Dakota Indian Doctors

When an Indian is sick and wants “the Doctor” as we say, or a medicine man, as they say, they call them also priests, doctors and jugglers, a messenger is sent for one, with a pipe filled in one hand, and payment in the other; which fee may be a gun, blanket, kettle or anything in the way of present. The messenger enters the wigwam (or teepee, as the houses of the Sioux are called) of the juggler, presents the pipe, and lays the present or fee beside him. Having smoked, the Doctor goes to the teepee of the patient, takes a seat at some distance from him, divests himself of coat or blanket, and pulls his leggings to his ankles. He then calls for a gourd, which has been suitably prepared, by drying and putting small beads or gravel stones in it, to make a rattling noise. Taking the gourd, he begins to rattle it and to sing, thereby to charm the animal that has entered the body of the sick Sioux. After singing hi-he-hi-hah in quick succession, the chorus ha-ha-ha, hahahah is more solemnly and gravely chanted. On due repetition of this the doctor stops to smoke; then sings and rattles again. He sometimes attempts to draw with his mouth the disease from an arm or a limb that he fancies to be affected. Then rising, apparently almost suffocated, groaning terribly and thrusting his face into a bowl of water, he makes all sorts of gestures and noises. This is to get rid of the disease that he pretends to have drawn from the sick person. When he thinks that some animal, fowl or fish, has possession of the sick man, so as to cause the disease, it becomes necessary to destroy the animal by shooting it. To accomplish this, the doctor makes the shape of the animal of bark, which is placed in a bowl of water mixed with red earth, which he sets outside of the wigwam where some young men are standing, who are instructed by the doctor how and when to shoot the animal.

When all is ready, the doctor pops his head out of the wigwam, on his hands and knees. At this moment the young men fire at the little bark animal, blowing it to atoms; when the doctor jumps at the bowl, thrusting his face into the water, grunting, groaning and making a vast deal of fuss. Suddenly a woman jumps upon his back, then dismounts, takes the doctor by the hair, and drags him back into the teepee. All fragments of the bark animal are then collected and burned. The ceremony there ceases. If the patient does not recover, the doctor says he did not get the right animal. The reader must be convinced that it is not for want of the most strenuous exertions on the part of the physician.

These are some of the customs of the Dahcotahs, which, however absurd they may appear to us, are held in sacred reverence by them. There are some animals, birds and fishes, that an Indian venerates; and the creature thus sacred, he dare neither kill nor eat. The selection is usually a bear, buffalo, deer, otter, eagle, hawk or snake. One will not eat the right wing of a bird; another dare not eat the left: nor are the women allowed to eat any part that is considered sacred.

The Sioux say it is lawful to take revenge, but otherwise it is not right to murder. When murder is committed, it is an injury to the deceased; not a sin against the Great Spirit. Some of their wise men say that the Great Spirit has nothing to do with their affairs, present or future. They pretend to know but little of a future state. They have dreamy ideas of large cities somewhere in the heavens, where they will go, but still be at war with their enemies and have plenty of game. An Indian woman’s idea of future happiness consists in relief from care.

“Oh! that I were dead,” they will often say, “when I shall have no more trouble.” Veneration is much regarded in all Indian families. Thus a son-in-law must never call his father-in-law by his name, but by the title father-in-law, and vice versa. A female is not permitted to handle the sac for war purposes; neither does she dare look into a looking-glass, for fear of losing her eyesight.

The appearance of a brilliant aurora-borealis occasions great alarm. The Indians run immediately for their guns and bows and arrows to shoot at it, and thus disperse it.

Dakota, Sioux,

Fort Snelling,

Eastman, Mary H. Dahcotah, Or Life and Legends of the Sioux around Ft. Snelling. New York: John Wiley. 1849.

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