NDN medicine is seldom discussed, for a number of reasons. Indigenous spirituality has been under attack for hundreds of years, due to the invasion of European immigrants armed with guns and bibles. Our religion was outlawed by the government. Some of our ancestors were imprisoned and died to save these ways. Finally, we protect our ceremonies because they are, by nature, sacred.
As a result of conquest, genocide and assimilation, some ancient knowledge has been lost or remains hidden. While visiting with an elder, he said there is one topic of conversation that’s mentioned even less than ceremony, and he missed it.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Magic,” he responded.
He went onto explain that Natives today focus almost exclusively on the notion of ‘medicine’ while neglecting that there were people among us who were not holy men, yet practiced magic. These otherworldly folks were human tricksters who were able to perform deeds that defied explanation. They used their powers for good or evil, and were often mischievous. They were so much a part of our society that no one questioned it.
Now, don’t get crazy on me. We’re not talking about witches and warlocks with pointy hats who ride broomsticks. This is something different, more primordial. Some ancestral magic was passed down; but in other situations, an individual either had it, or they didn’t.
When I was a girl, I was told a story of a Dakota man who seduced young women by putting medicine on them. He stole their hair and put a spell on it, making girls fall in love with him. After he grew weary of a girl, he would dispose of her and cast a spell on a new love interest. I was shown the old abandoned house where he once lived. It was a mere quarter of a mile from my home. This story of dark magic is purportedly true, and it was told to girls to serve as a warning- that supernatural power was real, to take care of our hair, and frankly, to avoid playas.
The elder told me about an ancestor of his who removed an American Flag from a flagpole when the Reservation was first established. He did it just to piss off the agent. He had no apparent means of removing it. It was quite tall. There were no ladders, and no strings. After the first few times it happened, they began to keep watch over the flagpole all night. Somehow he still managed to take it down, even after it was replaced. He offered no explanation for how he was able to do it. He would say nothing, and laugh to himself. He even dared people to figure it out. His relatives could only speculate that it was magic. Everyone knew that this man had strange ways.
We had magic dolls, too. Some of these dolls sit in museums now, labeled as children’s toys. In reality they were vessels that spirits could control. An ancient ritual made this possible. Once spirits took possession of a doll, they could move, talk, and even dance, of their own accord.
Shapeshifting was another type of magic we carry within our bloodlines. In my community there are stories of an old man who was scolded by an old woman for stealing vegetables from her garden. She caught him one day, as she was looking out of her kitchen window. He turned into a rabbit, darted down the rows, and then hopped away with her carrots and potatoes. This happened in the early 1900s.
There are sites on Reservations that aren’t necessarily sacred, but considered magical and perilous. On the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota where I am enrolled, a place called Sica Hollow has a long and storied history of eerie supernatural events. It’s a beautiful place, but if you visit, don’t go alone, and if you run into them, be sure to be respectful of the little people who are seen there.
So where did the magic go? If you’ve ever traveled in an NDN car on E for 20 miles or seen a single mom make a meal for her family when her kitchen cupboards are bare, the answer is obvious. It’s still among us. Cue the frybread riot story told by Thomas in Smoke Signals…
All jokes aside, Natives accomplish miracles every day. We raise armies overnight. Gray haired grandmothers, college students, treaty lands holdouts, frontline warriors, and social medial activists save sacred sites, fight police brutality and stop pipelines. We have no money and we’re vastly outnumbered, yet we stand toe-to-toe against corporations run by billionaires and the last remaining global super power, backed by the largest military in the world. Yet they fear us.
We’re talking about a people who by all accounts, should have been driven into extinction hundreds of years ago. We survived biological warfare via contaminated smallpox blankets, torture, starvation, brutal massacres, the largest mass execution in U.S. history, and continued oppression through imposed poverty, historical trauma, substance abuse, suicide and racism. They could not kill us. Lucky for them, because we’re going to save the planet, and their sorry asses.
Magic is curious. If you do not believe in it, you will never see it. Part of NDN magic is merely being NDN, in and of itself. We can no longer afford to deny our own strengths. We hold real spiritual power. Don’t be afraid to call on the ancestors. They are us- an untapped resource, and our sacred Ace.