Medicine man

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This article is about the Native American and First Nation healers. For the American film, see Medicine Man (film).
An Ojibwe midew (ceremonial leader) in a mide-wiigiwaam (medicine lodge).

A medicine man or medicine woman is a traditional healer and spiritual leader who serves a community of Indigenous people. Individual cultures have their own names, in their respective Indigenous languages, for the spiritual healers and ceremonial leaders in their particular cultures.

The medicine man and woman in North America[edit]

Cultural context[edit]

Yup'ik "medicine man exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy" in Nushagak, Alaska, 1890s.[1]

In the ceremonial context of Indigenous North American communities, "medicine" usually refers to spiritual healing. Medicine men/women should not be confused with those who employ Native American ethnobotany, a practice that is very common in a large number of Native American and First Nations households.[2][3][4]

The terms "medicine people" or "ceremonial people" are sometimes used in Native American and First Nations communities, for example, when Arwen Nuttall (Cherokee) of the National Museum of the American Indian writes, "The knowledge possessed by medicine people is privileged, and it often remains in particular families."[5]

Native Americans tend to be quite reluctant to discuss issues about medicine or medicine people with non-Indians. In some cultures, the people will not even discuss these matters with Indians from other tribes. In most tribes, medicine elders are prohibited from advertising or introducing themselves as such. As Nuttall writes, "An inquiry to a Native person about religious beliefs or ceremonies is often viewed with suspicion.[5] One example of this is the Apache medicine cord or Izze-kloth whose purpose and use by Apache medicine elders was a mystery to nineteenth century ethnologists because "the Apache look upon these cords as so sacred that strangers are not allowed to see them, much less handle them or talk about them."[6]

The 1954 version of Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language reflects the poorly-grounded perceptions of the people whose use of the term effectively defined it for the people of that time: "a man supposed to have supernatural powers of curing disease and controlling spirits." In effect, such definitions were not explanations of what these "medicine people" are to their own communities but instead reported on the consensus of socially and psychologically remote observers when they tried to categorize the individuals.[citation needed] The term "medicine man/woman," like the term "shaman," has been criticized by Native Americans, as well as other specialists in the fields of religion and anthropology.

While non-Native anthropologists sometimes use the term "shaman," for Indigenous healers worldwide, including the Americas, "shaman" is the specific name for a spiritual mediator from the Tungusic peoples of Siberia[7] and is not used in Native American or First Nations communities.

The term "medicine man/woman" has also frequently been used by Europeans to refer to African traditional healers, along with the offensive term, "witch doctors".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fienup-Riordan, Ann. (1994). Boundaries & Passages: Rule and Ritual in Yup'ik Eskimo Oral Tradition. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, p. 206. Nushagak, located on Nushagak Bay of the Bering Sea in southwest Alaska, is part of the territory of the Yup'ik, speakers of the Central Alaskan Yup'ik language.
  2. ^ Alcoze, Dr Thomas M. "Ethnobotany from a Native American Perspective: Restoring Our Relationship with the Earth" in Botanic Gardens Conservation International Volume 1 Number 19 - December 1999
  3. ^ Moerman, Daniel E. "Symbols and selectivity: A statistical analysis of native american medical ethnobotany" in Journal of Ethnopharmacology Volume 1, Issue 2, April 1979, Pages 111-119
  4. ^ Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, "Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Sustaining Our Lives and the Natural World" at United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Newtown Square, PA. December 2011
  5. ^ a b National Museum of the American Indian. Do All Indians Live in Tipis? Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-115301-3.
  6. ^ Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Annual report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Issue 9, Government Printing Office, United States Government, 1892, There is probably no more mysterious or interesting portion of the religious or 'medicinal' equipment of the Apache Indian, whether he be medicine-man or simply a member of the laity, than the 'izze-kloth' or medicine cord... the Apache look upon these cords as so sacred that strangers are not allowed to see them, much less handle them or talk about them.... 
  7. ^ Smith, C. R. "Shamanism." Cabrillo College. (Retrieved 28 June 2011)

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