Native American Nations
                   Your Source for Indian Research
                   Rolls ~ History ~ Treaties ~ Census ~ Books


 Native American Nations | The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society                    

In addition to the examples of Indian music that have been given, especially the songs of shamans, it may be of interest to add a few remarks concerning the several varieties of songs or chants. Songs employed as an accompaniment to dances are known to almost all the members of the tribe, so that their rendition is nearly always the same. Such songs are not used in connection with mnemonic characters, as there are, in most instances, no words or phrases recited, but simply a continued repetition of meaningless words or syllables. The notes are thus rhythmically accentuated, often accompanied by beats upon the drum and the steps of the dancers.

An example of another variety of songs, or rather chants, is presented in connection with the reception of the candidate by the Midē´ priest upon his entrance into the Midē´wigân of the first degree. In this instance words are chanted, but the musical rendition differs with the individual, each Midē´ chanting notes of his own, according to his choice or musical ability. There is no set formula, and such songs, even if taught to others, are soon distorted by being sung according to the taste or ability of the singer. The musical rendering of the words and phrases relating to the signification of mnemonic characters depends upon the ability and inspired condition of the singer; and as each Midē´ priest usually invents and prepares his own songs, whether for ceremonial purposes, medicine hunting, exorcism, or any other use, he may frequently be unable to sing them twice in exactly the same manner. Love songs and war songs, being of general use, are always sung in the same style of notation.

The emotions are fully expressed in the musical rendering of the several classes of songs, which are, with few exceptions, in a minor key. Dancing and war songs are always in quick time, the latter frequently becoming extraordinarily animated and boisterous as the participants become more and more excited.

Midē´ and other like songs are always more or less monotonous, though they are sometimes rather impressive, especially if delivered by one sufficiently emotional and possessed of a good voice. Some of the Midē´ priests employ few notes, not exceeding a range of five, for all songs, while others frequently cover the octave, terminating with a final note lower still.

The statement has been made that one Midē´ is unable either to recite or sing the proper phrase pertaining to the mnemonic characters of a song belonging to another Midē´ unless specially instructed. The representation of an object may refer to a variety of ideas of a similar, though not identical, character. The picture of a bear may signify the Bear man´idō as one of the guardians of the society; it may pertain to the fact that the singer impersonates that man´idō; exorcism of the malevolent bear spirit may be thus claimed; or it may relate to the desired capture of the animal, as when drawn to insure success for the hunter. An Indian is slow to acquire the exact phraseology, which is always sung or chanted, of mnemonic songs recited to him by a Midē´ preceptor.

An exact reproduction is implicitly believed to be necessary, as otherwise the value of the formula would be impaired, or perhaps even totally destroyed. It frequently happens, therefore, that although an Indian candidate for admission into the Midē´wiwin may already have prepared songs in imitation of those from which he was instructed, he may either as yet be unable to sing perfectly the phrases relating thereto, or decline to do so because of a want of confidence. Under such circumstances the interpretation of a record is far from satisfactory, each character being explained simply objectively, the true import being intentionally or unavoidably omitted. An Ojibwa named “Little Frenchman,” living at Red Lake, had received almost continuous instruction for three or four years, and although he was a willing and valuable assistant in other matters pertaining to the subject under consideration, he was not sufficiently familiar with some of his preceptor’s songs to fully explain them. A few examples of such mnemonic songs are presented in illustration, and for comparison with such as have already been recorded. In each instance the Indian’s interpretation of the character is given first, the notes in brackets being supplied in further explanation. Pl. XXII, A, is reproduced from a birch-bark song; the incised lines are sharp and clear, while the drawing in general is of a superior character. The record is drawn so as to be read from right to left.

Plate XXII.a. Mnemonic Song.
     From whence I sit.
[The singer is seated, as the lines indicate contact with the surface beneath, though the latter is not shown. The short line extending from the mouth indicates voice, and probably signifies, in this instance, singing.]
     The big tree in the center of the earth.
[It is not known whether or not this relates to the first destruction of the earth, when Mi´nabo´zho escaped by climbing a tree which continued to grow and to protrude above the surface of the flood. One Midē´ thought it related to a particular medicinal tree which was held in estimation beyond all others, and thus represented as the chief of the earth.]
     I will float down the fast running stream.
[Strangely enough, progress by water is here designated by footprints instead of using the outline of a canoe. The etymology of the Ojibwa word used in this connection may suggest footprints, as in the Delaware language one word for river signifies “water road,” when in accordance therewith “footprints” would be in perfect harmony with the general idea.]
     The place that is feared I inhabit, the swift-running stream I inhabit.
[The circular line above the Midē´ denotes obscurity, i.e., he is hidden from view and represents himself as powerful and terrible to his enemies as the water monster.]
You who speak to me.
     I have long horns.
[The Midē´ likens himself to the water monster, one of the malevolent serpent man´idōs who antagonize all good, as beliefs and practices of the Midē´wiwin.]
A rest or pause.
     I, seeing, follow your example.
     You see my body, you see my body, you see my nails are worn off in grasping the stone.
[The Bear man´idō is represented as the type now assumed by the Midē´. He has a stone within his grasp, from which magic remedies are extracted.]
     You, to whom I am speaking.
[A powerful man´idō´, the panther, is in an inclosure and to him the Midē´ addresses his request.]
     I am swimming—floating—down smoothly.
[The two pairs of serpentine lines indicate the river banks, while the character between them is the Otter, here personated by the Midē´.]
Bars denoting a pause.
     I have finished my drum.
[The Midē´ is shown holding a Midē´ drum which he is making for use in a ceremony.]
     My body is like unto you.
[The mī´gis shell, the symbol of purity and the Midē´wiwin.]
     Hear me, you who are talking to me!
[The speaker extends his arms to the right and left indicating persons who are talking to him from their respective places. The lines denoting speech—or hearing—pass through the speaker’s head to exclaim as above.]
     See what I am taking.
[The Midē´ has pulled up a medicinal root. This denotes his possessing a wonderful medicine and appears in the order of an advertisement.]
See me, whose head is out of water.

On Pl. XXII, B, is presented an illustration reproduced from a piece of birch bark owned by the preceptor of “Little Frenchman,” of the import of which the latter was ignorant. His idea of the signification of the characters is based upon general information which he has received, and not upon any pertaining directly to the record. From general appearances the song seems to be a private 293 record pertaining to the Ghost Society, the means through which the recorder attained his first degree of the Midē´wiwin, as well as to his abilities, which appear to be boastfully referred to:

Plate XXII.b. Mnemonic Song.

     I am sitting with my pipe.
[Midē´ sitting, holding his pipe. He has been called upon to visit a patient, and the filled pipe is handed to him to smoke preparatory to his commencing the ceremony of exorcism.]
     I employ the spirit, the spirit of the owl.
[This evidently indicates the Owl man´idō, which has been referred to in connection with the Red Lake Midē´ chart, Pl. III, No. 113. The Owl man´idō is there represented as passing from the Midē´wigân to the Dzhibai´ Midē´wigân, and the drawings in that record and in this are sufficiently alike to convey the idea that the maker of this song had obtained his suggestion from the old Midē´ chart.]
     It stands, that which I am going after.
[The Midē´, impersonating the Bear man´idō, is seeking a medicinal tree of which he has knowledge, and certain parts of which he employs in his profession. The two footprints indicate the direction the animal is taking.]
     I, who fly.
[This is the outline of a Thunder bird, who appears to grasp in his talons some medical plants.]
     Ki´-bi-nan´ pi-zan´. Ki´binan´ is what I use, it flies like an arrow.
[The Midē´’s arm is seen grasping a magic arrow, to symbolize the velocity of action of the remedy.]
     I am coming to the earth.
[A man´idō is represented upon a circle, and in the act of descending toward the earth, which is indicated by the horizontal line, upon which is an Indian habitation. The character to denote the sky is usually drawn as a curved line with the convexity above, but in this instance the ends of the lines are continued below, so as to unite and to complete the ring; the intention being, as suggested by several Midē´ priests, to denote great altitude above the earth, i.e., higher than the visible azure sky, which is designated by curved lines only.]
     I am feeling for it.
[The Midē´ is reaching into holes in the earth in search of hidden medicines.]
     I am talking to it.
[The Midē´ is communing with the medicine man´idō´ with the Midē´ sack, which he holds in his hand. The voice lines extend from his mouth to the sack, which appears to be made of the skin of an Owl, as before noted in connection with the second character in this song.]
     They are sitting round the interior in a row.
[This evidently signifies the Ghost Lodge, as the structure is drawn at right angles to that usually made to represent the Midē´wigân, and also because it seems to be reproduced from the Red Lake chart already alluded to and figured in Pl. III, No. 112. The spirits or shadows, as the dead are termed, are also indicated by crosses in like manner.]
     You who are newly hung; you have reached half, and you are now full.
[The allusion is to three phases of the moon, probably having reference to certain periods at which some important ceremonies or events are to occur.]
     I am going for my dish.
[The speaker intimates that he is going to make a feast, the dish being shown at the top in the form of a circle; the footprints are directed toward, it and signify, by their shape, that he likens himself to the Bear man´idō, one of the guardians of the Midēwiwin.]
     I go through the medicine lodge.
[The footprints within the parallel lines denote his having passed through an unnamed number of degrees. Although the structure is indicated as being erected like the Ghost Lodge, i.e., north and south, it is stated that Midēwiwin is intended. This appears to be an instance of the non-systematic manner of objective ideagraphic delineation.]
     Let us commune with one another.
[The speaker is desirous of communing with his favorite man´idōs, with whom he considers himself on an equality, as is indicated by the anthropomorphic form of one between whom and himself the voice lines extend.]

On Figs. 36-39, are reproduced several series of pictographs from birch-bark songs found among the effects of a deceased Midē´ priest, at Leech Lake. Reference to other relics belonging to the same collection has been made in connection with effigies and beads employed by Midē´ in the endeavor to prove the genuineness of their religion and profession. These mnemonic songs were exhibited to many Midē´ priests from various portions of the Ojibwa country, in the hope of obtaining some satisfactory explanation regarding the import of the several characters; but, although they were pronounced to be “Grand Medicine,” no suggestions were offered beyond the merest repetition of the name of the object or what it probably was meant to represent. The direction of their order was mentioned, because in most instances the initial character furnishes the guide. Apart from this, the illustrations are of interest as exhibiting the superior character and cleverness of their execution.

Fig. 36.—Leech Lake Midē´ song.

The initial character on Fig. 36 appears to be at the right hand upper corner, and represents the Bear man´idō. The third figure is that of the Midē´wiwin, with four man´idōs within it, probably the guardians of the four degrees. The owner of the song was a Midē´ of the second degree, as was stated in connection with his Midē´wi-gwas or “medicine chart,” illustrated on Plate III, C.

Fig. 37.—Leech Lake Midē´ song.

Fig. 37 represents what appears to be a mishkiki or medicine song, as is suggested by the figures of plants and roots. It is impossible to state absolutely at which side the initial character is placed, though it would appear that the human figure at the upper left hand corner would be more in accordance with the common custom.

Fig. 38.—Leech Lake Midē´ song.

Fig. 38 seems to pertain to hunting, and may have been recognized as a hunter’s chart. According to the belief of several Midē´, it is lead from right to left, the human figure indicating the direction according to the way in which the heads of the crane, bear, etc., are turned. The lower left hand figure of a man has five marks upon the breast, which probably indicate mī´gis spots, to denote the power of magic influence possessed by the recorder.

Fig. 39.—Leech Lake Midē´ song.

The characters on Fig. 39 are found to be arranged so as to read from the right hand upper corner toward the left, the next line continuing to the right and lastly again to the left, terminating with the figure of a Midē´ with the mī´gis upon his breast. This is interesting on account of the boustrophic system of delineating the figures, and also because such instances are rarely found to occur.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society, 1891

The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society


Copyright 2000-2019 by and/or their author(s). The webpages may be linked to but shall not be reproduced on another site without written permission from NaNations or their author. Images may not be linked to in any manner or method. Anyone may use the information provided here freely for personal use only. If you plan on publishing your personal information to the web please give proper credit to our site for providing this information. Thanks!!!