|A few of my medicine bags|
In order to understand how to work a medicine bag, we need to define medicine as it is understood in the Indian worldview. To the Native American, medicine refers to anything mysterious, magical, spiritual and supernatural. It is the roots, stones, sticks, and bones of conjure. The three most powerful forms of Indian medicine are water, tears, and laughter (Gene Thin Elk, personal communication, 1994).
A medicine bag is very much like a mojo bag. They are worn or carried on the person for any number of purposes and often the same bag is used for a multitude of purposes, i.e. protection, healing, dream enhancement, and empowerment. Medicine bags can be made for yourself or for other people, just like a mojo or gris gris bag.
Medicine bags are used somewhat differently than mojo and gris gris bags, however. For example, once a mojo bag or gris gris is made, we don't open it up and mess around with the things inside unless we are taking it apart or recharging it. With your medicine bag, you can take an object out, talk to it and ask it for guidance. Ask it for its medicine. For example, if you are feeling scared or apprehensive about something and you have a bear claw in your medicine bag, you can take the bear claw out of the bag and ask the bear for its medicine or protection, strength, and courage. When you are done, place the claw back in the bag and carry the bag with you as usual.
As you can see from the photographs, medicine bags come in all shapes and sizes. I have quite a few medicine bags, these are but a few. I have a special medicine bag that holds corn pollen and a separate one that hold my tobacco. I have several smaller medicine bags that are held inside a larger medicine bag, and those inside an even larger medicine bag. The different bags contain different medicines that I use frequently and are not to be mixed with other herbs. When I am sitting in the darkness of the sweat lodge for example, I cannot see, but I can feel which bag has my cedar when I want to sprinkle some on the hot elders (stones) inside.
Medicine bags will contain special objects of power or "tokens" given to a person as well as power objects found in the natural environment that speak to the person finding it. Unlike gris gris bags which typically do not have more than 13 items and always an odd number in them, a medicine bag can contain as many items as a person wants. Sometimes people will consciously only keep as many items as a sacred number, but that is not a hard and fast rule. Sacred numbers for Indians are 4 (for the four sacred directions - North, East, South, West) 7 (for the seven sacred directions - North, East, South, West, Father Sky, Mother Earth, and Self), 21 (seven times 3) and 28 (seven times four).
There is a lot of misinformation on the web about Native American spirituality and culture, including misinformation about the basics of a medicine bag. According to one website for example, "A Native American medicine bag doesn't necessarily contain medicine. Instead, in Native American culture, items are placed inside the small bag that holds a spiritual significance to the wearer." This statement was obviously written by someone who doesn't have a clue as to what constitutes Native American medicine. The contents inside the bag ARE the medicine. The medicine comes from the realms of animal, plant, mineral, and human and yes, they hold spiritual significance to the wearer, but they also heal and empower.
"To enhance the supernatural and spiritual abilities of the wearer, healers often use the contents to perform the ritual known as vision quest." Again, a misinformed writer. The Vision Quest ceremony has nothing to do with the contents of your medicine bag. The Vision Quest has everything to do with increasing one's own understanding of self/community/the world and one's relationship to the community and the world (meaning Mother Earth and all of her inhabitants, great and small, four-legged, two-legged, eight-legged or no legs, as well as all of her processes). The Vision Quest or hunblecha is one of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota people. Traditionally, this ceremony is conducted in places considered sacred such as The Black Hills and the Badlands. Bear Butte is a traditional site for hunblecha. Often a person will discover their animal spirit guides during the ceremony, but the contents of a medicine bag are not used to perform the ceremony itself.
The Thunder Beings (Wakinyan) live in the Black Hills according to Lakota tradition. At White Horse Mountain, where I participated in my first vision quest, the ancestors still dance and they can be seen and heard in the stillness of that ceremony.
Anything that speaks to you strongly can go into your medicine bag. Some typical tokens found in medicine bags include:
- Corn pollen
- Corn meal
- Lock of hair or mane
- Claw or nail
- Stone fetish
In order to find your medicine, you will have to take regular Nature Walks if you are not the outdoorsy type. Don't just pick up anything, there has to be a strong and clear connection between you and it. You will know when you hold it in your hands and see it. Talk to it and ask it what lessons it has for you. Then, write down any insights you receive in your medicine journal.
To learn more about Native American concepts and their connection to Southern Rootwork and Hoodoo, check out the course Native American Conjure: Working with Black Hawk & Indian Spirit Guides in Southern Conjure. In addition to learning about how to work with Black Hawk and Indian Spirit guides, this course teaches about Indian medicine, herbalism and curios, provides and Indian conjure formulary, several tutorials and a variety of works. It also discusses working with other Indian Spirits such as Red Hawk, White Eagle, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and Sitting Bull. In addition, you will learn about Thunder Medicine and how to make Thunderbolt Powder and hands. I guarantee you will learn things in this course you will not find anywhere else.
*The above article is excerpted from Conjuring Black Hawk by Denise Alvarado.
*All contents of this article including text and photos are copyright 2012 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Do not copy and reuse without my permission.