Bandoliers and Midèwewin -- and a Sad Story

Bandolier bags became associated with the ancient Ojibwe medicine, religion, history and cultural teachings society. As we'll see in one of the galleries here, further east, some woodland tribes called them "doctor's bags". They shouldn't be confused with Midèwayaanag the actual medicine bags given to each initiate (sick people were initiated to the first or lowest degree, to take part in healing ceremonies). The word part -wayaan means skin or hide. Actual Mide medicine bags, which shoot the miigis shells, are of whole animal hides. This one (Glenbow Museum) is an otterskin bag. Here's what was said in the story of how the Midè came to the Anishinaabe, and the first whole-animal skin medicine bags:

"A little before noon, they heard a peculiar sound in the sky. It was from the east. Someone was calling Wa hi, hi, hi as they call in the Midè ceremony. They watched the sky and saw four Indians walking toward them in the sky, giving this call. Each Indian had a living otter in his hand. The four manidoo held the otters with the right hand near the head and the left hand below. These otters were their medicine bags." Each of the Manidos shoots a migiis shell at the dead man (actually the East Manido), who revives. The Manidos then teach the Anishinaabe Midewewin, put souls in thir bodies, teach them religion and curing. This all happened on Madeline Island (Wisconsin), the 5th stopping point on the Migration, the 5th fire. (Told to Frances Densmore in 1907 by Nawahjibigokwe (Woman Dwelling Among the Rocks) a prominent White Earth (Minnesota) Mide woman of the 4th degree.)

From this and other stories comes the older name of a Mide bag, spelled pindgigossan in Canadian Ojibwe pronunciation, biindigeyaasin in modern double-vowel spelling. That name means "something that they blow into", referring to the Manitous who blew into their otter bags to put their power into them, before shooting the shells out through the heads. These are not the bandolier bags, which we'll now return to.

Bandolier bags are called aazhoningwa'iganag, meaning "something worn across the shoulder". The early examples from unidentified eastern woodland tribes are called doctor's bags. Henry Schoolcraft, who lived among the Minnsota Ojibwe, married an Ojibwe woman, and (with the help of his large, influential family) studied myths, customs, and history, recorded in 1836 that these bags are insignia of Mide officials. His drawing shows one of several officials designated by crossed bandoliers.

Hoffman, in 1893 recorded a great deal of information about Mide, with drawings of these bandoliers as dance bags, worn by officiating high degree initiates during ceremonies.

The combination of bandolier shoulder straps, an otter-skin medicine bag, and radiating power lines from head or heart is used to indicate higher degrees of Mides officiating at large high-degree ceremonies on old birch-bark scrolls. This one was collected at Grassy Narrows Reserve (Canada) and is in the Lower Ft. Garry Museum at Winnipeg.

So in addition to representing honors that women made for men, to be worn when leading powwows and other ceremonies, these bandolier bags represent especially honored elders who achieved high degrees in the Midewewin. This perhaps may explain the strange little bandolier bag which is the last one shown in Earl Nyholm's NMAI essay. He dosn't say a word about it, and perhaps the book's editors added it as a space-filler.

This woven beadwork bag had to have been made for a child. NMAI gives no date for it, and no info other than that it's Ojibwe -- and its dimensions. It's 26 x 8 inches bottom of the fringe to top center of the strap, and the pouch takes up about half the length. It's half -- or less -- the size of all the others. The strap cannot go across an adult's chest, and even slung from one adult shoulder, like a purse (bandoliers weren't worn this way) would pull the small pounch up under the armpit. Before the powwow circuit got swinging (in the late 1960's), elaborate dance outfits weren't usually made for children, who would outgrow them before they were finished. Bandoliers represented honors given to a worthy man.

The little bag may have been made for a child who was ill. Polio was endemic, feared, and incurably paralyzed children (infantile paralysis was a name for it) during the period this bag was probably made. Maybe this little bandolier was made for a sick child, who was going to be initiated (for healing purposes) into Mide. Loom beading goes fast, the bag is small. A couple of months it would have been done. The mother would have been expressing -- through her dedicated and beautiful work -- the hope the little boy could get up and dance during the ceremonies.

If it was made for a sick or paralyzed child to wear during Mide ceremonies, the story probably has a sad outcome, or the bag would be a cherished possession in some Ojibwe family, not residing in a museum in New York. Prayers are not always answered. Hopes do not always come true. Devoted love and effort does not always protect helpless ones we love.

Maybe this sad story isn't true. Maybe this little bandolier was made for sale as a souvenir, so it wasn't made very big. Maybe that's just about as sad a story as the one about the sick child.

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Webmistress --Paula Giese. Explanatory text and graphics copyright 1995, 1996.

CREDITS: Bandolier photographed by David Heald for National Museum of the American Indian photoessay, "All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture," Smithsonian, 1994. Earl Nyholm selected a number of Ojibwe bandoliers as a focus for his essay there. Otterskin from Glenbow museum, old photo colorized by me. Black and white drawings from Selwyn Dudny, The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway. Mide manitou with live otter bag, drawing from petroglyph by Canadian Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau.

Last Updated: Saturday, August 24, 1996 - 7:33:15 AM