bearing delicate incised lines to represent pictorially the ground plan of the number of degrees to which the owner is entitled. Such records or charts are sacred and are never exposed to the public view, being brought forward for inspection only when an accepted candidate has paid his fee, and then only after necessary preparation by fasting and offerings of tobacco.

Plate III. Red Lake And Leech Lake Records (key).
Complete Plate

During the year 1887, while at Red Lake, Minnesota, I had the good fortune to discover the existence of an old birch-bark chart, which, according to the assurances of the chief and assistant Midē´ priests, had never before been exhibited to a white man, nor even to an Indian unless he had become a regular candidate. This chart measures 7 feet 1½ inches in length and 18 inches in width, and is made of five pieces of birch bark neatly and securely stitched together by means of thin, flat strands of bass wood. At each end are two thin strips of wood, secured transversely by wrapping and stitching with thin strands of bark, so as to prevent splitting and fraying of the ends of the record. Pl. III A, is a reproduction of the design referred to.

It had been in the keeping of Skweko´mik, to whom it was intrusted at the death of his father-in-law, the latter, in turn, having received it in 1825 from Badâ´san, the Grand Shaman and chief of the Winnibe´goshish Ojibwa.

It is affirmed that Badâ´san had received the original from the Grand Midē´ priest at La Pointe, Wisconsin, where, it is said, the Midē´wiwin was at that time held annually and the ceremonies conducted in strict accordance with ancient and traditional usage.

The present owner of this record has for many years used it in the preliminary instruction of candidates. Its value in this respect is very great, as it presents to the Indian a pictorial résumé of the traditional history of the origin of the Midē´wiwin, the positions occupied by the various guardian Man´idōs in the several degrees, and the order of procedure in study and progress of the candidate. On account of the isolation of the Red Lake Indians and their long continued, independent ceremonial observances, changes have gradually occurred so that there is considerable variation, both in the pictorial representation and the initiation, as compared with the records and ceremonials preserved at other reservations. The reason of this has already been given.

A detailed description of the above mentioned record, will be presented further on in connection with two interesting variants which were subsequently obtained at White Earth, Minnesota. On account of the widely separated location of many of the different bands of the Ojibwa, and the establishment of independent Midē´ societies, portions of the ritual which have been forgotten by one set may be found to survive at some other locality, though at the expense of some other fragments of tradition or ceremonial. No satisfactory account of the tradition of the origin of the Indians has been obtained, but such information as it was possible to procure will be submitted.

In all of their traditions pertaining to the early history of the tribe these people are termed A-nish´-in-â´-beg—original people—a term surviving also among the Ottawa, Patawatomi, and Menomoni, indicating that the tradition of their westward migration was extant prior to the final separation of these tribes, which is supposed to have occurred at Sault Ste. Marie.

Mi´nabō´zho (Great Rabbit), whose name occurs in connection with most of the sacred rites, was the servant of Dzhe Man´idō, the Good Spirit, and acted in the capacity of intercessor and mediator. It is generally supposed that it was to his good offices that the Indian owes life and the good things necessary to his health and subsistence.

The tradition of Mi´nabō´zho and the origin of the Midē´wiwin, as given in connection with the birch-bark record obtained at Red Lake (Pl. III A), is as follows:

When Mi´nabō´zho, the servant of Dzhe Man´idō, looked down upon the earth he beheld human beings, the Ani´shinâ´beg, the ancestors of the Ojibwa. They occupied the four quarters of the earth—the northeast, the southeast, the southwest, and the northwest. He saw how helpless they were, and desiring to give them the means of warding off the diseases with which they were constantly afflicted, and to provide them with animals and plants to serve as food and with other comforts, Mi´nabō´zho remained thoughtfully hovering over the center of the earth, endeavoring to devise some means of communicating with them, when he heard something laugh, and perceived a dark object appear upon the surface of the water to the west (No. 2). He could not recognize its form, and while watching it closely it slowly disappeared from view. It next appeared in the north (No. 3), and after a short lapse of time again disappeared. Mi´nabō´zho hoped it would again show itself upon the surface of the water, which it did in the east (No. 4). Then Mi´nabō´zho wished that it might approach him, so as to permit him to communicate with it. When it disappeared from view in the east and made its reappearance in the south (No. 1), Mi´nabō´zho asked it to come to the center of the earth that he might behold it. Again it disappeared from view, and after reappearing in the west Mi´nabō´zho observed it slowly approaching the center of the earth (i.e., the centre of the circle), when he descended and saw it was the Otter, now one of the sacred Man´idōs of the Midē´wiwin. Then Mi´nabō´zho instructed the Otter in the mysteries of the Midē´wiwin, and gave him at the same time the sacred rattle to be used at the side of the sick; the sacred Midē´ drum to be used during the ceremonial of initiation and at sacred feasts, and tobacco, to be employed in invocations and in making peace.

The place where Mi´nabō´zho descended was an island in the middle of a large body of water, and the Midē´ who is feared by all the others is called Mini´sino´shkwe (He-who-lives-on-the-island). Then Mi´nabō´zho built a Midē´wigân (sacred Midē´ lodge), and taking his drum he beat upon it and sang a Midē´ song, telling the Otter that Dzhe Man´idō had decided to help the Aníshinâ´bog, that they might always have life and an abundance of food and other things necessary for their comfort. Mi´nabō´zho then took the Otter into the Midē´wigân and conferred upon him the secrets of the Midē´wiwin, and with his Midē´ bag shot the sacred mī´gis into his body that he might have immortality and be able to confer these secrets to his kinsmen, the Aníshinâ´beg.

The mī´gis is considered the sacred symbol of the Midē´wigân, and may consist of any small white shell, though the one believed to be similar to the one mentioned in the above tradition resembles the cowrie, and the ceremonies of initiation as carried out in the Midē´wiwin at this day are believed to be similar to those enacted by Mi´nabō´zho and the Otter. It is admitted by all the Midē´ priests whom I have consulted that much of the information has been lost through the death of their aged predecessors, and they feel convinced that ultimately all of the sacred character of the work will be forgotten or lost through the adoption of new religions by the young people and the death of the Midē´ priests, who, by the way, decline to accept Christian teachings, and are in consequence termed “pagans.”

My instructor and interpreter of the Red Lake chart added other information in explanation of the various characters represented thereon, which I present herewith. The large circle at the right side of the chart denotes the earth as beheld by Mi´nabō´zho, while the Otter appeared at the square projections at Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4; the semicircular appendages between these are the four quarters of the earth, which are inhabited by the Ani´shinâ´beg, Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 8. Nos. 9 and 10 represent two of the numerous malignant Man´idōs, who endeavor to prevent entrance into the sacred structure and mysteries of the Midē´wiwin. The oblong squares, Nos. 11 and 12, represent the outline of the first degree of the society, the inner corresponding lines being the course traversed during initiation. The entrance to the lodge is directed toward the east, the western exit indicating the course toward the next higher degree. The four human forms at Nos. 13, 14, 15, and 16 are the four officiating Midē´ priests whose services are always demanded at an initiation. Each is represented as having a rattle. Nos. 17, 18, and 19 indicate the cedar trees, one of each of this species being planted near the outer angles of a Midē´ lodge. No. 20 represents the ground. The outline of the bear at No. 21 represents the Makwa´ Man´idō, or Bear Spirit, one of the sacred Midē´ Man´idōs, to which the candidate must pray and make offerings of tobacco, that he may compel the malevolent spirits to draw away from the entrance to the Midē´wigân, which is shown in No. 28. Nos 23 and 24 represent the sacred drum which the candidate must use when chanting the prayers, and two offerings must be made, as indicated by the number two.

After the candidate has been admitted to one degree, and is prepared to advance to the second, he offers three feasts, and chants three prayers to the Makwa´ Man´idō, or Bear Spirit (No. 22), that the entrance (No. 29) to that degree may be opened to him. The feasts and chants are indicated by the three drums shown at Nos. 25, 26, and 27.

Nos. 30, 31, 32, 33, and 34 are five Serpent Spirits, evil Man´idōs who oppose a Midē´’s progress, though after the feasting and prayers directed to the Makwa´ Man´idō have by him been deemed sufficient the four smaller Serpent Spirits move to either side of the path between the two degrees, while the larger serpent (No. 32) raises its body in the middle so as to form an arch, beneath which passes the candidate on his way to the second degree.

Nos. 35, 36, 46, and 47 are four malignant Bear Spirits, who guard the entrance and exit to the second degree, the doors of which are at Nos. 37 and 49. The form of this lodge (No. 38) is like the preceding; but while the seven Midē´ priests at Nos. 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, and 45 simply indicate that the number of Midē´ assisting at this second initiation are of a higher and more sacred class of personages than in the first degree, the number designated having reference to quality and intensity rather than to the actual number of assistants, as specifically shown at the top of the first degree structure.

When the Midē´ is of the second degree, he receives from Dzhe Man´idō supernatural powers as shown in No. 48. The lines extending upward from the eyes signify that he can look into futurity; from the ears, that he can hear what is transpiring at a great distance; from the hands, that he can touch for good or for evil friends and enemies at a distance, however remote; while the lines extending from the feet denote his ability to traverse all space in the accomplishment of his desires or duties. The small disk upon the breast of the figure denotes that a Midē´ of this degree has several times had the mī´gis—life—“shot into his body,” the increased size of the spot signifying amount or quantity of influence obtained thereby.

No. 50 represents a Mi´tsha Midē´ or Bad Midē´, one who employs his powers for evil purposes. He has the power of assuming the form of any animal, in which guise he may destroy the life of his victim, immediately after which he resumes his human form and appears innocent of any crime. His services are sought by people who wish to encompass the destruction of enemies or rivals, at however remote a locality the intended victim may be at the time. An illustration representing the modus operandi of his performance is reproduced and explained in Fig. 24, page 238.

Persons possessed of this power are sometimes termed witches, special reference to whom is made elsewhere. The illustration, No. 50, represents such an individual in his disguise of a bear, the characters at Nos. 51 and 52 denoting footprints of a bear made by him, impressions of which are sometimes found in the vicinity of lodges occupied by his intended victims. The trees shown upon either side of No. 50 signify a forest, the location usually sought by bad Midē´ and witches.

If a second degree Midē´ succeeds in his desire to become a member of the third degree, he proceeds in a manner similar to that before described; he gives feasts to the instructing and four officiating Midē´, and offers prayers to Dzhe Man´idō for favor and success. No. 53 denotes that the candidate now personates the bear—not one of the malignant Man´idōs, but one of the sacred Man´idōs who are believed to be present during the ceremonials of initiation of the second degree. He is seated before his sacred drum, and when the proper time arrives the Serpent Man´idō (No. 54)—who has until this opposed his advancement—now arches its body, and beneath it he crawls and advances toward the door (No. 55) of the third degree (No. 56) of the Midē´wiwin, where he encounters two (Nos. 57 and 58) of the four Panther Spirits, the guardians of this degree.

Nos. 61 to 76 indicate Midē´ spirits who inhabit the structure of this degree, and the number of human forms in excess of those shown in connection with the second degree indicates a correspondingly higher and more sacred character. When an Indian has passed this, initiation he becomes very skillful in his profession of a Midē´. The powers which he possessed in the second degree may become augmented. He is represented in No. 77 with arms extended, and with lines crossing his body and arms denoting darkness and obscurity, which signifies his ability to grasp from the invisible world the knowledge and means to accomplish extraordinary deeds. He feels more confident of prompt response and assistance from the sacred Man´idōs and his knowledge of them becomes more widely extended.

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The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society, 1891

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