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What Is a Medicine Bag?

By Lumara Lee
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A medicine bag is a pouch that contains objects that have special significance to the owner. Each medicine bag is as individual as its owner, so no two medicine bags will have the same contents. Items commonly contained in a medicine bag include herbs, stones, shells, feathers, animal skin, fur, teeth, or claws. A medicine bag is often worn for protection, healing or guidance, and is closely connected to the spiritual life of the person wearing it. This holy pouch is usually made of leather and often sports a painted or beaded design.

The Native American medicine bag comes in many sizes. Some bags have long drawstrings and can be worn around the neck. Others tuck into a pocket or purse or can be attached to a belt and worn at the waist.

It is believed that the use of medicine bags began more than 5,000 years ago. The frozen remains of a neolithic man who lived around 3,300 B.C. were found in the Alps in 1991. He had a medicine bag, and traces of medicinal plants were found in his stomach.

Many of the early medicine bags were large bundles that were carried and not worn. Shamans and medicine men kept medicine bundles filled with ceremonial objects that often consisted of sacred herbs like sweetgrass, sage, and cedar; dirt, a pine cone, or stone from a sacred site; rattles; quartz crystals; and ceremonial headdresses. Native American men in some tribes carried around a medicine bundle the way modern women tote their purses.

The Native American concept of medicine is different than the traditional Western view. Medicine in the traditional Native American belief system refers to more than healing. It also relates to magic, the ability to contact spirits, and to receive omens and guidance from them.

Totem animals figure prominently in the Native American world view, and representations of one or more animals are often preserved in a medicine pouch. A stone roughly shaped like a bear, eagle, wolf, or other animal sacred to the individual is typically added to a medicine bag. As a person undergoes different life experiences, he adds mementoes, found sacred objects such as feathers or animal claws, and other items with special meaning to his medicine bag. Medicine bags are still used by many Native Americans today. Some people who aren’t Native American but who have an interest in that culture and spiritual tradition use medicine bags in honor of this tradition and as part of their own spiritual journeys.

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Discussion Comments
By pollick — On Jan 28, 2014

@Reminiscence, I have to admit that I did buy one of those touristy "medicine bags" when I went out to Arizona to visit my daughter. I had no idea that real Native Americans took these items so seriously until I talked to a tour guide at a reservation. He showed me his own medicine bag and said it was indeed an important day when a Native American received one. I asked him if it bothered him to see all of these tourists walking around with fake medicine bags, and he said he just hoped people learned a little something about his culture while they were there.

By Reminiscence — On Jan 27, 2014

I once met a musician who said he was part Native American. He had a small leather pouch on a loop around his neck and I asked him about it. He said a Native American medicine man gave it to him after a ceremony and told him to keep it on his body at all times. I asked him what was inside the bag and he said he didn't know. He had never opened it. I suspect it contained some of the things mentioned in the article, like bird talons and feathers. He took the idea of wearing a medicine bag very seriously. It wasn't something he bought at a gift shop when he visited an Indian museum.

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