American Indian Medicine Path

This article is an adoption of the information contained in American Indian Ceremonies by Medicine Hawk and Grey Cat, Inner Light Publications, 1990.

There are a number of works linked to Native American beliefs and practices which have been widely used without care as to what, exactly, is meant by them. We will, therefore, set down definitions for some of these words for clarity of meaning. These definitions apply only to the author's applications and will not necessarily meet with wide agreement in the world at large.

Medicine is used to denote a sort of "spiritual power" which may be sought, increased, and used for many purposes including healing. A "medicine song" is to be understood as a song seeking or applying this spiritual power. A medicine man or a medicine woman is an individual who has successfully sought this power and has in some way demonstrated their possession of it to other individuals. A medicine wheel is a place possessing in itself spiritual power, and it is also a place to which one may go to gain or use this power.

Sacred. All that is a part of the Universe is imbued with Spirit and all is therefore sacred. However, objects, beings, people, places may through various means become particularly dedicated the expression of this spirit and therefore may be specifically spoke of as sacred. A "sacred pipe" is made to become especially sacred and when complete, special ritual is performed in order to embue it with this special quality of particular sacredness. Some things are "made" sacred, other things are recognized as already being sacred.

Chanoopah is a Lakota work used by Wallace Black Elk to mean a sacred ceremony, a sacred tool, and a "state of grace"; the present state of being sacred. Rather than being a static identification it is an "active" word implying that you are doing something.

Shaman (Which, by the way, has always been practiced by both males and females in most places where it has been identified.) "The Shaman, a mystical, priestly, and political figure...can be described not only as a specialist in the humans soul but also as a generalist whose sacred and social functions can cover an extraordinarily wide range of activities. Shamans are healers, seers, and visionaries who have mastered death. They are in communication with the world of gods and spirits. Their bodies can be left behind while they fly to unearthly realms. They are poets and singers. They dance and create works of art. They are not only spiritual leaders but also judges and politicians, repositories of the knowledge of the culture's history, both sacred and secular. They are familiar with cosmic as well as physical geography; the ways of plants, animals, and the elements are known to them. They are psychologists, entertainers, and food finders. Above all, however, shamans are technicians of the sacred and masters of ecstasy." [Shamanic Voices, Joan Halifax]

Is a medicine woman/man a Shaman? In a sense, followers of the medicine path are all shamans when they have received their vision. They have communicated with the spirit world. In a more technical sense, "shaman" is the word used to denote a particular fashion of communication with the other world. Amer-indian traditions rarely lead to this sort of "out-of-body" travel, particularly searches into the underworld.

It seems that in popular use and according to many authorities, a medicine man/woman can be called a shaman without distorting the word seriously. To be called either, the individual must be perceived by others to be learned, wise, and powerful.

Turtle Island is a translation of one Indian term for the North American continent.

Indians. We will use the terms "Native Americans", "American Indians", "Indians", "Amerindians", and "Amrinds" interchangeably to indicate the aboriginal or "native" population of the geographical area now known as north America. These terms are used as a convenience in identifying members of an otherwise disparate group and no derogatory meanings are attached to any of these words for us. We do not intent to explore the interesting subject of the origins of these peoples or visits to this continent by Europeans prior to 1492.

Washichu, is a Sioux term for the invading Americans. It does not refer to skin color. We prefer using this term to "Whites" as we may know very few people whose skin is "white".

Unega is the Cherokee word for "newcomer" and came to be applied generally to the European invaders.

On Turtle Island, which is now called North America, lived many, many peoples. There were several hundred mutually unintelligible languages. No one has any idea of how many different societies functioned in this land.

written by Paul Sivert