Native Medicine

Note 1: Cabeza de Vaca: Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America (1542). 5/26/99

During the course of his journey through the outback of America along the Gulf coast from Florida to east Texas, Cabeza de Vaca, from his upfront point of view, describes a burial custom of a particular tribe which he was unable to fathom. He notes that

"The dead are buried, except medicine-men, who are cremated. Everybody in the village dances and makes merry while the pyre of a medicine-man kindles, and until his bones become powder. A year later, when his rites are celebrated, the entire village again participating, this powder is presented in water for the relatives to drink." (Chapter 22)

One reason he may have included this reference to the practice of drinking the ashes of the deceased shaman, which is relatively common among animistic people, concerns the fact that he was forced, for the sake of accuracy, even in the previous chapter, to report that a group of five Spaniards had embraced cannibalism in their efforts to survive starvation. Only the fifth body had gone unconsumed, as de Vaca puts it. He also tells us that the natives were so shocked by the act that he fears all remaining Christians will be killed by their captors. This does not happen even if it seems apparent from the discourse that the natives in the region began to treat the Spaniards much more harshly than they had done before the cannibalism was discovered. Whether one thing is connected to the other is a fact that cannot be certainly established but it does point to a significant difference between the native practice of consuming the ashes of the medicine-man, which they do not perceive as cannibalism, since they were shocked by its actuality among the Christians, and what the Spaniards were willing to do to survive their privation.

The practice de Vaca describes serves a dual purpose. Animistic people believe that the essential spirit of a person remains connected to his/her body for as long as any part of the body remains intact. Tribal members who do not have the gifts of the medicine-man receive normal burial and their spirits remain attached to their bodies for as long as it takes for them to disappear back into the elements from which they were composed. These spirits are generally perceived as ancestral and are highly honored by members of subsequent generations for the knowledge and experience they retain. When the body is finally consumed by natural processes, the spirit is released from its connection and begins its journey back to the top of the world tree, to the headwaters of the world river, the summit of the world mountain, and so on, depending on the particular context of each tribe's belief system, where it enters the world "nest" to await its rebirth among living people.

In the case of the shaman, however, and because the spirit of the shaman is generally perceived as more powerful than the one an ordinary person possesses, and because the role of medicine-man among every tribe is considered to be indispensible to life and healthy living, the shaman's body is cremated, both to protect the living from his raw spiritual power, on the one hand, and to accelerate his/her rise to the top of the world tree, river, mountain, so that the shaman-spirit can return to the living more quickly. Left to natural processes, of course, which can take hundreds or thousands of years to consume the body totally, thereby releasing the spirit, the likely possibility is that most, even all, tribes would be left without a medicine-man or shaman for long periods of time. That circumstance would be catastrophic.

The practice of consuming the ashes of the shaman a "year" after his/her cremation, where the length of time is ritually determined by custom and speaks directly to the duration required by the spirit to reach the end of its journey to the world "nest," serves the purpose of providing the shaman-spirit a means of finding its way back to the people among whom it has always dwelled in the living flesh of the family or clan that nurtures and preserves it. While a body reduced to ashes breaks the bond between flesh and spirit, it does not obliterate the essential identity a spirit has and retains in memory of its human source or origin. The sense of nurturing the spirit of the shaman or medicine-man has its practical side as well, a fact which is made obvious in de Vaca's discourse through his repeated references to the fact that, after he gained the reputation of a healer among the tribes he met in central and west Texas, and in New Mexico, he was always paid for his services in food and other valuable goods. In fact, he always received more than he could carry or consume himself. This was done in order to encourage him to stay, and if he would not, to encourage him to return. Providing the best possible life for the shaman-spirit, while on earth, as it were, was always the motive behind the manner in which that person was treated and served the sole purpose of drawing the spirit back to the people who "kept" it.

The fact that de Vaca juxtaposes his first admission of cannibalism among the Spaniards with the ritual consumption of the ashes of the shaman among the natives may suggest why he makes no effort to explain the native American ceremony. Using one to lessen the shock of the other tends to cast his deceased and devoured companions in a better light than they probably deserve. Making the natives out to be as mean as the invaders ultimately convinces European readers of his discourse that cannibalism among the outsiders was occasioned by their absolute privation and therefore can be forgiven as a virtue of necessity, where the practice among the natives is only what one would expect to find among so savage and barbaric a race of people. Explaining why they did it, if he ever knew himself what it signified, would take away whatever advantage the comparison generated.

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