Medicine Men & Healing Practices

Medicine Man Performing by George Catlin

Medicine Man Performing by George Catlin. Image available for photo prints HERE.

In numerous instances the medicine-man combined the functions of a shaman or priest with those of a healer, and thus exercised a great influence among his people. All priests were believed to possess some healing powers. Among most of the populous tribes the medicine-man of this class were associated in guilds or societies, and on special occasions, performed great healing or “life (vitality) giving” ceremonies, which abounded in songs, prayers, ritual, and drama, and extended over a period of a few hours to nine days.

The ordinary procedure of the medicine-man was about as follows: He inquired into the symptoms, dreams, and transgressions of the patient, whom be examined, and then pronounced his opinion as to the nature (generally mythical) of the ailment. He then prayed, exhorted, or sang, the last, perhaps, to the accompaniment of a rattle; made passes with his hand, sometimes moistened with saliva, over the part affected; and finally placed his mouth over the most painful spot and sucked hard to extract their immediate principle of the illness. This result he apparently accomplished, often by means of sleight-of-hand, producing the offending cause in the shape of a thorn, pebble, hair, or other object, which was then thrown away or destroyed. Finally he administered a mysterious powder or other tangible “medicine,” and perhaps left also a protective fetish. There were many variations of this method and the medicine-man never failed to exercise as much mental influence as possible over his patient. For these services the healer was usually well compensated.

If the case would not yield to the simpler treatment, a healing ceremony might be resorted to. If all means failed, particularly in the case of internal diseases or of adolescents or younger adults, the medicine-man often suggested a witch or wizard as the cause, and the designation of someone as the culprit frequently placed his life in jeopardy. If the medicine-man lost several patients in succession, he himself might be suspected either of having been deprived of his supernatural power or of having become a sorcerer, the penalty for which was usually death. These shaman healers, as a rule, were shrewd and experienced men; some were sincere, noble characters, worthy of respect; others were charlatans to a greater or less degree. Medicine-women of this class were found among the Apache and some other tribes. The most accomplished of the medicine-men also practiced  a primitive surgery aided by external manipulation.

The other class of medicine men and women corresponds closely to herbalists and old-fashioned rural midwives among white people. Women predominated this type of healer. They formed no societies, were not so highly respected or so much feared as those of the other class, were not so well compensated, and had less responsibility. In general they used much more common sense in their practice, were acquainted with the beneficial effects of sweating, poulticing, moxa, scarification, various manipulations and numerous vegetal remedies, such purgatives, emetics, etc. Some of these medicine-women were frequently summoned in cases of childbirth, and sometimes were of material assistance.

Besides these two chief classes of healers there existed among some tribes large medicine societies, composed principally of patients cured of serious ailments. This was particularly the case among the Pueblos. At Zuni there were several such societies. The ordinary members were not actual healers, but were believed to be more competent to assist in the particular line of diseases which were the specialty of their society and therefore might be called by the actual medicine-men for assistance.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2017.

Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908

Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908

Text from The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico by Frederick Webb Hodge, Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office, 1906. Above text is not verbatim as it has been truncated and heavily edited.

Also See:

Indian Shamans & Priests

Medicine Wheel & the Four Directions

Native American Medicine

Native American Dances

Rituals and Ceremonies

Totems & Their Meanings

Native Americans (main page)

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