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The Ferocious Dog, Brain-Taker, the Keen-Eyed Owl, and Other Persons in the Cosmologies of Postcontact Eastern Woodland and Plains Indians as Told in Oral Narratives

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Being Scioto Hopewell: Ritual Drama and Personhood in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Abstract

This chapter is the last in a series of four that surveys historic Woodland and Plains Native American philosophical-religious concepts and ceremonies that concerned the travel of a deceased person’s soul to an afterlife and the beings and geographic features encountered along the way. The goal of this chapter, as with the previous ones, is to lay a wide and systematic foundation of ethnohistorical information for gaining insights into the meanings and practices expressed in Scioto Hopewell mortuary records. Whereas Chapter 8 focuses on historical accounts of underwater-underground creatures, some of which are close analogues to those that made their appearance in two death ritual dramas in the Turner earthwork in southwestern Ohio (Chapter 14), this chapter considers narratives about a diverse array of other animals of the Above and Earth realms, a human being with a particular eschatological role, and a specific geographical feature, all of which figured in three ritual dramas performed in the Mound City, Hopewell, and Seip earthworks in the Scioto-Paint Creek area of Ohio (Chapter 13). The characters and feature include: one or more ferocious dogs that the journeyer must negotiate on the path to an afterlife, a dangerous bridge over a torrential stream or other physical obstacle that must be crossed and that often but not always is guarded by the dog, and an individual who removes the brains, memories, and desires of the deceased’s free soul. All of these beings and features that the deceased’s soul encounters correlate with one another across historical narratives. Also considered here are owls, whip-poor-wills, and turkey vultures (buzzards), which in historic Woodland and Plains Indian thought commonly have associations with death but seldom specifically with a soul’s journey to an afterlife. All of these characters commonly had multiple roles, with different roles recognized by different tribes. Sometimes the roles are contradictory in that some are helpful to the deceased while others are harmful.

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Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to Dr. Rex Weeks for showing me how historic Woodland and Plains Indian oral texts can be studied to learn about the ontologies, values, ethics, and world views of these peoples and how the texts are essential to begin to gain insights into the motivations behind native peoples’ choices and actions.

Notes

  1. 1.

    A stuffed body of an owl stood on a pole above each of the four rooms of the Red Lake, Minnesota, Ojibwa’s midēʹ-wigân, or medicine lodge (Hoffman 1891:182, 188, 224, 240, 256, plates 8, 15, no. 2). Having been placed on the center post of each room (ibid., plate 8), the owl may have served as a very important guardian for each of the four degrees of the Red Lake Medicine Society. However, its role in the first and second degrees seems to have been emphasized, considering the particular pole on which the stuffed owl was placed for each room of the midēʹ-wigân. Each room had the number of posts—one to four—indicative of the degree of the Midēʹwiwin ceremony performed within it. A stuffed owl was placed on top of the single pole (red with a green band around the top) of the first-degree room, as well as the first post (of the same coloration) of the second-degree room (Hoffman 1891:188, 224). A stuffed owl was placed on the second post (red with spots of white clay), not the third, of the third-degree room (ibid., 240) and on the second post, not the fourth, of the fourth-degree room (ibid., 256).

    The Ojibwa on the Manitou Reserve, Ontario, in 1933, put a carved owl on top of the first post of the second-degree room and the first post of the third-degree room, but apparently not on posts in the first and fourth-degree rooms (Landes 1968:179).

  2. 2.

    For the Ojibwa on the Manitou Reserve, Ontario, “the Great Lion seemed to supervise the door-tending at all grades. Otter, in particular, seemed to guard the first-grade entrance; Weasel, the second; Mink, the third; and Bear, the fourth. Sometimes Bear was said to supervise generally all the grades” (Landes 1968:145). Hides of all of these animals were used for sacks for storing and shooting shells in life resuscitation rites of the Manitou Reserve Midēʹwiwin (Landes 1968:145). The medicine bags and bundles used by the Minnesota Ojibwa in their rites between 1890 and 1968 included the otter, hawk, owl, bear, eagle, hummingbird, woodpecker, wolverine, lynx and other cats, and rattlesnake and other snakes (Blessing 1969; 1977:111). Muskelid skins were the most commonly used (Weeks 2009:362).

    The owl’s placement on top of midēʹ-wigân roof support posts was likely seen as no more or less important than the positioning of other animals to guard doors of the midēʹ-wigân. Historic Native Woodland peoples did not give precedence to the vertical over the horizontal, contrary to Western world view (Lakoff and Johnson 1980).

  3. 3.

    In the narrative of the origin of the Midēʹ-wiwin told by Ojibwa of Red Lake, Minnesota, the culture hero, Mi′nabō′zho, saw the plight of humans—their helplessness in warding off diseases and difficulty in finding food. Wishing to help them, he built a midēʹ-wigân and in it instructed Otter in the rites of the Midēʹ-wiwin and gave him the rattle and the drum. All three he instructed Otter to share with humans (Hoffman 1891:166–167). Ojibwa at Manitou Reserve analogously told that the great earth manitou, Shell, was concerned for the hard and mortal life of humans, which was not in the original plan of the creation, which had given humans eternal life. Shell conceived of the Midēʹwiwin and called Bear to gather the manitous from all directions. Upon meeting, they approved the idea of the Midēʹwiwin and offered their powers to give to humans. Bear then distributed the Midēʹwiwin ceremony and pack to people across the Great Lakes. He then made the drum from pieces of an old man and the hide of the otter, and the drumstick from a loon’s neck and head. Two snakes decorated the top and bottom of the drum (Landes 1968:98–102).

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Carr, C. (2021). The Ferocious Dog, Brain-Taker, the Keen-Eyed Owl, and Other Persons in the Cosmologies of Postcontact Eastern Woodland and Plains Indians as Told in Oral Narratives. In: Being Scioto Hopewell: Ritual Drama and Personhood in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44917-9_9

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