Native American Legends
An Apache Medicine Dance
An Apache / Jicarilla Legend
This published story was found by his daughter, Kay F. Nordquist,
in the effects of the late Dr. E. R. Fouts, M.D. It was a reminiscence
of his 1898 internship among the Jicarilla-Apache tribes. While
stationed as an intern in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he met the white
anthropologist / writer Frank Russell who published this legend
in December 1898. At that time white men were not allowed to witness
tribal ceremonies, but an Apache friend, Gunsi, arranged to smuggle
the two white men into the celebration. Gunsi, a powerful leader,
provided a hiding place and explained that as long as they "played
a pretend game of not being seen," they would be overlooked.
Besides, Gunsi had great confidence in the doctor of white man's
At present there are no men or women among the Jicarillas who have
the power to heal the sick and perform other miracles that entitle
them to rank as medicine men or medicine women-at least none who
are in active practice and are popular. This being the case, medicine
feasts have not been held for several years on the reservation.
But in August and September 1898, two such feasts were conducted
by the old Apache woman, Sotii, who now lives in Pueblo of San Ildefonso.
Sotii 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 rumors of her arrival were repeatedly
spread for some weeks, before she actually appeared.
For festive dances, the U.S. Indian Agent or his representative,
the clerk at Duke, issue extra rations of beef and flour, and the
Indians themselves buy all the supplies from the traders that their
scanty funds will permit. Edible supplies do not keep well in Indian
camps, and successive postponements threatened to terminate a feast
without adequate provisions. But fortunately Sotii arrived in time.
The preliminary arrangements were made by Sati, the husband of
the invalid Kes-nos'-un-da, in whose behalf the ceremonies were
to be performed. Sati presented Sotii 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 live in scattered tipi's and cabins
about the reservation, there is no specified place, such as the
plaza of a pueblo tribe, where religious ceremonies are performed.
Sotii chose a spot in La Jara Canon where Sati 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 noon. The builders were served food by the women of
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 Sotii 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 I
have depended upon the account of it given by Gunsi in the following
"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 center 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 [kut-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. "Sotii 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. Sotii 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 Sotii was
inverted with the hide over the hole in the center 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
"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.
Sotii 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 comers 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
Sotii 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 must be moved
at once. The invalid was cured, but Sotii warned her not to sleep
on a rope or string or the disease would return. No one should sing
the medicine songs for some time or a bear would kill the offender.
Severe illness would overtake the twelve should they forget and
sleep with their heads toward any clay vessel.
Sotii 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.
I did not see the invalid after the feast, but when I left the
reservation three weeks later, the Indian of whom I inquired all
insisted that she was then in perfect health.
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