Manataka American Indian Council








By H. H. Smith, circa 1924


PART II - Medicines Overview


 Medicines, Foods, Fibers and Dyes





The history of medicines in Menomini lore is inextricably bound up with their religion. Very long and detailed stories were related to the writer by his guide and interpreter, Uncle John Satterlee, who is pleased to call the writer his nephew. Most of these stories have been printed in other publications by Dr. S. A. Barrett1 and Mr. Alanson Skinner2.


However, a brief review of the salient points of the origin of their medicines as related to the writer, is necessary to an understanding of the connection between  their medicines and their religion.   Mä'tc häwä'tûk, the creator of all and ruler over all, counseled with the other gods and supernatural spirits over the different spheres of the world concerning Mä’'näpus, the culture hero of the Menomini and other tribes. When Mä’'näpus became of age he was given the protection and guardianship of the earth. But Mä’'näpus was uninstructed in his duties and powers, so Mä'tc häwä'tûk and the other gods undertook to instruct him. Accordingly, Wolf was sent to his lodge as his younger brother. Mä’'näpus welcomed him and on the morrow Wolf hunted and brought home a deer to eat. The following day he did likewise, greatly pleasing Mä’'näpus. That night Mä’'näpus boasted to Wolf, saying that there were no other gods on that island3 (the earth), only the two of them. At this time, all the other spirits were not even hidden under the earth and they overheard Mä’'näpus. They reported to their chief who lay beneath them, and the lowermost tier of gods, the White Bear gods, said to the spirits above them to do whatever they desired, being assured of their assistance. 


At a council of the various spirits it was decided to kill Wolf. Mä’'näpus in his sleep overheard their decision and warned Wolf to be very careful. He was never to undertake to cross the "sea," or walk over it on the ice, and he must come home before the setting of the sun. The fastest runner of the underworld spirits was selected and instructed to make tracks to toll Wolf to follow him, and to show himself occasionally to lead and lure Wolf on. Wolf fell into the scheme by chasing him until sunset. Then he thought to run home as fast as he could, but could only see sky and ice in every direction. Knowing his brother's lodge was directly opposite, he decided to run across the ice, contrary to instructions. When he reached the center the ice broke and he was compelled to jump from cake to cake, which grew continually smaller.  Then he called out to Mä’'näpus to save him, but before Mä’'näpus could reach him, he had sunk. The following day Mä’'näpus searched all the mountains and caves, but to no avail. His grief at the loss of his little brother was so cataclysmal that it shook the earth and frightened the guilty spirits below.


The spirits of the first tier above besought the advice of Mä'tc häwä'tûk and on consultation with the guilty spirits, he advised them to make Mä’'näpus forget his loss by giving him the Mitä'wîn (Medicine Lodge Ceremony) and presenting him with some of their medicines and powers. Accordingly a long medicine lodge was erected and fashioned in the approved manner, between the earth and the highest tier of Heaven.  Duck Hawk was sent to bid Mä’'näpus to attend but was refused because he belonged to the spirits above. So Otter, Migîk, the white one, chief of the Otters, was sent and Mä’'näpus came to the lodge.


There he was initiated into the secrets of the medicine lodge, which is in many ways similar to Masonry, swallowed the sacred bead (mê'gisê) and was given his own medicine bag, thus becoming a "mitä'o" or member of the medicine lodge. In the medicine bag were all of the medicines, the uses of which were taught him, so that he in turn might teach his uncles and aunts (the Indians) how to use them and the purpose of each. He was given power over all the earth, excepting the evil spirits, which the gods informed him could not be destroyed, as they moved too swiftly. This Mä’'näpus found to be the truth.


The great spirits further aided and told Mä’'näpus that tobacco must be offered to them through Mä’'näpus before the prayers of the Indians would be answered. They told him of the different types of medicine bags and their powers. Some of the medicines which Mä’'näpus was to give were to be found in certain parts of animals, like the beaver, etc., and some were to be given from his own body. 


Then Mä’'näpus descended to the world from the medicine lodge and called Grandmother Nokomä (the earth) to his side. He had her examine the medicine bag and all the roots and medicines. Then he gave them to her to keep in charge. That is, she should allow them to grow in her body or bosom, and add her power to them. To this she agreed. After testing the gifts from the great spirits Mä’'näpus told Grandmother Earth that he would teach his uncles and aunts how to use them, in the coming spring. So when spring arrived, Mä’'näpus looked and saw all the medicines beginning to grow out of the Grandmother Earth, who had been asleep all winter. This meant that she also was ready. 


Mä’'näpus decided to appear personally to the Menomini and show them the ceremony first of all of all the tribes of Indians. So he went to a ridge running into the Menominee river (on the border of Wisconsin and Michigan)4, appearing to an old man. After he had convinced the old uncle that he was Mä’'näpus he instructed him to build the proper type of medicine lodge and have it ready in four days. Four is the sacred number of the Menomini. This the uncle communicated to his people, who erected the lodge in one day.


True enough, Mä’'näpus appeared on the fourth day and, after sending the younger members of the tribe back, initiated the elders into the "Mitä'win" or medicine lodge, demonstrating the uses of all plants and medicines and telling them the proper ceremonial form for addressing each medicine and for collecting it. It took four days to thus instruct them. The Menomini nowadays shorten the ceremony to two days, but say that the Potawatomi still adhere to the four-day ceremony. Since they have been taught that these medicines are very valuable, and that it would off end the various spirits to value them lightly, they guard the lore very jealously. Each remedy is highly prized and, though it may be for some trifling ailment, the patient must pay well for the information. Even when death is imminent, a person must pay an  exorbitant price to the owner, although the patient may be a close friend or even a relative. This explains the often outlandish value that is placed upon some simple formula. For only the song, which accompanies the digging of one of the simplest remedies, an old medicine man, Wîshonakwît, demanded two ponies and a rig. Yet not all of those who believe in the medicines are so grasping, for one of the Menomini, as a special favor, offered to sell the writer, for two dollars, the knowledge of the roots that go together to effect the cure of gonorrhea. He was quite put out when assured that the writer never had use for such a remedy, and suggested in that case that it would be a fine thing for his friends. 


There is a proper season for obtaining all medicines. It may, in some instances, be of only two or three days' duration. This the Indian knows and if he wants to save the remedy at the right time, nothing will distract -his attention from that work. A few years ago, a group of the Menomini were brought to the Wisconsin State Fair at West Allis, to exhibit Indian handicraft and native dress. One of their number discovered some prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) near the fair grounds, and the whole band immediately settled to the task of gathering the bark for medicine, much to the consternation of the fair authorities. When they remonstrated, the Indians told them that it was the right time to gather this, and here it was, so what else could they do?


An Indian can be as dense as a Chinaman, when he wants to be. From such observations as the writer could make, it appears that the proper time for gathering Menomini medicines coincides closely with the proper time of the white man for gathering native drugs. There are times when the drug properties are inert, and times when the medicinal ingredients are at their best, as, for instance, just before the plant blooms, or when the sap is first moving and the inner cambium layer of the tree is active in new growth. The Indian has learned to recognize these periods in his own way and proceeds accordingly. It may be surprising to the reader to also know that the Menomini have Indian names for certain species that have only been recently discovered as valid species by the white man.


Scientists who have worked on monographs of certain groups are now and then discovering specific differences that would subdivide a parent species, such as Amelanchier canadensis. The Menomini has from time immemorial given this new species of the white man a different Indian name from the parent A. canadensis, indicating that he recognized the differences in the tree long before we did. 


Undoubtedly many of their remedies are mythical insofar as any medicinal value is concerned, but they are not the only folk who "kid" themselves back to health. And, again, there are remedies of medicinal value which the white man has acquired from his Indian brother.


To acquire a complete list of all their medicines would require several years of intimate life with the Indians throughout the entire growing season, but we believe that this study in the past year has discovered a goodly percentage of at least the commoner medicines now in use among the pagans of the Menomini.


The procedure is much the same for all medicines. The diagnosis of the ailment is the first step. The medicine man or woman comes to see the patient and finds out where the pain is located, and how it was brought about. Then he goes home and at night he dreams about the case. A spirit tells him what is the matter, how it may be cured, and what herbs are needed. Oftentimes the medicine man, or even one uninitiated in medicine practices, will visit a spirit rock and leave his votive offering of tobacco on the rock with the prayer for light on some disease. 


After the diagnostic dream, the medicine man or woman goes to gather the herbs. When he finds the proper plant he starts to chant a song, telling Grandmother Earth why he has chosen this root or herb and how he intends to use it, at the same time asking that she lend her power to the medicine that it may heal. It is necessary to tell this to Grandmother Earth so that she may understand and not be displeased.


My informant gave me a specimen song, which translated means, "I am inserting my hand into your bosom, Grandmother Earth, to get this root." This is repeated four times, then the name of the medicine is spoken and Grandmother Earth is told what it is wanted for, that she may approve and lend her power to the herb. The Menomini words are "Nokomä nesase' konau" chanted four times, then followed by the interjections: "he, he, he, he," then the name of the medicine like "Wapinakakwosêt," the hop wafer ash, and then the disease it is to heal. Then he plucks or digs the plant from Grandmother Earth's bosom or pulls the hairs from her head as some have it. In the cavity, he places as a gift to Grandmother Earth a little portion of tobacco. 


When he has brought the ingredients together, he takes or sends them to the patient with proper directions for their use. In four days the patient should be well. If he is not, then the medicine man will have to try some more powerful medicine, or perhaps he will give instructions to continue this same medicine for a week or a month. When applying the remedy the same song for the herbs must be sung and the patient makes a gift when he is cured. This gift is whatever the treatment is worth in the mind of the medicine man, who is blessed with a vivid imagination and is not at all bashful. It is usually a quantity of cloth, tobacco, blankets, grain, hay, cooking utensils, or a cow or a horse. The medicine man or woman then tells the patient what it was that cured him, how it was combined, and what song to sing while gathering it.


There are also songs for the medicines when they are put into the war-bundles. Such a one was given as a sample in Satterlee's orthography. Verse: "Ah nomahwah yat katinnay ah wahtakutton," meaning, "those things we use are surely of God's power." Verse: "Ta ta kasamakutton anay koio ia," meaning, "powerful are the things we use." Verse: "Ali wah tok os kayes atah tata kasamakutton," meaning, "God said to us they shall be powerful."


Most Menomini remedies are combinations, because they feel that one herb represents one man and one man has only one unit of strength.


Then more herbs represent more strength and the medicine becomes more powerful with the increase in numbers. All are not of the same rank, some being more powerful than others of like kind. For instance, there are said to be twenty kinds of Colorado root, the most powerful being mäni'k (Ligusticum filicinum Wats.) which grows in the mountains of Colorado. The Menomini have a native younger brother and call it mänik’o'sa or little Colorado root (Taenidia integerrima).


The government takes cognizance of the Indian medicine man and is trying to wean the Indians away from his dominance. This succeeds only in the degree of confidence which the Indian places in the white doctor. The Menomini have, as their Reservation physician, Dr. Lawrence White, a man whom all love and appreciate, and he has been unusually successful in winning their confidence. Yet even some of the Christians, failing to get relief from the white doctor, will steal away to the medicine man or woman, sing the old pagan songs, dig the Indian remedies, and offer tobacco in the old pagan way. 


For example, a man at Neopit had a cancer on the cheek, and came to see the agency doctor, who told him it could not be cured except surgically. His Indian wife gathered some pisewa'xtîk (Cornus alternifolia) and by poultices of the inner bark, in some manner cured the cancer. Dr. White said this was a wonderful cure, and told the man that he would become famous if he would tell the remedy, so that others might be cured. But this is not the Menomini way and his secret cure will die with him.


Last summer, the writer was importuned by a Menomini to photograph his wife and himself. The reason the photograph was wanted, was because his wife had received a miraculous cure from the Indian doctor. He said that she had been dead six hours and fifteen minutes. Her heart did not beat nor did she breathe. The Indian doctor had brought her back to life, and he thought he would like to have her photograph for this reason.


So we see that superstition is not all dead among the Menomini and that many of their number still believe in their aboriginal remedies. These remedies follow alphabetically under their proper family names, except that cryptogams are placed before phanerogams.


 Medicines, Foods, Fibers and Dyes





EMAIL          HOME          INDEX          TRADING POST