THE MEDICINE CROW
A verse from
‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,’
by Robert Browning
“And just as far as ever from the end!
Naught in the distance but the evening, naught
To point my footsteps further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom friend,
Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned
That brushed my cap - perchance the guide I sought.”
Brother Crow is the Watcher at the gateway between darkness and light, between the physical world and the world of spirit. Crow's keen perception sees right into the heart of any process, and it helps us to deal with the shadow within in order to achieve spiritual power, to transform ourselves so that we may pass the Gate of Spirit and walk the spirit worlds. The passage alters us in a fundamental way, so it is said that the Medicine power of Crow is shape-shifting. Since it is said to have emerged from the Void or Abyss before Creation, Crow is called the Messenger of the Ancient Ones called the Star Gods. Those who follow Crow know that the shadow within came from without, and their awareness of two worlds makes them feel that they don't belong here. They have a deeper understanding than others of our true nature and they inspire others with their vision of the spirit. When Crow speaks out, it is about the opening of the spirit world and the interaction of powers. Crow is an omen of change, when the pasts lost in the mist of time can be seen and the possibility of transforming into a future self emerges. The Universal Spirit that corresponds to the Crow is the Horned Serpent (called by the white man the Dragon), and the planetary force is that of Saturn. Gypsies call Crow the Judge, and it allows those who have died to themselves to seek new life. Crow is black to the blind, but silver to those who see.
Good MedicineI am not a traditonal Indian in the sense of having been raised in the American Indian culture. I am not a New Ager or plastic medicine man. My purpose is not to claim to be a traditional Indian or to appropriate Indian culture for the white man. I am a spiritual person, a serious student of spiritual knowledge and a practioner of spiritual ways. I have been so for over thirty years. My purpose here is to share some of what I have learned through my research and my experience.
Many teachings of the American Indian can only be understood and appreciated when seen in the context of living the life of an Indian. However, all ancient teachings of the spirit are by necessity related to one another, and for those who study such things, comparative methodologies often offer insight and understanding that cannot be attained otherwise. Also, the distinction that some people make between the terms 'American Indian' and 'Native American' has grown into a knotty issue. I prefer the reasoning of Russel Means, who said that he preferred to be called an American Indian because anyone born in North, Central or South America of any race is a Native American.
Originally, the tribes all had different names for their Medicine Men, and many tribes had different kinds of spiritual practitioners within the tribe. Today, it is common practice to refer to all of them as Medicine Men. The shamans, priests or 'doctors' of the American Indian tribes were first called Medicine Men by the French in Canada in the 1600's. The Medicine of the Medicine Men was their spiritual power and knowledge of nature. Unlike the current religions of the white man, the Indian religion grew naturally out of the relationship between Indians and the Earth. Most Medicine Men learn their craft in bits and pieces from other Medicine Men and their own dreams and visions.
Traditional American Indian culture was based upon and required the freedom to roam the land. After the white man came with his horses, guns and disease, everything changed. The confinement of the Indians to reservations has transformed traditional Indian culture into a travesty of its former self. In the same way that wild animals have more Medicine power than domesticated ones, the Medicine Man of today doesn't always have the spiritual power of the old days. For those who seek to improve the effectiveness of their Medicine, some alternative must be embraced, such as studying the Medicine of other tribes and even other cultures. The cultural aspects of Medicine working have been passed down along with the actual Medicine teachings themselves, until today they have become indistinguishable from each other. Modern practitioners of Medicine should seek to separate outdated cultural details from the actual working of the Medicine, so they can gain a better understanding of how Medicine works to help rebuild the Medicine power in their lives.
The preservation of American Indian culture is important, but traditional teachings themselves were often changed when the circumstances of the tribe changed. Those who seek to be a Medicine Man or Medicine Woman today need to combine those things of the past that they find acceptable and efficacious with today's sensibilities, while looking toward the future. The mythos of our ancestors was relevant to their times; now, we must create a new mythos that is relevant to our time. While our ancestors saw the world and the universe as unchanging in its revolving seasons, today we see an "endless evolving and emergent reality." It is important to remember, however, that the basis for any system of Medicine must be those things that are the same in all times because they relate directly to the Spirit. As always, the voice of Spirit in dreams and visions should prevail.
In the past, the Medicine Man always operated within the context of the tribe. Today, practitioners of Medicine can be found both among the tribes on Reservations and individually in urban settings. Also, due to the number of Indians living apart from their tribes, as well as descendents of American Indians seeking their Indian heritage, there are an increasing number of inter-tribal societies springing up, training both men and women as practitioners of Medicine.
Even though we represent those Indians who did not have the Reservation experience, in some ways we have also suffered the loss of tradition that has so devastated Indian culture on the reservations. One of the debilitating effects has been on our Medicine Men and the practice of Medicine. Traditionally, the Medicine Man received his calling and instruction first in dreams and visions, wherein he was taught to use spiritual power in the techniques we call Medicine. Once the Medicine Man carried out a ritual to symbolize his vision and recreate its reality in the world of men, it often became part of the tribe’s religious ceremonies. These spiritual visions were shared with the tribe, and with other tribes, so that their effectiveness was re-enforced among all of the tribes. It has always been true that some Medicine Men were more powerful and successful than others, but today too many of them appear to be little more than country preachers.
While this situation would be acceptable to Christians or other practitioners of the white man’s religions, it represents yet another way in which our culture has deteriorated. When the French first called our priests ‘Medicine Men,’ they did so because we were not only intermediaries between the Great Spirit and the tribe, we were also healers. In the old days, Medicine Men went through a real alteration of the mind and body under the influence of spiritual powers, a spiritual death that preceded a spiritual rebirth and the development of real spiritual power. It was for this reason that the Medicine Man used the skull of his Medicine Animal to represent the power of the spirit that transcends life and death. Today, all too often, these things are done by rote out of imitation of the past, instead of in response to current spiritual experiences.
Some Indians who become practitioners of Medicine today get their start in one of the many inter-tribal Medicine Societies that have sprung up since the Federal government again started allowing Indians to legally practice their religion in the 1970’s. It was unfortunate that this event coincided with the white man’s New Age movement, who’s shallowness, flashiness and newly created ‘antique’ traditions infected too many practitioners of Medicine. One of the false traditions created by New Agers is that of the Medicine Woman.
Although there have been both Medicine Men and Medicine Women in the past, today’s New Agers and feminists have greatly over-stated the facts. It is a fact that most practitioners of Medicine in the past have been men, and most of the few women who gained a knowledge of Medicine did so from Medicine Men, either as their assistants or their wives. The many tales spun by New Agers stating that there were Medicine Women who held secrets unknown to Medicine Men were in most cases just that - tales. Those who have written completely fictional tales as though they were real, such as “Medicine Woman” Lynn Anderson, have done a great disservice to the truth, even while inspiring readers.
This is not said to in any way denigrate women or their ability to practice Medicine - which is equal to, if not greater than, that of men. Men and women are different but equal in the eyes of the Great Spirit, and only social conventions (and sometimes male prejudice) have stood in their way on the path of Medicine. It is in the differences between men and women that we can find some of the real spiritual distinctions that were made between men and women in the practice of Medicine. For instance, it was well-known that when women were menstruating, their spiritual powers were not only greatly enhanced, they were often out of control. For this reason, the tribes did not allow women to practice Medicine until they reached menopause, and by then, most women were set in their ways and not open to a change in their position in the tribe.
The spiritual power of women was never questioned by tribal members, and it was not uncommon for a man to ask his wife or another woman to make him a shield or amulet to protect him in battle or in life. It was widely recognized that women were closer to the world of spirits than men, and they were sometimes discouraged from practicing Medicine because it was feared that evil spirits would gain control of them. Today, many traditional Medicine Men have mixed feelings about the number of young women studying to practice Medicine. The old restrictions no longer are enforced by all the tribes, and the modern emphasis on the ‘equality’ of men and women has impelled many young women unaware of the reasons for past restrictions to seek to practice Medicine. Some traditional Medicine Men think that for our own safety, it is fortunate that great Medicine power has become a thing of the past.
Gone are our constant exposure to the forces of nature, our dependence on the abundance of the land and our freedom to roam at will over the earth. Along with these changes, we have lost the Medicine power that grew out of these experiences. What can we do about it? Aside from moving to another country where such things may again be possible, we are forced to confront our current circumstances and do what every successful species does - adapt. While the use of turkey feathers that have been cut and dyed to look like eagle feathers will not work because the spirit of the eagle will not be present, there are things we can do to help remedy our situation.
To paraphrase, “You can take the Indian out of the wilderness, but you can’t take the wilderness out of the Indian.” The spiritual powers of the wilderness call to every Indian, and the urban Indian is never happier than when he or she gets out of the city or town and into the wilderness. It was a tradition of many tribes in the past for their Medicine Men and their apprentices to make pilgrimages away from the tribe into the wilderness. Often these journeys were to places of spiritual power, spiritual islands where the ‘pilgrims’ would become criers for a vision to increase their Medicine power. Although the country has been overrun by too many people, there are still places where such journeys can be made.
Since many traditional teachings have been lost, and those that survive often enshrine outdated cultural details in the working of Medicine, it is also imperative for the successful practitioner of Medicine today to study the Medicine teachings of other tribes and cultures. We must retrieve what we can from the past, while adapting our ways to the modern world. Only by learning to live with one foot in the ancient world of the Indian and one in the modern world of the white man can we learn to practice Good Medicine.
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The Ojibway Dreamcatcher
The Sacred Teachings of the Anishinabe / Ojibway
The Ninth Fire
The Pow Wow & The Giveaway