Medicine Bundle: Indian Sacred Performance and American Literature, 1824-1932

Medicine Bundle: Indian Sacred Performance and American Literature, 1824-1932

Medicine Bundle: Indian Sacred Performance and American Literature, 1824-1932

Medicine Bundle: Indian Sacred Performance and American Literature, 1824-1932


From the 1820s to the 1930s, Christian missionaries and federal agents launched a continent-wide assault against Indian sacred dance, song, ceremony, and healing ritual in an attempt to transform Indian peoples into American citizens. In spite of this century-long religious persecution, Native peoples continued to perform their sacred traditions and resist the foreign religions imposed on them, as well as to develop new practices that partook of both. At the same time, some whites began to explore Indian performance with interest, and even to promote Indian sacred traditions as a source of power for their own society. The varieties of Indian performance played a formative role in American culture and identity during a critical phase in the nation's development.

In Medicine Bundle, Joshua David Bellin examines the complex issues surrounding Indian sacred performance in its manifold and intimate relationships with texts and images by both Indians and whites. From the paintings of George Catlin, the traveling showman who exploited Indian ceremonies for the entertainment of white audiences, to the autobiography of Black Elk, the Lakota holy man whose long life included stints as a dancer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, a supplicant in the Ghost Dance movement, and a catechist in the Catholic Church, Bellin reframes American literature, culture, and identity as products of encounter with diverse performance traditions. Like the traditional medicine bundle of sacred objects bound together for ritual purposes, Indian performance and the performance of Indianness by whites and Indians alike are joined in a powerful intercultural knot.


Cultures are most fully expressed in and made conscious of themselves in
their ritual and theatrical performances

—Victor Turner, quoted in Richard Schechner and Willa Appel, By
Means of Performance (1990)

Some years ago, at the opening of the Pittsburgh American Indian Center, I met a man named Edward Hale, a Mandan/Hidatsa medicine man and promoter of Indian causes. Both aspects of Hale’s dual role were on display at the inaugural ceremony. Called on not only to provide the mostly Anglo audience with a living example of Indian people’s resurgence but also to supervise and interpret the enactment of Native dances, songs, and rituals, Hale, dressed in what I took to be a traditional costume of feathers and fringed leather, beating a drum and chanting in a soft voice that seemed too small even for the tiny Quaker meetinghouse in which the event took place, was at once the arbiter of Native mysteries and the vendor of a mystery as strong and strange as the medicine bundle he bore: the mystery of his people’s presence and persistence. I acknowledge now that I too was beguiled by the promise of Hale’s performance, that I was taken by the preposterous thought that I, at that time beginning to study Native American sacred traditions in antebellum literature, could make contact with that yet more distant mystery by fitting a lone hour’s encounter with a lone contemporary healer into a hectic research and writing schedule. I imagined that I might talk with Hale at length—again, I meant an hour—about his practice, his people, his powers. I imagined that his medicine, ensconced within my pages, might live on through me.

As it turned out, my hopes were vain. Hale was distracted, the center of attention, rushing here and there, wearily answering questions and permitting his possessions and person to be admired and handled. Compounding . . .

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