Conjuring Among the Menomini Indians
By Walter James Hoffman
The following are excerpts from Walter Hoffman’s report on the Menomini Indians of Northern Minnesota found in the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1892-1893. This almost 300 page report contains a detailed discussion of the ceremonies and ritual magic of the shamans among the Menomini and other tribes. The author was invited to attend several initiation ceremonies to the Mitawit or Grand Medicine Society. He also discussed reports on ritual magic among different Indian tribes.
(Editors note: The initiation ceremonies to the Grand Medicine Society took place in a medicine lodge or wikomik. This oblong structure was about 70 feet long and 20 feet wide, with a doorway on each end. The participants set along to walls as shown in the accompanying photo. Well into the last day of the ceremony, the following demonstrations took place.)
Again the candidate and his friends returned to their seats, while the drum was carried by the usher to the third group of medicine men, seated on the opposite or southern side of the inclosure. They, in regular order, used the drum and chanted, reciting personal exploits in shamanistic practices and boasting of their powers in exorcism, and the value and efficacy of plants employed by them in certain specified affections. At each chant the candidate approached the singer and stood reverentially before him until the song was ended, when he returned to his seat. Finally, the drum was returned to the chief group of medicine men, the chief officiating one then announcing that the coming portion of the ceremonies would be of an especially important and sacred character, and at the same time reminded his associates that care and deliberation should be exercised in the performance of their duties and services. As other announcements of interest to the members may be made at this stage of the ceremonies, Shunien informed the late arrivals of the purpose of my admission into the society. He also stated that several well-known members who were jugglers, or tshisaqka, would perform tricks to impress the audience with the powers possessed by these men.
During a short interval of smoking, in which most of the medicine men participated, one man retired to arrange for the exhibition of his trick. In a few moments he returned to the western entrance of the inclosure, and stood there for an instant until a confederate could approach him to assist. The performer held before him a red flannel bag which measured about 20 inches in width by 30 in. depth. Along the top of the opening of the bag were attached fluffy white feathers. The upper corners were held by the hands so as to spread out the bag like a single piece of goods. Then taking the bag between his hands, he rolled it into a ball to show the beholders that there was nothing within. Again taking one of the upper corners in each hand, the per former held the bag once more before the face like a banner, and as he began to dance slowly forward along the southern side of the inclosure, his confederate preceded him, dancing backward, chanting with the performer, and making various gestures before the bag. Presently two snake heads began to emerge from the top of the bag, and gradually became more and more exposed to view, until their bodies protruded perhaps 6 inches. Slow1y the heads retreated into the bag, until the performers had turned at the eastern end of the inclosure and were approaching the group of chief medicine men, when the singing increased in tone and time, and the snakes again emerged, only to disap pear in the bag by the time the perform ers arrived at the point of starting. The principle performer then doubled up the bag, put it in the breast of his coat and left the wikomik, while the assistant returned to his seat.
That the trick had made a profound impression on the audience was apparent, and silence reigned everywhere. Although seemingly complex, the whole construction of the interior of the bag became apparent as the performer reached a position between myself and the sunlight. The bag was not fully stretched out, and between the corners held by the thumb and forefinger of each hand was visible a strip of cloth or tape, to the middle of which were attached the ends of the stuffed snakes. These ends were only about 8 inches long, and as the tension upon the tape was lessened, the weight of the snakes’ bodies forced them down into the bag. The heads and necks emerged through loops, made of pieces of calico, just large enough for those members to slide through easily.
Another medicine man then came forward to exhibit his skill in jugglery. His trick consisted in making some small wooden figures of human beings to dance. Sitting flat on the ground in the middle of the inclosure, he stretched out his legs, when an assistant threw across them a woolen blanket. Two small wooden effigies, about 4 inches in height, were then placed first in a standing posture, but subsequently extended on their backs, at the side of the blanket opposite the performer. After a little manipulation, as if adjusting the blanket and figures, the assistant seated himself on the side opposite to and facing the operator. Both then began to chant, very softly at first, but soon reaching higher and shriller notes, when, in accordance with the rhythm, the figures began to move, very slightly at first, but gradually apparently rising higher and higher until they were almost vertical, thus seeming to dance to the song of the juggler and his con federate. It was pretended that the operator had sufficient power to cause the figures to dance, the motion being caused by the operator’s manido, or tutelary daimon, whose aid could be invoked after proper fasting and chanting. This performance lasted but a very short time, and as the song was concluded, the assistant quickly arose, grasped the figures, and put them into a small flannel bag, while the operator carefully folded up his blanket and returned to his seat.
It was observed that the movement of the figures was produced by threads connecting them with the operator’s great toe. During the adjustment of the blanket and figures by the assistant the principal reached beneath the blanket and removed his moccasins so as to be able to utilize the threads already attached to them. The other end was secured to the wooden figures by means of a small ball of spruce gum.
The chief event of the afternoon’s performances, however, was yet to come. Kimean, a juggler of renown, was to do a very wonderful trick; in fact, he pretended to make a bear’s claw stand upright on the polished surface of a small mirror, and then to cause the claw to hung to the same surface while the mirror was turned toward the earth. Perfect silence prevailed in the medicine wikomik as Kimean arose and approached the eastern middle of the inclosure. Taking from his medicine bag a small, round, old-fashioned pocket mirror, he held it up so as to give everyone an opportunity of satisfying himself that there was nothing mysterious apparent; turning around in every direction, he then produced the claw of a black bear, which he grasped about the middle and held up toward the audience. Then, while slowly and softly chanting, he gradually brought the mirror, which was in his left hand, to a level before him, then slowly brought the claw down to the surface of the mirror, stood it up on end and left it there, while he continued to turn in every direction, so as to exhibit the trick, at the same time pretending to take great care lest the claw fall over. In a few moments he stooped a little lower, and with a quick movement of the left hand turned the glass so as to place the claw in the position of being suspended from the glass, without any visible means of support or attachment to the mirror. Turning round and round, carefully watching the magic claw, he quickly swung his hand over on its back so as again to bring the mirror surface uppermost. The claw was then removed and the glass put back into the medicine bag, but not quickly enough to deceive at least one of the spectators, for the spot of resin which had held the claw was observed. The resin had previously been placed on the end of the claw, where its presence was visible only under careful inspection..
This trick had great effect on the audience, and gave additional notoriety of the powers of the old juggler.
Notes on the Ceremonies
Many others of the members present at the Mitawit ceremonies were credited with the power of performing tricks as various kinds, but only three, already referred to, could be induced to exhibit their skill.. The Indians invariably claim that such tricks can be performed only through the intervention of manidos, who must first be invoked by fasting and the making of gifts. The sweat bath must also be taken by these prestigiators previous to such attempts at invocation. The ability of a medicine man to excel another in juggling is believed to be due to the fact that his “medicine” ” is the stronger. By the expression “medicine” is usually meant the power reputed to be possessed by a man’s fetish or charmed object adopted after his first fast to typify his tutelary daimon, or so-called guardian mystery.
The Menomini Indians relate some curious tales of wonderful feats performed by medicine men and medicine women in the olden time, when greater faith was placed in the manidos, and when people had the power to obtain “stronger medicine.” One exploit referred to by the Menomini was later on also described by an Ottawa chief; as the incident occurred at a meeting of the Ottawa medicine society in Michi gan, at which a number of medicine men from other tribes were present, because the Honorable Lewis Cass had also intimated his desire to wit ness the dance. The ceremonial had progressed with unflagging interest until toward the close of the day, and as Mr Cass is said to have observed an old Ojibwa medicine woman, who had come up at each dance to actively participate in the exercises, he asked someone near by why this old woman took such an active part, as she appeared rather uninteresting and had nothing to say, and apparently nothing to do except to shake her snake-skin medicine bag. The woman heard the remark and became offended, because she was known among her own people as a very powerful mitakwe. In an instant she threw the dry snake-skin bag toward the offender, when the skin became a live serpent which rushed at Mr Cass and ran him out of the crowd. The snake then returned to the medicine woman, who picked it up, when it ap peared again as a dry skin bag.
In an account of the life and customs of the Indians of Canada in 1723, found in the archives of France by the Honorable Lewis Cass, while minister to that country , the narrator says:
“They perform a thousand tricks of magic, pretending they can bring back dead animals to life, cause an otter to run across the lodge, or a bear to walk there. They do this by means of young girls and noises that are apparently underground. With an arrow they pretend to stab the naked body of a man, To show the blood flowing, they lay upon the supposed wound, very adroitly, the juice of a red root. The arrow has its stem so made that when it strikes the body, instead of entering it, it slides within itself. The pretended wound is rubbed with a salve composed of roots, and by this means the injured man is cured upon the spot. This is done to prove the virtue of their medicines. They cure gun-shot wounds in the same way, before the whole tribe. But, in truth, the ball is made of earth, rubbed over with lead, which they break in pieces in the barrel of the piece as it is driven down.”
The tricks accredited to the wabeno (note: Men of the Dawn) are numerous, and often exceedingly romantic. The following performance is said to have occurred at White Earth, Minnesota, in the presence of a large gathering of Indians and mixed bloods. Two small wigwams were erected, about 50 paces from each other, and after the wabeno had crawled into one of them his disparagers built around each of the structures a continuous heap of brush and firewood, which was then kindled. When the blaze was at its height all became hushed for a moment. Presently the wabeno called to the crowd that he had transferred himself to the other wigwam, and immediately, to their profound astonishment, crawled froth therefrom unharmed.
Carver gives a description of a Killistino, or Cree, juggler’s performance, which will further illustrate the method of procedure as followed by this division of the Algonquian peoples. The narrator had been expecting the arrival of the traders, as provisions were getting very low, and, while in a state of anxiety, the “chief priest” of the tribe said he would endeavor to obtain a conference with the Great Spirit, and thus ascertain when the traders would come. Carver says:
“I paid little attention to this declaration supposing that it would be productive of some juggling tricks just sufficiently covered to deceive the ignorant Indians. But the king of that tribe, telling me that this was chiefly undertaken by the priest to alleviate my anxiety, and at the same time to convince me how much interest he had with the Great Spirit, I thought it necessary to restrain my animadversions on his design.
The following evening was fixed upon for this spiritual conference. When everything had been properly prepared, the king came to me and led me to a capacious tent, the covering of which was drawn up, so as to render what was transacting within visible to those who stood without. We found the tent surrounded by a great number of the Indians, but we readily gained admission, and seated ourselves on skins laid on the ground for that purpose.
In the centre I observed that there was a place of an oblong shape, which was composed of stakes stuck in the ground, with intervals between, so as to form a kind of chest or coffin, large enough to contain the body of a man. These were of a middle size, and placed at such a distance from each other that whatever lay within them was readily to be discerned. . . . In a few minutes the priest entered, when, an amazingly large elk’s skin being spread on the ground just at my feet, he laid himself down upon it, after having stripped himself of every garment except that which he wore close about his middle. Being now prostrate on his back, he first laid hold of one side of the skin and folded it over him, and then the other, leaving only his head uncovered. This was no sooner done than two of the young men who stood by took about 40 yards of strong cord, made also of an elk’s hide, and rolled it tight round his body, so that he was completely swathed within the skin. Being thus bound up like an Egyptian mummy, one took him by the heels and the other by the head and lifted him over the pales into the inclosure. I could now also discern him as plain as I had hitherto done, and I took care not to turn my eyes a moment from the object before me, that I might the more readily detect the artifice, for such I doubted not but that it would turn out to be.
The priest had not lain in this situation more than a few seconds when be began to mutter. This he continued to do for some time, and then by degrees grew louder and louder till at length he spoke articulately; however, what he uttered was in such a mixed jargon of the Chippeway, Ottawaw, aud Killistinoe languages that I could understand but very little of it. Having continued in this tone for a considerable while, he at last exerted his voice to its utmost pitch, sometimes raving and some times praying, till he had worked himself into such an agitation that be foamed at his mouth.
After having remained near three-quarters of an hour in the place, and continued his vociferation with unabated vigor, he seemed quite exhausted, and remained speechless. But in an instant he sprung upon his feet, notwithstanding at the time he was put in, it appeared impossible for him to move either his legs or arms, and shaking off his covering, as quick as if the bands with which it had been bound were burned asunder, he began to address those who stood around in a firm and audible voice. “My brothers,” said he, “the Great Spirit has deigned to hold a talk with his servant at my earnest request. He has not, indeed, told me when the persons we expect will be here, but tomorrow, soon after the sun has reached his highest point in the heavens, a canoe will arrive, and the people in that will inform us when the traders will come.” Having said this, he stepped out of the inclosure, and after he had put on his robes, dismissed the assembly. I own I was greatly astonished at what I had seen, but, as I observed that every one in the company was fixed on me with a view to discover my sentiments, I carefully concealed every emotion.
The next day the sun shone bright, and long before noon all the Indians were gathered together on the eminence that overlooked the lake. The old king came to me and asked me whether I had so much confidence in what the priest had foretold as to join his people on the hill and wait for the completion of it. I told him that I was at a loss what opinion to form of the prediction, but that I would readily attend him. On this, we walked together to the place where the others were assembled. Every one was again fixed by turns on me and on the lake; when, just as the sun had reached his zenith, agreeable to what the priest had foretold, a canoe came round a point of land about a league distant. The Indians no sooner beheld it than they sent up an universal shout, and by their looks seemed to triumph in the interest their priest thus evidently had with the Great Spirit.
In less than an hour the canoe reached the shore, when I attended the king and chiefs to receive those who were on board. . . . The king inquired of them whether they had seen anything of the traders? The men replied that they had parted from them a few days before, and that they proposed being here the sec ond day from the present. They accordingly arrived at that time, greatly to our satisfaction . . . .
This story I acknowledge appears to carry with it marks of great credulity in the relator. But no one is less tinctured with that weakness than myself. The cir cumstances of it I own are of a very extraordinary nature; however, as I can vouch for their being free from either exaggeration or misrepresentation, being myself a cool and dispassionate observer of them all, I thought it necessary to give them to the public, . . . but leaving them to draw from it what conclusions they please.”
Mr Hiram Calkins mentions the performance of an Ojibwa who lived on Wisconsin river, near the Menomini country, which apparently embraced the pretensions of both the tshisaqka and the wabeno:
“The chief medicine man or conjurer is Mah-ca-da-o-gung, or The Black Nail, who performed the feat of descending the Long Falls in his canoe, and is represented by the other Indians as being a great medicine man. He is always called upon, far and near, in cases of sickness, or in the absence of relatives, to foretell whether the sick ness will prove fatal or whether the friends will return in safety, and at what time. He is also consulted by the Indians when they go out to hunt the bear, to foretell whether success will crown their efforts. Before performing these services, he is always paid by the Indians with such articles as they have, which generally consist of tobacco, steel-traps, kettles, broadcloth, calico, and a variety of other commod ities. He usually performs after dark, in a wigwam just large enough to admit of his standing erect. This lodge or wigwam is tightly covered with mats, so as entirely to exclude all sight and the prying curiosity of all outsiders. Having no light within the lodge, the acts and utterances of the medicine man or conjurer are regarded as mysterious, and credulously received by the wondering crowd surrounding the tent. He first prepares himself in his family wigwam by stripping off all his clothing, when he emerges singing, and the Indians outside join him in the song with their drums, and accompany him to the lodge, which he enters alone. Upon entering, the lodge commences shaking violently, which is supposed by the Indians outside to be caused by the spirits. The shaking of the lodge produces a great noise by the rattling of bells and deers’ hoofs fastened to the poles of the lodge at the top, and at the same time three voices are distinctly heard intermingled with this noise. One is a very heavy hoarse voice, which the Indians are made to believe is that of the Great Spirit; another is a very fine voice, represented to be that of a Small Spirit, while the third is that of the medicine man himself. He pretends that the Great Spirit converses in the heavy voice to the lesser spirit, unintelligibly to the conjurer, and the lesser spirit interprets it to him and he communicates the intelligence to his brethren without. The ceremony lasts about three hours, when he comes out in a high state of perspiration, supposed by the superstitions Indians to be produced by mental excitement.”
(Source: Walter James Hoffman, “The Menomini Indians” in J. W. Powell, Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1892-93, Part I, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1896, pages 11- 328.)