The Old Medicine Men — Who were they? What could they do?


Although I’ve been talking recently about survival methods and preparedness and other things like this, I thought we might take a break to go over another topic that is dear to my heart.  The medicine man.  Next blog I’ll get back on topic of survival, okay?

Medicine men, who were they?  What could they do?  What were they expected to do?  As you might suppose, the medicine man was of necessity connected (more than any other member of the tribe) to the spiritual side of life.  If a boy showed promise, he would be taken under the wing of the current medicine and and trained rigorously.  His training would consist of scouting skills, where he would be required to be able to trace the paths of ants and other small, as well as large life.  He would be expected to be able to walk amongst the enemy without detection.  This helped to develop the mind of the boy, who was also taught as a scout to be able to detect in the wild when there was another and foreign presence.  Some of these scouts could tell you from the changes in air currents, when there was a foreign presence entered into the landscape and when there wasn’t.  He was also expected to survive with what he might consider luxury in any environment — going into it with nothing but the shirt on his back.

Many are the stories of medicine men who went out alone into some of the most hostile (yet beautiful) environments, where he was expected to “make it go right” and to survive and survive well.  Once mastered, the boy went on to train his body, and he was expected to train his body hard.  He joined in with games, he ran distances that would stagger us even by today’s standards — he was expected to be able to run all day with nothing but water to refresh him, and to arrive calmly and not even be out of breath.  The theory was that one had to have control over not only one’s mind, but be in the most excellent physical condition, if he were to be able to connect with the spiritual realm.  Both mind and body could hold the spirit back, thus the emphasis on training.

As you might expect, this training might take many years.  But once the boy had a master over his mind, as well as his body, he was ready to develop the other side his nature, the spiritual side.  Some call it the realm of the soul, some say spirit.  It was not the same as what we now have come to think of as a spiritualist.  Rather, the boy was expected to go out into the world and to observe it, to pray, to fast, to commune with the Creator and all life.  He was carefully watched and trained by the medicine man, but he was often sent out to remote places, there to find out who he was in relation to the world at large.

I have read some interesting tales of some of these medicine men, and their near escapes from death before they were at last able to trust to their environment and to the Creator.  I know of no tragedies.  I have read of some strife before the boy was able to become into possession of the spiritual side of life.

But what could a medicine man do?  What were his strengths?  What was expected of him?

All tribes were different, so let’s examine one tribe that I have studied somewhat — I don’t profess to know all there is to know about this subject.  Heaven forbid!  In the Lakota tribes (the Sioux), it was believed that the medicine men had lived amongst those supernaturals beings or lore, the Thunders, before his birth.   Thus, boys were watched for by the medicine man who would show signs that would point to his being able to become a medicine man.  Within the Sioux tribe (as well as the Blackfeet tribe) the medicine man was expected to be able to cure the sick, to foretell events that were important to the tribe and/or to a war party, good or bad.

Visions were extremely important, and a medicine man was often called upon to “interpret” dreams.  He was also expected to know (and his training did encompass) a thorough knowledge of herbs.  For instance, one of my best friends from the Blackfeet tribe told me that her medicine man told her that there are no poisonous berries, etc, that taste sweet.  Therefore, if you taste a berry and it is sweet, chances are that it might be okay to eat.  Now don’t try this and hold me responsible for it — I’m just relaying information.  But I know that my friend used to go around LA tasting all kinds of things, until I kinda took her aside and told her how worried I was about her doing this.  But you know something, she was never harmed by going around in the wild and tasting these fruits.

Medicine men were often very handsome when they were young.  Imagine, they have been trained all their life into physical alertness, they have trained to act in the best interest of their tribe, they have schooled their mind so that they us their skills only for the good of the people, and not evil, and they kept their word of honor as though their life might depend upon it.    Ritual was highly important, because a ceremony done incorrectly was believed to bring bad luck.   A medicine man was also expected to do such things as set broken bones, take care of sprains or pulled muscles and he was expected to be able to attend to deep wounds.  This they did without flinching.  If you’re interested in learning more about the medicine man, I might refer you to a children’s book that you can check out at your local library called THE INDIAN MEDICINE MAN by Robert Hofsinde (Gray-Wolf).  It makes for easy, yet fascinating reading.  And for even more information, might I also suggest the book, GRANDFATHER, by…goodness I can’t recall his name right now.   I’ll try to get hold of it and post it on the comments.

So tell me, what observations have you had about these things — i.e., physcial fitness, strength of mind, spiritual awareness?  Have you made any observations about these things?  For instance, I workout almost everyday (about 6 days a week usually), and I notice little things, like my strength increasing, despite the tendency of the body to keep getting older every day.  At present I’m here in Florida at my church where I’m hoping to attain better awareness of myself as a spiritual being, etc.  What about you?  Do you have any experiences that you’d like to share with me and others?  I’d love to hear what you have to say about this.  Oh, and while I’m at it, isn’t Adam Beach dreamy?

So come on in and let’s talk.  I’d love to hear from you.  And don’t forget, if you haven’t already done so, to purchase a copy of THE LAST WARRIOR today.  Just click on the link below.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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38 thoughts on “The Old Medicine Men — Who were they? What could they do?”

  1. I still haven’t remembered the name of the fellow who wrote “Grandfather.” However, he also wrote the book, THE WAY OF THE SCOUT. Stay tuned. As soon as I remember, I’ll post that name.

  2. Karen so glad i came by and saw your post, enjoyed it very much as always. I’ve missed being on here, I’ve been very sick, yesterday i went to the doctor, and unfortunately my doctor didn’t resemble the medicine man you you posted unlucky me (I do LOVE your new guy posted) I have Bronchitis again and was prescribed 750 mg. of Levaquin for 5 days, I feel very sick from taking it, i feel it was to strong and don’t know what i can take for this cough. I was alarmed because i remember the article you sent me awhile back about this medicine, but i’m allergic to Penicillen and sulfer drugs so she had to put me on this. I feel like i need to call her back and tell her i need a lower dose. I hate having to take medicine like this but my brother died from pnuemonia (that’s what they speculate) so i’m kinda scared not to take it. Always love reading your post.
    You can tell you take care of yourself you’re a beautiful woman, remembered your picture on here from where your brother-in-law passed away. love ya, Lori

  3. Hi Karen! Great post. First, I want to say that I’m totally jealous that you work out 6 days a week, and now I need to take a page from your book – because I personally think it’s important to keep the body in good working order, not to mention looking good.

    I’m fascinated with the ways of the Medicine Man. In particular their focus on the tribe. For me it’s always been important to look at what I’m doing in relationship to how it effects others. I may not always succeed, but it’s certainly something I strive for.

  4. Hi Lori!

    Yes, please call your doctor and tell her what’s going on and see if there is another medicine that doesn’t make you sick. It bothers me that you’re taking something that is making you sick. The medicine shouldn’t do that — doctors have so many medicines at their finger tips that there must be one that won’t make you sick.

    I’m worried about you, Lori. Please do call her and tell her what’s going on. Okay? Let me know what happens. : )

    Thanks for your compliments, also, darlin’. Mean

  5. Hi Mary!

    It’s great to hear from you here. Yeah, I do workout 6 days a week. I’m not exactly a young chicky anymore and I honestly don’t know how else to keep my weight in check, but to workout. Sometimes, the weight shoots up there and I even have to add in an additional workout (a very short one) before I go to bed. Deep sigh.

    Mary, what you said really touched me. It’s so true — to try to take into consideration how your actions influence others. How insightful. If we all did, this might be a world of happiness, instead of a world of war and strife.

  6. That’s funny Karen I was just reading it and seeing i am on medication i was thinking Omm… maybe i’m just not getting it, so glad you cleared that up because i wouldn’t have figured it out on my own.
    I have nothing to gain by telling you this because this goes back to where i first started coming on here getting to know you. Even though i’ve never personally met you i feel like i’ve known you, and not only are you a gifted writter you are gifted as a person. People never realize how they touch someones life just by what they say to them. You are truley special! Thank You again xoxo

  7. Hi Kay,

    I’d always wondered about how Medicine Men came to be, were they chosen or did they decide they had the gift of insight?
    I consider myself a spiritual being too. I do believe in the power of oneself and being a positive thinker in most regards. Mostly, I guess I know what I want and feel it deep within, if that makes sense. Great post today!

    I hope you feel better! Sorry to hear about your recurring bronchitis. Take care!!

  8. Kay, I can never decide if you really want to talk about these subjects or are just trying to find words to separate the hotties you’ve got pictures of. 🙂

    Great info as always.

    I don’t think I’d have made it as a medicine man. Which begs the question…were there ever medicine WOMEN?

  9. Hi Kay, great post as always. And Lori, feel better okay?

    I really enjoyed learning about the medicine man. Did he do “women’s” medicine or was that always midwives etc.? Is it just the movies, or did women really just squat down behind a tree to give birth?

    I am a spiritual person; my faith helped me this year during some rough events, but I still can get very down about them. Boo. But I try! And seeing Adam Beach always makes the boo-boo better!

    Love ya, Kay. I need to work out tons more especially with a high school reunion coming up. Yikes. A long bike ride is on the plate this morning. I’ll be back later.

  10. Wow Lori!

    Thank you so much for your inspiring words. You have really touched my heart.

    But please do call your doctor — I bet there’s another medication out there that won’t make you sick. Stay in touch!

  11. Hi Charlene,

    Thank you for your insightfulness. I think it really shows, Charlene, that you are a spiritual person. I’ve noticed often that you come to others’ defense and you always have a kind word for someone — and it’s very clear that you feel these things deeply — they are not said just to say them.

    Thanks for your post.

  12. Mary, you made me laugh aloud! Yeah, maybe I just want to post those handsome pictures. I also love your use of the word “beg.” A different definition that I don’t usually use for that word.

    And yes, there were medicine women. In fact, in many of the tribes, it was the women who had knowledge of the herbal remedies. Now whether they went on to treat the ill as did the medicine men, I don’t have any knowledge of that — but when it came to herbal remedies, women often had more knowledge of that than the men. At least I think that’s right — if anyone out there knows differently, please correct me.

  13. Hi Tanya!

    It was always women who attended to women giving birth. Medicine men did have knowledge, however, of herbs that would naturally abort a child. I read that somewhere, but I don’t remember where just now.

    And yes, women did squat to give birth but not always behind a tree. If you think of it it makes sense, because if one squats, she has the pull of gravity to help her with the birth — it’s not all simply on her ability to “push.”

    Have fun on your bike ride!

  14. Hi, Karen! I loved this blog–great info! I’ve known medicine men were held in very high regard, but I never knew how hard they had to work to attain it.

    Which makes sense, tho. Nothing earned is nothing gained.

  15. Karen,

    Excellent subject that I’ve often wondered about. I mistakenly thought the apprentice had to be related somehow to the tribe’s medicine man. That it was a gift passed down through generations. And what happened to the apprentice? Did he just wait around in the background for the current medicine man to die before he could do the job?

    I’m definitely not in good physical shape. I’m far too lazy to exercise. I realize the importance of blending the mind and body into one. But lately they seem to be doing their own thing separately. lol

    You always have the most interesting subjects in your blogs. Take care.

  16. Hi Karen (Kay?) and everyone,
    I loved the post and reading all the comments. I think that spirituality and physical wellness and healing need to go hand in hand. This is something that indigenous cultures have always known, and that many of us are relearning.
    And just a comment about the 6 days of working out — I knew Karen way back when — and she has always had more energy than one person has a right to have.

  17. In my book Golden Days I did a ton of research on survival in Alaska in historical times.
    Finding what plants existed there and their use.
    It was so engrossing, one of those research topics that made it really hard to get to my book.

    And of course Alaska is so huge, it was really tricky to make sure the plants, animals, etc. were available in MY AREA of Nebraska.

  18. First of all, Lori Barnes, please feel better soon! We’re all hoping the best for you.

    Karen–what an amazing post. I had no idea that medicine men start their education by being scouts first. And what incredible athletes! You’re right–they must’ve been really handsome and in top form. Fascinating reading, thank you!

  19. Hi Linda!

    In some tribes, it was true that it was passed down father to son. But in the tribes that I’ve studied (the Lakota and the Blackfeet), boys were chosen based on the medicine man’s observation of them — I think that holds true for the Apache, as well.

    You know, when I was in my thirties, I realized that exercise was in my future, cause my mom and dad died rather early and I figured one way to head it off was exercise and so I got in the habit of it — and now I love it. I guess you just gotta start and keep at it for a while and then it’s a part of your life. It’s a good way for me to burn off steam, I must say.

    Thanks for your post, Linda.

  20. Hi Kathy!

    You know, Kathy didn’t mention that she is also an author with a book out right now and Kathy if you come back to the forum, please give it a plug.

    Kathy and I knew each other in high school. I remember the dances we used to go to and chorus and all kinds of things we used to do. And I bet you’re still as beautiful now as you were back then.

    Thanks for coming here today, Kathy!

  21. Hi Mary,

    Again, you bring up something that seems to be something I find hard at times, too. Research becomes so engrossing at time, doesn’t it? Sometimes I think the best thing about being a writer is the research.

    Love it! Your book sounds fascinating!

  22. Hi Kate!

    Thanks for your comments. I know, it is fascinating how much work went into the making of a medicine man.

    I think Linda asked a question I forgot to answer. The apprendice usually helped the medicine man until it was his time to take over. Sometimes tribes broke off into smaller bands and he might have gone with a smaller band, as well, or gotten married and moved to her band, etc. At least that’s what I think.

  23. Hi, Kay!

    I love your posts and love the guys posted! Gorgeous, all!

    I just came back from “walkies” with my huskies in the Colorado Rockies where we all rejuvenate ourselves every day when we’re out in the wild. Colorado is Ute country. I don’t profess to know much about the Utes other than to know there were 8 different Ute tribes, I believe. There are still signs of the Indians and the time when they called the mountains their home. It’s one of the reasons I love to hike in the forest. I feel their spirit all around me, still protecting the land.

    I’m not the most spiritual person in the world but I’ve come to believe, absolutely, in Mother Earth and the Native American claim and connection to Her. There are many hot springs in Colorado, one of which is nearby in Hot Sulphur Springs. I imagine the Utes when I’m there, taking their horses into the steamy, healing waters. At night, it’s easy to imagine the distant drums across the Divide. In the afternoon in Fraser, in the flats, it’s easy to conjure all of the kicked-up dust from the horses racing back and forth. The Utes, I’m told, loved to race their horses along the valley floor.

    Switching gears, did you ever see the film, Medicine Man, starring Sean Connery? It was filmed in South America with the Indians there, and the subject was fascinating. Modern machines crunching through the forests, killing the flowers, and the ants on them that could cure cancer … with Sean Connery-the medicine man-unable to stop the developers in time. Hmmmm, seems like some things don’t change.

    Hey, I think the fact that any of us are connected to YOU, whether by e-mail, snail-mail, or any other kind … helps us tap into our own inner spirit. Thank you for that and thank you for always reminding us that we’re a part of Mother Earth, and we must, all of us, take care of Her.



  24. Hi Joanne!

    What an enlightening post. Your neck of the woods sounds like a little bit of heaven to me.

    I never have seen that movie — probably because of the theme — sometimes these things bother me so much that I can’t function.

    It seems an ongoing battle between the spiritual — intangible — side of life and the more material side of life. The only thing I hope is that the intangible side of life wins. That doesn’t mean that all technology is bad.

    But there are good uses for things — those that promote more life and more growth and more happiness — and bad uses for things — those that promote less life, hardship and slavery. I think our Founding Fathers had it right when they said, “Freedom isn’t free,” or something to that effect.

    Have a super day, Joanne and thanks for your insights.

  25. Karen,

    Psychic vibes today, Karen! I’m right now studying about a Comanche medicine woman. I have one in my WIP and needed to discover some things about women in this “profession.”

    She uses Eagle feathers to waft cedar smoke over patients and she also uses peyote for various illnesses. Really interesting.

    I think Indian medicine is probably early spirituality. They lived on the land, as close to their gods as they could be. It’s a fascinating subject, Karen.

  26. Hi Joyce!

    Wow, that is fascinating. And she was a medicine woman, huh?

    You know, my chiro in LA talks about his mother from time to time (she was Mexican) and she was a healer…sort of like a medicine woman. But she had the ability from childhood forward.

    She used it only for good and to heal and boy, does he have some stories.

    Anyway, yes, it is a fascinating subject. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Hi Karen Kay 🙂

    First off when i looked at some of your books for the first time i was blown away!! it might not mean much to you but you are now in my top five best authors EVER !! Your books are truly inspiring, as well as interesting and entertaining.

    By the way, i couldn’t help but notice you made some references to some tribes. I was wondering, do you know any Cheyenne people ? I am looking for these two simple answers. Rehard a legend called ‘Deer-Woman’. Is there, or can there be more than one Deer-Woman, and, is there any way of killing or banishing a spirit. through legends i mean. I would be so greatful, but unfortunately, being a 17 year old, my sources are limited.

    Upon discovering your novels i have made is a personal mission to track them all down and add them to my collection 😉 my first money earned through my pay check will be paying one of your books 😉 hope that means something. Bye bye for now. Sincerely, Pamela. 😀

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