The title “medicine man” has a certain suitability, because the French word for doctor is medecin, whereas the feminine medicine means “medicine” or more exactly “medicament”. The French for “medicine man” is guerisseur from guerir, “to cure”.
The English adoption of the term “medicine man” for “doctor” misses the point that the Indian “medicine man” might be a doctor, but probably wasn’t. More likely, he was the man who “made medicine” in the Indian sense on the eve of war or to seek enlightenment from his patron animal or the Great Spirit. It might be seeking a prophecy about the outcome or instruction concerning the manner of conduction the campaign, or finding game, or a lost child – any number of things.
“Making medicine” to the Indian meant something like “creating a favorable climate for whatever the band desired.” “Medicine” to the Indian meant ‘mystery’ or perhaps miracle”.
The word “shaman” is better than the name “medicine man”. It may be significant that the Oxford Dictionary defines shamanism as the religion of Siberian tribes involving belief in secondary gods and in the power of shamans or priests to influence them. Shaman is of Mongol origin. It is now expanded to cover men or women of magic anywhere in the world.
Some of the medicine men had resources beyond what Mackenzie related in his description of the Indians at Fort Fork in 1792-3. “They are afflicted,” he wrote, “with but few diseases and their only remedies consist in binding the temples, procuring perspiration, singing and blowing on the sick person or affected part.”
Between Mackenzie’s time (1792) and that of Dr. Pliny Earle Goddard (1914-16) the mingling of the Athapaskans with the Cree opened new knowledge. As middlemen between the Stoneys and the Sioux, who seem to have been extraordinarily endowed with powers of prophecy and war-skills, the Crees seem to have got something else to barter with besides furs and trade goods. In 1792 Peter Fidler wrote of a great camp near present-day High River, Alberta, where the Cree and Blackfoot met to trade. “The Cree are far from their own country but as they pretend to be great doctors and all the Blackfoot Indians believe it, they come here not only to get what skins they can from these Indians but for leaves, roots, etc., of their own gathering.”
The Blackfoot were famous horsemen and medicines for horses were important. Among the Blackfoot there was a cult of horse-doctors. The Cree would exploit their secrets, if possible to obtain them, and gain more power. The wandering Crees touched, and probably impressed all of the other tribes they met.
The following comments on and illustrations of the work of shamans were told to Dr. Goddard in 1914-16 by James Heber, a Dunvegan Beaver who was married to a Cree. “The Cree doctor themselves with roots they get out of the ground. The Beaver do not know that. Beaver used to have their own doctors but have quit. The Slavey still do it.”
An old man sang, drummed and danced to “see through the winter”. His wife said the next day [that] the old man looked through the winter. He says we shall lose a child.” They did. Whether the couple adopted a fatalistic attitude and allowed the child to die, without attempt to save it is not recorded.
Another example from Goddard’s notes:
“A Slavey woman died, she was not breathing anyway. Her son came and put his lips to her neck, blew and sucked hard. The woman’s abdomen went up high several times and she got her breath.”
(Mouth to mouth resuscitation?)
Heber’s “father, an old man, got so last fall that he could not pass his urine for two or three days. They gave him up. A Slavey came to visit his relatives. They asked him to go over to him. He held up a cup of water and talked. I do not know what he said. The man drank it and immediately went out and passed his water all right.”
Power of suggestion? White mothers have been known to toilet-train a youngster with a negative attitude by turning on the washbowl tap. The doctor said “I see you through the white strip as far as the black strip.” Heber explained that the white strip meant winter and the black strip summer.”
“The old man is still living.” (The Indians way of saying what a modern doctor would tell a depressed or neurotic patient, “Don’t give up! You’re going to get better all right.” Just good psychology?)
Then he gave the sick man a souvenir of his cure. “When you get there (to summer) keep the cup. Do not let anyone else drink out of it.” (White men carry a rabbit’s foot or a “lucky” coin or wear a religious medal “for luck”.)
If the Blackfeet purchased their knowledge of herbs from the Crees, the latter must have profited handsomely. A Range Ecologist of the Lethbridge Research Station, Department of Agriculture, Alex Johnston, has compiled a paper on the Blackfoot use of plants on the Northwestern Plains. One hundred and eighty-four plants are listed, some part of which was used for artifacts, food, dyeing, ornaments, or medicines. They were collected to be used fresh, or the leaves, fruits, roots or bark were dried for winter use.
Usually, writes Mr. Johnson, an infusion was made by boiling the herb with water, the resulting “tea” being administered only once, and usually in the morning. Generally only one plant was used at a time, although a “love potion” might be a mixture of a hundred and twenty to a hundred and thirty kinds. “Magic” rather than medicinal power must have been attributed here.
About some of the knowledge of herbal medicines there was no mystery – it was passed on from the elders to chosen young ones by those who were learned in the art. Women as well as men were initiated into the healing art. In other cases, where death seemed eminent, a parent, wife or husband would fast and pray themselves into a trance in which they would receive a revelation. This belief or custom is still practised among the Slaveys around Fort Nelson. In 1974 an interviewer spoke with a family whose son had returned to them apparently terminally ill with tuberculosis. In a dream, she said, the mother was directed to make an infusion of six different herbs and roots, one of which, from samples supplied, we identified as roots of mountain ash shrubs. Yarrow, and a mint which was not known by us were also identified from the samples. The young man, apparently in good health, was presented as proof of the “cure”.
We offer this with no suggestion or explanation.
“Medicine women” were in great demand especially as midwives. One of their practices was to dust the newborn, after washing, with the powder from the interior of a ripe puffball. The styptic quality for the stopping of bleeding may have been very useful for dressing the infant’s umbilicus.
“Granny Whitford” of the Fairview district achieved a reputation as a “medicine woman” who gave her talents unstintingly until she was very aged. She had been educated in a convent school, had had some experience as a practical nurse, and regularly assisted the medical doctor who eventually came to the area. However, her skill was partly native. A respected resident of Dawson Creek, Delmer Bright, tells of one of her cures. Mr. Bright had been to many professional doctors trying to get a large chronic ulcer on his leg to heal. One day “Granny” offered to treat it. She produced a black, gummy dressing or salve, which she bound on with instructions to keep the thick bandage on, because “if it got on the bedding it would never come out.” Skeptical, but willing to try anything, he obeyed. The ulcer healed, and never returned. Again — no comment!
When a shaman was called in dire cases, mysticism and medicaments combined to “make medicine”, which in many cases partook of magic. And always for a price! Those who desired the cure were obliged to make a valuable “offering” – apparently as proof of good faith. Thereupon the ceremony would begin – the opening of the shaman’s sacred “bundle”, the drumming, the singing, dancing, until the shaman went into a self-induced trance, in which he supposedly received a vision from his sacred animal-spirit. Sometimes he pretended to blow the evil spirit out of the afflicted one, or to suck foreign objects out of the unmarked skin, or do other feats of slight of hand, while the bystanders chanted, beat drums or shook rattles. On occasion he would produce some root or herb with instructions for use.
In an interview with an elder Cree woman who had been born in a tipi we heard of the numerous uses of a finger-sized shriveled root which she called “rat-root” “because the muskrats chewed it.”
When I was young girl, a man would give a horse for a piece this long”, – and she indicated the length of the last joint of the little finger. Followed a list of the ways it could be used: chewed and the saliva only swallowed, chewed and swallowed, powdered and made into an infusion, inhaled, burned alone and the smoke inhaled, or mixed with tobacco and burned. The ailments relieved ranged from “stomach flu” through bronchitis, sore throat and headache. Our curiosity was aroused.
Mrs. Beaudry told us that she knew of only one place where the root might be dug – near Grouard, growing in the swampy ground at the western end of the lake – “but not everywhere there.”
The six inches of root she gave the writer looked, with its evident leaf scars and rootlets, like the forearm-sized water lily rootstocks in miniature, – but many grass-like plants have rootstocks.
Then an old friend provided another clue. Many years ago with an Indian guide he had been seized with a violent stomach upset that threatened to call off the duck hunting in a reedy swamp area of a southern Alberta Lake. His guide pulled out a length of “rat-root” which he advised his client to chew. He didn’t say – “But don’t swallow it!” Within a few minutes, the throat-burning pulp had produced the desired effect – alleviated the distress but produced some side effects very well remembered. Our friend produced a similar root, which he had kept and used – with more discretion – for years. His Indian friend had shown him the plant in growth.
“I’ve looked for it ever since” he said. “The plant looks like a young cat-tail, but the whole plant has a scent, that, once smelled, you can never forget.”
The botany department, on examination of the root alone, could not help with identification. Then came a “break” – our researcher brought back from Grouard a quantity of the plant, in flower. Sure enough, the pleasant aroma, – rather like a mint – permeated and perfumed root and leaf, and suffused the whole room. A “hunch” suggested “sweet-flag” which used to be strewn on the floors of Old Country castles and churches. Thus came the identification Acorus calamus, confirmed at University of Alberta Botany Department.
Skeptical still of the alleged curative powers, we questioned our friendly pharmacist. Oh yes – it is in the pharmacopaeia, the druggists bible – “a perennial plant living in swamps in West Central U.S.A. – in East Asia and Western Europe, also in India, Ceylon and Indonesia.” (We have added a few more locations reported to me by Indians, – Onion Lake in Saskatchewan, Lac St. Ann near Edmonton, reedy lakes near Camrose, and the West end of Lesser Slave Lake, but not in Moberly or Saskatoon, Swan or Charlie Lakes. It was reported, without confirmation. near Fort Nelson. Those who know of it tend to keep the locations to themselves. Actually it may be quite wide spread.)
The valuable root is from one-half to one inch in diameter and up to several feet long.
It is known by many names: sweet flag, sweet root, cinnamon cane, myrtle root, calamus root, rhizoma calami, radix calami aromatica (Latin) calamus radix acori, ra d’acori vrai (French) and Kalmus (German) zitwer (Deutscher.)
Its aroma comes from an oil used in perfumes in Ceylon and as a vermifuge in India to expel parasite worms.
It is, when boiled, [said our pharmacopaeia,] also used as a tea to relieve flatulence or colic [intestinal gas with pain.]
The active ingredient is d-quercitol, or acoria sugar. 1.2 cc can be extracted from 100 grams of root.
When smoked it can produce depression. Some other effects are suggested.
“From its molecular structure, I would say,” said my druggist, “that when the smoke is inhaled, it should relieve headache.” He might have been quoting Mrs. Beaudry. I was able to tell him that a pellet of root in a cavity would stop toothache, courtesy of my Indian friend.
Perhaps a horse wasn’t too much after all, for an herb that was one of the favorite remedies of the Greek and Romans. Remembering that it belongs to the usually poisonous arum family, it might be well to be careful when experimenting with it.
Who taught the Indians? How many other secret medicines do they know?
Besides the coincidence of a single medicinal plant being known and used in similar ways in North America, Europe and Asia, there are other coincidences in shamanistic practices.
In 1966 Dr. Roderick Calverley observed a “curing” ceremony in the farthest jungles of Malaysia, among the aborigines. These are a primitive people, pushed back by invaders, and living until recent years almost untouched by civilization. Then an enlightened government set up health services for their exclusive use – a hospital, flying doctor and ambulance services, and free treatment. Most of the shamans were enlisted by calling them in for a crash course in “first aid” and recognition of common illnesses. The American doctors, (Care-Medico persons) provided each with the four standard drugs — sulpha, aspirin, quinine and penicillin — with instructions for use. The pills themselves were brightly coloured for identification. A two-way radio for communication with the hospital completed the shamans’ new “medicine bag”. But some refused to co-operate, or were missed because of isolation.
One night Dr. Calverley and his interpreter – assistant, Arafin, arrived by canoe at a very remote village where a ceremony was about to begin. The situation could have become a confrontation, but the “outsiders” were received as guests, given a seat of honour on a new mat spread for them in the “medicine house”, and allowed to witness the whole ceremony. The modern doctor was impressed with the fact that, but for the making and launching on the river of an exquisite little vessel to carry the “evil spirits” to the sea, he might have been in an Indian camp in Canada as described by the early explorers. The ritual of “sucking” the abdomen of a young girl to remove a huge growth was carried out, without success, but other “cured” people from former visits were on display and gave gifts of thankfulness.
In the morning the bedecked and masked shaman was gone – the orderly and doctor, after examining the same patient, cleared a helicopter landing spot, and arranged for evacuation to Gombak Hospital for surgery – ancient and modern “science” meeting in peace.