Secret Ojibwa Medicine Society

Courtesy of Alice Palmer Henderson

the Wanderling

The name Midewiwin (also spelled Midewin and Medewiwin) is derived from a Native American term for the Grand Medicine Society, a super-secret society of which today members would nominally be called by others than the Medewiwin, Shamans. Tribal groups who had such societies include the Ojibwa, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi, the last of whom were prominent residents of the Midewiwin National Tallgrass Prairie region from the mid 1700s to the early to mid-1800s. According to the Potawatomi, Mide or Mida (pronounced mid-day), means "mystic" or "mystically powerful." The curing rituals performed by the members of the Midewiwin relied heavily on a tradition that incorporated mystical elements arising from the beliefs about the spirits that protected the A-nish-in-a beg (term used by the Ottawa, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Menomonee to describe the original people).

The first historic mention of the Midewiwin is in connection with the Potawatomi who inhabited the Detroit region of Michigan in 1714. The origins of the society, however, most certainly predate this time. The Midewiwin served as a unifying element among different tribes. There are descriptions of sorcerers, jugglers, tricksters, and persons whose faith, influence, and practices are dependent on assistance of "Manitous," or mysterious spirits, as early as 1642, but the Midewiwin society is not specifically mentioned.

According to the Ojibwa, the Midewiwin came into existence when the servant (Mi nabo zho - Great Rabbit) of the Good Spirit (Dzhe Manido) saw the helpless condition of the A-nish-in-a-beg (the original people) and wanted to give them the means to protect themselves from hunger and disease. He chose to communicate with the people through an Otter, which subsequently became a sacred spirit of the Midewiwin. An Otter Pelt was often used thereafter as a Medicine Bag, which contained the sacred curing items used in the healing ritual. The Great Rabbit gave the Otter the sacred drum, rattle, and tobacco to be used in curing the sick. Through song, he related the wish of Dzhe Manido (Good Spirit), that the original people be spared from hunger and have long and comfortable lives. The Great Rabbit conferred upon the Otter the secrets and mysteries of the Midewiwin, and with his Medicine bag shot the sacred Migiis Shell into the body of the Otter. The Migiis was a white shell that was sacred to the Midewiwin, and the Otter, having been shot at with it gained immortality and the ability to pass on the secrets of the Midewin to the A-nish�-in-a�-beg, the original people. In the Ojibway language if you break down the word A-nish-in-a-beg, it means: ANI (from whence) NISHINA (lowered) ABE (the male of the species).

The sacred Migiis shells (cypraea moneta) used by the Midewiwin, have been found in various North American earth mounds, lost and buried long before the first known white contact. Since they only grow in the South Pacific, their prevalence in pre-contact days, that is before the white man, is one of those mysteries that is difficult to explain. It is known these same shells, cypraea moneta, have been immediatly valued and desired by neary every so-called primitive people when introduced by traders. It is as if every tribal people recognizes something very "special" about this certain shell. Other cowries are larger, more colorful, and are liked for their ornamental value, but cypraea moneta, the Migiis shell, is revered.


There are various forms of spiritual healers and practioners among the Ojibwa. The "tcisaki" or male diviner, the "nanandawi" or tribal doctor, the "wabeno" or "men of the dawn sky" who "manipulates fire in order to interpret dreams, guide novices, and heal the sick," and the "meda" or family healer. Then there is the Midewiwin.

The Midewiwin consisted of a number of individuals who had been initiated into the society in a ceremony that took place in four stages. Each stage confered a greater level of power upon the initiate. There was a cost associated with each stage, and not all individuals went beyond the first. Members advanced from one degree to another by making offerings to the older members and undergoing an initiation consisting of moral instructions as well as lessons in the names and uses of medicines. Instruction in the higher degrees pertained to special mysteries of the Midewiwin, the properties of rare herbs, and the nature of poisons. Only initiated members of the Midewiwin understood the manner of recording on birch-bark scrolls the lectures given to each member and the Midewiwin records.

In the Me-da-we rite is incorporated most that is ancient amongst them - songs and traditions that have descended not orally, but in hieroglyphs, for at least a long time of generations. This rite has perpetuated the purest and most ancient idioms of their language, which differs somewhat from that of common everyday use.

Each member of the society owned a medicine bundle or bag, a pelt (usually an otter, after the origin myth), containing sacred objects. During a curing or initiation, an initiate or patient was shot with the medicine bag (the pelt of an otter or other animal), containing the sacred white shell in an elaborate ceremony. The patient then spit the shell out of his/her mouth at the end of the ceremony as an indication that supernatural Power of the Shaman had been carried into their bodies.

The most complete and trustworthy account of the Midewiwin is that given by W. J. Hoffman in the Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. He writes:

The Midewiwin-Society of the Mide-consists of an indefinite number of Mide of both sexes.

The society is graded into four separate and distinct degrees. The greater power attained by one in making advancement depends upon the fact of his having submitted to being shot at with the medicine sacks in the hands of the officiating priests.

It has always been customary for the Mide priests to preserve birch-bark records, bearing delicate incised lines to represent pictorially the ground plan of the number of degrees to which the owner is entitled. Such records or charts are sacred and are never exposed to the public view."

The two rectangular diagrams represent two degrees of the Mide lodge and the straight line through the center the spiritual path, or "straight and narrow way," running through the degrees. The lines running tangent to the central path signify temptations, and the faces at the termini of the lines are manidos, or powerful spirits. Writing of the Midewiwin, Schoolcraft, the great authority on the American Indian, says: "In the society of the Midewiwin the object is to teach the higher doctrines of spiritual existence, its nature and mode of existence, and the influence it exercises among men. It is an association of men who profess the highest knowledge known to the tribes."



"My Father's brother, my Uncle, spent nearly sixty of his eighty-four years in the desert southwest, having moved to the Taos, Santa Fe, New Mexico area sometime in his twentys. I was quite young when my mother died and when my father remarried, after my new mother, or Stepmother as the case may be, noticed I had a certain propensity toward art, she brought my uncle in to "oversee" me. My uncle had been married at one time as well, but, although he maintained a loosly related association with his wife, he was for all practical purposes, divorced. The woman he was separated from was a Native American of the Little Shell Plains Ojibwe and a fourth level Midewiwin, a super-secret Ojibwe Medicine Society. I had met her in passing and for the most part she never payed much attention to me one way or the other, although I sensed something very "different" about her. She reminded me of a lightning or thunderstorm raging in the distant mountains. You only felt safe because you weren't there, although you knew if you were, the storm had the power to wash you away or destroy you by the might of it all."

"Although personally long disassociated from the tribe for reasons not known, as a fourth level Midewiwin my uncle's wife was still a powerful curandera in the tradition of 'la Catalina,' and like 'la Catalina,' held in awe by most that came within her presence. Tall and straight-backed, with perfect posture and beautiful skin, instead of taking steps she appeared to almost glide when she walked. In restaurants and public places people were reluctant to sit near her table and the help was afraid to serve her. Some have said they had seen a glass of water slide across the table to her hand without her even moving her arm."

"Upon hearing the story regarding myself and my encounter with a circle of vultures sharing food as a young boy as found in The Boy and the Giant Feather, she was certain, at least as she viewed it from her own perspective, that if my uncle had not come across the the circle when he did I would have flown off with them, or, if not then, the six-foot wingspan raptors would have carried me off with them as if I was one of their own (again, her perspective)."

"Years later my uncle told me something he had never told his wife nor discussed with me. The distance I traveled that day, from the point I started to the location he found me, was way to far for me to have covered given the time, especially considering the level of my own abilities, the terrain, heat of the day, etc. He told me he had tracked me some distance quite clearly, then my tracks suddenly just ended as though I had disappeared into thin air. Knowing I didn't have a large supply of water or any at all he continued to look in areas he thought I might seek out and just happened across me --- many, many miles from where he had last seen my tracks. How I got there he couldn't say with any amount of certainty. However, he told me, and he kept it a secret from his wife even to the point of burning my shirt, that my shirt below both shoulders as well as part way down the back and along my sleeves were punctured in spots and appeared to have what he called grip marks on them. So too, my skin had red abrasions almost like minor scratches as though my arms had been clutched by something. He told me he was sure I had been carried off and if he hadn't happened across me I may had been carried off even further, maybe even never to be found."

"In that my uncle was not able to get me to tell him verbally --- OR I was unable or unwilling to put into words my experience of what happened that day --- my uncle suggested I sit down and draw whatever pictures came to mind that related to the event. All of those drawings are long gone as are any finite memories of same, except for one. I remember it clearly as if only yesterday because of the striking comparison my uncle made between one of my drawings and an ink and watercolor drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci. They were nearly identical, desert landscape and all. The major exception was that where Leonardo's drawing depicted a lake with a shape similar to a bird, my drawing, although having a similar shape, was instead, a SHADOW of a giant bird."

Leonardo Da Vinci: Bird's-Eye View of a Landscape. 1502.
Pen, ink and watercolor on paper. Windsor Castle, Windsor, UK


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Portions of above Copyright 1996, Philosophical Research Society. All Rights Reserved.

Also with assist from: The Illinois State Museum