The Mysterious Medicine People
The term ‘Medicine Man’ is often used for a certain role in the history of Native American society and you would be forgiven for thinking it was a descriptive term for a doctor as we may know them. Though a Medicine Man is a form of healer, it is in a more spiritual sense. Sometimes referred to as a Shaman, the Medicine Man or Medicine Woman is a spiritual leader and priestly healer who communicated with the spirit world in order to solve community issues, such as when the tribe is facing adversity or to help deal with illness.
Native Americans themselves do not use the term ‘Medicine Man’, the name was given by Europeans. This role has many different names across the numerous tribes of the Americas, though they each use words linked to the meaning of ‘mystery’ or ‘mystery man’. The Medicine Man’s knowledge is sacred and thus is rarely shared with outsiders. Some did not even share their secrets with other tribes and in some cases the knowledge was such privileged information that it remained within a certain family within a tribe.
Many Native Americans believed that spirits inhabited all things on earth; humans, animals, vegetation, rocks, even the elements were all controlled by an individual spirit. Among these there were both good and bad spirits that each acted in kind. The good would aid man whereas the bad would use their power to cause trouble or harm to people. So, for example, when a person became sick, it was believed that a bad spirit had taken over their body. A medicine person would receive and study knowledge to help them disarm these bad spirits and therefore heal the person. They would do this using certain chants, symbols or objects which were carried in a medicine bag.
A medicine bag was a very important piece of equipment for the Medicine Man; this would be where he kept his healing items that were often used to treat sickness and disease in the tribe. It was usually made of the pelt of a small animal like a beaver, a raccoon or an otter and traditionally contained something from the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms along with something from the life of man. Paint was also held in the bag and used to draw symbols of power, imbuing warriors with hidden strengths and warding off evil spirits.
The Medicine Man was a highly revered role amongst the tribes of the Native American culture; they were a guardian against bad spirits and protector of their tribe. Their communion with the spirits and skills in communication with others would provide help and advice for the members of a tribe, which in turn they were paid for. Their knowledge in the history of their tribe along with the myths and legends and stories of their religion was used to educate the people. In many of the tribes across America they were also given the role of the War Chief or leading warrior, amongst these he was likely the most influential man in the tribe.