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Medicine Pipe Tradition

The state of the nation of American Indians today is actually a lot like that of a battered woman. Anybody who has lost their identity and been continually told that they were evil practitioners of witchcraft will begin to believe it.
Κείμενο Charlene Burns

The state of the nation of American Indians today is actually a lot like that of a battered woman. Anybody who has lost their identity and been continually told that they were evil practitioners of witchcraft will begin to believe it. Fortunately, a few people were able to hold onto and pass down our Blackfeet traditions. When we say our prayer, we always end it by saying, “survival of the Blackfeet.” That doesn’t necessarily mean survival of the race. It means survival of the Blackfeet worldview. That worldview is the answer to all our problems. Not only ours, the Blackfeet’s, problems, but the rest of the world’s too. It all starts with how everything is connected and interrelated, and it’s all based on respect.

My husband and I are bundle holders. What that means is that we are guardians of sacred Blackfeet bundles. These are packages that contain objects that are very sacred to us. I cannot tell you about what is in them, but I can say that we only open them a couple of times a year as part of intricate ceremonies, and that they hold a lot of power inside them. The women used to carry them on their backs. What they represent, really, is the survival of the Blackfeet. Our role is to protect and to reintroduce them to our children and grandchildren.


Our Tribal Council leaders, on the whole, have been assimilated. They don’t know about our Blackfeet spirituality. This all started when they took the children out of Blackfeet homes and sent them to boarding schools. The children who assimilated the fastest were rewarded, and when they were sent back to the community they became leaders. The condition that you see today in many Indians is really a programmed condition. What we’re doing here is working on cultural recovery. We’re reintroducing the Indian back to the Indian so that we can stand up to our oppressors on our own rather than always having somebody from the outside coming in to save us.

These are the things that led us to where we’re at today. They tried to strip our culture from us, but it just went underground. It did not die. The Blackfeet language is coming back quite well. It had been pretty much gone. We have a ceremony that’s called the Medicine Pipe ceremony. It’s supposed to take place over four days. It takes four days to transfer a Medicine Pipe. But if the priest, back in the old days, found out there was a Medicine Pipe ceremony going on, he would go there with the authorities and confiscate the bundle. They would put whomever they could find involved with it—“perpetrators” they called them—in jail. Then the priest would take the bundle down to the Holy Family Mission and burn it. It wasn’t too long ago that they finally said it was OK for us Indians to have eagle feathers for spiritual purposes. It was against the law up until the time of JFK.


The psychological effects of this are still visible today. When you bring up old Blackfeet ways in a group of Blackfeet today, you can see a lot of them just stiffen up, like, “Oh my God, if you talk about Blackfeet, somebody’s gonna die in a car wreck.” Seriously, that is still here today. The psychological damage is so deep.

If you look at our community and try to stamp out alcohol abuse, child abuse, drug abuse—any kind of a social problem—it would be like trying to stamp out one little fire when the whole forest is blazing. Rather than try those piecemeal things, you have to go back down to the root.

You should know about the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow. He invented the psychological tool called the Hierarchy of Needs—it’s in the form of a pyramid. At the bottom are food, clothing, and safety. He got that from the Blackfeet. He lived with the Blackfeet in the Blackfeet Nation and he did that whole thing after spending one summer with the Blackfeet. He saw the beautiful way that our philosophy took care of our social problems back then.

When you find your identity, everything else follows. Before the bundles came to me, I was a Full Gospel preacher. I would have preached that the bundles were witchcraft. I was an ordained minister and everything. But when my ex-husband and I went through a divorce, the Creator sent my new husband Bob my way. I always say that the Creator has a sense of humor. We joke that Bob taught me how to curse and I taught him to pray. Bob was just getting into his Indian cultural ways when we met and I was in my Christian ways still. We agreed that we would respect each other’s ways, so I started to go with him. That’s when I saw the philosophy for myself. It was one of the most humbling things I have ever experienced. Today people here feel like you have to choose between being an Indian and having Christian beliefs, but you don’t at all. It’s like our elder told us, “Whatever you are, the Indian way will make you that much more. If you are a Catholic, you’ll be a better Catholic, and so on.” The Indians always recognized everybody’s spirituality.

Not only everybody, but everything is spiritual to us. In other philosophies, animals are beneath us. In ours, animals, people, stars, trees, and the earth—it’s all one. And nobody is on an individual journey. We are all on a collective journey. All those before us, all those after us, and all of us together. So when I began to see all this, I saw that it was really Christianity to the nth degree. It has enhanced everything I used to know.


The preservation of the Blackfeet people is contained in the bundles. Each bundle has a society built up around it. The Beaver Society has a role that they play and a specific piece of knowledge they preserve, and the Medicine Pipe Society has a role that they play and a specific piece of knowledge they preserve. Also, every bundle is protected by a male and a female, because you’re also preserving the male and the female point of view. To make our people healthy, there has to be a man and a woman there.

The bundles themselves are the chiefs of the Blackfeet. That’s what our people are lacking now I think—the concept of leaders. We are the people who are sitting here taking care of the bundles, but the bundles are the real chiefs. They are the ones that keep us well emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally.

For certain things, you go to certain bundles. The Medicine Pipes are used more for doctoring than the Beaver Pipes. More people with illness would go to the Medicine Pipe. As my husband says, if you come to us with a health problem, a spiritual problem, a mental problem, or an alcohol problem, you’re wasting your time. But if you come to the Medicine Bundle with your problem, you will get what you want. My only caution to you would be to make sure of what you’re asking for.

Once Bob went to the bundles because he was having a lot of financial troubles. The way that he asked for help was, “I would like to have my financial problems resolved.” He left it at that, thinking maybe he was going to win the lottery or some big windfall was going to happen. Two weeks later, every organization that he owed money to started foreclosing on him. As they came up one by one, he was able to meet and satisfy what they wanted. At the end, we were debt-free. So he got what he wanted, just not how he expected.