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A medicine bag is a traditional North American Indian container for various items of supernatural power. While anyone may have one, usually it would be the medicine man, or shaman, of a tribe who would carry one. As something that holds supernatural items, the medicine bag must also have some power of its own. They most often held things such as animal furs, special stones, or anything that meant something to the owner. No person, apart from the owner, was allowed to look inside this bag. When the owner died, they were buried with it.
Medicine bag proper
Medicine items attributed with various supernatural abilities for the bag would often be procured in a tribal custom known as a vision quest. This ceremony includes personal sacrifice: fasting and prayer over several days in a location isolated from the rest of the community. Though some tribes and their lodges may often involve hallucinogens, the Midewiwin do not. In Midewiwin, the medicine bag is used to store items of fetishism. The purpose is to make contact with natural spiritual forces that help or guide people to reach their potential. The spirits, or totems, would aid the individual to gather magical items, increase knowledge and aid personal growth.
Typical powers ascribed to medicine bags and their items include increasing hunting abilities, aiding fighting skills, healing allies, hindering enemies and altering the weather. Many warriors carried a bag around the neck. They contained items that would remind the warrior of home, of where he came from.
Often incorrectly called a "medicine bag," a bandolier bag is a bag with a wide strap, often ornately decorated with beadwork, presented to represent honors given to a worthy man. Though bandolier bags are closely associated with the Anishinaabeg, they are not exclusively found among them as many bandolier bags have identifiable stylistic tribal and regional differences. Unlike a medicine bag made from the whole skin of an animal, a bandolier bag can be either pieced leather or fabric. Unlike a medicine bag that is always worn across the shoulder, a bandolier bag may be worn either across the shoulder to the side or in front like an apron. In the Anishinaabe language, "bandolier bag(s)" is aazhooningwa'igan(ag), literally meaning "worn across the shoulder" contributing to the confusion between it and a medicine bag.
Ojibwa bandolier bag overall, ca. 1900, in the collection of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis
Ojibwa bandolier bag detail, ca. 1900, in the collection of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis