The Piegan Medicine Lodge


[Blackfeet Language] Chief Iron Pipe is explaining the Piegan Medicine Lodge ceremonies in his native tongue. According to an ancient Piegan legend, Scarface, a young brave, traveled to the home of the great Sun God to get permission to marry a beautiful maiden. The Sun God gave his permission for the marriage, removed the ugly scar from the young brave’s face, and revealed to him the Medicine Lodge ceremony, which Scarface brought back to his people. [Native American Music] This is a picture of a Piegan Medicine Lodge. One of the oldest religious ceremonials among the American Indians. Because of the fast changing culture of the Piegan Indians and the passing of old tribal leaders, authentic performances of this ceremony are becoming increasingly rare. The Piegans live in the Blackfeet Country. The reservation is located in northern Montana. The Medicine Lodge ceremonies recorded in this picture were held in 1956 at Heart Butte, a community in the southern part of the Blackfeet Reservation. Every year about the time the berries ripened, the Blackfeet used to hold a great ceremonial and a festival, which they called the Ceremony of the Medicine Lodge. This was the time for sacrifice to the Sun. For happy meetings. The time for feasting and for giving presents. The Medicine Lodge ceremony portrayed in this picture was promised by Maggie Swims Under to the Great Spirit, the Sun, when she prayed for the recovery of her grandson, Joseph, who was ill at the time with polio. Joseph recovered, and true to her promise, Maggie Swims Under held this Medicine Lodge. Thanking the Great Spirit, the Sun, for sparing her grandchild. While the ceremonials are underway in the Medicine Woman’s sacred tepee, time is taken for the cutting of the center pole of the Medicine Lodge and the long poles which make up the sides and the roof. [Chanting] The activity is carried out methodically, and according to the legend, brought back by Scarface from the Sun God. Chief White Calf directs the tree cutting prayers and ceremonies. His group has traveled up the mountainside until it reached a grove of large trees: pines, quaking aspen, and cottonwood. During the selection of the tree for the Medicine Lodge, the group sits on the ground, smokes the medicine pipe, and offers many prayers to the Great Spirit, the Sun. [Music] [Singing] Chief White Calf carefully selects for the center pole a cottonwood tree with forked branches near the top. The Chief strikes the tree four times with the ceremonial axe, and then gives the axe to a younger man to complete the cutting. While the cutting is carried on many prayers are offered to the Sun God. Chief White Calf prays: “Old tree I ask that you fall easily… I promise to plant you in a new place and to give you many presents may you stand firmly in your new home.” Chief Last Star prays that the tree will fall with the prongs flat-wise and not to be broken. When the tree falls, the young men cheer and quickly trim the branches. [Singing] The tree is carefully carried out of the timber and loaded on to a wagon, and taken back to the camp. [Singing] In the olden days, the tree was transported on travois using two horses. [Singing] [Singing, increased pitch] The young braves tie the tree to the wagon with great care, so that it will not touch the ground during the trip to the site selected for the Medicine Lodge. [Singing] The tree is taken from the wagon and placed beside the open hole near the center of the Medicine Lodge site. Later, it will be raised with great ceremony, as the Scarface legend directed. A purification ceremony for the Medicine Woman is held in a Sweat Lodge. The framework of the Sweat Lodge is made of willow branches stuck firmly in the ground and bound together to form an elliptical shape. The Sweat Lodge will later be covered with buffalo hides. Special prayers for the Medicine Woman are made inside the Sweat Lodge. [Singing] The Medicine Woman enters her sacred tepee or lodge four days before the actual Medicine Lodge ceremony commences. A fire is kept burning in the lodge day and night and never allowed to die out, and the door flap must not remain open. A serviceberry stick is used to light the pipes. Prayers and chanting are continuous during the day. The following is a common prayer: “Great Spirit have pity on me and my people… Help me to be pure and to lead a good life… Grant that I may be kind-hearted to all my people and may our children and relatives grow to be old.” The crowd has now gathered before the Medicine Woman’s sacred tepee. The Medicine Woman wears a sacred headdress prepared especially for the occasion, and she has been instructed in regard to all the ceremonials by the preceding Medicine Woman and her husband. This instruction has included the preparation of the sacred buffalo tongue. This is the first time in history that the Medicine Woman has been photographed inside her sacred tepee. [Singing] A procession forms near the sacred tepee with the Medicine Woman and her attendants near the front immediately behind the medicine men and priests. The Medicine Woman’s face is covered with the ceremonial headdress. [Singing] The procession moves to the Medicine Lodge area where a shelter with an open front has been erected for the Medicine Woman to perform her ceremony of offering prayers, chanting, and singing. [Chanting and Singing] The Medicine Woman can be seen surrounded by her attendants, the Medicine Man, the priests, and others involved in the ceremony. [Singing] The sacred buffalo tongues have been cut and pieces are distributed to those taking part in the ceremony. These pieces of tongue are offered as a sacrifice to the Sun and to Mother Earth. The Medicine Woman takes a piece of the boiled tongue, eats a portion and then holds up a portion to the Sun while she prays: “Great Sun, I give you my life today because I have always been a pure and honest woman… I promise to eat with you and the underground spirits because you helped my grandson to recover… I am also praying for all the children before you that they may grow strong and may live long lives and never suffer from hunger… Hear us, oh Sun, and pity us.” A green buffalo hide is stretched on the ground and cut into narrow strips, which will be used to tie the Medicine Lodge poles together. Chief White Calf has been selected to carry out this portion of the ceremony. He uses a special knife for cutting the hide and prays before starting. He stops between strips, and relates the achievements of his grandparents. While this ceremony is being performed, his relatives sing and dance. Now many gifts to the Sun are tied to the top of the medicine pole as it lies on the ground. These are sacrifices to the Sun and include moccasins, the medicine bundle, pieces of bright cloth and clothing. As the Sun is preparing to set, Chief Fish Wolf Robe, the official announcer, tells the group to prepare for raising the center medicine pole. The men form in four groups, one group for each direction, and according to their Society. They carry poles about 20 feet long lashed together at the top in pairs. The groups sing and chant an old Piegan hymn raising the pole, which was given to them by the Sun through Scarface. The Medicine Man, the Medicine Woman, and the priests take up a position in the center, near the forks of medicine pole. Four times the groups advance toward the center pole and four times they stop. The fourth stop is made in a circle just outside the center pole area, and the entire group is now singing in unison. At this point, the Medicine Man announces. They raised the center medicine pole quickly, so the Medicine Woman may eat and drink for she is starving. A bundle of willows is fastened to the top of the center pole representing an eagle’s nest. The women shout, “Hurry hurry hurry!,” and the young men rush in and raise the pole quickly. The women pray: “Great Sun power, may our part of this sacred lodge go up safely… because we do not want to lose any of our relatives.” Quickly the long poles are laid from the fork of the center pole to the outside ring of the poles to form girders for the top of the lodge. The top and the sides of the lodge, having been firmly tied together with the strips of green buffalo hide, are quickly covered with branches. [Singing and Chanting] The Medicine Woman’s fast is now ended. She can return to her own lodge and take a small quantity of nourishment. The ceremony held inside the Medicine Lodge may last for two days. The opening to the Medicine Lodge faces the east, and an alcove or small booth for the Medicine Men is constructed on the west side. The Medicine Men’s alcove is prepared for the seclusion of the Medicine Men from prying eyes, And they must sleep there for four nights while fasting for four days. They may eat four bites of dry meat before sunrise and four bites of dry meat after sundown. They are allowed one cup of water at each time that they eat the dry meat. The Medicine Woman has a seat of honor during the ceremony. She sits on robes spread on the floor near the center pole, and on the north side for the Medicine Men’s alcove. She is surrounded at all times by her assistants, the Medicine Men, and the priests. [Drumming and singing] The Medicine Lodge ceremony is closed with a stirring talk by the tribe’s most venerable and respected leader. His speech urges the people to stay away from fire water, and to respect and worship the Sun, who brings good fortune and food to the people. The following day is reserved for fun and entertainment, usually started with a parade in honor of young braves in the army. There is much feasting because real food, meat, has been provided. And this is accompanied by singing and dancing. [Drumming and Singing] The people begin to dance to Piegan music, which consists of chanted songs and a rhythmic drumbeat performed by a group of men. The dances for the young people are called the Owl Dance, the Grass Dance, and the Rabbit Dance. [Drumming and Singing] While the young people dance, the old people tell stories of great dancers in the past. [Drumming and Singing] The dances are all traditional dances. They have been passed down through the ages and ages of Piegans. The older men have various interpretive dances and music, such as the War Dance. [Drumming and Singing] Others of the tribe may take part in the stick game, which is played by all of the Plains Indians. A dozen or more players will divide themselves into two groups. Wagers are made one side against the other. Then a player takes two bones, one with a black ring around it. And by skillfully moving his hands and changing the bones from one hand to the other, he tries to make it impossible for the person opposite to guess which hand contains the marked bone. [Chanting] In the stick game, the stakes sometimes go high. Money, clothes, saddles, horses, and sometimes the players lose all their possessions, even, too, the clothes they are wearing. The legend tells of the happiness and joy of Scarface and the beautiful maiden. They lived to an old age and were never sick. One morning when they were very old, their children called out to them: “Awake, rise, and eat!” The old people did not move. In the night together, in sleep without pain, their shadows had departed to the sandhills. Another Medicine Lodge has been completed. Maggie Swims Under has fulfilled her obligation to the Sun God. The ceremonies are over, the people are gone, the dancing and fasting are ended. This Medicine Lodge will become, for a time, a playhouse for Piegan boys and girls. Eventually, it will be gone with the winds and the rains of the mountains, but the Chief’s final prayer will remain: “I wish you may feel the sun-shine of joy in your hearts and that you may have no trouble… What I speak with my mouth, I feel in my heart… Farewell.” [Singing]

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