The Choctaw Rainmaker

The Choctaws had several classes of dignitaries among them who were held in the highest reverence: The Medicine Man or Prophet, the Rain Maker, the Doctor a veritable chip of Esculapius. Well indeed did each fill his allotted position in life, and faithfully discharge the mystic duties appertaining thereunto, both in their own opinion as well as that of their people. The Choctaws Materia Medica, like all their race, was Nature, herbs and roots furnishing their remedies both externally and internally; and the success with which they used those remedies proved their knowledge of the healing properties of the various herbs and roots” in which their extensive forests abounded. They had a specific for the, bite of the sintullo (rattle snake). Their doctors relied much on dry cupping, using their mouth alone in all such cases. Oft have I witnessed the Choctaw physician, east of the Mississippi river, administering to the necessities of his suffering patient through the virtues found in the process of dry-cupping; Stretching the sufferer upon a blanket spread upon the ground, he kneeled beside him and began a process of sucking that part of the body of which the patient complained, or where, in his own judgment, the disease was located, making a guttural noise during the operation that reminded one of dog-worrying an opossum; at different intervals raising his head a few inches and pretending to deposit into his hands, alternately in the one and the other, an invisible something which he had drawn from his patient, by a magic power- known alone to himself.

After sucking a sufficient length of time to fill both hands, judging from the frequent deposits therein made, with great apparent dignity and solemn gravity, this worthy son of Esculapius arose and stepping to the nearest tree, post, or fence, wiped the secret contents of his apparently full hands thereon; then with an air of marked importance walked away to the enjoyments of his own reflections, while the sufferer, in real or fancied relief, acknowledged the efficacy of the physicians healing powers by ceasing to complain, turned over and sought forgetfulness in the arms of refreshing sleep. If there ensued a change for the better he claimed the honor and praise as due the noble profession of which he recognized himself a worthy and important member; but if the disease proved stubborn and refused to yield to the medicinal virtues of his herbs, roots and dry-cupping, he turned to his last resort the Anuka, (Hot-house.) This edifice, an important adjunct in all Choctaw villages, was made of logs rendered nearly airtight by stopping all cracks with mortar. A little hole was left on one side for an entrance. A fire was built in the center of this narrow enclosure, and soon the temperature within was raised to the desired degree, then the fire was taken out and the patient instructed to crawl in; which being done, the little opening was closed. As a matter of course, the patient must bake or sweat; which, however, resulted in the latter; and when, in the opinion of the Alikchi, (doctor) he had undergone a thorough sweating, the entrance was opened, and the patient bidden to come forth; who, upon his exit, at once runs to the nearest water into which he plunged head first; but if not of sufficient amount and depth for the correct performance of that ceremony to its fullest extent, he ducks his head into it several times, thus making practical the wholesome theory of the hygienist: “Keep your head cool, but your feet warm.” In case of common intermittent fever, the efficiency of this mode of proceeding-(the sweat and cold bath) was truly astonishing, seldom failing to effect a cure.

But if the patient died ah, then with that shrewdness peculiar to all quacks the world over, he readily found a cause upon which to base his excuse for his inefficacy to effect a cure; differing somewhat, however, from his white brother alikchi, who attributes the cause of his failure to innumerable “where-as-es and ifs,” while he openly acknowledged and emphatically declared the interposition of a hat-tak holth-kun-na (witch), which counteracting the beneficial virtues of his remedies, had caused the death of his patient by thus placing him beyond the reach of mortal skill, nothing more nor less. Sometimes, for the sake of variety, he attributed the death of his patient, if occurring very suddenly, to an Ish tulbih (witch ball) shot from an invisible rifle in the hands of a witch. At this important juncture of affairs, it now becomes his duty to find the witch that he, she, or it, may be brought to pay the penalty of the law in all such cases death. As a matter of course, the doctor, not very scrupulous in the matter of shifting the blame from his own shoulders to that of another so natural to all mankind easily found a witch in the person of some attenuated bid woman, whom he designated as the guilty party, and who consequently was immediately slain by the relatives of the deceased; an illustration of which I have already given in the case of the unfortunate Il-lich-ih.

In the matter of rain, the Choctaw Rainmaker truly swayed the sceptre of authority in that line of art, undisputed and was regarded with reverential awe by his people, in all cases of protracted drouth, which was quite frequent at an early day in their ancient domains, the Hut-tak Um-ba Ik-bi, (man rain maker) was regarded as the personage in whom alone was vested the power to create rain; therefore to him they went with their offerings and supplications, the former, however, partaking more of a persuasive nature than the latter, in the judgment of the Umba Ikbi, as an effectual means to bring into requisition his mysterious power in the matter of rain. He without hesitation promised to heed their solicitations, but gently hinting that, in his judgment, the offerings were not in as exact ratio to their importunities as they should have been. However, he now assumes an air of mysterious thoughtfulness and, “grand, gloomy and peculiar wrapped in the solitude of his own imagination,” strolled from village to village, gazing at the sun by day and the stars by night, seeming to hold communion with the spirits of the upper worlds; finally he ventured his reputation by specifying a certain day upon which he would make it rain. The day arrived, and if haply came with it a rain the faith of his dupes was confirmed, his mystic power unquestioned, and the Umba Ikbi made comfortable. But if otherwise, he did not as the Alikchi, attribute his failure to the counteracting influence of a witch in the person of an old woman, but to that of a brother Umba Ikbi living in some remote part of the nation, with whom he was just then at variance. He now informs his unfortunate but not faith less people that an Umba Ikbi’s mind must be free of all contending emotions while engaged in the mystic ceremonies of rain making; that he was now angry, too much mad to make it rain. Upon which announcement, the now despairing people earnestly solicited to know if they, in any way could assuage his wrath. Pie replied in the negative; but promised, however, to consider the matter as soon as his anger abated. He now became more reserved; sought solitude where undisturbed he might scan the sky and per chance discern some sign of rain. Sooner or later, he discovers a little hazy cloud stretched along the distant western horizon;, attentively and carefully watches it as broader and higher it ascends, until he feels sure he can safely risk another promise; then leaves his place of secret and thoughtful meditation, and, with countenance fair as a summer morn, presents himself before his despairing people and announces his anger cooled and wrath departed; that now he would bring rain without delay, yet dropping casual hint as to the efficacy of a coveted pony, cow, blanket, etc., being added, as a surer guarantee, since “the laborer was worthy his hire.” The hint was comprehended and fully complied with in hopeful expectation. Anon the low muttering thunder vibrates along the western horizon in audible tones, and the lightning flash is seen athwart the western sky heralding the gathering and approaching storm; soon the sky is overcast with clouds of blackest hue while the lightning s flash and the thunder s roar seem to proclaim to the people their wonderful Umba Ikbi’s secret power in the affair of rain; and, as the vast sheets of falling water wet the parched earth they sing his praise; which he, with assumed indifference, acknowledged with an approving grunt; then, with measured steps, sought his home, there to await another necessity that would call him forth to again deceive his credulous admirers. But all such delusions soon vanished before the teachings of the missionaries.

In connection with this peculiar one of the Choctaws, I will here relate an incident that took place during a great drouth that prevailed in their Nation soon after the establishment of the mission called Hebron.

The Rain Maker had long been appealed to through supplications and fees, but all in vain; and it seemed that the stubborn drouth had united! With more than one distant brother Umba Ikbi in rendering his present worship prodigiously mad, not only with them but also with himself and the world in general, as his ears seemed deaf to all appeals upon the subject of water. Since wells and cisterns were luxuries then unknown to the Indians, they depended upon their rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds, which seldom failed to supply. Amid the prevailing gloom an aged Choctaw widow named Im-ai-yah (to go by) living two miles south of Hebron, came one day, as she oft had done before, to talk with her pale-face friend, Mrs. Cushman, concerning the drouth. She soon stated that she believed there would be plenty of rain in a few days. When asked upon what she based her belief, she replied: “On my way here this morning, I sat down at the roots of a large tree; while sitting there these thoughts came to me. Our Rain Maker cannot make it rain, or he would. If he can make it rain, why should not I be able to make it rain too? Why should not anyone? Then I asked myself; who made this big tree? Somebody made it, and he who made it surely can make it rain too. I know he can; and I will ask him to please make it rain very soon. I then kneeled down at the roots of that big tree and earnestly prayed to him who made the big tree to please make it rain; and while I was praying a little cloud formed directly over the tree, and a little shower fell and many of the drops of water, passing through the leaves of the tree, fell on me. I know now who can make it rain.” “Who?” earnestly asked the deeply interested pale-face listener. “He who made that tree. Is he your God of whom you have told me?” “He is,” replied the poor widow’s pale-face friend and spiritual teacher. But I will leave the further conversation that ensued between the two red and white friends to the imagination of the reader, with this only: No two women were more devoted friends, the one to the other, than were the poor Choctaw widow and the “pale-face” missionary. But what of that prayer at the roots of that “big tree?” It was heard and answered by the Maker of that “big tree;” who has said, “I will not bruise the broken reed nor quench the smoking flax.” Yes, in a few days, an abundance of rain fell; yea, more. From that time the mystic power of the Umba Ikbis began to wane, and soon vanished as a summer dream from the Choctaw Nation. And he who cannot believe that Israel’s God heard the humble request of that earnest petitioner, and did not then and there acknowledge its virtue in the little shower of rain, and in a few days answer that prayer of faith by an abundant shower, is thrice welcome to his unbelief.


Choctaw, Medicine,

Cushman, Horatio Bardwell. History Of The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, Texas: Headlight Printing House. 1899

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