13 November, 2006
THE FIRST MEDICINE LODGE
THE FIRST MEDICINE LODGE
The chief god of the Blackfeet is the Sun. He made the
world and rules it, and to him the people pray. One of
his names is Napi—old man; but there is another Napi
who is very different from the Sun, and instead of
being great, wise, and wonderful, is foolish, mean, and
contemptible. We shall hear about him further on.
Every year in summer, about the time the berries ripen,
the Blackfeet used to hold the great festival and
sacrifice which we call the ceremony of the Medicine
Lodge. This was a time of happy meetings, of feasting,
of giving presents; but besides this rejoicing, those
men who wished to have good-luck in whatever they might
undertake tried to prove their prayers sincere by
sacrificing their bodies, torturing themselves in ways
that caused great suffering. In ancient times, as we
are told in books of history, things like that used to
happen among many peoples all over the world.
It was the law that the building of the Medicine Lodge
must always be pledged by a good woman. If a woman had
a son or a husband away at war and feared that he was
in danger, or if she had a child that was sick and
might die, she might pray for the safety of the one she
loved, and promise that if he returned or recovered she
would build a Medicine Lodge. This pledge was made in a
loud voice, publicly, in open air, so that all might
know the promise had been made.
At the time appointed all the tribe came together and
pitched their lodges in a great circle, and within this
circle the Medicine Lodge was built. The ceremony
lasted for four days and four nights, during which time
the woman who had promised to make the Medicine Lodge
neither ate nor drank, except once in sacrifice.
Different stories are told of how the first Medicine
Lodge came to be built. This is one of those stories:
In the earliest times there was a man who had a very
beautiful daughter. Many young men wished to marry her,
but whenever she was asked she shook her head and said
she did not wish to marry.
"Why is this?" said her father. "Some of these young
men are rich, handsome, and brave."
"Why should I marry?" replied the girl. "My father and
mother take care of me. Our lodge is good; the
parfleches are never empty; there are plenty of tanned
robes and soft furs for winter. Why trouble me, then?"
Soon after, the Raven Bearers held a dance. They all
painted themselves nicely and wore their finest
ornaments and each one tried to dance the best.
Afterward some of them asked for this girl, but she
said, "No." After that the Bulls, the Kit-Foxes, and
others of the All Comrades held their dances, and many
men who were rich and some great warriors asked this
man for his daughter, but to every one she said, "No."
Then her father was angry, and he said, "Why is this?
All the best men have asked for you, and still you say
'No.'" Then the girl said, "Father, listen to me. That
Above Person, the Sun, said to me, 'Do not marry any of
these men, for you belong to me. Listen to what I say,
and you shall be happy and live to a great age.' And
again he said to me, 'Take heed, you must not marry;
you are mine.'"
"Ah!" replied her father; "it must always be as he
says"; and they spoke no more about it.
There was a poor young man. He was very poor. His
father, his mother, and all his relations were dead. He
had no lodge, no wife to tan his robes or make his
moccasins. His clothes were always old and worn. He had
no home. To-day he stopped in one lodge; then to-morrow
he ate and slept in another. Thus he lived. He had a
good face, but on his cheek was a bad scar.
After they had held those dances, some of the young men
met this poor Scarface, and they laughed at him and
said, "Why do not you ask that girl to marry you? You
are so rich and handsome."
Scarface did not laugh. He looked at them and said, "I
will do as you say; I will go and ask her."
All the young men thought this was funny; they laughed
a good deal at Scarface as he was walking away.
Scarface went down by the river and waited there, near
the place where the women went to get water. By and by
the girl came there. Scarface spoke to her, and said,
"Girl, stop; I want to speak with you. I do not wish to
do anything secretly, but I speak to you here openly,
where the Sun looks down and all may see."
"Speak, then," said the girl.
"I have seen the days," said Scarface. "I have seen how
you have refused all those men, who are young and rich
and brave. To-day some of these young men laughed and
said to me, 'Why do not you ask her?' I am poor. I have
no lodge, no food, no clothes, no robes. I have no
relations. All of them have died. Yet now to-day I say
to you, take pity. Be my wife."
The girl hid her face in her robe and brushed the
ground with the point of her moccasin, back and forth,
back and forth, for she was thinking.
After a time she spoke and said, "It is true I have
refused all those rich young men; yet now a poor one
asks me, and I am glad. I will be your wife, and my
people will be glad. You are poor, but that does not
matter. My father will give you dogs; my mother will
make us a lodge; my relations will give us robes and
furs; you will no longer be poor."
Then the young man was glad, and he started forward to
kiss her, but she put out her hand and held him back,
and said, "Wait; the Sun has spoken to me. He said I
may not marry; that I belong to him; that if I listen
to him I shall live to great age. So now I say, go to
the Sun; say to him, 'She whom you spoke with has
listened to your words; she has never done wrong, but
now she wants to marry. I want her for my wife.' Ask
him to take that scar from your face; that will be his
sign, and I shall know he is pleased. But if he
refuses, or if you cannot find his lodge, then do not
return to me."
"Oh!" cried Scarface; "at first your words were good. I
was glad. But now it is dark. My heart is dead. Where
is that far-off lodge? Where is the trail that no one
yet has travelled?"
"Take courage, take courage," said the girl softly, and
she went on to her lodge.
Scarface was very unhappy. He did not know what to do.
He sat down and covered his face with his robe, and
tried to think. At length he stood up and went to an
old woman who had been kind to him, and said to her,
"Pity me. I am very poor. I am going away, on a long
journey. Make me some moccasins."
"Where are you going—far from the camp?" asked the old
"I do not know where I am going," he replied; "I am in
trouble, but I cannot talk about it."
This old woman had a kind heart. She made him
moccasins—seven pairs; and gave him also a sack of
food—pemican, dried meat, and back fat.
All alone, and with a sad heart, Scarface climbed the
bluff that overlooked the valley, and when he had
reached the top, turned to look back at the camp. He
wondered if he should ever see it again; if he should
return to the girl and to the people.
"Pity me, O Sun!" he prayed; and turning away, he set
off to look for the trail to the Sun's lodge.
For many days he went on. He crossed great prairies and
followed up timbered rivers, and crossed the mountains.
Every day his sack of food grew lighter, but as he went
along he looked for berries and roots, and sometimes he
killed an animal. These things gave him food.
One night he came to the home of a wolf. "Hah!" said
the wolf; "what are you doing so far from your home?"
"I am looking for the place where the Sun lives,"
replied Scarface. "I have been sent to speak with him."
"I have travelled over much country," said the wolf; "I
know all the prairies, the valleys, and the mountains;
but I have never seen the Sun's home. But wait a
moment. I know a person who is very wise, and who may
be able to tell you the road. Ask the bear."
The next day Scarface went on again, stopping now and
then to rest and to pick berries, and when night came
he was at the bear's lodge.
"Where is your home?" asked the bear. "Why are you
travelling so far alone?"
"Ah," replied the man, "I have come to you for help.
Pity me. Because of what that girl said to me, I am
looking for the Sun. I wish to ask him for her."
"I do not know where he lives," said the bear. "I have
travelled by many rivers and I know the mountains, yet
I have not seen his lodge. Farther on there is some
one—that striped face—who knows a great deal; ask him."
When the young man got there, the badger was in his
hole. But Scarface called to him, "Oh, cunning striped
face! I wish to speak with you."
The badger put his head out of the hole and said, "What
do you want, my brother?"
"I wish to find the Sun's home," said Scarface. "I wish
to speak with him."
"I do not know where he lives," answered the badger. "I
never travel very far. Over there in the timber is the
wolverene. He is always travelling about, and knows
many things. Perhaps he can tell you."
Scarface went over to the forest and looked all about
for the wolverene, but could not see him; so he sat
down on a log to rest. "Alas, alas!" he cried;
"wolverene, take pity on me. My food is gone, my
moccasins are worn out; I fear I shall die."
Some one close to him said, "What is it, my brother?"
and looking around, he saw the wolverene sitting there.
"She whom I wish to marry belongs to the Sun," said
Scarface; "I am trying to find where he lives, so that
I may ask him for her."
"Ah," said the wolverene, "I know where he lives. It is
nearly night now, but to-morrow I will show you the
trail to the big water. He lives on the other side of
Early in the morning they set out, and the wolverene
showed Scarface the trail, and he followed it until he
came to the water's edge. When he looked out over it,
his heart almost stopped. Never before had any one seen
such a great water. The other side could not be seen
and there was no end to it. Scarface sat down on the
shore. This seemed the end. His food was gone; his
moccasins were worn out; he had no longer strength, no
longer courage; his heart was sick. "I cannot cross
this great water," he said. "I cannot return to the
people. Here by this water I shall die."
Yet, even as he thought this, helpers were near. Two
swans came swimming up to the shore and said to him,
"Why have you come here? What are you doing? It is very
far to the place where your people live."
"I have come here to die," replied Scarface. "Far away
in my country is a beautiful girl. I want to marry her,
but she belongs to the Sun; so I set out to find him
and ask him for her. I have travelled many days. My
food is gone. I cannot go back; I cannot cross this
great water; so I must die."
"No," said the swans; "it shall not be so. Across this
water is the home of that Above Person. Get on our
backs, and we will take you there."
Scarface stood up. Now he felt strong and full of
courage. He waded out into the water and lay down on
the swans' backs, and they swam away. It was a fearful
journey, for that water was deep and black, and in it
live strange people and great animals which might reach
up and seize a person and pull him down under the
water; yet the swans carried Scarface safely to the
other side. There was seen a broad, hard trail leading
back from the water's edge.
"There," said the swans; "you are now close to the
Sun's lodge. Follow that trail, and soon you will see
Scarface started to walk along the trail, and after he
had gone a little way he came to some beautiful things
lying in the trail. There was a war shirt, a shield, a
bow, and a quiver of arrows. He had never seen such
fine weapons. He looked at them, but he did not touch
them, and at last walked around them and went on. A
little farther along he met a young man, a very
handsome person. His hair was long; his clothing was
made of strange skins, and his moccasins were sewed
with bright feathers.
The young man spoke to him and asked, "Did you see some
weapons lying in the trail?"
"Yes," replied Scarface, "I saw them."
"Did you touch them?" said the young man.
"No," said Scarface; "I supposed some one had left them
there, and I did not touch them."
"You do not meddle with the property of others," said
the young man. "What is your name, and where are you
going?" Scarface told him. Then said the young man, "My
name is Early Riser (the morning star). The Sun is my
father. Come, I will take you to our lodge. My father
is not at home now, but he will return at night."
At length they came to the lodge. It was large and
handsome, and on it were painted strange medicine
animals. On a tripod behind the lodge were the Sun's
weapons and his war clothing. Scarface was ashamed to
go into the lodge, but Morning Star said, "Friend, do
not be afraid; we are glad you have come."
When they went in a woman was sitting there, the Moon,
the Sun's wife and the mother of Morning Star. She
spoke to Scarface kindly and gave him food to eat, and
when he had eaten she asked, "Why have you come so far
from your people?"
So Scarface told her about the beautiful girl that he
wished to marry and said, "She belongs to the Sun. I
have come to ask him for her."
When it was almost night, and time for the Sun to come
home, the Moon hid Scarface under a pile of robes. As
soon as the Sun got to the doorway he said, "A strange
person is here."
"Yes, father," said Morning Star, "a young man has come
to see you. He is a good young man, for he found some
of my things in the trail and did not touch them."
Scarface came out from under the robes and the Sun
entered the lodge and sat down. He spoke to Scarface
and said, "I am glad you have come to our lodge. Stay
with us as long as you like. Sometimes my son is
lonely. Be his friend."
The next day the two young men were talking about going
hunting and the Moon spoke to Scarface and said, "Go
with my son where you like, but do not hunt near that
big water. Do not let him go there. That is the home of
great birds with long, sharp bills. They kill people. I
have had many sons, but these birds have killed them
all. Only Morning Star is left."
Scarface stayed a long time in the Sun's lodge, and
every day went hunting with Morning Star. One day they
came near the water and saw the big birds.
"Come on," said Morning Star, "let us go and kill those
"No, no," said Scarface, "we must not go there. Those
are terrible birds; they will kill us."
Morning Star would not listen. He ran toward the water
and Scarface ran after him, for he knew that he must
kill the birds and save the boy's life. He ran ahead of
Morning Star and met the birds, which were coming to
fight, and killed every one of them with his spear; not
one was left. The young men cut off the heads of the
birds and carried them home, and when Morning Star's
mother heard what they had done, and they showed her
the birds' heads, she was glad. She cried over the two
young men and called Scarface "My son," and when the
Sun came home at night she told him about it, and he
too was glad.
"My son," he said to Scarface, "I will not forget what
you have this day done for me. Tell me now what I can
do for you; what is your trouble?"
"Alas, alas!" replied Scarface, "Pity me. I came here
to ask you for that girl. I want to marry her. I asked
her and she was glad, but she says that she belongs to
you, and that you told her not to marry."
"What you say is true," replied the Sun. "I have seen
the days and all that she has done. Now I give her to
you. She is yours. I am glad that she has been wise,
and I know that she has never done wrong. The Sun takes
care of good women; they shall live a long time, and so
shall their husbands and children.
"Now, soon you will go home. I wish to tell you
something and you must be wise and listen. I am the
only chief; everything is mine; I made the earth, the
mountains, the prairies, the rivers, and the forests; I
made the people and all the animals. This is why I say
that I alone am chief. I can never die. It is true the
winter makes me old and weak, but every summer I grow
"What one of all the animals is the smartest?" the Sun
went on. "It is the raven, for he always finds food; he
is never hungry. Which one of all the animals is the
most to be reverenced? It is the buffalo; of all the
animals I like him best. He is for the people; he is
your food and your shelter. What part of his body is
sacred? It is the tongue; that belongs to me. What else
is sacred? Berries. They too are mine. Come with me now
and see the world."
The Sun took Scarface to the edge of the sky and they
looked down and saw the world. It is flat and round,
and all around the edge it goes straight down. Then
aid the Sun, "If any man is sick or in danger his wife
may promise to build me a lodge if he recovers. If the
woman is good, then I shall be pleased and help the
man; but if she is not good, or if she lies, then I
shall be angry. You shall build the lodge like the
world, round, with walls, but first you must build a
sweat-lodge of one hundred sticks. It shall be arched
like the sky, and one-half of it shall be painted red
for me, the other half you shall paint black for the
night." He told Scarface all about making the Medicine
Lodge, and when he had finished speaking, he rubbed
some medicine on the young man's face and the scar that
had been there disappeared. He gave him two raven
feathers, saying: "These are a sign for the girl that I
give her to you. They must always be worn by the
husband of the woman who builds a Medicine Lodge."
Now Scarface was ready to return home. The Sun and
Morning Star gave him many good presents; the Moon
cried and kissed him and was sorry to see him go. Then
the Sun showed him the short trail. It was the Wolf
Road—the Milky Way. He followed it and soon reached the
It was a very hot day. All the lodge skins were raised
and the people sat in the shade. There was a chief, a
very generous man, who all day long was calling out for
feasts, and people kept coming to his lodge to eat and
smoke with him. Early in the morning this chief saw
sitting on a butte near by a person close-wrapped in
his robe. All day long this person sat there and did
not move. When it was almost night the chief said,
"That person has sat there all day in the strong heat,
and he has not eaten nor drunk. Perhaps he is a
stranger. Go and ask him to come to my lodge."
Some young men ran up to the person and said to him,
"Why have you sat here all day in the great heat? Come
to the shade of the lodges. The chief asks you to eat
with him." The person rose and threw off his robe and
the young men were surprised. He wore fine clothing;
his bow, shield, and other weapons were of strange
make; but they knew his face, although the scar was
gone, and they ran ahead, shouting, "The Scarface poor
young man has come. He is poor no longer. The scar on
his face is gone."
All the people hurried out to see him and to ask him
questions. "Where did you get all these fine things?"
He did not answer. There in the crowd stood that young
woman, and, taking the two raven feathers from his
head, he gave them to her and said, "The trail was long
and I nearly died, but by those helpers I found his
lodge. He is glad. He sends these feathers to you. They
are the sign."
Great was her gladness then. They were married and made
the first Medicine Lodge, as the Sun had said. The Sun
was glad. He gave them great age. They were never sick.
When they were very old, one morning their children
called to them, "Awake, rise and eat." They did not
In the night, together, in sleep, without pain, their
shadows had departed to the Sandhills.
~George Bird Grinnell~ "Project Gutenberg"