Posts Tagged ‘shaman’

All in the Blood

Thursday, March 13th, 2014
Chippewa Medicine Man, circa 1900, courtesy University of Minnesota, Duluth

Chippewa Medicine Man, circa 1900, courtesy University of Minnesota, Duluth

Older methods of curing illness often included bloodletting, the practice of purposely lancing a patient’s flesh in order to get blood flowing. Quantities extracted could be quite small or surprisingly voluminous, depending upon the individual doctor’s beliefs about its effectiveness. Many doctors nearly bled their patients to death, and this type of aggressive, “heroic” medicine fell out of favor during the nineteenth century.

The idea behind bloodletting was that the practice allowed the cause of an illness to get out of the body through the blood flow. Like other cultures around the world, Native Americans also believed in bloodletting. The Chippewa thought that doing so would remove “bad blood” and relieve a number of conditions. A shaman or other practitioner would make a small gash in the patient, with a knife or sharpened piece of porcelain. A gash in the elbow could treat a strained back or arm, while a small incision in the temple could treat headache or non-violent insanity.

Rather than being the traumatic experience many patients experienced at the hands of European or American doctors (who often took from 16 – 30 ounces of blood), Chippewa bloodletting only allowed about a teaspoonful of blood to escape. The small wound could then be closed by placing a poultice, chewed bark, or chewed tobacco over it.

Bloodletting Tool, circa 1850, courtesy Kansas Historical Society

Bloodletting Tool, circa 1850, courtesy Kansas Historical Society

Bloodletting, circa 1850

Bloodletting, circa 1850

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Medicine Women

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Blood Medicine Woman, Calgary, circa 1900

Native American women gathered herbs and created various healing preparations from them in probably every tribe. Some women had a special ability to heal, and became medicine women. Their knowledge went beyond the ordinary, and they devoted a considerable amount of time to perfecting their skills in recognizing and using herbs for curing illness and treating injuries. Women who were successful healers would be rewarded for their efforts with presents, food, and the like, and could become wealthy and respected within their tribes. Europeans were often astonished at how effective Native American medicines were in healing the ills of the day.

Some women went beyond healing with herbs and developed a deeper alliance with the spirit world. These women were differentiated as shamans; they studied under a practicing shaman and eventually took over her position. Shamans used the information passed on to them from their mentors, but also developed their own rituals, songs, or formulas for healing and for practicing other spiritual skills like interpreting dreams, finding buffalo herds, or calling out the wind. Their powers were mystical and magical, and though they could heal, they had a different role than medicine women.

Medicine Woman Seeking Solitude, 1915, courtesy Library of Congress

Menominee Medicine Woman

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