Medicine and Healing

The health and well-being of community members were of prime importance, and Great Lakes Indians people had a number of techniques which they used to prevent and cure various illnesses.

Both illnesses of the body and the spirit were recognized and had specific cures and preventative techniques. Minor illnesses of the body could sometimes be cured by a sweat bath or by taking an herbal or other remedy. While these things could be "home remedies" in the sense that many people knew the uses of medicinal plants and used them, other medicines and cures could only be used by individuals with special knowledge and training. These kinds of treatments were specifically important for those disease, which were felt to result from a supernatural force.

Preventive Measures

Great Lakes tribes employed a variety of protective or preventive measures against illness; some were individual and some were group efforts. Native people did not distinguish between medicine, in the medical or scientific sense, and charms. In fact, the Ojibwe term for medicine, muski'ki, included both categories. Charms are those things which affect either humans or nature without actual contact or ingestion, while medicines are substances which are administered directly to an individual for curative or malevolent purposes.


Charms, like medicine, were nearly always purchased from another individual and were the means of assuring good fortune in hunting, fishing, trapping, gambling, war, and love. They also protected the people from disease or bodily injury. Although charms could be used for malevolent purposes, the vast majority were concerned with the food quest, especially hunting. In most instances, the charm was carried in a small deerskin packet on the person. Love charms and those to be used for malicious intent were commonly kept in the home rather than worn on the body. These charms were applied to the clothing, hair, or any personal article of the one to be affected. Songs were not ordinarily used with the charms, but rather the efficacy was secured by one's talking and praying. Protective or preventive charms included:

Flagroot: Carried on the person to keep away snakes.
Dogbane: Used as a protective charm against evil influence or against bad medicine.
Seneca snakeroot: Used as a charm for safety on a journey.
Milkwort: Carried on the person for general health and for safety on a journey.

Dream Fetishes

Dream fetishes were sacred personal articles one retained throughout life, and which guarded against harm or misfortune. They were made or obtained according to the instructions received in one's own fasting dream. They could be acquired as the result of a dream of a close relative or namesake who may have presented the article to an individual in infancy or childhood. Dream fetishes could also originate through the work of the medicine man during the shaking tent ritual. These objects were given special care and handling and were hung on the hoop of a child's cradleboard or over the bed of an adult. They were retained for life and, if accidentally destroyed or worn out, were replaced with a counterpart. These articles were taken to religious ceremonies, carried on long journeys, and buried with the person at their death.

Tobacco Offerings

Tobacco offerings to the thunderbirds were a common method of securing protection against property damage and physical injury during a windstorm. When a storm came up, tobacco was placed on a stump in the yard or a pinch of tobacco was thrown into the fire. In some cases the individual spoke to the thunderbirds, asking for protection, but this was not necessary; the offering itself was sufficient.

Avoiding Taboos

Another way of preserving individual health was by faithfully observing certain taboos. In some instances, the breach of taboo affected the transgressor, but more often it resulted in injury to someone else. Most taboos did not concern health, but breaking menstrual and mourning taboos could cause bodily injury or death. Native people believed that contact with a menstruating woman or anything she touched was exceedingly harmful. Girls received instructions concerning this taboo during the puberty fast at the time of their first menses. They were isolated in a special hut for a week or more, during which they were brought food but cooked it themselves on their own fire, and ate it in special dishes reserved for this purpose. They were warned not to bathe in the lake for fear of killing the rice crop. A menstruating woman was never to step over a young child or over a man's clothing, for sickness or even death could result. A person in mourning was not allowed to touch children until after the Removal-of-Mourning ceremony. During this period, the mourner's touch could produce sickness or cause the death of a child.

Preserving Community Health

There were also specific ways of protecting the health of an entire community or an individual. Among the Wisconsin Ojibwe, impending sickness could be warded off by destroying a straw man constructed to represent the threatening illness or malevolent force. If an individual was warned by his guardian spirit that disease or illness was about to strike the community, he sent out a runner. Tobacco was the means of inviting people to these special feasts, and the runner presented each family with a bit of tobacco and told them when and where to assemble and to bring materials to make an image. At the appointed time, the people appeared with food and tobacco, the men carrying guns, the women and children with knives, clubs, and axes. The dreamer related his dream and explained why he had called them together. Food was laid out on the floor, and tobacco was passed around and smoked while the dreamer dedicated both food and tobacco to the manidog, asking their blessing on the proceedings. Both the food, as it was being eaten, and the tobacco, in the form of smoke, found their way to the spirits. Then the people, carrying their weapons, went outdoors and cautiously approached the straw man -- made by the runner or by the women -- which had been set up by the runner a short distance from the house. The figure -- two to four feet in height and dressed in miniature male clothing -- was constructed out of straw or hay so it would burn. As the crowd approached the straw man, the dreamer gave the signal for the men to shoot it, and he joined them. The women and children also rushed up to club it, cut it, and chop it to bits. The remains were gathered up, either by the crowd or the runner, placed in a pile and burned. The dreamer then thanked the entire assembly for their assistance.

Another group attempt to ward off impending disaster was through the technique of the "offering tree." An individual would be warned by his guardian spirit that sickness was about to descend on the community. Invitational tobacco was carried to a number of people by the runner, who informed them where and when to assemble. At the appointed time they would come, bringing food, tobacco, and articles of clothing. The food was spread out and the tobacco passed, both of them being offered to the manidog of the air, particularly the thunderbirds. This was done by the dreamer or by someone he designated to speak for him. The dreamer related his dream and told the manidog that this offering of clothing was in their honor and implored their intercession in warding off the sickness. After the feast, the clothing and tobacco brought by the participants were tied near the top of a tree, a post leaned up against the house, or a post set upright in the ground. The clothing was supposed to be those items worn close to the body, including underwear, pants, shirts, dresses, and aprons. They were to be left hanging for at least four days, during which they were accepted by the manidog. After that, they were used as dishrags or, in some cases, they were allowed to remain until they disintegrated. Occasionally a special dance called the Brave or Chief Dance followed the ceremony of clothes hanging and was intended to enlist the guardian spirits of a number of people to assist one or more individuals or the entire community. This was the same dance used before battle to muster protective forces.

Curative Treatments

In case of injury, fractured limbs were bound with basswood cords to splints made of cedar or heavy birchbark. Other surgical techniques included tooth extraction. Great Lakes Indians also employed three other techniques of mechanical curing, including cupping, "tattooing," and the sweat bath.


"Cupping" is a term for the practice otherwise called "bleeding" as it was practiced historically by Euro-American physicians. Whether cupping was a traditional method or one taken over from Whites is unknown. There is no archaeological evidence to prove its use prehistorically, but its exceedingly wide distribution among Native Americans strongly suggests a native origin. Ordinarily, cupping practitioners were women (in Ojibwe, bepe'swe'jikwe, literally cutting or scratching women), and there were no cult or supernatural procedures connected with it. An apprentice could acquire the technique and knowledge for a fee. The patient gave the doctor a fee, tobacco, and one common article, such as a blanket. The most common ailments treated by cupping were headaches and blood poisoning, but it was also used for dizziness, soreness, swelling, and rheumatism.

The equipment consisted of a sharp instrument for making the incision and a section of horn. The cupping device was made from the small end of a cow's horn, three or four inches long, which had been cleaned out and the tip perforated. To cure a headache, the doctor made a slanting incision in the patient's temple to strike a vein. She then put the large end of the horn over the cut and then sucked on the small end to draw off the blood, which was caught in a dish. It was emptied outside in an isolated spot where no one would step on it or disturb it. Bloodletting was limited to the head and limbs. For blood poisoning, the individual was bled until "all the dark blood was out and the blood ran red and clear." A native astringent was employed to stop the bleeding, and some doctors applied a native salve to the cut after the bleeding had stopped. In some cases two or three treatments over a period of several weeks were necessary before a cure was completed.


"Tattooing" was another technique for treating the same ailments as were dealt with by cupping. The term tattooing is somewhat misleading, but it is the one Native people used themselves when referring to this type of cure in English. Individual specialists (mostly women)  worked without supernatural assistance for a fee of tobacco plus a blanket or beadwork.

Traditionally, the tattooing instrument was either the upper or lower jaw of a garfish, which had long rows of needle-like teeth. Historically, they used a piece of wood into which were set a series of needles. Medicine was always applied in conjunction with tattooing, often in the form of a poultice. The instrument was first dipped into a native medicine, then "hammered" onto the sore spot. The purpose of the tattooing was to pierce the skin so the medicine would penetrate the blood stream. The pain experienced during the treatment was the soreness leaving the body.

Sweat Baths

The sweat bath was used by almost all North American tribes and extended as far south as Guatemala. The chief purpose of the sweat bath was curative, although it played a prominent role in the ritual of the Midewiwin as well as being taken while on the hunt to eliminate odors which game could recognize. Sweat baths were used to relieve colds, fevers, and rheumatism. The sweat lodge was a small wigwam just large enough for one person and completely covered with birchbark or blankets. When it was finished, heated stones were carried inside. The patient, who was stripped, created steam by sprinkling water on the stones with a bunch of grass or cedar boughs. The water sometimes contained medicine or could be used alone. After the bath, the patient was rubbed down, wrapped up, and put to bed.

Besides the sweat bath, other forms of medicine were also inhaled in steam or smoke. For rheumatism, a hole was dug in the ground to hold a kettle containing herbal medicine for rheumatism steeped in hot water. The patient sat next to the kettle with a blanket over his or her head and breathed the vapors. For headaches, dry herbs were placed on heated stones and the fumes were inhaled.

Medicine Men

Much of the curative function in traditional Woodland culture was delegated to the medicine person, a specialist recognized for his rapport with the supernatural. For Woodland Indians, health and long life represented the highest good, and those who possessed knowledge conducive to that end was the most highly esteemed among them. In the Great Lakes region, there were two types of medicine persons whose concerns were primarily those of healing and a third who concentrated their energies more on harming others. The first two, the "tent-shaker" and the "sucking doctor," enjoyed extremely high status and were generally the most feared and respected persons in the community because they possessed and could exercise the power to practice evil as well as good. The third type, the Wabeno (literally "Morning Star Man" in Menominee), derived his power from the Morning Star, which was less than benevolent.

Medicine persons were male, with rare exceptions. Although their powers were obtained during the vision quest during their youth, they remained inactive until fairly late in life. They could not practice until middle age or later because it was said that if novice medicine mans began too early, they could forfeit their power or even their lives. Some individuals combined both the shaking tent and sucking doctor roles. The shaking tent doctor had wider powers, including healing magically and possessing a clairvoyant ability to determine causes of illness such as sorcery and breach of taboo.

Sucking Doctors

The sucking doctor worked to remove the cause of sickness by sucking it out of the patient's body. This mode of curing was widely practiced throughout North America and in other parts of the world. After he had accepted the initial gift of tobacco that constituted a request for treatment, the doctor stipulated the time, the place, and the price of the ceremony. The ceremonies ordinarily were held in the evening or at night, and a small group of witnesses were present. The group would include the doctor, his assistant or runner, the patient, and a few spectators, often friends or relatives of the patient. Dogs were banned from the vicinity as their barking might cause the doctor to choke. The doctor's personal equipment consisted of a small tambourine drum, a gourd or tin-can rattle, and two or three tubes that were kept in a deerskin bag or cloth wrapping. The tubes, exposed only at curings, were sections of deer bone about three inches long.

In more recent times, the tubes were brass cartridge cases with the ends removed. The patient, usually partially stripped, was stretched out on the floor on a blanket. Tobacco was passed, and each person would take a pinch. The doctor dedicated the tobacco to the spirits and enlisted their aid. All the while, he shook his rattle and was accompanied by the assistant's drumming. With the tube projecting from his mouth, he kneeled over the patient, moving about until he located the place where the sickness originated, sucked out the object through the tube, and spit both it and the tube into the shallow dish. The drumming ceased and the dish was passed around for inspection. If any foreign matter had been drawn out of the patient, it was thrown into the fire. Several such suckings might occur before any matter was visible in the dish. A curing ritual might last from a half hour to two hours, depending upon the success or wishes of the doctor.

Shaking Tent

The shaking tent doctor used a special tent or wigwam. While it varied somewhat in shape and construction, it was basically a pole framework about three feet in diameter and seven feet high. The cylindrical sides were covered with skins, birchbark, or blankets to conceal the medicine man, but the dome-shaped top was left uncovered. The conjuror called on certain supernatural spirits to come into the tent and they entered through the uncovered top. The most important of these was the turtle, which was also significant to the Wabeno, who hung the dried shell of a snapping turtle from his tambourine drum.

When the spirits entered the tent, it would shake violently. The conjuror consulted with these spirits, each of which had a distinctive voice comprehensible only to the medicine man. The spirits provided the information necessary to solve problems such as the location of missing persons or lost articles and the source of disease, including whether the disease was natural or had supernatural causes such as sorcery, spirit intrusion, disease-object intrusion, breach of taboo, or soul loss. With this information, the medicine man could prescribe a cure or pass on information that would help solve the client's problem. The medicine man could also release the spirit from his own body and send it off to learn what caused the illness in one of his patients.


The Wabeno also achieved his power during the days of his early vision quest, but more often used it to inflict harm. He excelled in sleight of hand and other tricks. He could plunge his hands into boiling water or hot syrup without the slightest discomfort, and could assume the shapes of various animals, like the bear and the fox. The Wabeno was also sometimes seen at night in the guise of a fireball. Because of his knowledge of plants and their properties, he was consulted to obtain hunting charms and love charms. Love charms were intended to attract and hold the attentions of a member of the opposite sex who might otherwise not be interested.

Medicine men used a variety of fetishes, objects thought to possess the magical power to induce particular effects. Usually, these were wooden figurines in human form, and within Great Lakes tribes, human images were seldom made for any other purpose. For love magic -- to attract a partner or hold a marriage together -- the medicine man used a male and a female figure and bound them together. In some wooden figures, a cavity was cut in the chest to hold magical items, including smaller figurines. These could be used to strengthen health or induce illness. If an individual suspected that a medicine man was working evil against him, he might engage another medicine man to counteract it.