The mountains, I become a part of it…
The herbs, the fir tree, I become a part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters, I become a part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen…I become a part of it.
– Navajo Chant
A Native American medicine bag or medicine bundle is a container for items believed to protect or give spiritual powers to its owner. Varying in size, it could be small enough to wear around the neck, or it could be a large bag with a long strap called a “bandolier.” The size of the bag is determined by how many items need to be carried.
In historical times, medicine men and shamans generally carried a large medicine bundle that could hold numerous items such as seeds, herbs, pine cones, grass, animal teeth or claws, horsehair, rocks, tobacco, beads, arrowheads, bones, or anything else of relatively small size that possessed spiritual value to the bundle’s owner. Warriors also carried bundles that included important items, such as rattles, animal furs, special stones, or anything that meant something to the owner.
Because the medicine bag is considered a very precious possession representing a person’s spiritual life, it and its contents are generally regarded as holy by the tribal community. Its contents are meant to be kept secret by the owner. The bundle should never touch the ground, which is why the bundles are to be securely wrapped. Prayers and rituals usually accompany the manufacture and opening of medicine bundles.
Medicine bundles can also be maintained for an entire tribe. This bundle would be much larger and contain special objects that can only be handled by certain tribe members and are only opened on special occasions. All bags and bundles can possess powers for protection, good luck, good hunting, or healing. Medicine bundles are sometimes buried with the owner or handed down from one generation to the next.
In traditional Native American medicine, the pouch or bundle is usually made out of leather and stitched with sinew or rawhide lace to be worn or hung. They can also be made using cloth. The bags might be very plain or richly decorated. Of the latter, they might be painted, beaded, or quilled with tribal designs, medicine wheels, totems, and more. Embellishments might include feathers, beads, metal, fringe, etc.
In many cultures, some of the items carried in the bag would often be procured through a vision quest, a right of passage that includes personal sacrifice such as fasting and prayer over several days in an isolated location. The purpose is to contact natural spiritual forces that will guide the individual in reaching their potential and increase their understanding of themselves, their community, and the world. During the vision quest, a guardian spirit will generally come to the individual in a dream or a vision, which is afterward interpreted with the help of a Shaman. Some items within the individual’s medicine bag would represent their guardian spirit.
Though many people associate medicine bags with the native tribes of North America, they have been used by numerous cultures throughout the world. The use of medicine bags dates back at least 5,000 years, as evidenced by the ancient remains found high in the Swiss Alps in 1991. Among his possessions was a medicine pouch. Other historians believe the use of these bags dates back even further — as far as 10,000 years — based on murals found in an ancient city excavated in Turkey.
Your Medicine Bag
Meant to give guidance, good luck, good health, protection, abundance, and even love to the individuals who carry them, some may wish to carry their medicine bag tailored just for them.
In the Native American tradition, each bag contains an item from the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, the mineral kingdom, and the human world. Examples from the “kingdoms” might include a flower, feather, stone, and a key.
Sage, Sweetgrass, Cedar
Corn, Beans, and Squash Seeds
Lock of hair, mane, or tail
Bone or Tooth
Claw or Nail
Gems and Crystals
Flint Stone, Arrowhead
Other items in the bag might include any small items which have a personal meaning to the owner – a charm, an inherited item, a shell found during an extraordinary vacation, a baby’s picture, a special note — things that make you smile.
Do some research on what your totem animal might be. Also referred to as your power animal or spirit animal, Native beliefs further explain that a totem animal is with you for life, both in the physical and spiritual world. Once you have determined what your spirit animal is, your bag should represent this powerful spirit. (See: Native American Totem Animals & Their Meanings)
Take a walk in Nature — observe, listen, pick things up. Do you feel a strong and clear connection with the item? Have you brought things home in the past and wondered why? Something like a rock, or a leaf, a memento of a special occasion. These are items that may belong in your bag. These articles create the energy in your medicine bag that represents your power to heal, guide, assist, and protect yourself and others.
Think about what special needs you might have, what you wish for, or what you want to maintain. For instance, if you are searching for balance in your life, you may want to represent that need within the medical bag, such as something that represents balancing symbols or Amethyst stones which work to promote balance, as well as improving motivation, enhancing memory, and having strong healing powers. Another individual looking to increase their mental and physical strength might add an arrowhead or agate stone to their bag; if you want to be more loving, you could place a small piece of rose quartz in your medicine bag.
Some people keep several medicine bags; each carried for different reasons – one for dealing with stress, another for a specific healing purpose, another for happiness.
The medicine bag is a sacred item and often worn around the neck, close to the heart. It can also be worn on a belt, put in a pocket, carried in a briefcase or purse, under clothing, on a saddle, in your car, or even placed under your pillow at night. By keeping it close, you are connecting with your spiritual self and helping yourself in healing.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2021.
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