Practicing American Indian medicine the doctors’ ordinary methods of cure were dreams, beating of the drum, songs, magic feasts and dances, and howling to frighten the female demon from his patient.
Our special project presenting the definitive account of France in Canada by Francis Parkman, one of America’s greatest historians.
The Indian land of souls is not always a region of shadows and gloom. The Hurons sometimes represented the souls of their dead — those of their dogs included — as dancing joyously in the presence of Ataentsic and Jouskeha. According to some Algonquin traditions, heaven was a scene of endless festivity, the ghosts dancing to the sound of the rattle and the drum, and greeting with hospitable welcome the occasional visitor from the living world: for the spirit-land was not far off, and roving hunters sometimes passed its confines unawares.
Most of the traditions agree, however, that the spirits, on their journey heavenward, were beset with difficulties and perils. There was a swift river which must be crossed on a log that shook beneath their feet, while a ferocious dog opposed their passage, and drove many into the abyss. This river was full of sturgeon and other fish, which the ghosts speared for their subsistence. Beyond was a narrow path between moving rocks, which each instant crashed together, grinding to atoms the less nimble of the pilgrims who essayed to pass. The Hurons believed that a personage named Oscotarach, or the Head-Piercer, dwelt in a bark house beside the path, and that it was his office to remove the brains from the heads of all who went by, as a necessary preparation for immortality. This singular idea is found also in some Algonquin traditions, according to which, however, the brain is afterwards restored to its owner.
[On Indian ideas of another life, compare Sagard, the Jesuit Relations, Perrot, Charlevoix, and Lafitau, with Tanner, James, Schoolcraft, and the Appendix to Morse’s Indian Report.
Le Clerc recounts a singular story, current in his time among the Algonquins of Gaspé and Northern New Brunswick. The favorite son of an old Indian died; whereupon the father, with a party of friends, set out for the land of souls to recover him. It was only necessary to wade through a shallow lake, several days’ journey in extent. This they did, sleeping at night on platforms of poles which supported them above the water. At length they arrived, and were met by Papkootparout, the Indian Pluto, who rushed on them in a rage, with his war-club upraised; but, presently relenting, changed his mind, and challenged them to a game of ball. They proved the victors, and won the stakes, consisting of corn, tobacco, and certain fruits, which thus became known to mankind. The bereaved father now begged hard for his son’s soul, and Papkootparout at last gave it to him, in the form and size of a nut, which, by pressing it hard between his hands, he forced into a small leather bag. The delighted parent carried it back to earth, with instructions to insert it in the body of his son, who would thereupon return to life. When the adventurers reached home, and reported the happy issue of their journey, there was a dance of rejoicing; and the father, wishing to take part in it, gave his son’s soul to the keeping of a squaw who stood by. Being curious to see it, she opened the bag; on which it escaped at once, and took flight for the realms of Papkootparout, preferring them to the abodes of the living. — Le Clerc, Nouvelle Relation de la Gaspésie, 310-328.]
Dreams were to the Indian a universal oracle. They revealed to him his guardian spirit, taught him the cure of his diseases, warned him of the devices of sorcerers, guided him to the lurking-places of his enemy or the haunts of game, and unfolded the secrets of good and evil destiny. The dream was a mysterious and inexorable power, whose least behests must be obeyed to the letter, — a source, in every Indian town, of endless mischief and abomination. There were professed dreamers, and professed interpreters of dreams. One of the most noted festivals among the Hurons and Iroquois was the Dream Feast, a scene of frenzy, where the actors counterfeited madness, and the town was like a bedlam turned loose. Each pretended to have dreamed of something necessary to his welfare, and rushed from house to house, demanding of all he met to guess his secret requirement and satisfy it.
Believing that the whole material world was instinct with powers to influence and control his fate, that good and evil spirits, and existences nameless and indefinable, filled all Nature, that a pervading sorcery was above, below, and around him, and that issues of life and death might be controlled by instruments the most unnoticeable and seemingly the most feeble, the Indian lived in perpetual fear. The turning of a leaf, the crawling of an insect, the cry of a bird, the creaking of a bough, might be to him the mystic signal of weal or woe.
An Indian community swarmed with sorcerers, medicine-men, and diviners, whose functions were often united in the same person. The sorcerer, by charms, magic songs, magic feasts, and the beating of his drum, had power over the spirits and those occult influences inherent in animals and inanimate things. He could call to him the souls of his enemies. They appeared before him in the form of stones. He chopped and bruised them with his hatchet; blood and flesh issued forth; and the intended victim, however distant, languished and died. Like the sorcerer of the Middle Ages, he made images of those he wished to destroy, and, muttering incantations, punctured them with an awl, whereupon the persons represented sickened and pined away.
The Indian doctor relied far more on magic than on natural remedies. Dreams, beating of the drum, songs, magic feasts and dances, and howling to frighten the female demon from his patient, were his ordinary methods of cure.
The prophet, or diviner, had various means of reading the secrets of futurity, such as the flight of birds, and the movements of water and fire. There was a peculiar practice of divination very general in the Algonquin family of tribes, among some of whom it still subsists. A small, conical lodge was made by planting poles in a circle, lashing the tops together at the height of about seven feet from the ground, and closely covering them with hides. The prophet crawled in, and closed the aperture after him. He then beat his drum and sang his magic songs to summon the spirits, whose weak, shrill voices were soon heard, mingled with his lugubrious chanting, while at intervals the juggler paused to interpret their communications to the attentive crowd seated on the ground without. During the whole scene, the lodge swayed to and fro with a violence which has astonished many a civilized beholder, and which some of the Jesuits explain by the ready solution of a genuine diabolic intervention.
[This practice was first observed by Champlain. (See “Pioneers of France in the New World.” ) From his time to the present, numerous writers have remarked upon it. Le Jeune, in the Relation of 1637, treats it at some length. The lodge was sometimes of a cylindrical, instead of a conical form.]
The sorcerers, medicine-men, and diviners did not usually exercise the function of priests. Each man sacrificed for himself to the powers he wished to propitiate, whether his guardian spirit, the spirits of animals, or the other beings of his belief. The most common offering was tobacco, thrown into the fire or water; scraps of meat were sometimes burned to the manitous; and, on a few rare occasions of public solemnity, a white dog, the mystic animal of many tribes, was tied to the end of an upright pole, as a sacrifice to some superior spirit, or to the sun, with which the superior spirits were constantly confounded by the primitive Indian. In recent times, when Judaism and Christianity have modified his religious ideas, it has been, and still is, the practice to sacrifice dogs to the Great Spirit. On these public occasions, the sacrificial function is discharged by chiefs, or by warriors appointed for the purpose.
[Many of the Indian feasts were feasts of sacrifice, — sometimes to the guardian spirit of the host, sometimes to an animal of which he has dreamed, sometimes to a local or other spirit. The food was first offered in a loud voice to the being to be propitiated, after which the guests proceeded to devour it for him. This unique method of sacrifice was practised at war-feasts and similar solemnities. For an excellent account of Indian religious feasts, see Perrot, Chap. V.
One of the most remarkable of Indian sacrifices was that practiced by the Hurons in the case of a person drowned or frozen to death. The flesh of the deceased was cut off; and thrown into a fire made for the purpose, as an offering of propitiation to the spirits of the air or water. What remained of the body was then buried near the fire. — Brébeuf, Relation des Hurons, 1636, 108.
The tribes of Virginia, as described by Beverly and others, not only had priests who offered sacrifice, but idols and houses of worship.]
Among the Hurons and Iroquois, and indeed all the stationary tribes, there was an incredible number of mystic ceremonies, extravagant, puerile, and often disgusting, designed for the cure of the sick or for the general weal of the community. Most of their observances seem originally to have been dictated by dreams, and transmitted as a sacred heritage from generation to generation. They consisted in an endless variety of dances, masqueradings, and nondescript orgies; and a scrupulous adherence to all the traditional forms was held to be of the last moment, as the slightest failure in this respect might entail serious calamities. If children were seen in their play imitating any of these mysteries, they were grimly rebuked and punished. In many tribes secret magical societies existed, and still exist, into which members are initiated with peculiar ceremonies. These associations are greatly respected and feared. They have charms for love, war, and private revenge, and exert a great, and often a very mischievous influence. The societies of the Metai and the Wabeno, among the Northern Algonquins, are conspicuous examples; while other societies of similar character have, for a century, been known to exist among the Dahcotah.
[The Friendly Society of the Spirit, of which the initiatory ceremonies were seen and described by Carver (Travels, 271), preserves to this day its existence and its rites.]
– The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century Introduction by Francis Parkman
This was North American Indian Medicine.
The below is from Francis Parkman’s Introduction.
If, at times, it may seem that range has been allowed to fancy, it is so in appearance only; since the minutest details of narrative or description rest on authentic documents or on personal observation.
Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them, he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.
With respect to that special research which, if inadequate, is still in the most emphatic sense indispensable, it has been the writer’s aim to exhaust the existing material of every subject treated. While it would be folly to claim success in such an attempt, he has reason to hope that, so far at least as relates to the present volume, nothing of much importance has escaped him. With respect to the general preparation just alluded to, he has long been too fond of his theme to neglect any means within his reach of making his conception of it distinct and true.