Tuesday, 26 June, 2007

Medicine man

Medicine man

"Medicine man" is an English term used to describe Native American spiritual figures; such individuals are often viewed by scholars concerned with these matters as being analogous to shamans. The term "medicine man" suffers from being a term applied to a central figure in Native American community life by people of a radically different culture, a culture whose members might easily conceive the Native American practices to be antithetical to their own deeply held religious beliefs.

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." The definition insinuates that the so-called "medicine men" falsely claim to have the power to cure disease, and falsely claim that their supposed powers have a supernatural basis. In effect, such definitions were not explanations of what these "medicine men" were to their own communities, but instead reported on the consensus of socially and psychologically remote observers when they tried to categorize these individuals. The term "medicine man," like the term Shaman, has been criticized by Native Americans, and various specialists in the fields of religion and anthropology. Role in Native SocietyThe primary function of these "medicine men" (who are not always male) is to secure the help of the spirit world, including the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka in the language of the Lakota Sioux), for the benefit of the community.

Sometimes the help sought can be for the sake of healing disease, sometimes it can be for the sake of healing the psyche, sometimes the goal is to promote harmony between human groups or between humans and nature. So the term "medicine man" is not entirely inappropriate, but it greatly oversimplifies and also skews the depiction of the people whose role in society complements that of the chief. These people are not the Native American equivalent of the Chinese "barefoot doctors", herbalists, or of the emergency medical technicians who ride our rescue vehicles.

To be recognized as the one who performs this function of bridging between the natural world and the spiritual world for the benefit of the community, an individual must be validated in his role by that community. One who carries an I.D. which says "Medicine Man" does not qualify in this instance. Neither does one who receives a "vision" from a long dead Native American whose language the receiver neither speaks nor understands. On the contrary, most medicine men and women study their art either through a medicine society such as the Navajo Blessingway, or the Ani-Stohini/Unami Morning Song Way or apprentice themselves to a teacher for twenty-35 years or both.[citation needed]

One of the best sources of information on this subject is the story of a Lakota (Sioux) wicasa wakan ("spirit man") named John Fire Lame Deer, recorded with his cooperation in a book called Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, by Richard Erdoes. On a broader scale, Mircea Eliade's Shamanism puts the whole area of religious experience and practice into a broad historical and ethnographic context.

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