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The Work of the Devil
Here on Medicine Hill Plain
Again we walk together!
San Juan girls and San Juan boys,
Again we walk together
Where lies the Road of Magic!
— Tewa Song (recorded in 1912)1
The Coming of the Dust Eyes
Before we begin to look at the interrelationships between the observer effect and medicine powers, it is informative to look briefly at what the historical records have to say about our early contacts with Indian medicine people. It has long been forgotten that when the Spaniards first arrived on our shores they considered the “savages” of this land to be “beasts,” like ordinary animals. Animals had no souls, and no doubt the Spaniards used this view to justify their barbarous treatment of Indians they encountered. Killing a savage was no different to them from killing a deer, bear, or any other soul-less beast. However, the final judgment as to whether these savages were beasts or humans was in the hands of the Pope, not the King of Spain. When Pope Alexander VI, on May 4, 1493 issued his bull Inter caetera granting Spain the larger part of the New World, he probably assumed these people would be capable of accepting the Catholic faith, but made no decision on the matter at that time.2 As we know, the Church’s interest in them never waned. In the years that followed there were more than three hundred pontifical decisions issued regarding the American Indians.
By the early 1500’s several priests who had visited the New World attempted to persuade the Pope that American Indians did indeed have souls. Among them were an unnamed Dominican priest as early as 1517, then Julián Garcés around 1535, and lastly Bernadino de Minaya in 1537.3 Finally, forty-five years after Columbus, Pope Paul III, on June 9, 1537, issued the momentous bull Sublimis Deus. The Pope decreed that, “We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic faith, but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.”4 Furthermore, the Pope ordered that the Church should follow Christ’s admonition to “Go ye and teach all nations,” and that the “Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ.”5 With this decree the American Indians first obtained official human status. Ironically, it was not until 1879 that our judicial system also dealt with their status as a human being. It was the U. S. District Court in Omaha that was first to rule: “that an Indian is a ‘person’ within the meaning of the laws of the United States.”6
Pope Paul III gave the authorization to send missionaries to America, but not without some human rights concern. In this same bull the Pope declared that “the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property…nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and of no effect.”7 The royalty of Europe paid no heed to the Pope’s decree. Their lust for gold, gems, and other New World sources of wealth far outweighed their fear of excommunication by the Pope. The history of the Americas is filled with plunder of land and wealth from all Indian cultures by force and ploy. One interesting example was the 1911 scheme devised by Superintendent Young, head of the Department of the Interior, to get the Yakimas’ land. Lucullus McWhorter exposed the scheme in 1913 and the Yakimas were infuriated. Louis Mann, one of the targeted victims declared, “Let me go to hell as I am if I ever under any law sign away my little allotment…It is a shame that this government would try to bribe and blackmail us in this way. But the white man has no shame. He is blind to all good and like a wolf is hungry for our little homes.”8
Naturally, one might wonder where the Pope got his notion that the American Indians were very eager to become Catholics. I suspect that this “eagerness” was more on the part of the priests who had visited their newly found “savages.” The priests quickly noted their innocence and trust. However, what impressed these early priests the most was not only the amount of praying the American Indians did on a daily basis, but also the intensity and sincerity with which their prayers were delivered. Such deep devotion is typical in Indian communities, and one can’t help but believe that the missionaries anticipated this same deep devotion towards Catholicism to arise in their converts. Father Pareja wrote in 1614 that his Timucua converts in St Augustine, Florida, were better Christians than were the Spaniards.9 Sometimes, however, their devotion got too intense for the priests. For example, in 1673 Father Allouez, a Jesuit missionary to the Fox, “had to exert special effort in order to prevent his young male converts from blackening their faces and fasting in the chapel in order that God might appear and speak to them in their dreams.”10 I believe it was the priest’s general recognition of this intense devotion that was one of the main reasons why the first missionaries were very eager to carry out missions in North America.
The French Jesuits were the earliest missionaries in North America, settling mainly among the different nations along the northeastern coast. They were also the first westerners actually to live among these strange people. Therefore their writings give us our first insights into not only the customs and lifestyles of the times, but also details of their religious life and medicine powers. Most of their missionary records are contained in the seventy-one volumes of Thwaites’ Jesuit Relations.11 Initially, their converts were usually written off as “ignorant, foolish savages” with “untutored minds.” Indian medicine powers were often viewed in a derogatory manner and shamans were seen as charlatans. “They feign to be inspired by the spirits…Cunning, deceit, shrewdness, a little knowledge and a great deal of juggling trickery, form the foundation of their renown” wrote missionary Emmanuel Domenech.12
Indian medicine power ceremonies are intensely active, this being the result of their deep sincerity and devotion. This behavior astonished early whites, given their more subdued religious actions, and they frequently described their ceremonies as being hideously bizarre. A 17th century report speaks to the “great vehemency in the motions of their bodies, in their dances.”13 There was good reason for this intensity, although it might seem merely wild to us. It empowered an ongoing observation. The following description of a Tlingit shaman curing a child in 1886 is typical with regard to the shocking nature of a ceremony: “His long hair, always left uncut, was streaming behind him. He was shaking his charms, throwing his body into contortions, uttering shrill cries, hissing and extending his arms, groaning, and breathing through his clenched teeth, jerking himself meantime in convulsive starts in cadence to the music.”14 In addition, a Tlingit “shaman never cut his fingernails or his hair, and, when he performed, wore a roughly cut hide apron from which was suspended deer dew claws and puffin bills, a crown of spikes that aggressively projected up towards the heavens, and a necklace of carved and uncarved ivory and bone charms. Sometimes he shook bird-formed rattles, and by doing so, called the spirits to his side. Sometimes he donned a series of masks, transforming into an assortment of supernatural beings.”15 All this lavish costuming, singing, and dancing are now to be seen as the necessary ingredients for bringing forth a powerful observation, aided here by a “cadence” in the music designed to induce an SSC.
At this point I need to clarify my use of the term “medicine.” It has nothing to do with prescription drugs. The original meaning of the word dates back to the French fur traders of the 18th century. It was the French who first dubbed Indian healers as hommes médécines (medicine men). George Catlin explained it in more detail:
The Fur Traders in this country, are nearly all French; and in their language, a doctor or physician, is called “Medecin.” The Indian country is full of doctors; and as they are all magicians, and skilled, or profess to be skilled, in many mysteries, the word “medicine” has become habitually applied to everything mysterious or unaccountable; and the English and Americans, who are also trading and passing through this country, have easily and familiarly adopted the same word, with a slight alteration, conveying the same meaning; and to be a little more explicit, they have denominated these personages “medicine–men,” which means something more than merely a doctor or physician.16
The understanding that the term “medicine” was best translated as “mystery” became well established in the 19th century.17
Among the American Indians medicine was also associated with “holy,” “unknowable,” “sacred,” “wonderful,” “mysterious,” etc.18 For example, “medicine horse” was a phrase used for the early locomotives, “mysterious iron” for a gun and “medicine water” was often used for whiskey. Each, in its own way, was mysterious to American Indians—one mysteriously moved with great speed and power, one killed in unknown ways, and the other one made you act in mysterious ways. Among the Lakota the horse was a “mysterious dog.”19 A “medicine power” is a magical ability, and a “medicine man” is a shaman, at least in the context of this book. Anthropologists, not believing in medicine powers, have always been in a quagmire of endless debates about how to differentiate between a medicine man, herbalist, shaman, etc. for the simple reason that they have always focused on materialistic details of ceremony, costume, etc. to classify shamans. On the other hand, the American Indian classification is simpler: anyone can have power; some people have no power; those who have greater power than normal are medicine people.
Initially the missionaries paid little heed to the claims they heard from Indians regarding the supernatural powers of their medicine people. Their focus was on conversion, and to that end their New World Catholicism included “many changes to adapt them to the intellect and capacity of the Indians.”20 Their main concern was to determine whether or not these “savages” were capable of viewing reality as being ruled by a single Creator, what philosophers call “monotheism.” Of course, monotheism is nothing more than a form of philosophical speculation where American Indians are concerned.21 Nevertheless, the priests had to instill this perspective into their converts. Otherwise, the god of Christianity would be seen merely as one of many gods (spirit helpers). I would conjecture it became even more problematic with those Indian cultures that already had a belief in a Chief Spirit.22
Monotheism was a continuous teaching from the first contacts during the early 1600’s through the 1800’s as settlers spread westward making first contacts with other new nations. These “dust eyes,” as the Hopis called their missionary priests, understood that if you couldn’t get the “savages” to believe in the Christian god, then you had no chance of converting them. So there was a definite bias for their great concern in this regard. The standard solution to overcome this problem was to convince their converts that there was indeed a ruler of all the different spirits. To this end they would usually seek out the most powerful local spirit, and dub that one the “Great Spirit.” However, true to their basic view of reality, most American Indians still prefer the phrase “Great Mystery” or “Great Mysterious” to “Great Spirit” for the Creator.
Without a doubt there was heavy competition between the Catholic and Protestant missionaries for converts.23 This became an additional difficulty because Indians, when discussing religious differences, never showed any signs of bigotry or intolerance for other ways.24 There is no need to argue over something that everyone agrees is a mystery. However, their greatest difficulty was the “Indian priests,” as the missionaries called them. The early Jesuit records are particularly condescending toward medicine people. Understandably, shamans were the greatest adversaries faced by missionaries.25 The very existence of medicine powers hampered conversion. A report on the Hopi claimed, “The medicine men caused them more trouble than everybody else combined.”26 Rev. Whipple declared them to be “bitter opponents to Christianity. The venerable Medicine-man, Shadayence, was the most cunning antagonist that I ever had among the Indians.”27 David Brainerd, a Methodist missionary from 1743 to 1747, recorded such frustrations in his diary. In speaking of a shaman he wrote, “So that when I instructed them respecting the miracles wrought by Christ, and mentioned them as evidence of his divine mission, they [the Indians] have quickly observed the wonders of that kind which this man [the shaman] had performed by his magic charms; whence they had high opinion of him, which seemed to be a fatal obstruction to them receiving the Gospel.”28 Any strong belief in medicine powers became a force that defied most efforts to convert them. It was their “spirituality, a wellspring of inner strength not easily affected by superficial change. As long as independent religious vitality survived, it filled Indians with a sense of their own identity and cultural importance, with a power that defied alien control.”29 Here again, it is this intensity of belief that serves to form a strong observer effect.
As mentioned previously, the earliest missionaries had little interest in the stories they were being told about marvelous medicine powers. They usually shrugged them off as folk tales or tricks. Consequently, the French Jesuits in their written records commonly used the term jongleurs, as in a circus act, for medicine persons. The English followed suit and made use of the terms “jugglers” and “conjurers.”
They are those servants of their Gods [spirits], whose duty it is to announce their wishes, and to be their interpreters to men: or, in the language of Volney, those “whose trade it is, to expound dreams, and to negotiate between the Manitto [spirit], and the votary.” “The Jongleurs of Canada,” says Charlevoix, “boast that by means of the good spirits whom they consult, they learn what is passing in the most remote countries, and what is to come to pass at the most distant period of time; that they discover the origin and nature of the most secret disorders, and obtain the hidden method of curing them; that they discern the course to be pursued in the most intricate affairs; that they learn to explain the obscurest dreams, to give success to the most difficult negotiations, and to render the Gods propitious to warriors and hunters.” “I have heard,” he adds, “from persons of the most undoubted judgment and veracity, that when these impostors shut themselves up in their sweating stoves [sweat lodges], which is one of their most common preparations for the performance of their sleight of hand, they differ in no respect from the descriptions given by the poets of the priestesses of Apollo, when seated on the Delphic Tripod. They have been seen to fall into convulsions [trances], to assume tones of voice [spirit possession], and to perform actions, which were seemingly superior to human strength, and which inspired with an unconquerable terror, even the most prejudicial spectators [doubters].” Their predictions were sometimes so surprisingly verified, that Charlevoix seems firmly to have believed, that they had a real intercourse with the father of lies [devil].30
Eventually the terms “jongleur/juggler” and “conjuror” passed on to the European public where these terms served to convince them that American Indian shamans were charlatans—it was all a form of trickery. On the other hand Indians adopted the word “doctor” when speaking in English of their shamans.31 By the early 1630’s several Jesuits missionaries began to change their views, and started to believe that some of these Indian priests did indeed have great magical powers.32 Subsequently, several missionaries became inquisitive enough to attend their ceremonies and document displays of medicine powers. Their first inclination was to come up with a rational explanation for such powers. To that end they began to declare that medicine powers were “the work of the devil” and were to be avoided. The word for “spirits” was changed to “devils.”33 Shamans worked by means of “demonical possession.”34 From this perspective, it was an illegal act.
[They] are partly wizards and witches, holding familiarity with Satan, the evil one; and partly are physicians, and make use, at least in show, of herbs and roots, for curing the sick and diseased. These are sent for by the sick and wounded; and by their diabolical spells, mutterings, exorcisms, they seem to do wonders…These powwows [shamans] are reputed, and I conceive justly, to hold familiarity with the dead; and therefore are by the English laws, prohibited the exercise of their diabolical practices within the English jurisdiction, under the penalty of five pounds.35
Perhaps the earliest recorded account of a medicine power ceremony comes from a Father Pijart. In May of 1637, he observed a healing ceremony among the Wyandot in which one of their medicine men picked up a glowing-red-hot rock with his bare hands, from a fire that was “hot enough to burn the cabin [ceremonial house] down.” Pijart went on to report, “You will be astonished that a man can have so wide a mouth; the stone is about the size of a goose egg. Yet I saw a savage put it in his mouth so that there was more of it inside than out; he carried it some distance and, after that, it was still so hot, that when he threw it to the ground sparks of fire issued from it.”36 After the ceremony was over Pijart inspected the interior of the medicine man’s mouth and found it not burned, more than likely much to this Wyandot’s amusement. Pijart also retrieved the stone and inspected it. He couldn’t believe what he saw—the shaman’s teeth prints were embedded into the stone! Pijart then sent this stone on to his superior, Father Le June, who in turn sent it to France, where it probably still rests on some dusty shelf. In this same year Le June as well began to realize that some of the Indian shamans had real powers. He wrote in his 1637 report:
If what I am about to tell you is true, there is no doubt that the Demons sometimes manifest themselves to them; but I have believed until now that in reality the devil deluded them, filling their understandings with error and their wills with malice, though I persuaded myself that he did not reveal himself visible, and that all the things their Sorcerers did were only Deceptions they contrived, in order to derive there from [sic] some profit. I am now beginning to doubt, even to incline to the other side.37
Once medicine people came to be seen as “devil worshippers,” the missionaries set out to destroy them. For the next 300 years this was the attitude of most missionaries, albeit a few clung to the view that it was fakery. Point in case here is a letter from Father Point, missionary to the Coeur d’Alene from 1842 to 1846, in which he writes:
In fine, from Christmas to Candlemas, the missionary’s fire was kept up with all that remained of the ancient “medicine.” It was a beautiful sight to behold the principal supporters of it, with their own hands destroy the wretched instruments which hell had employed, to deceive their ignorance, or give credit to their impostures [spirits]. And in the long winter evenings, how many birds’ feathers, wolves’ tails, feet of hinds, hoofs of deers, bits of cloth, wooden images, and other superstitious objects were sacrificed!38
The pubic burning of medicine objects by missionaries was a common affair and the devil’s-doing attitude continued well into the last century.39 In 1926 Father Lafortune, a missionary among the Alaskan Inuit, reported that “during the course of the winter, the medicine men would gather the crowd and give a few séances of black magic. There is no denying that the devil had a part in their tricks.”40 However, there were a few exceptions. For example, Father A. M. Beede, a Jesuit missionary, went to the Dakota at Standing Rock Reservation in 1887. After three decades among them he decided that their Medicine Lodge ceremony was “a true Church of God, and we have no right to stamp it out.” He left the Jesuits, studied law, was admitted to the North Dakota bar, and became “their permanent official advocate in all cases involving Indians.”41
By the 1700’s Indian medicine powers had also become well-known among the general public. Trappers and traders often returned to tell how they had been healed by an Indian ceremony. However, when it came to medicine powers in general, the public tended to retain the original “it’s a trick” point of view. For example, publications continued to use the term “juggler” for a medicine person, implying trickery. Meanwhile, the missionaries were living among their converts, and had ample opportunity actually to witness many medicine power displays, while the general public merely had brief encounters with medicine people. The missionaries were seeing these “works of the devil” so much more frequently that they tended to believe in their medicine powers. The infrequent visitors simply tried to detect the “deceptions” of the juggler. Of course, they never could figure them out.
Despite this prevailing attitude of trickery, there were people other than missionaries who came to believe in medicine powers, especially in their ability to heal. Since the earliest contact period through the present there are numerous accounts of Indian medicine people who could not only heal, but were successful in cases where western physicians had failed.42 Therefore, it is also common to find accounts of settlers calling on local medicine men or women for aid when there were no western physicians to be had.43 Also, as whites came into contact with more Indian nations, it became apparent that all of them had various forms of medicine powers. Consequently, the existence of medicine powers became widely known to the general public throughout the course of the 18th century. For example, near the end of the century, around 1796, the Menomini and Ojibwa medicine people were involved in a rising movement that involved the display of fire-handling abilities. They called themselves the Wabeno (covered in Chapter 8). This movement caught the attention of the public in such a way that the word wabeno began to replace “juggler” at this time as a common term for shamans. Thus, by the 1800’s enough westerners had come into contact with medicine powers that everyone was talking about them. They were becoming a common topic in local newspapers.
Take for example American statesman Lewis Cass, who had become a brigadier general in the War of 1812. He had an encounter with medicine powers. By 1816 President Monroe had appointed him governor of the Michigan territory, where he became familiar with the Indians of that area. Henry Schoolcraft, who later published five large volumes on the American Indians, traveled as a topographical engineer on expeditions with Cass at this time.44 Then Cass went on to become a senator in Congress, and was eventually placed in charge of “Indian Affairs” after being appointed Secretary of War in 1831. He was well aware of the many reports of their medicine powers, but viewed them as mere quackery. Again, the general population saw such powers as so much “mystic mummery.”45 In 1826 Cass mocked those whites who had attested to Indian medicine powers by declaring:
Eyes have not been wanting to see, tongues to relate, nor pens to record, the [medicine power] incidents which from time to time have occurred. The eating of fire, the swallowing of daggers, the escape from swathed buffalo skins, and the juggling incantations and ceremonies by which the lost is found, the sick healed, and the living killed [witchcraft], have been witnessed by many, who believed what they saw, but who were grossly deceived by their own credulity, or by the skill of the Indian wabeno.46
Many years later, in 1896, anthropologist Walter James Hoffman reported an incident he had heard of several times, from both the Menomini and the Ottawa, concerning this same Lewis Cass. It occurred during a meeting of the Ottawa Grand Medicine Society in Michigan, obviously at some point in time after the above 1826 speech. Cass had asked that he be permitted to attend their medicine ceremony and watch it. This he was allowed to do, and he watched it most of the day with “unflagging interest.” Hoffman then reports that towards the end of the day
…as Mr. Cass is said to have observed an old Ojibwa medicine woman, who had come up at each dance to actively participate in the exercises, he asked someone near by why this old woman took such an active part, as she appeared rather uninteresting and had nothing to say, and apparently nothing to do except shake her snake-skin medicine bag. The woman heard the remark and became offended, because she was known among her own people as a very powerful mitäkwe [a class of shamans]. In an instant she threw the dry snake-skin bag toward the offender, when the skin became a live serpent which rushed at Mr. Cass and ran him out of the crowd. The snake then returned to the medicine woman, who picked it up, when it appeared again as a dry skin bag.47
In fleeing it would appear that Cass completely forgot that he was merely being deceived by his “own credulity” at that point. As maintained from the onset, it’s one thing to believe that medicine powers are not real, and quite another thing to experience them directly.
Nevertheless, the “it’s a trick” point of view remained firmly in the mind of the general public during the 1800’s. This is somewhat unusual as it was also the century in which we had the most contact with American Indian medicine powers. Nevertheless, they remained a source of bewilderment to those who encountered them. For example, fur trader Peter Ogden had the hazardous job of charting new fur trading territories for the great Hudson Bay Company. In 1829 he was appointed to explore the area south of the Columbia River down to California, then Spanish territory. By then his prior encounters with unknown Indian nations had made him come to see all of them as treacherous, with such vices as “unprovoked murder,” “habitual theft,” and “atrocious and unprovoked cruelty.” Consequently, he viewed all of their actions with great suspicion, and had nothing good to say about any of them.
By the spring of 1832 he found himself stationed at Fort Simpson, located near the mouth of the Nass River on the Pacific Northwest Coast opposite Queen Charlotte Island. This area was occupied by the Tsimshians (called the “Nass” by Ogden in those days), and in April of that year about 1500 to 2000 of them gathered in the area of the fort for the annual spring olachen (fish) run. The local Tsimshians requested assistance from the fort for supplies in trade to help support all their visitors, and received it. This gathering was to culminate in a grand feast accompanied by shamanic displays of power, which is the case for nearly all such gatherings in North America during the early 1800’s. To this end they constructed a large ceremonial house about a hundred yards away from the fort. One morning, because of their assistance, those living at the fort were formally invited to attend the entertainment of the day, which was to begin around noon that day. After much discussion about possible treachery it was decided that Ogden and the fort surgeon would attend as representatives of the fort. To this they added six men to be their bodyguards. Finally, to make clear they were prepared to revenge any treachery, they aimed two cannons in the blockhouse at the nearby ceremonial house.
Full of paranoia they arrived at the ceremonial house to find it packed to capacity, and six “masters of ceremonies” had to make a clearance through the crowd for them. They were lead to the front of a large stage at one end where they were seated in a couple of chairs that had been reserved for them. Once seated Ogden began to attempt a count of the number present when he was suddenly stopped
…by the elevation of the curtain [across the stage] which immediately followed a signal proceeding from behind it. On the stage, boldly erect, stood the lord of the banquet, recognizable by his lofty stature and the stately proportions which imparted a peculiar grace and dignity to his bearing. On his face he wore a grotesque mask of wood. More interesting still, his head was surmounted by an emblematical [totem] figure, representing the sun, rendered luminous by some simple contrivance in the interior. As all eyes were turned upon him, the stage was so arranged that he gradually disappeared beneath it, bearing with him the source of light by which our artificial little world was illuminated, and leaving us in total darkness; a state of affairs which, knowing the savagely treacherous characters with whom we were associated, was by no means agreeable to us white men. The matter was so contrived, however, that daylight presently began to appear again, until, by slow degree, our Indian Phoebus, bearing the bright orb of day, whose temporary absence we had deplored, stood erect before us in all the meridian splendour of his first appearance.
Three times was this alternate setting and rising of the sun repeated, each repetition eliciting rounds of rapturous applause, expressed by shouts, screams, howlings, and gesticulations, most indescribably appalling, and such as might cause a momentary shudder to the stoutest heart. To do our entertainer justice, his performance, simple as it was, was most creditably carried through, and spoke much in favour of the native talent of its originator. The deception by which the gradual appearance and disappearance of the light was imitated, was indeed most complete, and productive of much satisfaction to us all.48
Without a doubt this was a power performance by a medicine man (Ogden’s “lord of the banquet”). As for the magic involved, they were not able to figure out the “deception.” Ogden, like the other whites, found “much satisfaction” since he could not figure out the source of light. This curiosity is what kept them coming back.
As hostilities ended and it became safer to be among Indians, more curiosity seekers came onto the scene. A good example of this was the annual Arikara Shunáwanùh ceremony on the upper Missouri River, which became well-known for its public demonstrations of a wide variety of medicine powers (covered in Chapter 8). Quite possibly these ceremonies had been seen by trappers and traders during the 1700’s, but the earliest written account of them appears in 1804 (quoted in Chapter 8). In June of 1811 Henry Brackenridge makes an entry into his journal concerning his knowledge of their power displays: “Their devotion [i.e., praying] manifests in a thousand curious tricks of slight of hand, which they call magic, and which the vulgar amongst them believe to be something supernatural. They are very superstitious. Besides their magic, or medicine lodge, in which they have a great collection of magic, or sacred things, every one has his private magic in his lodge, or about his person.”49 By the middle of the century these “magic shows” had become well-known among whites. “Edward Hall, a resident on the reservation since 1869, says that the medicine lodge [ceremony] was known to the people at the various trading stores as ‘the Opera,’ and they frequently attended the performance in the evening, much as they might go to the theater. Each band [medicine society] had its special type of sleight of hand, which had a connection with the type of cures in which it specialized.”50 This means the Missouri River settlers witnessed Arikara medicine power displays over a period of at least seventy years. Trying to figure out just how their tricks worked became a very popular form of local entertainment. This pattern of curiosity was found among many other Indian nations, and much guessing was afoot as to how these “tricks” were executed. Again, they failed to figure them out. Consequently, “many white people about the agencies came to believe in the powers of certain medicine men.”51
The Coming of Anthropologists
By the latter part of the 1800’s anthropologists began coming onto the scene, with much greater detail in their records. It was definitely the golden age of American anthropology with hundreds of unstudied cultures throughout the land. This is especially true from the 1880’s to the 1920’s. This was a time when Indian cultures still retained many of their traditional ceremonies such that medicine powers were still quite active, even if practiced by only a few remaining shamans. After 1900 much of the recorded material was taken from elders who only recalled from their youth having participated in ceremonies that were by then extinct. Although more detailed than the early historical accounts, most of the recorded material on medicine powers was still quite incomplete. First, there was a general reluctance among traditional Indians to talk about spirit powers. This was not so much because they were suspicious of whites, but rather that they were simply not interested in talking to anyone who didn’t believe in their powers in the first place. Those who had converted to Christianity were embarrassed to say anything about their “pagan” ways. Neither did they like to talk about medicine powers. Early ethnographers reported difficulty in obtaining information on “secret societies.”52 Other Indians would not talk due to long-standing taboos against speaking of such affairs lest bad medicine (harm) come their way. It was common for shamans not to talk about their medicine powers for fear of losing them.53 Among the northern Dene “to say one has inkonze [medicine power] offends the beings of inkonze [spirits] who give power/knowledge. They respond to such claims by taking away that which they have given.”54 Therefore, it was almost impossible to persuade anyone to talk in great depth about medicine powers.
For ceremonies still practiced, accounts were even more difficult to come by. The main reason for this is that during the 1800’s the government, in their effort to assimilate the American Indians, had declared Indian ceremonies illegal. All their traditional ceremonies were declared illegal. “Indian dancing” was first banned in the U.S. in 188255 and in 1884 in Canada.56 By 1894 the U.S. government banned all traditional ceremonies, sweat lodges, Sun Dances57, vision quests, etc. Nevertheless, their ceremonies were still held in secret.58 Because such ceremonies were hidden and closed to the uninitiated, accurate details about them were nearly impossible to acquire.59 However, those anthropologists who successfully practiced a field technique known as “participant observation,” gained access to traditional ceremonies. Those who showed such a great sincerity that they were initiated or adopted into the culture were able to attend. As it turns out, there have been only a handful of anthropologists who have dedicated themselves to this extent.
The main reason so few anthropologists took this approach was because field researchers were trained simply to record data and not become involved with their subjects. That is, “participant observation” has its academic limits, and when an anthropologist begins to enjoy life in his new-found primitive culture more than life in his own culture, his colleagues back home begin to worry about his sanity. Worse yet would be his becoming a spiritualist.
Field anthropologists were faced with a most difficult dilemma. They were filled with fear that their colleagues would discredit their research as being unscientific if they even hinted at any belief in medicine powers. They stood to lose their livelihoods. So what one sees in their reports from this period is an endless parade of tiptoeing around the issue of medicine powers. Anything written about medicine powers is preceded with qualifying statements such as “they believe that…”, “it is reported that…”, “they have the superstition that…”, “the informant said…”, “the supposed powers…”, each one designed to let the reader know that the writer is only reporting what is being said and does not really believe in it. The result of this fear has been that most anthropologists who came to believe in such powers have simply chosen to remain silent on the issue rather than face ridicule from colleagues and other such institutionalized abuses. Nevertheless, one can find hints of their belief. For instance anthropologist Charles Hill-Tout was at a loss to explain medicine powers, and he did go out on a limb to state, “It is not enough to put them aside with the assertion that it is all humbug, ignorant superstition, or crass credulity.”60
However, what about those anthropologists who went native? The first renegade to do so was Frank Hamilton Cushing, and with somewhat disastrous results, I might add. In fact, Cushing is often credited in anthropology textbooks for having invented the “participant observation” field technique. At the age of twenty-two, in the autumn of 1879, he was sent by the then Bureau of Ethnology (renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1897) of the Smithsonian to study the Zuni people in the Southwest. He was a member of a collecting expedition led by Colonel James Stevenson. Once among the Zuni,
Cushing wandered about the pueblo, taking notes and making sketches. He made friends with the children, but the older people showed increasing hostility toward his recording activities. Finally, seeking an ally in the pueblo, he moved uninvited into a room in the home of the governor of the pueblo. There he stayed when, after some weeks, the rest of the Stevenson party moved on to the Hopi.61
In this crisis he became completely dependent on the Zuni, who set out to make him into an Indian, patiently teaching him Zuni customs.
What was initially planned as a several-months field trip turned into a two and a half year stay with the Zuni, during which time Cushing definitely “went native.” Cushing became quite fluent in the Zuni language, and received the Indian name “Medicine Flower” due to some of the medicinal remedies he brought with him.62 By October of 1881, he was initiated into the beginning rank of their sacred society of Priests of the Bow, even though “membership in the bow priesthood is restricted to those who have killed an enemy.”63 The Bow Priests waged warfare against external enemies, internally enforced religious laws, and sought out witches.64 Cushing returned to the east coast for a few months during 1882, and was back at Zuni by October of that same year. During his second stay he continued to send field reports to the Smithsonian; however when he started signing his reports as “1st War Chief of Zuni” his colleagues at the Smithsonian became quite concerned. Ultimately, in 1884, he was forced to leave Zuni and recalled to Washington, DC, primarily for stopping attempts by a U.S. army unit to take over Zuni lands. Cushing no doubt saw himself as fulfilling his role as Bow Priest. Unfortunately for him, this army unit happened to be led by the son-in-law of Senator John A. Logan. When Senator Logan heard about the incident, he threatened to withhold funds from the Bureau of Ethnology. By this means the senator forced Cushing’s recall.
In Washington, D.C. Cushing became known as the “Zuni man” and would often make appearances in full Zuni attire. By December 1886 he returned to Zuni, this time funded by Boston philanthropist, Mrs. Mary Hemenway, who in the interim had befriended Cushing. However, this was mainly an archaeological expedition. Until his death in 1900 he continued to publish, but he never published a single word regarding their medicine powers or about the society to which he belonged. If he ever made any field notes on them, they were never found. Cushing opted to remain totally silent in print with regard to Indian medicine powers.
Other noteworthy early ethnographers who were “participant observers” include Alexander M. Stephen among the Hopi, James Mooney among the Plains cultures, Joseph Keppler and Frank Speck among the Seneca, Robert Salzer among the Potawatomi, and Knud Rasmussen among the Inuit (Eskimo). Clark Wissler was also well received and was given the Indian name of “He-who-gets-what-he-goes-after” by one nation, even though he had problems dealing with medicine powers.65 However, Vilhjàlmur Stefànsson, who lived among the Inuit, flatly reports “no genuine doctors are frauds” and left it at that.66 In addition there were also a few early field observers who were themselves American Indians, such as Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), Francis La Flesche (an Omaha who was adopted by anthropologist Alice C. Fletcher), and Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan, a student of Frank Speck). All of these scholars contributed in one way or another to the continuation of Indian sacred traditions, but were not outspoken regarding their reality.
Alexander Stephen lived among the Hopis from 1890 to 1894. He had first met the Hopis in 1882, and by 1890 had been adopted by them. Subsequently he was initiated into three different Hopi medicine societies. He spoke Hopi, although not fluently, and also Navajo. Just before his death from tuberculosis in 1894, Stephen was being treated by Yellow Bear, a Hopi medicine man. Joseph Keppler was formally initiated into the Seneca Wolf Clan around 1898 and eventually rose to a distinguished Pine Tree chieftainship. Knud Rasmussen became virtually a culture-hero among the Inuit during the first part of the last century, living their lifestyle, speaking their language, eating a diet of raw meat, etc. He also submitted himself to shamanic healing. Frank Speck, described by one colleague as a “nature mystic,” was initiated into the Seneca Turtle Clan and eventually, in 1947, became known as Gaheh dagowa, or “Great Porcupine.” Just prior to his death in the spring of 1950 Speck was under the treatment of Avery Jemerson, a Seneca “ritual holder” (medicine man), who conducted an Eagle Dance healing ceremony on Speck’s behalf. Robert Salzer worked among the Forest Potawatomi in Forest County, WI, from 1952 to 1959. His deep interest in them resulted in his eventual adoption into their Eagle clan.67 However, as far as I can discover, none of these anthropologists ever publicly championed the reality of Indian medicine powers, mainly due to the long-standing taboo against such a belief. Nevertheless, I believe they all firmly believed in them.
From around the late 1930’s to the late 1960’s it was fashionable among anthropologists, mainly in their pursuit of being seen as “scientific,” to study shamans from a psychological point of view, most often with the result that they were seen as a bit insane if not downright psychotic.68 Thankfully, this was a short-lived view and we now understand shamans to be the psychological vanguards of stability in a community.69
A Hopi Account
We generally overlook the fact that when anthropologists in the field encountered some form of medicine power, more often than not their study subjects knew about it. Consequently, there are some rare accounts that come not from anthropologists, but from Indians themselves. Take for example the visit of anthropologist J. Walter Fewkes to the Hopi village of Walpi in the fall of 1898. Although Fewkes never reported the following incident, he did relate it to the priests of their winter Wuwuchim ceremonial in their kiva (round ceremonial chamber within a pueblo) the following day. The following Hopi account of it was first published in 1936:
Dr. Fewkes had been in the [Wuwuchim] kiva all day taking notes on what he saw going on there. Finally the men told him that he must go away and stay in his house for Masauwu [the Earth God] was coming, and that part of the ceremony was very sacred, and no outside person was ever allowed to see what was going on. They told him to go into his house and lock the door, and not to try to see anything no matter what happened, or he would be dragged out and he would “freeze” to death. So he went away into his house, locked the door just as he had been told to do, sat down, and began to work on his field notes.
Now suddenly he had a queer feeling, for he felt that there was someone in the room, and he looked up and saw a tall man standing before him, but he could not see his face for the light was not good. He felt very much surprised for he knew that he had locked the door.
He said, “What do you want and how did you get in here?” The man replied, “I have come to entertain you.”
Dr. Fewkes said, “Go away, I am busy and I do not wish to be entertained.”
And now as he was looking at the man, he suddenly was not there any more. Then a voice said, “Turn your head a moment,” and when the Doctor looked again the figure stood before him once more, but this time its head was strange and dreadful to see.
And the Doctor said, “How did you get in?”, and the man answered and said, “I go where I please, locked doors cannot keep me out! See, I will show you how I entered,” and, as Dr. Fewkes watched, he shrank away and became like a single straw in a Hopi hair whisk and he vanished through the key hole.
Now Dr. Fewkes was very much frightened and as he was thinking what to do, there was the man back again. So he said once more to him, “What do you want?”, and the figure answered as before and said, “I have come to entertain you.” So the Doctor offered him a cigarette and then a match, but the man laughed and said, “Keep your match, I do not need it,” and he held the cigarette before his horrible face and blew a stream of fire from his mouth upon it and lit his cigarette. Then Dr. Fewkes was very much afraid indeed, for now he knew who it was [Masauwu].
Then the being talked and talked to him, and finally the Doctor “gave up to him” and said he would become a Hopi and be like them and believe in Masauwu, and Masauwu cast his spell on him and they both became like little children and all night long they played around together and Masauwu gave the Doctor no rest.70
Shaken by this encounter, Fewkes made a premature departure from Walpi. In the Smithsonian’s annual report for that year the director reported that Dr. Fewkes returned early to Washington due to an outbreak of smallpox among the Hopi that year, but the Hopi will tell you that he returned because of his unnerving encounter with Masauwu.
Prof. Brigham Breaks the Silence
In addition to John Swanton, there was another eminent anthropologist who fully believed in medicine powers, but never uttered a word of it to his colleagues, again out of fear of being ridiculed. This was Dr. William Tufts Brigham, who became the director of the Museum of Ethnology at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu in 1888. During his distinguished career he became the leading authority of the times on Polynesian cultures, to include their botany. He produced the best ethnographic records of traditional Hawaiian culture ever published, and he was fluent in their language as well. During the latter part of the 19th century Brigham was seen as a haole (white) kahuna (medicine man) among his Hawaiian informants. He both observed and participated in their sacred rituals. He even witnessed a kahuna stop a lava flow with his medicine powers. By the end of his career he was world renowned and highly esteemed. Near the end of his life and with great caution he finally allowed himself to talk about his belief in kahuna medicine powers.
In 1923, at the age of eighty-two years old, he chose to confide in a Baptist-raised schoolteacher sent over from the mainland, named Max Freedom Long. Long had come to Hawaii in 1917 to teach native children. Over the course of the next five years Long was assigned to several locations, and was well-liked and accepted in each new location. Every now and then he would hear the word kahuna in conversations, but each time he inquired about them he was met with total silence. Over time he became more and more curious about them. Do they really exist? Do they really have magical powers? As time passed, he became more frustrated.
Finally, after five years of getting nowhere he had the opportunity to visit the Bishop Museum. When he announced to the receptionist (a native Hawaiian) that he had come to inquire about kahunas, he was promptly turned over to Dr. Brigham. However, Brigham was not at all forthcoming. He began to question Long about the things he had heard, where he had lived, and all the Hawaiian people he had come to know in those places. As Long grew more impatient Brigham pressed on. Long reports, “He seemed to forget the purpose of my visit and lose himself in the exploration of my background. He wanted to know what I had read, where I had studied, and what I thought about a dozen matters which were quite aside from the question I had raised.”71
Suddenly, just as Long’s patience was wearing thin, Brigham fixed a stern gaze on him and said, “Can I trust you to respect my confidence? I have a little scientific standing which I wish to preserve, even in the vanity of my old age.”72 Here Brigham was referring to the academic humiliation he knew he would suffer if he were to speak publicly about the reality of medicine powers. In fact, Brigham made Long promise not to publish a word of what he told him until after his death. He didn’t want to see his worked discredited during his lifetime. Long did keep his promise and waited nearly a decade after Brigham’s death to publish what had been revealed to him.
By the time Long had come to the museum, he had concluded that kahuna medicine powers were merely superstition. So you can imagine how shocked he was when Brigham finally blurted out, “For forty years I have been studying the kahunas to find the answer to the question you have asked [about the reality of their medicine powers]. The kahunas do use what you have called magic. They do heal. They do kill. They do look into the future and change it for their clients. Many were impostors, but some were genuine.”73
Subsequently Brigham told Long:
It’s magic…It took me years to come to that understanding [of the reality of medicine powers], but it is my final decision after long study and observation…It has been no easy task for me to come to believe magic possible. And even after I was dead-sure it was magic I still had a deep-seated doubt concerning my own conclusions.74 You may say for me that I gave my word as a student and a gentleman that I would, and had, told the exact truth about what I saw and did. This is all either of us can do. Both of us will be branded unholy liars by a certain class. That class you can afford to snub, and, as I will be dead, I will have lost my childish fear of losing standing as a scientist. However, I trust that before you are as old as I am, the thing we call “magic” will have been taken into the laboratory, in some way, and made a part of the working equipment of the world.75
After forty years, Brigham did have a clear notion of what was involved in medicine powers, just no explanation for them. He told Long:
Always keep watch for three things in the study of this magic. There must be some form of consciousness back of, and directing, the process of magic [i.e., the observation being made by the ceremonial participants]…There must also be some form of force used in exerting this control, if we can but recognize it [i.e., sincere praying]. And last, there must be some form of substance, visible or invisible, through which the force can act [i.e., the helping spirits].76
The missing ingredient for Brigham was the observer effect.
At one point in their many conversations over the next four years, up until his death, Brigham recounted the time, as a young anthropologist, he participated in his first fire-walking ceremony. Brigham also told Long that by 1900 he knew of no kahunas who could any longer perform this ceremony. In order to give you a clear picture of just what “participant observation” can entail, I’m quoting Brigham’s full account of it. Among his kahuna friends were three who knew fire magic. At one point they told Brigham that not only would they demonstrate their fire–walking abilities for him, but he could also fire-walk under their protection. Fire-walking always took place just after a volcanic eruption. This means nature set the date for the ceremony. Soon thereafter Brigham was in South Kona, at Napoopoo, when Mauna Loa erupted on the island of Hawaii. After a few days, when the lava flow looked promising, Brigham sent word to his three kahuna friends to come for a fire-walking ceremony. Brigham reports:
It was a week before they arrived, as they had to come around from Kau by canoe. To them it was our reunion that counted and not so simple a matter as a bit of fire-walking. Nothing would do but that we get a pig and have a luau [feast].
It was a great luau. Half of Kona invited itself. When it was over I had to wait another day until one of the kahunas sobered up enough to travel.
It was night when we finally got off after having to wait an entire afternoon to get rid of those who had heard what was up and wished to go along. I’d have taken them all had it not been that I was not too sure I would walk the hot lava when the time came. I had seen these three kahunas run barefooted over little overflows of lava at Kilauea, and the memory of the heat wasn’t any too encouraging.
The going was hard that night as we climbed the gentle slope and worked our way across the old lava flows towards the upper rain forests. The kahunas had on sandals, but the sharp cindery particles on some of the old flows got next to their feet. We were always having to wait while one or the other sat down and removed the adhesive cinders.
When we got up among the trees and ferns it was dark as pitch. We fell over roots and into holes. We gave it up after a time and bedded down in an old lava tube for the rest of the night. In the morning we ate some of our poi [taro root pounded into a paste and then left to ferment] and dried fish, then set out to find more water. This took us some time as there are no springs or streams in those parts and we had to watch for puddles of rain water gathered in hollow places in the rocks.
Until noon we climbed upward under a smoky sky and with the smell of sulphur fumes growing stronger and stronger. Then came more poi and fish. At about three o’clock we arrived at the source of the flow.
It was a grand sight. The side of the mountain had broken open just above the timber line and the lava was spouting out of several vents— shooting with a roar as high as two hundred feet, and falling to make a great bubbling pool.
The pool drained off at the lower end into the flow. An hour before sunset we started following it down in search of a place where we could try our experiment.
As usual, the flow had followed the ridges instead of the valleys and had built itself up enclosing walls of clinker [hard masses of fused stony matter]. These walls were up to a thousand yards in width and the hot lava ran between them in a channel it had cut to bedrock.
We climbed up these walls several times and crossed them to have a look at the flow. The clinkery surface was cool enough by then for us to walk on it, but here and there we could look down into cracks and see the red glow below. Now and again we had to dodge places where colourless flames were spouting up like gas jets in the red light filtering through the smoke.
Coming down to the rain forest without finding a place where the flow blocked up and overflowed periodically, we bedded down again for the night. In the morning we went on, and in a few hours found what we wanted. The flow crossed a more level strip perhaps a half-mile wide. Here the enclosing walls ran in flat terraces, with sharp drops from one level to the next. Now and again a floating boulder or mass of clinker would plug the flow just where a drop commenced, and then the lava would back up and spread out into a large pool. Soon the plug would be forced out and the lava would drain away, leaving behind a fine flat surface to walk on when sufficiently hardened.
Stopping beside the largest of three overflows, we watched it fill and empty. The heat was intense, of course, even up on the clinkery wall. Down below us the lava was red and flowing like water, the only difference being that water couldn’t get that hot and that the lava never made a sound even when going twenty miles an hour down a sharp grade. That silence always interests me when I see a flow. Where water has to run over rocky bottoms and rough projections, lava burns off everything and makes itself a channel as smooth as the inside of a crock.
As we wanted to get back down to the coast that day, the kahunas wasted no time. They had brought ti leaves with them and were all ready for action as soon as the lava would bear our weight. (The leaves of the ti plant are universally used by fire-walkers where available in Polynesia. They are a foot or two long and fairly narrow, with cutting edges like saw–grass. They grow in a tuft on the top of a stock resembling in shape and size a broomstick.)
When the rocks we threw on the lava surface showed that it had hardened enough to bear our weight, the kahunas arose and clambered down the side of the wall. It was far worse than a bake oven when we got to the bottom. The lava was blackening on the surface, but all across it ran heat discolorations that came and went as they do on cooling iron before a blacksmith plunges it into his tub for tempering. I heartily wished that I had not been so curious. The very thought of running over that flat inferno to the other side made me tremble—and remember that I had seen all three of the kahunas scamper over hot lava at Kilauea.
The kanunas took off their sandals and tied ti leaves around their feet, about three leaves to the foot. I sat down and began tying my ti leaves on outside my big hob-nailed boots. I wasn’t taking any chances. But that wouldn’t do at all—I must take off my boots and my two pair of socks. The goddess Pele hadn’t agreed to keep boots from burning and it might be an insult to her if I wore them.
I argued hotly—and I say “hotly” because we were all but roasted. I knew Pele wasn’t the one who made fire-magic possible, and I did my best to find out what or who was. As usual they grinned and said that of course the “white” kahuna knew the trick of getting mana (power of some kind known to kahunas) out of air and water to use in kahuna work, and that we were wasting time talking about the thing no kahuna ever put into words—the secret handed down only from father to son.
The upshot of the matter was that I sat tight and refused to take off my boots. In the back of my mind I figured that if the Hawaiians could walk over hot lava with bare calloused feet, I could do it with my heavy leather soles to protect me. Remember that this happened at a time when I still had an idea that there was some physical explanation for the thing.
The kahunas got to considering my boots a great joke. If I wanted to offer them as a sacrifice to the gods, it might be a good idea. They grinned at each other and left me to tie on my leaves while they began their chants [spirit/power calling songs].
The chants were in an archaic Hawaiian which I could not follow. It was the usual “god-talk” handed down word for word for countless generations. All I could make of it was that it consisted of simple little mentions of legendary history and was peppered with praise of some god or gods.
I almost roasted alive before the kahunas had finished their chanting, although it could not have taken more than a few minutes. Suddenly the time was at hand. One of the kahunas beat at the shimmering surface of the lava with a bunch of ti leaves and then offered me the honour of crossing first. Instantly I remembered my manners; I was all for age before beauty.
The matter was settled at once by deciding that the oldest kahuna should go first, I second and the others side by side [a protective formation around Brigham]. Without a moment of hesitation the oldest man trotted out on that terrifically hot surface. I was watching him with my mouth open and he was nearly across—a distance of about a hundred and fifty feet—when someone gave me a shove that resulted in my having my choice of falling on my face on the lava or catching a running stride.
I still do not know what madness seized me, but I ran. The heat was unbelievable. I held my breath and my mind seemed to stop functioning. I was young then and could do my hundred-yard dash with the best. Did I run! I flew! I would have broken all records, but with my first few steps the soles of my boots began to burn. They curled and shrank, clamping down on my feet like a vice. The seams gave way and I found myself with one sole gone and the other flapping behind me from the leather strap at the heel.
That flapping sole was almost the death of me. It tripped me repeatedly and slowed me down. Finally, after what seemed minutes, but could not have been more than a few seconds, I leaped off to safety.
I looked down at my feet and found my socks burning at the edges of the curled leather uppers of my boots. I beat out the smouldering fire in the cotton fabric and looked up to find my three kahunas rocking with laughter as they pointed to the heel and sole of my left boot which lay smoking and burned to a crisp on the lava.
I laughed too. I was never so relieved in my life as I was to find that I was safe and that there was not a blister on my feet—not even where I had beaten out the fire in the socks.
There is little more that I can tell of this experience. I had a sensation of intense heat on my face and body, but almost no sensation in my feet. When I touched them with my hands they were hot on the bottoms, but they did not feel so except to my hands. None of the kahunas had a blister, although the ti leaves had burned off their soles.
My return trip to the coast was a nightmare. Trying to make it in improvised sandals whittled from green wood has left me with an impression almost more vivid than my fire-walking.77
In reflecting on this incident Brigham added,
I knew I had walked over hot lava, but still I couldn’t always believe it possible that I could have done so…No, there is no mistake. The kahunas use magic in their fire-walking as well as in many other things. There is one set of natural laws for the physical world and another for the other world. And—try to believe this if you can: The laws of the other side are so much the stronger that they can be used to neutralize and reverse the laws of the physical.78
Here Brigham is exactly in line with how Indian medicine people view reality—the laws of the unseen world are stronger than the laws of this world.79 In essence, he is saying the laws of quantum mechanics are capable of overriding the spce-time laws of Newtonian physics.
The Most Famous Indian Account
This long-standing taboo of believing in medicine powers extends to all forms of writing on American Indians, not just to anthropologists. Again, I turn to John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. As mentioned in the last chapter, initially it was a failure despite many favorable reviews. Again, Neihardt was obliged to return part of his advance to publisher William Morrow.80 However, its 1961 republication eventually resulted in this book’s becoming the most popular book ever written on the Indians. That is, it holds the current record for the most copies sold worldwide.
Neihardt had come to a point in the writing of his epic, Cycles of the West, that he felt he needed some first-hand information concerning Wovoka and his widespread Ghost Dance movement of the 1880’s. To that end Neihardt drove, with his son Sigurd, in August of 1930 to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to find someone who had met Wovoka. He was told that he should seek out an old man, who spoke no English, named Nicolas (“Nick”) Black Elk. A Lakota named Flying Hawk agreed to take Neihardt to Manderson to meet the old medicine man. However, much to Neihardt’s amazement, when he arrived Black Elk forthwith informed Neihardt that he had been sent “to save his great vision” and that he had been waiting for him to arrive. Black Elk said, “What I know was given to me for men and it is true and it is beautiful. Soon I shall be under the grass and it will be lost. You were sent to save it, and you must come back so that I can teach you.”81 Black Elk then told Neihardt to return the following spring, and this he did, leaving his home in Branson, Missouri on May 1, 1931 along with his daughter Hilda and niece Enid. Over the next few weeks Black Elk’s son, Ben, translated what Nick said and Enid recorded Ben’s translations in shorthand.
For Black Elk the telling of his vision was a sacred undertaking, and upon completing his story to Neihardt he wanted to “pray to the six grandfathers that the tree of his vision would bloom at last.”82 Black Elk decided they should pray atop Harney Peak in the Black Hills, the highest point in South Dakota. Thus it was that on the morning of May 29 they set out for the Black Hills from Manderson, South Dakota—Neihardt, girls, and supplies in one car with Black Elk and Ben following them in Ben’s car. That evening they spent the night in a rented cabin near the base of Harney Peak at Sylvan Lake. The next morning they began their climb. Neihardt later wrote to his publisher Morrow, “On the way up he told his son [Ben] that if he had any power left surely there would be a little thunder and some rain while he was on the Peak. This is a curious thing and equally interesting for it [sic], but at the time we were going up and after we were on the Peak, the day was bright and clear.”83
It was customary for Black Elk to paint his body red and adorn his breechcloth for this ceremony. However, he was too shy and embarrassed to be that nude in front of the girls. So when they reached the top Black Elk hid behind a rock where he put on a pair of red-flannel long underwear, and then his breechcloth over that. He also put on a buffalo skin cap with a single eagle feather in it, and beaded moccasins. Neihardt thought he looked a bit humorous, but did not dare laugh.
Properly dressed and with his sacred pipe in hand, Black Elk raised his pipe toward the sky and began to pray, “raising his voice to a wail, he sang” his prayer. As tears rolled down his cheeks Neihardt reports, “During his prayer on the summit, clouds came up and there was low thunder and a scant, chill rain fell.”84 DeMallie also reports, “It did rain out of a perfectly bright sky and then it cleared up immediately afterward.”85 The ceremony was deemed a success, and so was Neihardt’s book.
As mentioned, during the interviews with Black Elk, Enid recorded the translations in Gregg shorthand. Later she transcribed her notes into a typewritten form. It was from Enid’s typescript that Neihardt crafted his now-famous book. She also kept a personal diary of their time with Black Elk. Few readers know that Neihardt fabricated “the beginning and the ending” of the book, but nevertheless made it as true as he could to Black Elk’s own meaning.86 Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Fools Crow, Black Elk’s blood nephew and also a powerful Lakota medicine man, didn’t agree with Neihardt’s wording. Thomas Mails reports: “One day when I was with Fools Crow, I read a portion of the [Black Elk Speaks] book to him. Before long he had a puzzled look on his face, and when I stopped, asked, ‘Who is that you are reading about?’ When I told him, he shook his head back and forth in disbelief and said, ‘That is not my uncle, Black Elk.’”87
However, Neihardt readily admitted to altering Black Elk’s words in order “to be true to the old man’s meaning and manner of expression. I am convinced there were times when we had more than the ordinary means of communication.”88 He did this in order to make Black Elk’s message understandable for whites. What most people do not know is that Neihardt often toned down Black Elk’s medicine power accounts to make the book more palatable (and marketable) to western readers, possibly under pressure from his publisher. For example, Enid made the following notes concerning Black Elk’s story about a medicine ceremony:
Because of the [ceremonial] power going on in the tipi the horses all rushed to it. My horse neighed right at the door and it stopped then and I got off. I did not get there first for some of them were closer to the tipi than I was. We had some orderlies which took the horses and we all went into the tipi. Everyone was eager to see the place, too. On the fresh dirt we could see small horse tracks all over the tipi floor. The spirit horses had been dancing around the circle of the tipi.8
In the published version Neihardt has Black Elk saying at this point:
My horse plunged inward along with all the others, but many were ahead of me and many couped the teepee before I did.
Then the horses were all rubbed down with sacred sage and led away, and we began going into the teepee to see what might have happened there while we were dancing. The Grandfathers had sprinkled fresh soil on the nation’s hoop that they had made in there with the red and black roads across it, and all around this little circle of the nation’s hoop we saw the prints of tiny pony hoofs as though the spirit horses had been dancing while we danced.90
It is with his “as though” qualifier that Neihardt subtly removes from the record the actual spirit power that manifested in this particular ceremony. And what about the horses’ sensing the power as well? One can only wonder where Neihardt thought the tiny hoof prints really came from. I know from my own experience that spirit tracks are a common event in Lakota ceremonies. During one of Godfrey’s healing ceremonies I was attending, a spirit did just that. All of the ceremonial food to be eaten at the concluding feast was placed inside the altar area prior to the beginning of the ceremony. Then at one point during the ceremony (conducted in total darkness) everyone could hear a spirit running across the top of a casserole dish covered with tin foil. After the ceremony, when the lights were turned on, we all saw a tiny set of human footprints embedded into the tin foil.
Neihardt’s Black Elk also regrets joining the Ghost Dance, which was never the case.91 I suspect either Neihardt was intent on making the text less confrontational for his readers where medicine powers are concerned, or he was forced to do so by his publisher.
So the bad news is that most anthropologists and others who have ever witnessed American Indian medicine powers have been the very people who have been responsible for concealing their reality from the general public. The public was never informed of their reality due mainly to the writers’ fear of personal ridicule. After all, Indian notions about such powers appear completely absurd to us. Nevertheless, these fear-based actions constitute a great discredit to any true understanding of American Indian cultures in general.
The good news is that our views are changing, and many of the upcoming anthropologists are now approaching American Indian medicine powers with the assumption that they are quite real. These anthropologists are not being labeled “unholy liars” as Brigham had feared, but the ridicule continues. For example, when Michael Winkelman (in 1982) pointed out that “the conditions employed in tribal magic rituals—conditions such as ASC’s [altered states of consciousness], visualizations, and positive expectations—parallel those supposed to facilitate psi…he was loudly lambasted by critics.”92 Nevertheless, we are witnessing a whole new generation of researchers who are willing to dive deeply into “participant observation.” Very few senior anthropologists have been able to change their opinion of spirit helpers. However, one who definitely has is Edith Turner, wife of anthropologist Victor Turner, both of whom are scholars well-known for their ground-breaking work on symbolism that grew out of their African fieldwork beginning in the 1950’s. Thirty years later Turner saw for herself an African Ihamba hunter spirit, during a ceremony among the Ndembu of northwestern Zambia. Afterwards, she told the shaman:
We settled down to talk, and I respectfully described what I saw, but Singleton [the shaman] made no comment. He did not give any details about what he actually saw. I was in no mood to become analytical, so I did not push the matter further. When the keystone of the bridge is put into position and everything holds, you tend to just look on with your mouth hanging open. This is what happened to me. If I had become analytical at that moment, I would have been a different person from the one who saw the spirit form.93
Later on her fieldwork, this time among the Inupiat of Alaska, convinced her of the reality of spirits. “These [spirit] manifestations constitute the deliberate visitation of discernable forms that have the conscious intent to communicate, to claim importance in our lives.”94 Of course, to “discern” spirits the anthropologist has to break the long-standing “going native” taboo.
There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction: it isn’t a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology. And I began to see how anthropologists have perpetuated an endless series of put–downs about the many spirit events in which they participated— “participated” in a kindly pretense. They might have obtained valuable material, but they have been operating with the wrong paradigm, that of the positivist’s denial…I am now learning that studying such a mentality from inside is a legitimate and valuable kind of anthropology that is accessible if the anthropologist takes the “fatal” step toward “going native”…Thus for me, “going native” achieved a breakthrough to an altogether different worldview, foreign to academia, by means of which certain material was chronicled that could have been gathered in no other way.95
The First Anthropologist to Break the Silence
There have been many anthropologists, like Matilda Stevenson, who were outspoken against the reality of medicine powers. She wrote of the Zuni “wild” ceremonies, full of “the most weird incantations,” that contained aspects that were “disgusting” and full of “depravity.”96 She saw such powers as so much “humbuggery.”97 Some anthropologists claimed outright that it was entirely a slight-of-hand affair.98 It was the rule of the times to do so. Finding anthropologists like Swanton and Brigham who did speak out is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Frank Hamilton Cushing was the best candidate, given his prolonged stay with the Zuni, but again he remained silent on the subject. I suspect his silence was due more to an oath of secrecy to the Zuni than fear of ridicule by colleagues, given his eccentricities. However, he does lead us to another needle in the haystack, anthropologist Carlos Troyer.
During the late 1800’s Carlos Troyer, a Brazilian ethnomusicologist born in Germany, was recording the music of Brazilian Indians. He was a personal friend of King Dom Pedro of Brazil. After the king’s monarchy collapsed, Troyer, in 1880, fled Brazil and ended up spending the rest of his life in San Francisco. It was there, probably through his membership in the California Academy of Sciences, that Troyer came to meet Cushing. Cushing was interested in his work in Brazil and asked Troyer to set to score Zuni music he had recorded. In 1888 Troyer decided to make a “prolonged visit” to the Zuni in order to study them and their music. Cushing acted as to go-between and introduced Troyer to the Zuni. Cushing would sing a song while Troyer worked on the transcription. Each song was repeated until they were both satisfied the transcription was correct.99
Cushing was only forty-three years old when he died in 1900. He had been sickly most of his life, but prematurely died by choking on a fish bone. However, it was not until 1913 that Troyer published his Zuni observations in a small pamphlet entitled Indian Music Lecture. That makes it twenty-five years after his visit to the Zuni, a clear indication of hesitation on his part. The text of the pamphlet makes clear that Troyer is a spiritualist, most likely due to his earlier contact with the Brazilian Indians. What is advertised as a lecture on Indian music turns out to be a 19th-century spiritualist approach to the psychic abilities of the Zunis. This rare publication constitutes the first time, at least in my search, of an anthropologist clearly putting into print his belief in Indian supernatural abilities.
Troyer’s first observation begins with breathing. When a Zuni child is born the mother’s “first aim in vital training is to get her baby to breathe slowly and deeply to broaden its lungs, which she accomplishes by delicate and short compressions of its lips and nostrils…It may be of interest to draw attention here to a well established fact that Indians in general possess large lungs and are deep and slow breathers.”100 As adults, a Zuni naturally takes deep, slow, long breaths. This technique is taught to meditation and yoga students as well as prescribed by psychotherapists for stress, but the Zunis begin this training with their infants.
The primary lesson of a child’s mental training is next directed to the perception and distinction of color. This will be shown to exert a wonderful influence in later life, in developing a susceptibility [sic] for distinguishing colors of most delicate shades, and in the vision, in sensitiveness of defining the aura of subjects in organic and inorganic life…It will be found that by continuous application of color–impressions…a primary basis is formed for developing mental concentration and the power to perceive colors at will, while the eyes are closed. This may be seriously doubted only by those who have never made the proper test by careful and repeated efforts. The fact remains patent, and it can be fully attested, that even in these primitive children, psychic vision can be, and had been developed to a remarkable degree.101
In 1922 Elsie Parsons (known to the Indians as “the-lady-who-smokes–colored-cigarettes”), who became the foremost expert on the Southwest cultures, reported a similar feat.
In the koyemshi guessing game I watched on September 12 , a man and a woman were called out in the usual way to guess the concealed object. Between two lines of baskets of wheat and of strings of corn ears lying on the ground was a watermelon in which a hole had been scraped as a place to hide the object to be guessed, which was the tin cover of a pot. The man stood next to koyemshi awan tachu, the woman on the other side of the man. The man according to rule had four guesses—then the woman would have been given four guesses—but the man appeared to guess right on his first guess, and awan tach handed him the melon.102
Notice Parson’s insertion in the above quote of her qualifier “appeared to guess right” as required by academia instead of “guessed right.” Even Cushing as early as 1897 briefly speaks of those Zunis who have the “Seeing Spirit” that gives them “the power of penetration into the unseen.”103 (Cushing gives no examples, but does include the qualifier “supposed to be endowed with the power…”)
Once taught, the Zuni children become deeply involved for long periods of time in playing guessing games involving their psychic vision.
The common form of this amusement is in one child guessing what another holds concealed in the closed hands. For this purpose beads of red, yellow, blue, black and white, are employed in the simpler tests. The Zuñis, even the quite little folk, very rarely miss guessing those correctly. They also attempt tests with other articles not distinguished by any particular color, resulting in almost equal success in guessing by the more expert and trained. An incident of a young squaw of highly developed psychic vision was one day presented to me. She had just arrived from another cliff-colony, and had never seen or heard a violin played. She consented to allow me to test her psychic powers by promise to play the “zindi” (violin) for her. I held concealed in one hand a key to my violin–box, and in the other hand a small watch, and grasped a number of small eagle feathers in both hands, allowing the feathers to stick out between my fingers, so as to be seen, and divert her vision. She walked around me once or twice, looking at my head, but not at my hands, then stood before me waving her hands, and shaking her head as if in disapproval of the display of feathers. Then she made at once a motion with one hand as if in the act of sticking a key into a keyhole of a violin box, then that of opening and throwing back a lid and then that of playing upon the instrument. I then opened my hand, when she picked out the little key among the bunch of feathers. The other hand, holding my watch, she described by holding her half-closed hand to her ear, saying—”Tuck, tuck, tuck, tuck,” indicating the ticking of a watch. She was greatly interested when I opened my watch and explained the works and the cause of its motion, as she had never seen a watch before.104
Thus it is that Troyer stands as the earliest professional anthropologist I’ve found to break the academic taboo and write the truth about Indian powers, even though disguised as a music lecture and published by a small music company press. Unlike Swanton, Troyer was not well-known and was not under any academic pressure to be silent at the time of his disclosure. He was not a professor and most of his publications were sheet music compositions, not ethnographic reports. Also, he was then seventy-six years old, and like Brigham and Swanton, at the end of his career. Thirteen years had passed since Cushing’s death. So I suspect Troyer felt an urge to publish his finding before his death. He passed over in 1920.
I have no doubt that if Carlos Troyer knew about the Zuni’s psychic abilities, then other anthropologists were talking among themselves about it as well. No doubt Troyer talked to Cushing about it upon his return from the Zuni. Also, there is a copy of his pamphlet in the Autry National Center (formerly the Southwest Museum of the American Indian) in L.A. that is inscribed to George Wharton James, the leading expert on Indian baskets and Navajo blankets at that time. So Troyer was most likely giving out copies of his pamphlet to other anthropologists. One clear candidate is Frederick Webb Hodge. He had recently become the Director of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology, thus holding the most prestigious anthropology position in the United States. However, back in 1879, he had served as a secretary on the Stevenson expedition to the Pueblos that included Cushing. So he not only knew Cushing, but later on he married Cushing’s sister. So there is a very good chance that Troyer also gave Hodge a copy of this publication, perhaps for nothing more than out of respect for his being Cushing’s brother-in-law. Finally, Francis Densmore, the leading American ethnomusicologist, mentions Troyer’s work on Zuni music in her coverage of 19th century Indian music studies.105 So she probably knew Troyer and read his pamphlet as well.
In all fairness I believe that most American anthropologists at that time simply didn’t believe in Indian medicine powers, especially if they had never had any field contact with medicine people. For that reason, when told about such mysteries by their informants, they simply chose to treat them as superstition rather than investigate the subject. Matilda Stevenson was aware that the Zuni believed in mental telepathy, and even mentions it as “heart speaks to heart, and lips do not move.”106 Obviously, she never bothered to investigate thoroughly their psychic powers as did Troyer, or choose to conceal her findings.
There are a number of European anthropologists who believed in medicine powers as well. For example, in 1931 French anthropologist Caesar de Vesme published an extensive work on primitive supernatural abilities. He was well aware that anthropologists, in general, rejected magic “because it upsets the theories on which they have based their reputation, or because admission would take them beyond the circle of their scholastic doctrine.”107 He included many accounts of supernatural abilities among primitive people world wide, including the North American Indians.108 Vesme not only believed in “supernormal facts,” he was certain that shamanistic systems were “of a scientific order.”109
I have heard of mental telepathy among Lakota elders. Wallace Black Elk told me of the time he was sitting in a room with several elders and everyone was communicating telepathically. No words were being spoken aloud. A young boy came into the room and sat down. He sat there for about five minutes, saying nothing, when he finally got up disgusted and left the room saying, “What’s the matter with you people? Everyone sitting around here saying nothing!” However, they were “talking.”
Ralph Castro, a Kaibab Paiute, could never figure out how his grandfather communicated with his San Juan relatives, who lived west of Bitter Springs near a “crossroad out in the middle of nowhere…I could never figure out how my grandfather communicated with them. There’s no phone out there, he doesn’t know how to write, but he would go out there, and they would be there waiting.”110 Although not common, one does find accounts of shamans communicating through mental telepathy.111
My view is simply this—the public has been misled by a false assumption that turned into a persistently held superstition, a taboo, whereby medicine powers are reduced to mere trickery. Those who have done field research among shamans know that medicine powers are efficacious. Common to all who practice such powers is the understanding that there is a science behind it and an art to it. In the next chapter I’ll begin with what is required of those who want to utilize such powers.