Martin High Bear on Addictions

Lesson 4 – The Caretaker: Medicine Power


Understand that symbol and ritual can help an individual confront and overcome diseases associated with addiction.


Create your own medicine bundle as protection against the disease of addiction and bring about lasting good health.

The Caretaker

Being the Caretaker means placing others (or someone) front and center in your life.  It means caring for someone else’s needs (or safety), oftentimes before considering your own.  Being a caretaker is a selfless act; a caretaker makes the statement, “I care enough about you to place your needs in the forefront.”

Personal and Cultural Trauma

The importance of disease as a destructive force faced by tribal people is well documented.  It is very likely that, historically, no tribes in the U.S. escaped disease introduced through white contact.  Diseases which had a long history among European populations led to their immunity, effectively shielding them from the most devastating consequences.  Yet the same illnesses, like measles and whooping cough, were fatal to Indian people.  In some cases, epidemics of smallpox reduced tribal populations to the point of extinction.  As a result, Indian peoples’ ways of life were altered dramatically, or even destroyed as a result of an enemy they could neither see nor fight against.

Medicine Man:  Curative Powers

The medicine man was a person of exceptional ability and a conveyor of knowledge.   As in many tribal groups, both men and women who had acquired strong or special powers were regarded as medicine people. A medicine man might be both a spiritual leader and a healer—and articles designated as sacred, mysterious, or powerful were the “medicine” he controlled.

Those who became medicine men were guided by visions and dreams.  The vision seeker sought help from supernatural beings who gave him certain songs, prayers and incantations.  Making medicine required the performance of a sacred ceremony or ritual in order to cure a person’s sickness.  Medicine men also assumed the role of tribal guardian and enlisted the aid of spirit helpers to watch over others.

Martin High Bear:  Lakota Medicine Man

Martin High Bear’s stepfather, Felix Greene, was a medicine man from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.  Under his tutelage, Martin learned about the lives of his great grandfathers and grandmothers and their gifts as tribal spiritual leaders.  Felix encouraged Martin to follow in their footsteps because he was “the next in line.”

"They brought the white buffalo calf pipe out and they locked me in an altar with it....and this is the way I came to be a medicine man, a healer, or spiritual leader.”

Martin’s stepfather instructed him in the use of curing medicines.  He learned the sacred songs and the rituals.  He was sent to Bear Butte for a vision quest, and when he came down from the hill, he had gained the power to heal.

The Medicine Bundle:  Supernatural Power and Symbols of Guardian Spirits

A medicine man owned a sacred bundle containing objects that conferred supernatural power and assistance in healing.  These objects were symbols of his visions or the animals that had sent him power.   A feather, a stone with an unusual shape, an animal skin, eagle feather—among many other natural objects—symbolized the power of the possessor.  For example, if a bear or snake had given supernatural power to the medicine man, a claw or bone formed the core of his medicine bundle.  Often a sacred song became part of an individual’s medicine. All of these sacred objects were wrapped in hide or cloth that could be carried by the owner.

Within some cultural areas, a medicine bundle and its power could be transferred to another person after he had been instructed in its symbolism and learned the sacred songs associated with its contents.  Some sacred bundles were owned by the tribe rather than a single individual.  People believed that the tribe’s well-being depended on the proper care and protection of these bundles.

Create a Medicine Bundle

The contents of medicine bundles and rituals surrounding their use were intended to cure injuries and diseases, and to protect persons from these harms in the future. The articles contained in the bundle were regarded as “spirit helpers.”

It is important to remember that your medicine bundle belongs to you alone, and contains objects that have significance for you.

  1. Start by gathering articles that have a special meaning, such as:
  • A picture of loved one
  • A symbol of a clan/tribal affiliation
  • A religious icon
  • An insignia of an organization/group you hold in special regard
  • Any object you treasure or that stands in the place of a significant person (e.g. a lock of hair), a relationship (e.g., ring or locket), or a state of mind (e.g., poem or oath).
  1. Find or make a container to hold your treasured objects.  Make it small enough to carry with you, or hang it where it is visible to you.
  2. Create a meaningful ritual for the use of your medicine bundle.  For example, only open your bundle when you are alone.  Darken the room or light some candles.  Play or sing a song that brings you peace and calmness.

Protection from Addiction:  Important Reminders

The objects inside a medicine bundle are regarded as medicine; they have power. Like a rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover, sacred objects enable the owner to accomplish difficult feats and ensure success in reaching important goals.

Have in mind what you want to accomplish and why.

A sacred bundle is opened only on special occasions and represents a critical link with supernatural power.

Treat your medicine bundle with respect and believe in your ability to eliminate addictive behaviors from your life.

A person may need to make repeated contact with his/her source of power.  When faced with temptation, a person could ask for “protection” from negative influences or risk-taking behaviors.

Allow your medicine bundle to remind you of important commitments you have made to yourself and others.  Open your bundle when you wish to gain spiritual power or blessing.