The term medicine man is derived from (a) the French Jesuit observance of certain individuals with healing roles among Canadian Indian groups (medicine) or (b) the Inuit angakoq or medicine person. The term is usually considered an anachronism in contemporary anthropological literature, with the Siberian Tungus word shaman preferred in most cases. However, among contemporary Native Americans, the preference remains to refer to individuals with a healing and sacred function as medicine men/women. The term medicine itself is a descriptor of a wide range of psychological, physical, and spiritual knowledge that aids in the restoration of balance and equilibrium within the indigenous worldview.
References to medicine men in the literature often assume the phenomena particular to preliterate small-scale societies. Early documentation of the practices are found in the writings of explorers and missionaries (e.g., Soares de Souza in 1587) and was used to describe healers such as the “medicines” of the Topamambos, heyoka (Sioux), False Face Society (Iroquois), Hataal (Navajo), Midewiwin (Great Lakes), Waken (Lakota), and leaders of the Native American Prophetic movements (e.g., Neolin, Handsome Lake, Smohala, Wodziwob, Wavoka) as well as practitioners in Africa, Oceania, and Asia. The distinctive element in all cases was the skill at performing ritual healings to restore cultural and ecological equilibrium to the particular group. The continued importance and revival of many of these roles in literate postindustrial areas illustrate the cultural depths of the medicine way in spite of efforts by missionaries and governments to eradicate the practices.
Arnold Van Gennep’s work on the role of medicine men divided their functions into the realms of religion and society. This is most evident in societies such as the !Kung and the Australian Aborigines, where more than half of the adult males are considered to be medicine men. The role of these medicine men, however, includes trances and altered states of consciousness. Victor Turner’s work on religious specialists separates these roles and functions and makes a distinction among priests, shamans (or medicine men), and media. These distinctions can blur, however, from society to society. In addition, as Claude Lévi-Strauss demonstrated, medicine men can be equally adept at healing and at performing witchcraft. A more nuanced view of the medicine role is that suggested by writers such as Gerardo Reichel-Dolmofoff, who view that function as an ecological balance for hunting, fishing, and gathering activities.
The key to understanding the phenomenon of medicine people lies in the worldview of those societies. The world is understood as a holistic entity, with the entire world imbued with spirit. In this animistic view, all of creation has moral agency, and the human is integral to the long-lasting efficacy of all of life. For some groups, such as the Navajo, the power of the human is a unique quality that flows from the holiness of words. Thus, singers ( hataal) continue the work of creation and balance. In other groups, the medicine people are grouped together in societies so that their combined spirits might bring about the desired effects (e.g., Zuni). In every case, the role of magic is essential, and the notion that the human can influence spirits through words and action is at the heart of being a medicine practitioner. In this way, a medicine man is an expert in techniques of contagious and sympathetic magic.
The term medicine man can be misleading in that it implies a gender-specific role. Most cultures that have medicine men also recognize women’s ability to minister and heal and to become medicine practitioners. However, many women do not attain full status and recognition until menopause because menstruation is often viewed as a power unto itself.
Medicine men can achieve their position through
(a) inheriting the position through blood lines,
(b) being called through visions,
(c) being recognized by others as being specially gifted,
and (d) being self-selected to enter training.
In most cases, training is undertaken with a well-established medicine man and can take years before one is recognized as a healer. Much of the training involves learning the legends and myths of the group, rituals and ceremonies, and the animals, plants, herbs, minerals, and so forth that are used in the healings. The public role of the medicine man is to be at service to the whole group, and individuals that attempt to gain prestige, power, or personal wealth are often shunned.
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