Native American tribes adhered to a range of beliefs, ceremonies and rituals regarding communication with the spiritual world in which their religious leader, the Medicine Man, enters supernatural realms particularly when the tribe is facing adversity or need to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community including sickness.
Medicine Man Mystery
The word 'medicine', associated with the Native Indians, means mystery and this word was applied by Europeans to anything mysterious or unaccountable. The Native Indians do not use the term 'Medicine Man' but in each tribe they have a word or term of their own construction that is synonymous with mystery or mystery man. Their principle deity, the Great Spirit, is also referred to as the Great Mystery.
The Medicine Man and Native American Beliefs
The Medicine Man is believed to have a spiritual connection with animals, supernatural creatures and all elements of nature. Spirits were believed to inhabit the rivers, lakes, mountains, trees, plants, sky, stars, sun, animals, insects, fish, flowers and birds. The belief and practice of Native American Indians incorporates a number of beliefs such as Animism, Totemism, Shamanism, Fetishism and Ritualism. These beliefs, taken as a whole, have strong religious connotations. This belief system, and the role of the Medicine Man, is particularly associated with primitive cultures of hunter gatherers who believed that every natural object is controlled by its own independent spirit, or soul.
The Medicine Man - Good and Bad Spirits
There were good and bad spirits. The good spirits helped men and the bad spirits were liable to wreck havoc and harm on people and their tribes. It is the bad spirits that cause trouble, suffering, sickness, death and disease. When a man became ill it was believed that a bad spirit had entered his body and taken his soul away. It is therefore not surprising that the Native Americans would wish to gain power over these spirits. If a Medicine Man had control over the spirits he became extremely powerful. A Medicine Man would know protective chants and words and have a special knowledge of objects which he carried in a Medicine Bag and would disarm bad spirits and protect their owners. This type of knowledge is what the Native Americans mean by “medicine” or “mystery.” The Native Americans who spent their lives in trying to gain such knowledge are referred to as Shaman, medicine people, mystery men, or a Medicine Man.
The Role of the Medicine Man
The Medicine Man used appropriate words, chants, objects, dances and rituals to protect men from evil spirits - his role is that of opponent to the bad spirits and of guardian to the ordinary man. The role of the Medicine Man differs from tribe to tribe as there are some regional and tribal variations to their beliefs in Shamanism. There are, however, several common roles that are shared by every Medicine Man. A Medicine Man was a healer, communicator, educator, prophet and mystic:
- The Medicine Man was a strong communicator and provided help and advice to members of the tribe, for which he was paid
- The Medicine Man was an educator and historian, the keeper of myths, legends, traditions and tribal wisdom
- The Medicine Man was a healer. He possessed supernatural Spiritual Healing powers and the ability to treat sickness caused by evil spirits - hence the Westernised name 'Medicine Man'.
- The Medicine Man was a prophet. He had the ability to perform various forms of prophecy
- The Medicine Man was a mystic and possessed the ability to leave the body and communicate with the spirit world
In many tribes, including the Cheyenne and the Sioux, the Medicine Man also had the role of the head warrior or war chief which made him the most influential man of the tribe.
The Equipment of the Medicine Man
A Medicine Man was equipped with a number of objects that helped him to communicate with spirits in other worlds. They used dances, gestures and sounds as the symbolic powers of Medicine Man to enter the spirit world. The means and powers by which the Medicine Man practised his role included:
- Knowledge of the Trance State and the use of trance-inducing methods and techniques to go on vision quests and incite tribe members
- The use of symbolic regalia and sacred objects such as the calumet, or pipe, in Medicine Shamanistic ceremonies and rituals
- Wearing ceremonial clothes, such as amazing costumes worn by the Medicine Men Skinwalkers
- The Medicine Man of some tribes also used masks that were believed to hold spiritual powers and would identify them with the spirits in other worlds and activate their powers.
- Symbolic magic, incantations, prayer sticks, feathers, war dances, rain dances and hunting dances with the use of rattles and drums to incarnate the spirits of nature and amplify their power
- Fasting and cleansing rituals
- Rite of Passage Rituals - where he advised on the significance of the Power Animal revealed on a or on a Spiritual Journey or in Vision Quests and provided sacred contents to be placed in Medicine Bags
- War Paint: Medicine Men often chose certain markings and symbols for warriors during the application of the War Paint. This afforded the wearer with 'Magic' for power and protection by drawing on natural powers and combining these with the power of the warrior