An Apache Medicine Dance


At the present time, 2003, there are no men or women among the Jicarillas who are entitled to perform as medicine men or medicine women--at least none who are in active practice and have the skills to heal the sick and perform other miracles. As  result, medicine feasts have not been held for several years on the reservation. However, back in August and September 1898, two medicine feasts were conducted by the old Apache woman, Sotli, who lived in the Pueblo of San Ildefonso. Sotli made the journey of nearly a hundred miles to the Jicarillas on a burro. She was delayed for some time on the way by the high waters of Chama Creek, so rumours of her arrival were repeatedly spread for some weeks, before she actually appeared.

The U.S. Indian Agent or his representative, the clerk at Dulce, issued extra rations of beef and flour,  for festive dances, and the Indians themselves bought all the supplies from the traders that their scanty funds would permit. Edible supplies do not keep well in Indian camps, with their primitive ways and successive postponements threatened to terminate the feast without adequate provisions. But fortunately Sotli arrived in time.

The preliminary arrangements were made by Satl, the husband of the sick woman Kes-nos'-un-da, in whose behalf the ceremonies were to be performed. Satl presented Sotli with a pipe of ancient pattern, a short cylinder of clay; a few eagle feathers and a new basket as well.

As the Jicarilla Apaches lived in scattered tipis and cabins around the reservation, there was no specified place, such as the plaza of a pueblo tribe, where religious ceremonies could be performed. Sotli chose a spot in La Jara Canon where Satl and his friends built a medicine lodge with an enclosure surrounded by a pine brush fence. The lodge was begun on the morning of August 22 and the fence was completed by noonday. The builders were served food by the women of Satl's family.

At noon of the 22nd, the first day, about a dozen of the older men gathered in the medicine lodge. According to Gunsi, these men were selected by Sotli because of their ability in outlining the dry paintings, which they made in the lodge under her direction. No one but Apaches are admitted to the medicine lodge, so that the description following is the account of it was given by Gunsi:

"The ground was cleared at the back of the lodge--between the fire and the western wall--over a space about six feet in diameter, and covered with a layer of clean gray sand. The sand painting the first day contained the figures of snakes only, having their heads directed toward the west, with the exception of the sun symbol, which was drawn each day during the ceremony around a shallow hole six or eight inches in diameter at the centre of the painting.

"The sun was represented by a ring of white sand around the margin of the hole; next came a circle of black, and then a ring of red with white rays. After the painting had been completed, the invalid woman, in an ordinary gown not especially prepared for the occasion, entered the enclosure, laid aside her blanket, and passed into the lodge, on the floor of which four "bear tracks" had been made, leading to the dry painting. (Presumably because she had the snake and bear disease.)

"The patient stepped upon the footprints in going to the sand painting, on which she spread pollen (kat-u-tin) from the cattail flag, and sacred meal. She then sat down upon the painting, facing the east. Songs were sung and prayers were offered to the sun, after which the women brought food from the camps into the enclosure. Those within the lodge seated themselves around the wall and were served by the doorkeeper, who began at the left and carried food to each in turn. After all were served, the doorkeeper gathered a morsel of food from each and threw it outside the enclosure, as a sacrifice to the sun, followed by prayers to the sun. Then the doorkeeper joined the others in the lodge and ate his food, as did the invalid. All others dined within the enclosure. The remaining food was gathered for the next meal. The men carried the food vessels from the lodge into the enclosure, later removed by the women.

"When darkness fell in the evening, the men again painted snakes in the medicine lodge, where a fire had been built. A young pine tree was placed at the right and another at the left of the sand painting. The children were then expelled from the enclosure.

"The patient entered as in the morning, offering pollen and meal, then seated herself upon the painting. A terrifying figure rushed into the semidarkness of the lodge, lunged toward the invalid, but seemed unable to reach her, gave forth two or three cries similar to those uttered by the bear, and then made his exit.

"Gunsi admitted 'I was frightened, although I knew it was only one of the men in disguise, who had been painted black with charcoal and covered with pine branches. He wore no mask. Since the invalid suffered from snake and bear disease, the painting with prayer meal and pollen offerings represented snakes and the bear was called upon to drive away the disease.'

"While the bear was in the lodge the singing men yelled at the tops of their voices to scare the bear. The invalid fell shaking to the ground. An eagle feather was waved rapidly to and fro above her head as she continued to rise, fall, shake, and cry out. I thought she was dying.

"Sotli then placed a live coal in a dish of blue corn meal and allowed the invalid to inhale the smoke. This quieted her somewhat as she sat upright but staring just like a drunk. Sotli then handed her the medicine pipe filled with 'Mexican' tobacco. After smoking this, the patient seemed to recover her senses. Two or three songs concluded the day's serious part of the ceremony. The ex-patient then moved to the north side of the lodge and remained there for the rest of the evening. An old buffalo hide was spread over the sand painting, and the sacred basket given to Sotli was inverted with the hide over the hole in the centre of the painted area. The hide was then doubled over the basket, and the margin of the hide was held down by the feet of the men sitting around it.

"The white basket was ornamented with conventional red butterflies. The ex-patient removed her moccasins from a tight bundle and used them as drumsticks, striking four times upon the basket drum as a signal for the whole encampment to gather inside for the dance.

"Two notched sticks were placed upon the basket drum, a black one on the east, a white one on the west side. The sticks were laid with one end resting upon the drum and the other end upon the ground. A tarsal bone of a deer was rubbed across the notches, at the sound of which the young women began to dance.

"The women occupied the southern portion of the enclosure and the men arranged themselves along the wall opposite them. The lodge was brilliantly lighted by a circle of fires around the inside wall. The women's dance was ended by repetition of the same drum signal by which it had begun--four strokes upon the basket drum.

"When again the drum sounded, those afflicted with ailments of any kind placed their hands upon the affected part of their bodies and made a hand gesture of casting off the disease. When the sticks were scraped again, the women chose partners from the men and boys and all danced together. This became the lighter aspect of the ceremonies: serious thoughts, the desire to propitiate the gods, and the awe inspired by the priestess and the deity symbolized by the bear, all gave way to lighthearted, merrymaking spirit, which by no means exhausted itself before the sound of the drum ceased, about midnight, and the voice of one of the old men within the lodge was heard, directing the assembly to disperse.

"Second day ceremonies resembled those of the first, except the figures outlined upon the sand were of bears, foxes, and other animals, with here and there a snake. The same patient was not induced into a trance, nor was the general ceremony of casting off diseases performed.

"The third day differed only in the character of the sand painting. Animals differed from those of the previous days. Sotli forbade representation of the horse or elk at any time.

"On the fourth day, the figures of two deities were drawn in the dry painting, along with all kinds of animals. A black circle outside the painting symbolized the ocean. The program of the evening consisted of two groups of men, painted and dressed in the manner prescribed by the rites in the tradition of Jicarillas.

"One party of six men were the clowns with bodies and limbs painted with white and black horizontal rings. Ragged remnants of old blankets served as loincloths. On necks and shoulders appeared necklaces and festoons of bread, which had been baked in small fantastic shapes. Four wore old buffalo-skin caps, with the skin sewed to look like buffalo horns, projecting laterally and downward; to one horn was attached an eagle feather, to the other a turkey feather. Two men dressed their hair in the shape of horns.

"The other group of twelve men, painted white with oblique black stripes extending downward from the inner corners of their eyes, wore necklaces and an eagle feather in their hair. Bands of pine brush were wrapped around their waists, arms, and ankles.

"As on the other evenings, the women began the dance; then the general dance followed in which the women selected their partners from among the men. Then the two deities entered the enclosure and marched directly to the medicine lodge, around which four circuits were made in a sunwise direction. The twelve then took positions on the south side of the pathway from the gate to the lodge. Clowns ran about among the crowd. Two men led the singing and also took the lead during the exit back through the medicine lodge. Clowns created much amusement for everyone. The dance continued until sunrise."

As the disc of the sun rose above the mountaintops, every man, woman, and child present joined in the dance. The ceremony again took on a serious nature, as the sun's rays clear and bright in that rare and arid atmosphere lit up the valley and the whole band of Jicarilla-Apaches marched in line out of the enclosure toward the sun.

Sotli led the way, carrying the two young pines from the ends of the dry sand painting, along with the sacred basket containing the meal. Each person marched past the old medicine woman, took a pinch of the meal from the basket, and cast it upon the pine trees. The line was re-formed, facing the lodge, then one of the older men stepped forward and shook his blanket four times. At this signal, all shook their blankets to frighten away diseases and then ran into the enclosure.

The ceremonies ended. Every tipi in that vicinity had to be moved at once. The sick woman was cured, but Sotli warned her not to sleep on a rope or string or the disease would return. It is said that no one should sing the medicine songs for some time or a bear would kill the offender. It is also said that severe illness would overtake the twelve should they forget and sleep with their heads toward any clay vessel.

Sotli accepted food only as remuneration for her services. Her terms were known in advance, so a considerable quantity of provisions were laid aside for her. The only article of food that was taboo during the four-day celebration was bread baked in ashes.

Three weeks later, the invalid woman was said to be then in perfect health.