Medicine bundles help keep stories from 'dream time'
Crop failures during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s convinced the Hidatsa that the spirits were angry. Corn shriveled in the drought and pastures turned into carpets of brown bristles.
Members of the tribe's Water Buster Clan, who had the responsibility of praying for rain, knew what they had to do.
Somehow, they had to get their medicine bundle back. But that would mean a long and costly trip, not an easy feat for a poor tribe in the Depression.
The medicine bundle -- made up of two ancient human skulls wrapped in a buffalo robe -- had been lost years before.
Untimely death and outside pressures came together to pry it from their hands.
Small Ankle, the keeper of the bundle, had died unexpectedly before he could pass along the knowledge of its rituals to a new bearer for the Water Buster Clan, whose ceremonies brought rain from the spirits.
Wolf Chief, Small Ankle's son, wasn't a member of the Water Buster Clan because his mother didn't belong. Clan membership was inherited from the mother.
That meant Wolf Chief wasn't entitled to hold the medicine bundle. It wasn't his to keep.
Another influence was at work. Wolf Chief, though he had long been a traditional Hidatsa, converted to Christianity. Missionaries, who were actively recruiting converts on the Fort Berthold Reservation, had convinced Wolf Chief to sell the bundle for $30.
In turn, the bundle was sold to the Heye Foundation's Museum of American Indian in New York City in 1907 for safekeeping.
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By letting go of the medicine bundle, Wolf Chief might have been ridding himself of a burden. He once told an ethnologist that the old ways and traditions, many of which required continuing sacrifice and self-denial, were a deep trail that allowed no escape.
Years passed without the bundle. Nobody seemed to know how to go about getting it back. It seemed lost forever.
Then, after Wolf Chief's death in 1933, the Hidatsa decided the time had come to get back their bundle.
The spirits clearly were angry that their medicine bundle hadn't been properly kept. They hadn't been fed and given tobacco offerings. The Thunder Bird held back the rain as punishment.
Members of the Water Buster Clan talked about their dilemma for several years. They held dances and giveaways to raise money.
Finally, after collecting about $400, they appointed a delegation of several men to travel to New York on a quest for the medicine bundle.
The Water Buster Clan wanted their sacred skulls back. Maybe then the rains would come again.
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, typical of tribes in North America, were oral cultures.
Except for the hieroglyphs in a winter count -- symbols painted on a buffalo hide to record a notable event that summed up an entire year — the Plains tribes' archives were spoken, not written.
Storytellers kept objects in a medicine bundle to use when performing religious ceremonies or telling sacred stories.
A medicine bundle might contain a pipe, bones, feathers, animal skins, stones — anything that could represent an important element in a story.
A fox tail, for instance, would prompt a storyteller about a fox's role in a story.
In the case of the Water Buster Clan's medicine bundle, two of the key mnemonic devices were human skulls, which represent the Thunder Birds, sky spirits that bring rain.
The skulls represent two enormous eagles who, according to Hidatsa lore, turned into human beings.
Mementos from the dream time of prehistory — that's what Calvin Grinnell, a historian for the three tribes, calls the sacred bundles of memory-jogging relics.
To be a storyteller requires a prodigious memory. Some stories could go on for hours — one story collected by a folklorist in the 1930s took 2½ days to tell, although that performance probably came laced with digressions.
Striking a deal
Years of cajoling and pleading, with quests to Washington and New York, went into trying to reclaim the sacred skulls.
Clan members even sought the intercession of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The collections of the Heye museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.
Unfortunately, the museum curators wouldn't part easily with the coveted skulls.
Finally, a deal was struck.
The Water Busters swapped a buffalo medicine horn for the return of the two skulls and buffalo hide on Jan. 23, 1938.
The Hidatsa had a big homecoming celebration, dancing through the night.
For a day and a night, the Hidatsa say, the clouds burned red. Then the rains came back. The grass became green and plentiful again.
The Water Busters gave the skulls tobacco offerings, then put them away for safekeeping.
Today, more than six decades later, appointed members of the clan still use the medicine bundle to pray for rain.
Grinnell, who is a member of the Water Buster Clan, said the Hidatsa still commemorate the return of the skulls.
It is essential to take good care of the medicine bundles -- to honor a covenant with the spirits. Failure to do so might once again invite the spirits' wrath.
"Our people believe that is why we're still alive," Grinnell said.