MEDICINE PIPE OPENING
(An article written by Mary Scriver in 1969 after she and Bob returned from this event.)
The ancient Blackfeet religion, sometimes called Sun Worship by the white men, actually is a view of life that requires man not to worship natural objects or the sun, but to live in harmony with them. To the early Indian all of nature, the land, the water, the sky and the creatures, was infused with Power and Mystery which had to be treated with respect and dignity.
Of the ceremonies devised by the Plains Indian to dramatize their attitude toward Nature, the opening of the Sacred Thunder Pipe Bundle is one of the most significant. it consists of the ceremonial unwrapping of a splendidly decorated three-foot-long calumet or pipe stem which is displayed, danced with, sung and prayed over in a day-long ritual.
When in the spring of 1968 Bob Scriver began to mock up a sculpture of a "medicine man" he had no idea that the piece would develop into the detailed, ethnologically accurate and large scale work called "The Opening of the Sacred Thunderpipe Bundle." Because Indian ceremonies often invoke spiritual powers for the purpose of healing, the whiteman has mistaken the part for the whole and lumped all religious performances as "medicine." Disease is not the only enemy from which an Indian seeks protection through his religion. He also seeks to guard against battle losses, financial misfortune, quarrels and generally what an Indian friend of ours called "unluck."
Bob knew all this vaguely but until one afternoon when John Hellson found Bob arranging lumps of clay in a search for a strong "medicine man" composition, his understanding was incomplete. John, an Englishman who is devoting his life to the study of Indians with the capable help of his Indian wife, has specialized in Indian religion. Unlike many collectors who fabvor brightly coloured clothing or dramatic weapons, John seeks out the rituals of Indian religion and the accompanying materials.
Since the Plains Indians were nomads, all their possessions had to be portable. Since their religion was highly personal, religious objects took the form of individual bundles of significant items. Gradually these grew more intricate and formalized, and were kept in special rawhide cases whose decorations identified the contents. A bundle came to have its own songs and dances and to require certain obligations and restrictions of its owners.
John Hellson has collected many bundles of different types. There are two ways to "own" a bundle. One might buy the actual physical aggregation of objects and say he "owned" a bundle. But according to Indian ways, the only way to really "own" a bundle is to have it transferred with its power in an elaborate ceremony. The Indians know that the real power is not in the objects but in their use and understanding. The new "owner" not only gives valuable horses and blankets to the old owner, he assumes that all the obligations and restrictions and he learns all the songs and rituals belonging to the bundle. This is the way John "owns" many bundles.
With John's guidance, Bob mocked up a depiction of the ceremony of a Thunder Pipe Bundle. His models were all carefully chosen old people of the Blackfeet tribe who still practise the old ways. Those who portray bundle owners, are bundle owners. Those who portray drummers, are drummers, and so on.
A Thunder Pipe Bundle is only opened twice a year in formal ceremonies and then cannot be examined too closely, so the bundle portrayed had to be one collected by John Ewers in 1943 for the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning. Called the "Blood Medicine Pipe", it had belonged to Makes-Cold-Weather, a Piegan Blackfeet.
As Bob worked over the circle of people, concentrating on the dignity of the ancient ceremony, he became more and more deeply involved. One night he had a very clear dream in which the sculptured people were real and he himself was the small boy sitting on an elk hide on top of a bear hide in a tipi and watching a warrior boast as he smoked a sacred pipe.
"I am very powerful," bragged the warrior. "I am more powerful than any other man!"
It was spring and a passing rainstorm blotted out the sun ominously. Thunder rumbled over the prairie.
"I am so powerful, I am even stronger than Thunder himself!" shouted the warrior. The people gasped, for Thunder wa one of the most powerful forces in nature. But before they could reprimand such conceit, there was a tremendous flash and a strange smell.
The little boy was stunned, knocked unconscious, and while he was unconscious, he had a dream. He saw Thunder coming towards him. Thunder was a tall dark warrior. "Boy," he commanded, "You must make a Sacred Pipe for me. I will give you all the instructions. You must keep this Pipe in a Bundle with other objects, as I will explain to you, and only open it in the Spring when you hear my voice."
"You must not smoke this pipe. Only I will smoke it and when I smoke I set the hills and plains on fire." Thunder told this boy how to make the Pipe and Bundle and what songs and duties must be performed.
When the boy came to himself, he found the tipi and all the people in it had been destroyed. Only he had survived, perhaps because the elk hide and bear skin on which he sat had kept him off the damp ground.
The boy made the Pipe as he had been told with many decorations of ermine and ribbon, a cluster of brass falconry bells to represent the Pleides, and the full tail of an eagle, each feather shaft reinforced with intricate quillwork. When he had wrapped it with the other skins of water birds, he made the outer wrappings of an elk hide and a bear skin.
To the Indians, dreams are the way one hears the power of nature. Because of Bob's dream the Blackfeet believed he was meant to preserve this part of their long-ago lives for a time when no Bundles should any longer exist. They cooperated in every way to explain and demonstrate Bundle-opening, but it was John who served as translator and organizer.
The first Opening the Scrivers attended was at the home of George and Molly Kicking Woman. The large main room was newly repainted and cleared of furniture. A heater stood in the center where a fire would normally be in a tipi. Directly opposite the door side of the room hung the Bundle, from a nail rather than from a tripod as used in a tipi. George Kicking Woman sat on one side of the Bundle and Molly sat on the other side. The men ranged themselves along the wall next to George, the ones of greater importance such as owners of other Bundles, next to George. The women sat along the wall next to Molly in a similar order. Four drummers sat in front of the women. Visitors sat in the remaining space along the door side.
An orderly sat in front of the men to tend the tobacco board and the altar arranged in front of the Bundle. Dick Little Dog, one of the few men to still know the songs and ceremonies of an opening, sat by the Bundle and directed everyone's actions. On Dick's signal, the orderly could make a sweet pine smudge. Purifying himself in the incense of the smudge, Dick directed the drummers to begin.
Molly, as woman of the house and guardian of the Bundle, lifted down the shawl-draped shape. Dick, George, Molly and a helper woman knelt beside it and began to unwrap, singing the songs and making the movements for each layer. An elk song was accompanied by motions of elk hooves striking. A bear song was accompanied with bear paw motions and so on.
Inside the first wrappings, the contents were individually swathed. As each item was revealed, Dick stood to dance with it in four directions to four songs so that he ended in front of Molly and handed the object to her. As Molly took each item she held it to each shoulder and prayed over it before returning it to the pile of wrappings.
Two whistles, an owl, a loon, a rattle, and a secondary or woman's pipe were all unwrapped before the main pipestem was held up, richly decorated with ermine, beads, quillwork, brass bells, rooster hackles, and the full tail feathers of an eagle.
With the Bundle completely open, the owners could give special protection to anyone by painting their faces in the way special to that Bundle. Molly painted women and George painted men. Both Scrivers were painted because of Bob's dream.
Then there was a break for a meal, but even that was part of the ceremony. Berry soup was served and each person picked out the biggest, plumpest berry he could see to hand forward to be placed on the altar as insurance against a good berry harvest the next year.
Besides berry soup, a ceremonial dish made from sarvisberries, the menu included oranges, hard tack, boiled ribs, fry bread, donuts and black coffee with lots of sugar in it. At the end of the meal plastic sacks were handed out and many took food home to their families.
When the food was cleared away, the men prepared to dance with the Bundle contents. One man at a time stood and requested a part of the Bundle; only the most high-status men asking for the pipe itself. Wrapping their blankets tightly around their waists, the men stood "counting coup" which is relating things they had done to be important. In the old days these would have been war exploits but now they tended to be such things as trips to Washington, D.C., and political victories. Then they prayed for everyone, as gracefully and elaborately as possible. A Canadian Indian with a crippled foot directed the Scrivers to cross their arms on their chests and nod assent as a kind of "amen" to show they took the prayer to heart.
The men danced in four directions as Dick had done. Related men stood in place to dance, as did the related women who punctuated the songs with wild ululations of triumph and pride. After a man danced, he gave away money to show how generous and prosperous the family was. The Canadian with the crippled foot turned out to be the best orator of all and when he had danced he gave Bob some money.
By the time everyone had danced all they wanted, it was late and time to go home. The Scrivers went home throbbing from the constant beat of the taut drums.
By now the Scrivers wanted to become owners of a Pipe Bundle in the Indian way. Dick Little Dog, who no longer had a wife to care for his Bundle, agreed to transfer it to the Scrivers. Bob, wearing a blanket, went in the traditional way to present Dick with an ordinary pipe as a formal request. In accepting the pipe, Dick acknowledged the request.
Though Bob was born and raised in Browning, he had never before been included in the quiet Indian religious ceremonies. In fact, when once as a boy exploring on his horse he stumbled onto a sun worship altar or cairn, he was shot at to warn him away. His father, who came to Browning in 1900 and started the Browning Mercantile in 1907, had been a trusted and respected friend of the Blackfeet for over half a century, yet they had never revealed their ceremonies to him. But now even the old Indians were beginning to understand that only the artist and the social scientist can keep their old ways from being lost forever. They saw that Bob was sincere in his wish to make the Pipe Bundle a part of his own life.
In the summer of 1969 the Green Bird Sacred Pipe Bundle (so called because the skin of a South American parrot adorns the pipe) belonging to Dick Little Dog was transferred to Bob and Mary Scriver in two tipis joined and erected on the campgrounds adjoining Browning. The ceremony, condensed from three days to one, was as authentic as the old Indians could make it. The Scrivers were given Indian names, those of deceased but remembered and respected members of the tribe. Bob was named after Middle Rider or "Sik-pok-si-ma" and Mary was named for Mrs. Middle Rider, "Mik-skim-yah-que" or "Iron Woman."
During the ceremony Bob was guided by Dick Little Dog and Mary was taught by Margaret Many Guns, acting as Dick's wife. Margaret is a particularly knowledgeable Canadian Indian who had owned several Bundles. At one point the helpers completely exchanged clothes with their students and painted their faces in the way of the Bundle so that the Scrivers acquired the ownership and power of the Bundle and even the appearance of the former owners. Now they were entitled to wear a special necklace with a seashell flanked by two blue beads and wristlets with one blue bead n each to mark them as Bundle owners.
Payment was traditional: a hot-blooded young horse, many blankets and tobacco. As protection in the future, Bob's horse was painted, his dog was painted and a buffalo skull was painted so that the Scrivers would never be harmed by any of these creatures.
The Crazy Dog Society, traditional camp police, kept order among the several hundred Indians who attended the ceremony and prevented anyone from taking photographs or notes.
The Green Bird Thunder Pipe Bundle now stands in the home of the Scrivers on the traditional tripod. Beneath it, in an iron pot, the sweet pine smudge is burned at sunrise and sundown. Each spring the Scrivers sponsor the traditional opening ceremony, just as has always been done.