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 Native American Nations | The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society                    

Before concluding, it may be of interest to refer in some detail to several subjects mentioned in the preceding pages. The mnemonic songs are in nearly every instance incised upon birch bark by means of a sharp-pointed piece of bone or a nail. The inner surface of the bark is generally selected because it is softer than the reverse. Bark for such purposes is peeled from the trunk during the spring months. On the right hand upper corner of Pl. XIX is reproduced a portion of a mnemonic song showing characters as thus drawn. The specimen was obtained at White Earth, and the entire song is presented on Pl. XVI, C. A piece of bark obtained at Red Lake, and known to have been incised more than seventy years ago, is shown on the right lower corner of Pl. XIX. The drawings are upon the outer surface and are remarkably deep and distinct. The left hand specimen is from the last named locality, and of the same period, and presents pictographs drawn upon the inner surface.

Plate XIX. Sacred Birch Bark Records.

In a majority of songs the characters are drawn so as to be read from left to right, in some from right to left, and occasionally one is found to combine both styles, being truly boustrophic. Specimens have been obtained upon which the characters were drawn around and near the margin of an oblong piece of bark, thus appearing in the form of an irregular circle.

The pictographic delineation of ideas is found to exist chiefly among the shamans, hunters, and travelers of the Ojibwa, and there does not appear to be a recognized system by which the work of any one person is fully intelligible to another. A record may be recognized as pertaining to the Midē´ ceremonies, as a song used when hunting plants, etc.; but it would be impossible for one totally unfamiliar with the record to state positively whether the initial character was at the left or the right hand. The figures are more than simply mnemonic; they are ideographic, and frequently possess additional interest from the fact that several ideas are expressed in combination. Col. Garrick Mallery, U.S. Army, in a paper entitled “Recently Discovered Algonkian Pictographs,” read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at Cleveland, 1888, expressed this fact in the following words:

  It is desirable to explain the mode of using the Midē´ and other bark records of the Ojibwa and also those of other Algonkian tribes to be mentioned in this paper. The comparison made by Dr. E. B. Tylor of the pictorial alphabet to teach children “A was an archer,” etc., is not strictly appropriate in this case. The devices are not only mnemonic, but are also ideographic and descriptive. They are not merely invented to express or memorize the subject, but are evolved therefrom. To persons acquainted with secret societies a good comparison for the charts or rolls would be what is called the tressel board of the Masonic order, which is printed and published and publicly exposed without exhibiting any of the secrets of the order, yet is not only significant, but useful to the esoteric in assistance to their memory as to degrees and details of ceremony.

A more general mode of explaining the so-called symbolism is by a suggestion that the charts of the order or the song of a myth should be likened to the popular illustrated poems and songs lately published in Harper’s Magazine for instance, “Sally in our Alley,” where every stanza has an appropriate illustration. Now, suppose that the text was obliterated forever, indeed the art of reading lost, the illustrations remaining, as also the memory to many persons of the ballad. The illustrations kept in order would supply always the order of the stanzas and also the general subject-matter of each particular stanza and the latter would be a reminder of the words. This is what the rolls of birch bark do to the initiated Ojibwa, and what Schoolcraft pretended in some cases to show, but what for actual understanding requires that all the vocables of the actual songs and charges of the initiation should be recorded and translated. This involves not only profound linguistic study, but the revelation of all the mysteries. In other instances the literation in the aboriginal language of the nonesoteric songs and stories and their translation is necessary to comprehend the devices by which they are memorized rather than symbolized. Nevertheless, long usage has induced some degree of ideography and symbolism.

Plate XX. Sacred Bark Scroll And Contents.

On Pl. XX are presented illustrations of several articles found in a Midē´ sack which had been delivered to the Catholic priest at Red Lake over seventy years ago, when the owner professed Christianity and forever renounced (at least verbally) his pagan profession. The information given below was obtained from Midē´ priests at the above locality. They are possessed of like articles, being members of the same society to which the late owners of the relics belonged. The first is a birch-bark roll, the ends of which were slit into short strips, so as to curl in toward the middle to prevent the escaping of the contents. The upper figure is that of the Thunder god, with waving lines extending forward from the eyes, denoting the power of peering into futurity. This character has suggested to several Midē´ priests that the owner might have been a Midē´-Jĕs´sakkīd´. This belief is supported by the actual practice pursued by this class of priests when marking their personal effects. The lower figure is that of a buffalo, as is apparent from the presence of the hump. Curiously enough both eyes are drawn upon one side of the head, a practice not often followed by Indian artists.

Plate XXI. Midē´ Relics From Leech Lake.

The upper of the four small figures is a small package, folded, consisting of the inner sheet of birch-bark and resembling paper both in consistence and color. Upon the upper fold is the outline of the Thunder bird. The next two objects represent small boxes made of pine wood, painted or stained red and black. They were empty when received, but were no doubt used to hold sacred objects. The lowest figure of the four consists of a bundle of three small bags of cotton wrapped with a strip of blue cloth. The bags contain, respectively, love powder, hunter’s medicine—in this instance red ocher and powdered arbor vitæ leaves—and another powder of a brownish color, with which is mixed a small quantity of ground medicinal plants.

The roll of birch-bark containing these relics inclosed also the skin of a small rodent (Spermophilus sp.?) but in a torn and moth-eaten condition. This was used by the owner for purposes unknown to those who were consulted upon the subject. It is frequently, if not generally, impossible to ascertain the use of most of the fetiches and other sacred objects contained in Midē´ sacks of unknown ownership, as each priest adopts his own line of practice, based upon a variety of reasons, chiefly the nature of his fasting dreams.

Fancy sometimes leads an individual to prepare medicine sticks that are of curious shape or bear designs of odd form copied after something of European origin, as exemplified in the specimen illustrated on. Pl. XXI, Nos. 1 and 2, showing both the obverse and reverse. The specimen is made of ash wood and measures about ten inches in length. On the obverse side, besides the figures of man´-idōs, such as the Thunder bird, the serpent, and the tortoise, there is the outline of the sun, spots copied from playing cards, etc.; upon the reverse appear two spread hands, a bird, and a building, from the top of which floats the American flag. This specimen was found among the effects of a Midē´ who died at Leech Lake, Minnesota, a few years ago, together with effigies and other relics already mentioned in another part of this paper.

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The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society, 1891

The Midē Wiwin or Grand Medicine Society


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