There are a number of items in Native American culture that trappers adopted as a part of their tradition.  The medicine bag is one such example.  To the natives, the medicine bag, like the medicine stick, was something that had a very metaphysical basis for its form and content.  This item was kind of like any object a trapper finds and keeps in his camping area for luck, and for “good medicine.”    The following notes were pulled during my review of the various documents on trappers and fur trade medicine.




Medicines–Anglican-influenced Medicine Bag Contents

By far the most revealing thing about a medicine bag is its contents.  These sacred items provide important insights into the medicine man’s persona.  The contents of a medicine bag may be considered sacred, but are not always kept secret.    In some cases, the more you reveal about a particular medical item , the more you can impact (usually reduce) its value.  For example, the Native American medicine stick of  Iroquois origin I researched quite a few years ago has powers that some believe would be lost if a photograph was produced of that stick.  The illustrations on the medicine stick are fairly easy to interpret, but the overall meaning of these symbols combined is an example of the kind of inner most wisdom that may be kept secret, even though you know the contents of the medicine object.

For the medicine bag, the possibilities for revealing the contents and their meaning therefore have various levels of secrecy.  Those medicine objects that were recorded by Hudson Bay, the trappers, the explorers and some mountainmen, provide at least a little insight into this.

The following are Medicine Bag ingredients noted by Graham:

  • lumps of white sugar
  • grains of coffee
  • [black] pepper
  • allspice
  • cloves
  • tea
  • nutmegs
  • ginger, “and other things of this kind.”
  • numerous small papers

      –folded to contain the above, or as…small prints…each transformed into a talisman.

In a footnote in Graham’s book [p. 321] reference is made to Alexander Henry’s writings about some of the Spice Islands and West Indies herbs, and an English paper exchanges which took place.  [Travels and Adventures …by Alexander Henry, (Ed. Bain) p. 334-335.]  It notes that “If the testimony of the elder Henry is to be trusted, not all of the Company factors were content to trade ‘simple medicines’.  According to this story passed on to Graham, in 1776 Alexander Henry met a Chipewyan Indian who allowed him to inspect the medicines he had obtained the previous year at one of the Company posts (presumably Churchill).  He noted the following about the contents of this bag:

‘Accordingly, he brought a bag, containing numerous small papers, in which I found lumps of white sugar, grains of coffee, pepper, allspice, cloves, tea, nutmegs, ginger and other things of this kind, sold as specifics against evil spirits, and against the dangers of battle; as giving power over enemies, and particularly the white bear, of which the Indians of these latitudes are much afraid:–others were infallible against barrenness in women; against difficult labours; and against a variety of other afflictions.  In a second parcel, I found small prints; the identical ones, which, in England, are commonly sold in sheets to children, but each was here transformed into a talisman, for the care of some evil, or obtenation of some delight….'”

[A. Graham, 1767-91, (fn 1) pp. 321]

Medicine Bag

Alexander Graham gives us another description of the medicine bag contents he witnessed, this time based upon his first hand experience.  Symbolic objects are typically added due to their metaphysical powers.  To the Iroquois is was these corn masks and carved wooden faces that enabled conjurers to communicate with the other world.  In a number of trapper and explorer stories we learn about the value of an amulet, a piece of an animal, a shell, a bird’s claw, the bear’s paw, an animal skull, a set of antlers, the head of a bison.  In rituals these objects transform the user into someone with special powers or unique skills.  The bear’s paw and fat are used before a planned battle to assist the user in taking on the powers of that animal before going to war.  The head of the Bison might serve as a starting point for someone with shamanic skills to see into the future, or make contact with the white buffalo.  In northern territories, the possession of a narwhale tusk (which the Europeans interpreted as unicorn horns) gave the Inuit and Labradorans the means to learn about the “underground” and what we could call the epispatial or “higher up” forces of nature.  A simple feather, that stands still and then takes flight due to the wind might be a link to the ‘Great Spirit’ needed to conjure up a dust storm during an encounter (Geronimo’s trick?).  The head of a great crow and eagle in the Pacific Northwest could bear within them the face and image of “the old man of the woods,” with fair skin and probable Russian heritage (a typical coastal community belief of clans residing close to Sitka).

Henry’s description and writing about this piece of the story regarding ‘the Manitou Bag’ is crude and superficial, and not always complete or fully detailed, but it is accurate.

“Manitow, the god-bag.  Every married man has a bag or parcel covered with cloth, or fine-dressed deer skin, which is put into a case of birch-rind to keep off wet.  It is generally ornamented with paint, beads, or brass-tags.  It contains medicines for his family, beaver-teeth, bear’s claws, eagles-talons, the beautiful red foreheads of woodpeckers, and many other kinds of feathers.  These are held in veneration, and are usually presents from the old people to a young man in his nuptials; and partly of his own procuring.  Upon every increase of his family, something curious is always added to this cabinet; and if a child dies a piece of wood is cut with features of a face engraven and painted on it.  This is deposited as a relict or remembrances of the deceased.  This collection is always carried by the man when travelling; the woman dare not touch it, or look at the contents.  It is only opened at feasts, public meetings or conjuring.   N.B. I presented a manitow to the Edinburgh Royal Society, January 1787.”  [The editor refers the reader to Mackenzie’s Voyages…to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans, pp. 100-103.]

[A. Graham, 1767-91, pp. 164]

Medicine Bag

The writings on this refer to the “finding your guide or animal spirit” concept common to some traditions.  The spirits of the natural world usually focus first on animals, and then go to plants, in terms of some hierarchy that may be placed upon these objects.  When an individual is fully involved with the plant world, it is often assumed that there is either a past Indian who is influencing him or her, and/or some acts of nature that have resulted in this insight.  In the case of Inuit for example, a young lady who has the culturally-bound syndrome of Pibloqtoq usually recovers from this epilepsy-like condition experienced sometime between 10 and 30 years of age with the “gift of knowing”, and rights to practice for his/her people.  There is the possibility that other cultures have undergone a similar development in spiritual beliefs, related medical conditions to supernatural and natural spiritual forces, like the viewpoints of certain Mexican cultures, again on a condition very much like epilepsy, as a possible channel with the spirit world that some people experience.

There is also this very unique aspect of many childhood neuropsychological or purely psychological disorders that exists–disorders that statistically occur more frequently in the childhood years and then magically disappear by the time they reach 20 years of age (this is based on my own recent study of this syndrome and many others in a population of more than 80 million people, as individuals, not statistical overviews of their health).  Tics and Tourette’s syndrome are two excellent examples of these.  Of course, there are people with each that retain their conditions well into adulthood, but these individuals are very rare.  The majority of such cases exist in the young teen the young adult age period, a time when important  philosophies are developed in someone, and in the end, a decision is made as to what type of life to follow–one that is physically bound or one that is constantly transcending and going back and forth between the physical world and spirit world.

In D. Cameron’s writing, a description of a Conjuring or Medicine Bag is given, which included roots, barks, weeds, grasses, dyed quills, Swan’s down, and small bits of wood made into knick knacks of different shapes made according to what the Medicine Man had dreamt.   Roots and other medicines may have been bought from other Medicine Men.  Taken out of context, it is hard to assign meaning to the various ingredients.  As a collection of very important symbolic objects, each with its own unique purpose, or a collection of interwoven concepts and lines of reasoning used to formulate some logic to this collection at hand (such as the four colors, four direction, plus “fifth element” concept, or decision to have animals spirits of various forms and parts of the local ecology-air, earth, water and fire/natural physical forces, or decision to have examples of earth=crystals and mienrals, herbs=root. leaf, stem, bark, and animals-big and small, light and heavy, air and earth, and metaphysical world symbols=narwhale, a deformed Brown eyed susan flower head resembling a bison, etc, all to form a well integrated collection).

Cameron’s medicine pieces and contents are pretty much reviewed throughout this sheet, but see next entry for starters. 

[D. Cameron, 1804, II, 261]

Medicine Piece

“Every Indian has what they call his “medicine piece” of all the game he kills, such as the snout of the moose, the tongue and heart of the deer, the paws of the bear, and so on; this piece is always cooked by itself and ne female, young or old, ever dare taste it…They sometimes pay us with the great complement of bringing us such a piece, but they will then inform us of its sacred quality…”

[D. Cameron, 1804, II, 263]

Medicine Man/Medicine Bag

[Bradbury, p. 182]  “On account of my constant attention to plants, and being regularly employed in collecting, I was considered as the physician of the party by all the nations we saw; and generally the medicine men amongst them sought my acquaintance.  This day, the doctor, whom Mr. Brackenridge and I saw in the upper village, and who showed me his medicine bag, came to examine my plants.  I found he understood a few French words, such as bon, mal, &c.  I presented him with some small ornaments of silver, with which he appeared to be very much pleased, and requested me to go to his lodge and smoke with him.  When I entered, he spread a fine new buffalo robe for me to sit on, and showed me that it was a present, which he wished me to accept.  I smoked with him, and regretted much that he could only converse by signs, and he seemed also to feel the same regret.  He showed me a quantity of a plant lately gathered, and by signs informed me that it cured the cholic.  It was a new species of amorpha.”

[p. 132-3]  “I walked with Mr. Brackenridge to the upper village, which is separated from the lower one by a small stream.  In our walk through the town, I was accosted by the Medicine Man, or doctor, who was standing at the entrance of a lodge into which we went.  It appeared that one of his patients, a boy, was within, for whom he was preparing some medicine.  He made me understand that he had seen me collecting plants, and that he knew me to be a Medicine Man.  He frequently shook hands with us, and took down his medicine bag, made of deer skin, to show me its contents.  As I supposed, this bag contained the whole materia medica of the nation, I examined it with some attention.  There was a considerable quantity of reed mace, (typha palustris) which I understood was used in cases of burns or scalds; there was also a species of artemisia, common on the prairies and known to the hunters by the name of hyssop; but the ingredient which was in the greatest abundance, was a species of wall-flower: in character it agrees with cheiranthus erysimoides; besides these, I found two new species of astragalus, and some roots of rudbeckia purpurea.  After examining the contents of the bag, I assured the doctor it was all very good, and we again shook hands with him, and went into several other lodges, where we were very hospitably received.”

[Along the Cheyenne River in Northwestern South Dakota, with a tribe whose Head Chief was Le Gauche.]

Note the character differences between the attitudes of an Englishman, versus a Frenchman.  Bradbury, being of the latter, displays mild arrogance of his position with the Medicine Man.  This contrasts greatly with the lesser degree of arrogance portrayed by many French Canadians, especially voyageurs, adventureurs, and couriers du bois.  See notes of Hudson Bay’s Company Materia Medica, and other pages devoted to Trappers for more on this.

[J. Bradbury, 1809-11, p. 182, 132-133]

An Emollient Poultice is offered to James O. Pattie from a Medicine Man.  For six years, James Pattie travelled from St. Louis to Mexico City and Vera Cruz, and from there towards the Pacific Ocean.  The journey lasted from June 20, 1824 till August 30, 1830.

[J. Pattie, 1824-30, p. 165]

Medicine Bag/Medicine Wheel

Of “grandes medecines” or the medicine bag:  “similar to Jewish phylactery or Arab amulet, a charm for good or evil purposes.”

[W.M. Anderson, page 240, (Letter)]

      “a great medicine”

Anderson described a circle he saw which he teermed “a great medicine.”  In it a healing ceremony took place which he witnessed, leading to the following remark:

“This term I do not understand or appreciate.  Is it not a French misnomer?  The Indians do not, as far as I can learn, attribute medical qualities, physical or spiritual, to any wonder or extraordinary thing.  Yet all rare and unusual occurances each and every variation from nature, they are made to be called medicine.”

            See also pages 88, 151, 215 and 240.

                        [W.M. Anderson, 1834. p. 91]

Interpretation and Application

The philosophical interpretation of a medicine bag and its contents is the approach I have taken when covering this in my classroom.  There is a reason these objects are included in this sacred object, and a philosophy that is not normally revealed that much to any onlooker who happens to see its contents.

There is problem no single tradition to how these objects in the bag are found, gathered, used physically or metaphysically, and later replaced.  But there are some concepts that go into the reasons for their selections.  Some of the creators of these bags work in fairly physical ways to determine their ingredients, others rely upon tradition, others upon the  messages nature provides to them in the form of dreams, shamanic training, interpretations of their experiences in some other state of mind or “dimension of being”.   Whereas a medicine bag in the Northeastern setting may rely upon a particular set of plants and/or animal substances or objects, that produced in the Midwest will have another set of ingredients, and that in the Arctic parts of Canada yet another. 

How one experiences and interprets nature is what helps to form the first list of these ingredients.  With time, there will be other experiences and other objects of medicine that may have to be added to the medicine bag.  Just like shamans like Geronimo went through different periods in his life, so too do medicine men/shamans undergo life changing experiences several times over leading to the multiple lives many have had to live.   When the first Sun Dance was performed, when the first midewiwin took place near the Great Lakes, when the first Iroquois false face cermony was performed, when the first Kwakiutl mask was carved, there was no way to predict how long these traditions would last or undergo change in the upcoming centuries.  Whereas many of the most basic parts of these rituals remain intact, there are certain parts of these rituals that have undergone internal and external change.    Tradition is defined more by philosophy than by the details of the ritual processes.  So long as the activities of the rituals performed abide by the original purpose and philosophy by which they were born, their value and effects will probably remain intact and untouched by any forced of involuntary, subconscious changes we make as people in these processes–to better fit the requirements for the time and place these actions are taking place.

This is why a person using one set of herbs to produce medicine in the Northeast might change his or her entire ideology once he/she moves to a completely different natural setting.  As one ages, one’s metaphysical philosophy grows and one’s understanding of the physical nature of being becomes more complex.  With time, this makes the medicine bag one produces and carries more complex and more appropriate for whatever stage of life he/she is in.

When we look at the recollections and records that were kept of what was seen in the medicine bag by explorers and trappers and government officials, what we see are both their philosophical and personal impressions of the reason for these objects being considered medicines, with important insights into better understanding how the shaman who produced that object selected his or her contents.  We are provided a little insight into the thinking of that American Indian in terms of what defines an object and its contents as being medicinal.  If that medicine “man” (or woman) is young, we might see more emphasis on the physical world.  If that individual is much older, we have to interpret these objects first as being metaphysical, along with serving some sort of physical world purpose.  For the elders, it is tradition that makes these objects sacred.  For the young kid, it is the looks, smell, taste, and effects these things have on the body and one’s way of thinking or conceptualizing things.  This means that the same object in two medicine bags, one owned by a young leader, the other by a very old medicine man, will have different reasons for their inclusion.

So how might we interpret the objects in the medicine bag?

A lot of this is defined by how we interpret nature and spirit.  In the modern western setting, we interpret plants as having values primarily due to their chemical make-up.  We might add to this some metaphysical notions, using that to explain as well why they work.  But overall, we focus so much of such things as palatability, edibility, nutritional value and chemical-physiological value, that we exclude the much older metaphysically based premises that these medicines were once based upon.  We use the tortoise shell in ceremonies for reasons totally unrelated to its chemistry.  Likewise, the use of the antler, a bone, a feather, and piece of fur or curried leather, have nothing to do with the chemistry of that object.  We employ it in our ceremonies due to what it represents, as a symbol of something spiritual as well as a result of that spiritual-physical object like a deer, coyote, beaver, or bear.  This object is used to call up spirits, not administer to someone a particular class of chemicals.

When plants are used, it helps to understand the metaphysical background of that plant, which is the reason I spend so much time trying to see what was first written about these medicinal objects of nature, before the European concepts of science began to redefine what they were conceptualized to be by traditional societies.  The nature of Euro-American philosophy is to redefine the beliefs for the time such that they comply better with the European/Euro-american take on the physical world and life.  In this way, a four directions philosophy is redefined as the four humours–the first is one form of philosophical interpretation, the second a completely different way of conceptualizing nature and its balances or imbalances.   When the snakeroot remedy is interpreted in Native American tradition, it is the nature of the snake that is seen, not the chemistry of the snake or any effect of that chemistry of the snake.  The snake often has a venom, a unique chemical perhaps (or better stated, group of chemicals), but it was not the venom that the Indian philosophy focuses upon–it was the transfer of some power from the snake to the individual that the American Indian philosophy focused upon when treating those bitten by a snake. 

Over time, as I have mentioned in several places in my blogs, the non-indigenous physicians have transformed the philosophy of why a person becomes ill, from something like a bite, to something that makes more sense in European and Euro-american philosophy and tradition.  In this way the Black Snake root becomes the powerful menstrual herb, the Scullcap the powerful seizsure remedy and nerve tonic, and the Virginai Snakeroot, the strong tonic that Euro-american physicians employed it for.  For a very short time, they relied upon the Indian philosophical perspectivefor these plants, then changed this line of reasoning, and later better adapted it so it could be trasnformed into something that they interpreted as the best use for particular plants.  This “Transformation of Common Belief” concept that I have taught very much mimics the teachings of mythologist Joseph Campbell.  People and cultures have a habit of taking tradition, and reforming it to better fit their life’s requirements and philosophical paradigm. 

So too is how in the past, and especially today, medical botanists like to make their own claims about how and why a particular plant works.  If you are a botanist so engaged in such activities, the question to ask yourslef is are you grounded mostly in western physical world tradition and philosophy, or are you trying to incorporate the much older traditional philosophies into you paradigms as well when it comes to the use of plants for healing.

Thus the contents of the medicine bag are quite variable and their philosophies equally different, capable of stretching across all cultural paradigms.  In the end, it is the best traditions that you personally adhere to the most that these contents and their use must be based upon.  If you are in to animal spirits, you may add animal parts to the ingredients, if you are a crystal expert, then gems and minerals of specific values are added.  The medicine bag might also consist of just herbs, and like one of those described, may consist of seven herbs for mystical reasons realted to what those seven components of nature were to the medicine man using this set of ingredients.  Someone interested in four directions, may carefully choose just four herbal ingredients, or two sets of fours, one plant and the other some other form of object.  There are the aromatic (smell) qualities, the color, the taste, the feel, and the mind-sensed features of plants that might need to be considered.  The primary thing to keep in mind when someone is producing his/her listg of ingredients is all of this is based upon personal and cultural philosophy, tradition and experience.  Philosophy and experience continue to change throughout time, and so too do the contents of this type of ceremonial object.