Why "medicine"?
September 16, 2010 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Why did Europeans translate seemingly religious concepts of different Native American cultures as "medicine"?

Just beginning to read the history of the North American West and was curious about the meaning of "medicine" as used by Europeans to translate what seem like religious concepts of certain tribes they came in contact with. I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that while "medicine" can mean traditional healing practices it is also synonymous with magical or heavenly powers of any kind (e.g. when Lewis and Clark first meet the Snakes and Lewis shows off his air gun: "I also shot my air-gun which was so perfectly incomprehensible that they immediately denominated it the great medicine. the idea which the indians mean to convey by this appellation is something that eminates from or acts immediately by the influence or power of the great sperit; or that, in which, the power of god is manifest by it's incomprehensible power of action.") So why did whites call it "medicine"? Has anyone been able to determine when the word was first used this way and how it become so widespread? Is there a good book that touches on this? Thanks.
posted by otio to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Time to abuse the institutional subscription to the OED...

One of the definitions of 'medicine' is given as "a. A remedy (as in spiritual, psychological, or social matters), (now) esp. one which is necessary but disagreeable or unwelcome.
In Middle English freq.: salvation or divine grace, esp. in epithets of Christ or the Virgin Mary." - so there is a pre-existing religious frame to the word.

In your specific context, it gives the first use in 1767:

"5. a. Among North American Indians: magical power, esp. for healing or protection; an object or practice thought to possess or convey this; a spell, charm, or fetish (cf. MANITOU n.); (sometimes) a totem. Also with distinguishing word, as bad (also big, good, strong, etc.) medicine. Hence: something similar among other peoples.

1767 J. CARVER Jrnl. (1976) 116 Some of these chiefs could not be prevaild upon to tast any spiritious liquors..as they lookd upon it as a bad medison."

There's still a bit of a jump in meaning, but perhaps not so large as would first appear.
posted by Coobeastie at 9:04 AM on September 16, 2010

Probably because the "medicine man" in most cultures including prehistoric European cultures was the local expert in spirituality and healing. Lots of older books can be found in Google Books which could shed light on this.
posted by JJ86 at 9:05 AM on September 16, 2010

When you think of some of the practices common to Western medicine at the turn of the 19th century, the Native American stuff doesn't seem so out-there.
posted by hermitosis at 9:06 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Following up on Coobeastie's OED search, the second quoted use of the "big medicine" in the American Indian sense is from the Lewis and Clark journals:

"Every thing which is incomprehensible to the indians they call big medicine, and is the operation of the presents and power of the great sperit."

I wouldn't be surprised if the phrase "big medicine" was popularized by Lewis and Clark, probably from Nicholas Biddle's version. Here's the matching quote from that version (which I believe was a bestseller in its day):

"This being must be in the nature of a good genius since it is associated with the healing art, and the great spirit is synonymous with great medicine, a name also applied to every thing which they do not comprehend. Each individual selects for himself the particular object of his devotion, which is termed his medicine, and is either some invisible being or more commonly some animal, which thenceforward becomes his protector or his intercessor with the great spirit; to propitiate whom every attention is lavished, and every personal consideration is sacrificed. "I was lately owner of seventeen horses," said a Mandan to us one day, "but I have offered them all up to my medicine and am now poor.""
posted by theodolite at 9:19 AM on September 16, 2010

I've always thought (vaguely - I suppose I mostly just accept the term when I'm reading stuff from this period without thinking about it enough) that the translation happened sort of the other way around. Meaning that Europeans would practice medicine (in the English sense of the word, meaning what medical Dr's did at the time) on or in the presense of Indians, and the Indians would find it magical, and assume that the English word "medicine" simply meant the same as their word for magic, in the healing/religious sense or in the sense of inexplicable phenomenons. Whether they used the word "medicine" themselves, or translated it back into their own languages, I don't know. I also don't know if I thought this because I read it somewhere, or just made it up because it seemed logical. Now it's really bothering me that I can't find it anywhere!

It's interesting that it's usually phrased as if it's an Indian designation (Clark concluded (June 20, 1805) from Hidatsa information that the Medicine River took its name from the " unaccountable rumbling Sound" often heard in its vicinity, "which like all unacountable thing[s] with the Indians of the Missouri is Called Medicine.") And sometimes it's hard to tell if it's being used in the Indian way or the European/American way, like when Lewis describes Jessaume's prescription of dried rattlesnake for a woman in labor.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 9:34 AM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Interesting answers everyone and DestinationUnknown's explanation sounds plausible. Does anyone know if there's any support for it?

It also seems plausible that Lewis and Clark themselves popularized the term but the fact that L&C used the term as if it was Indian in origin doesn't make much sense unless it was already in common use.
posted by otio at 10:01 AM on September 16, 2010

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