Blackfeet Medicine Pipes and Healing

The person whom the whites term “medicine man” is called by the Blackfeet Ni-namp’-skan. Mr. Schultz believes this word to be compounded of nin’nah, man, and namp’-ski, horned toad (Phrynosoma), and in this he is supported by Mr. Thomas Bird, a very intelligent half-breed, who has translated a part of the Bible into the Blackfoot language for the Rev. S. Trivett, a Church of England missionary. These gentlemen conclude that the word means “all-face man.” The horned toad is called namp’-ski, all-face; and as the medicine man, with his hair done up in a huge topknot, bore a certain resemblance to this creature, he was so named. No one among the Blackfeet appears to have any idea as to what the word means.

The medicine pipes are really only pipe stems, very long, and beautifully decorated with bright-colored feathers and the fur of the weasel and other animals. It is claimed that these stems were given to the people long, long ago, by the Sun, and that those who own them are regarded by him with special favor.

Formerly these stems were valued at from fifteen to thirty head of horses, and were bought and sold like any other property. When not in use, they were kept rolled up in many thicknesses of fine tanned fur, and with them were invariably a quantity of tobacco, a sacred whistle, two sacred rattles, and some dried sweet grass, and sweet pine needles.

In the daytime, in pleasant weather, these sacred bundles were hung out of doors behind the owners’ lodges, on tripods. At night they were suspended within, above the owners’ seat It was said that if at any time a person should walk completely around the lodge of a medicine man, some bad luck would befall him. Inside the lodge, no one was allowed to pass between the fireplace and the pipe stem. No one but a medicine man and his head wife could move or unroll the bundle. The man and his wife were obliged always to keep their faces, hands, and clothing painted with nits’-i-san, a dull red paint, made by burning a certain clay found in the bad lands.

The Ni-namp’-skan appears to be a priest of the Sun, and prayers offered through him are thought to be specially favored. So the sacred stem is frequently unrolled for the benefit of the sick, for those who are about to undertake a dangerous expedition, such as a party departing to war, for prayers for the general health and prosperity of the people, and for a bountiful supply of food. At the present time these ancient ceremonies have largely fallen into disuse. In fact, since the disappearance of the buffalo, most of the old customs are dying out.

The thunder is believed to bring the rain in spring, and the rain makes the berries grow. It is a rule that after the first thunder is heard in the spring, every medicine man must give a feast and offer prayers for a large berry crop. I have never seen this ceremony, but Mr. Schultz was once permitted to attend one, and has given me the following account of it. He said: “When I entered the lodge with the other guests, the pipe stem had already been unrolled. Before the fire were two huge kettles of cooked sarvis berries, a large bowlful of which was soon set before each guest. Each one, before eating, took a few of the berries and rubbed them into the ground, saying, ‘Take pity on us, all Above People, and give us good.’

“When all had finished eating, a large black stone pipe bowl was filled and fitted to the medicine stem, and the medicine man held it aloft and said: ‘Listen, Sun! Listen, Thunder! Listen, Old Man! All Above Animals, all Above People, listen. Pity us! You will smoke. We fill the sacred pipe. Let us not starve. Give us rain during this summer. Make the berries large and sweet. Cover the bushes with them. Look down on us all and pity us. Look at the women and the little children; look at us all. Let us reach old age. Let our lives be complete. Let us destroy our enemies. Help the young men in battle. Man, woman, child, we all pray to you; pity us and give us good. Let us survive.’

“He then danced the pipe dance, to be described further on. At this time, another storm had come up, and the thunder crashed directly over our heads.

“‘Listen,’ said the medicine man. ‘It hears us. We are not doing this uselessly’; and he raised his face, animated with enthusiasm, toward the sky, his whole body trembling with excitement; and, holding the pipe aloft, repeated his prayer. All the rest of the people were excited, and repeatedly clasped their arms over their breasts, saying: ‘Pity us; good give us; good give us. Let us survive.’

“After this, the pipe was handed to a man on the right of the semi-circle. Another warrior took a lighted brand from the fire, and counted four coups, at the end of each coup touching the pipe bowl with the brand. When he had counted the fourth coup, the pipe was lighted. It was then smoked in turn around the circle, each one, as he received it, repeating a short prayer before he put the stem to his lips. When it was smoked out, a hole was dug in the ground, the ashes were knocked into it and carefully covered over, and the thunder ceremony was ended.”

In the year 1885, I was present at the unwrapping of the medicine pipe by Red Eagle, an aged Ni-namp’-skan since dead. On this occasion prayers were made for the success of a party of Piegans who had started in pursuit of some Crows who had taken a large band of horses from the Piegans the day before. The ceremony was a very impressive one, and prayers were offered not only for the success of this war party, but also for the general good, as well as for the welfare of special individuals, who were mentioned by name. The concluding words of the general prayer were as follows: “May all people have full life. Give to all heavy bodies. Let the young people grow; increase their flesh. Let all men, women, and children have full life. Harden the bodies of the old people so that they may reach great age.”

In 1879, Mr. Schultz saw a sacred pipe unwrapped for the benefit of a sick woman, and on various occasions since he has been present at this ceremony. All accounts of what takes place agree so closely with what I saw that I give only one of them. Mr. Schultz wrote me of the first occasion: “When I entered the lodge, it was already well filled with men who had been invited to participate in the ceremony. The medicine man was aged and gray-headed, and his feeble limbs could scarcely support his body. Between him and his wife was the bundle which contained the medicine pipe, as yet unwrapped, lying on a carefully folded buffalo robe. Plates of food were placed before each guest, and after all had finished eating, and a common pipe had been lighted to be smoked around the circle, the ceremony began.

“With wooden tongs, the woman took a large coal from the fire, and laid it on the ground in front of the sacred stem. Then, while every one joined in singing a chant, a song of the buffalo (without words), she took a bunch of dried sweet grass, and, raising and lowering her hand in time to the music, finally placed the grass on the burning coals. As the thin column of perfumed smoke rose from the burning herb, both she and the medicine man grasped handfuls of it and rubbed it over their persons, to purify themselves before touching the sacred roll. They also took each a small piece of some root from a little pouch, and ate it, signifying that they purified themselves without and within.

“The man and woman now faced each other and again began the buffalo song, keeping time by touching with the clenched hands the right and left alternately the wrappings of the pipe, occasionally making the sign for buffalo. Now, too, one could occasionally hear the word Nai-ai’ 1 in the song. After singing this song for about ten minutes, it was changed to the antelope song, and, instead of touching the roll with the clenched hands, which represented the heavy tread of buffalo, they closed the hands, leaving the index finger extended and the thumbs partly open, and in time to the music, as in the previous song, alternately touched the wrappers with the tips of the left and right forefinger, the motions being quick and firm, and occasionally brought the hands to the side of the head, making the sign for antelope, and at the same time uttering a loud ‘Kuh’ to represent the whistling or snorting of that animal.

“At the conclusion of this song, the woman put another bunch of sweet grass on a coal, and carefully undid the wrappings of the pipe, holding each one over the smoke to keep it pure. When the last wrapping was removed, the man gently grasped the stem and, every one beginning the pipe song, he raised and lowered it several times, shaking it as he did so, until every feather and bit of fur and scalp hung loose and could be plainly seen.

“At this moment the sick woman entered the lodge, and with great difficulty, for she was very weak, walked over to the medicine woman and knelt down before her. The medicine woman then produced a small bag of red paint, and painted a broad band across the sick woman’s forehead, a stripe down the nose, and a number of round dots on each cheek. Then picking up the pipe stem, which the man had laid down, she held it up toward the sky and prayed, saying, ‘Listen, Sun, pity us! Listen, Old Man, pity us! Above People, pity us! Under Water People, pity us! Listen, Sun! Listen, Sun! Let us survive, pity us! Let us survive. Look down on our sick daughter this day. Pity her and give her a complete life.’ At the conclusion of this short prayer, all the people uttered a loud m-m-m-h, signifying that they took the words to their hearts. Every one now commenced the pipe song, and the medicine woman passed the stem over different parts of the sick woman’s body, after which she rose and left the lodge.

“The medicine man now took a common pipe which had been lighted, and blew four whiffs of smoke toward the sky, four toward the ground, and four on the medicine pipe stem, and prayed to the Sun, Old Man, and all medicine animals, to pity the people and give them long life. The drums were then produced, the war song commenced, and the old man, with a rattle in each hand, danced four times to the door-way and back. He stooped slightly, kept all his limbs very rigid, extending his arms like one giving a benediction, and danced in time to the drumming and singing with quick, sudden steps. This is the medicine pipe dance, which no one but a pipe-owner is allowed to perform. Afterward, he picked up the pipe stem, and, holding it aloft in front of him, went through the same performance. At the conclusion of the dance, the pipe stem was passed from one to another of the guests, and each one in turn held it aloft and repeated a short prayer. The man on my right prayed for the health of his children, the one on my left for success in a proposed war expedition. This concluded the ceremony.”

Disease among the Blackfeet is supposed to be caused by evil spirits, usually the spirits or ghosts of enemies slain in battle. These spirits are said to wander about at night, and whenever opportunity offers, they shoot invisible arrows into persons. These cause various internal troubles, such as consumption, hemorrhages, and diseases of the digestive organs. Mice, frogs, snakes, and tailed batrachians are said to cause much disease among women, and hence should be shunned, and on no account handled.

Less important external ailments and hurts, such as ulcers, boils, sprains, and so on, are treated by applying various lotions or poultices, compounded by boiling or macerating certain roots or herbs, known only to the person supplying them. Rheumatic pains are treated in several ways. Sometimes the sweat lodge is used, or hot rocks are applied over the place where the pain is most severe, or actual cautery is practised, by inserting prickly pear thorns in the flesh, and setting fire to them, when they burn to the very point.

The sweat lodge, so often referred to, is used as a curative agent, as well as in religious ceremonies, and is considered very beneficial in illness of all kinds. The sweat lodge is built in the shape of a rough hemisphere, three or four feet high and six or eight in diameter. The frame is usually of willow branches, and is covered with cow-skins and robes. In the centre of the floor, a small hole is dug out, in which are to be placed red hot stones. Everything being ready, those who are to take the sweat remove their clothing and crowd into the lodge. The hot rocks are then handed in from the fire outside, and the cow skins pulled down to the ground to exclude any cold air. If a medicine pipe man is not at hand, the oldest person present begins to pray to the Sun, and at the same time sprinkles water on the hot rocks, and a dense steam rises, making the perspiration fairly drip from the body. Occasionally, if the heat becomes too intense, the covering is raised for a few minutes to admit a little air. The sweat bath lasts for a long time, often an hour or more, during which many prayers are offered, religious songs chanted, and several pipes smoked to the Sun. As has been said, the sweat lodge is built to represent the Sun’s own lodge or home, that is, the world. The ground inside the lodge stands for its surface, which, according to Blackfoot philosophy, is flat and round. The framework represents the sky, which far off, on the horizon, reaches down to and touches the world.

As soon as the sweat is over, the men rush out, and plunge into the stream to cool off. This is invariably done, even in winter, when the ice has to be broken to make a hole large enough to bathe in. It is said that, when the small-pox was raging among these Indians, they used the sweat lodge daily, and that hundreds of them, sick with the disease, were unable to get out of the river, after taking the bath succeeding a sweat, and were carried down stream by the current and drowned.

It is said that wolves, which in former days were extremely numerous, sometimes went crazy, and bit every animal they met with, sometimes even coming into camps and biting dogs, horses, and people. Persons bitten by a mad wolf generally went mad, too. They trembled and their limbs jerked, they made their jaws work and foamed at the mouth, often trying to bite other people. When any one acted in this way, his relations tied him hand and foot with ropes, and, having killed a buffalo, they rolled him up in the green hide, and then built a fire on and around him, leaving him in the fire until the hide began to dry and burn. Then they pulled him out and removed the buffalo hide, and he was cured. While in the fire, the great heat caused him to sweat profusely, so much water coming out of his body that none was left in it, and with the water the disease went out, too. All the old people tell me that they have seen individuals cured in this manner of a mad wolf’s bite.

Whenever a person is really sick, a doctor is sent for. Custom requires that he shall be paid for his services before rendering them. So when he is called, the messenger says to him, “A presents to you a horse, and asks you to come and doctor him.” Sometimes the fee may be several horses, and sometimes a gun, saddle, or some article of wearing-apparel. This fee pays only for one visit, but the duration of the visit is seldom less than twelve hours, and sometimes exceeds forty-eight. If, after the expiration of the visit, the patient feels that he has been benefited, he will probably send for the doctor again, but if, on the other hand, he continues to grow worse, he is likely to send for another. Not infrequently two or more doctors may be present at the same time, taking turns with the patient. In early days, if a man fell sick, and remained so for three weeks or a month, he had to start anew in life when he recovered; for, unless very wealthy, all his possessions had gone to pay doctor’s fees. Often the last horse, and even the lodge, weapons, and extra clothing were so parted with. Of late years, however, since the disappearance of the buffalo, the doctors’ fees are much more moderate.

The doctor is named I-so-kin-[)u]h-kin, a word difficult to translate. The nearest English meaning of the word seems to be “heavy singer for the sick.” As a rule all doctors sing while endeavoring to work their cures, and, as helpers, a number of women are always present. Disease being caused by evil spirits, prayers, exhortations, and certain mysterious methods must be observed to rid the patient of their influence. No two doctors have the same methods or songs. Herbs are sometimes used, but not always. One of their medicines is a great yellow fungus which grows on the pine trees. This is dried and powdered, and administered either dry or in an infusion. It is a purgative. As a rule, these doctors, while practicing their rites, will not allow any one in the lodge, except the immediate members of the sick man’s family. Mr. Schultz, who on more than one occasion has been present at a doctoring, gives the following account of one of the performances.

“The patient was a man in the last stages of consumption. When the doctor entered the lodge, he handed the sick man a strip of buckskin, and told him to tie it around his chest. The patient then reclined on a couch, stripped to the waist, and the doctor kneeled on the floor beside him. Having cleared a little space of the loose dirt and dust, the doctor took two coals from the fire, laid them in this place, and put a pinch of dried sweet grass on each of them. As the smoke arose from the burning grass, he held his drum over it, turning it from side to side, and round and round. This was supposed to purify it. Laying aside the drum, he held his hands in the smoke, and rubbed his arms and body with it. Then, picking up the drum, he began to tap it rapidly, and prayed, saying: ‘Listen, my dream. This you told me should be done. This you said should be the way. You said it would cure the sick. Help me now. Do not lie to me. Help me, Sun person. Help me to cure this sick man.’

“He then began to sing, and as soon as the women had caught the air, he handed the drum to one of them to beat, and, still singing himself, took an eagle’s wing and dipped the tip of it in a cup of ‘medicine.’ It was a clear liquid, and looked as if it might be simply water. Placing the tip of the wing in his mouth, he seemed to bite off the end of it, and, chewing it a little, spat it out on the patient’s breast. Then, in time to the singing, he brushed it gently off, beginning at the throat and ending at the lower ribs. This was repeated three times. Next he took the bandage from the patient, dipped it in the cup of medicine, and, wringing it out, placed it on the sick man’s chest, and rubbed it up and down, and back and forth, after which he again brushed the breast with the eagle wing. Finally, he lighted a pipe, and, placing the bowl in his mouth, blew the smoke through the stem all over the patient’s breast, shoulders, neck, and arms, and finished the ceremony by again brushing with the wing. At intervals of two or three hours, the whole ceremony was repeated. The doctor arrived at the lodge of the sick man about noon, and left the next morning, having received for his services a saddle and two blankets.”

“Listen, my dream ” This is the key to most of the Blackfoot medicine practices. These doctors for the most part effect their cures by prayer. Each one has his dream, or secret helper, to whom he prays for aid, and it is by this help that he expects to restore his patient to health. No doubt the doctors have the fullest confidence that their practices are beneficial, and in some cases they undoubtedly do good because of the implicit confidence felt in them by the patient.

Often, when a person is sick, he will ask some medicine man to unroll his pipe. If able to dance, he will take part in the ceremony, but if not, the medicine man paints him with the sacred symbols. In any case a fervent prayer is offered by the medicine man for the sick person’s recovery. The medicine man administers no remedies; the ceremony is purely religious. Being a priest of the Sun, it is thought that god will be more likely to listen to him than he would to an ordinary man.

Although the majority of Blackfoot doctors are men, there are also many women in the guild, and some of them are quite noted for their success. Such a woman, named Wood Chief Woman, is now alive on the Blackfoot reservation. She has effected many wonderful cures. Two Bear Woman is a good doctor, and there are many others.

In the case of gunshot wounds a man’s “dream,” or “medicine,” often acts directly and speedily. Many cases are cited in which this charm, often the stuffed skin of some bird or animal, belonging to the wounded man, becomes alive, and by its power effects a cure. Many examples of this might be given but for lack of space. Entirely honest Indians and white men have seen such cures and believe in them.Citations:

  1. My shelter; my covering; my robe.[]

Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1892.

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