Native American Legends
The Bird Medicine
A Seneca Legend
A Seneca named Bloody Hand had great love for the birds of the
air that ate flesh and for the animals of the earth that ate flesh.
When he killed a deer, he cut the flesh into pieces and called birds
to eat it, or he gave it to the wolves. Sometimes he carried home
a small piece but usually he gave all of the pieces to the birds
The Senecas went on the war-path and this man went with them. He
was killed and scalped. The birds of the air saw him and they held
a council. One said, "We can bring him to life if we can get his
scalp. The man who killed him has hung up the scalp by the door
of his house. We will send for it."
They sent Hawk. Hawk's bill was sharp and strong. He twisted the
scalp from the place where it was tied and carried it to the birds.
One of the birds said, "Now we will make medicine and to find out
how strong it is, we'll try to bring that tree to life that is lying
over there on the ground."
In this bird medicine was a bit of the flesh of each of the birds.
When making the medicine, the birds caused a corn stalk to come
up out of the ground. They broke the stalk and in it was blood.
They put some of the blood in their medicine, healed the stalk and
They caused a squash vine to come out of the ground and right away
there were squashes on the vine, they used some of the seeds for
their medicine, and the vine disappeared.
When the medicine was ready, part of the birds sat on one side
of the tree and part on the other side and they sang their medicine
song and sprinkled medicine on the tree and the ground.
Above the clouds is a great bird called Skada´géa,
In-the-Mist, he is chief of all birds; they sent the head man of
the Ravens to tell him what they were doing--this is why Ravens
always sing "Caw! Caw!" when flying--The Eagle is a chief under
the great bird above.
When the birds saw that the tree was getting green and coming to
life the leader said, "This is enough, we know how our medicine
will act. Now we must appoint some one to carry it into our friend's
They chose Chickadee. Chickadee drank the medicine then went into
the man's mouth and down into his stomach; threw the medicine out
and came back.
The other birds rubbed the man's body with medicine, sat around
him and sang. They sang two days and two nights then found that
the body was growing warm.
All at once the man, who had been dead, felt as though he had been
wakened from sleep. He heard singing and he listened. He understood
the words of the song. He moved a little; the birds drew back, but
The chief of the birds said to the man, "We have brought you to
life, now we will give you some of our medicine. If any of your
people are wounded by an arrow or bruised by a fall use the medicine
and right away they will be well. When you use it, burn tobacco
and think of us."
"When you think of us and come together and burn tobacco you will
renew and strengthen the medicine. When the tobacco is burning call
out, 'Let all the beasts and birds on earth smell this tobacco.'"
Bloody Hand went home, selected a few men and gave to each one
of them a little of the bird medicine, taught the", how to use it
and how to sing the songs. He said, "You must never laugh at these
songs. If you laugh at them, bad luck will come to you. No one may
sing the songs unless he has the medicine; the songs would be poison
(otgon) for him."
Solomon O'Bail, an old Indian on the Cattaraugus Reservation, had,
in 1883, about a tablespoonful of this bird medicine in the form
of dust. When using it, he put a particle at the east side of a
cup, another particle on the west side and another on the side towards
the sick man's lips, then poured water into the cup. If all the
dust remained on top of the water, the sick man would live. if it
sank to the bottom he would die. If it mixed with the water and
dissolved, he would recover. If it dissolved, the patient drank
The medicine is so powerful that the sick man after drinking it
can eat only pure white food, such as white beans and white corn;
the odor of meat cooking is bad for him. When a man is sick, the
family hang a blanket in front of him so they will have time to
find where a caller has been. For if he has stopped on the way to
look at a dead person, the sick man will die at once.
The beginning of the bird song is, "Now this is the medicine to
take. Now this is the medicine to take." When the medicine is swallowed
the song says, "Now it begins to work. Now it begins to work; to
work all over his body."
The man who gives the medicine sings and dances, saying, "They
(the Spirits) have come and cured the sick man, and I let them go
with thanks. I have got to the field, I have got to the mountain,
I have got to the falls; I have got beyond the clouds. Now we are
together where the tobacco is."
When a sick man wants to take the bird medicine, be must give a
handful of Indian tobacco to the man who has it. That man will put
a bit of the tobacco in the fire and say to the medicine as he holds
it in his hand, "Smell of the tobacco for I am going to use you."
Then taking a cup, he goes to running water, gives some of the water
to the stream, pronounces the sick man's name, and dipping the cup
down stream, takes what water it gets, this water he uses to try
the medicine in.
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