Du Vernet seemed to be aware of both the medicine men’s spiritual power and their social importance, which went hand in hand in the Ojibwe social world. These medicine men were important keepers of culture and ceremony tasked with the duty to carry on tradition, which explains why Jeremiah Johnston and Du Vernet encountered so much resistance from them.
What does Du Vernet miss?
Du Vernet’s understanding of the medicine men’s role was limited by his assumption that they could all be described with one term. Within Ojibwe culture there are several different kinds of “ritual specialists” and healers. For example, there are mashkikiiwininiwag (herbal healers), kakanaweenimit (midwives), jiisakiiwininiwag (shaking tent “diviners” or “conjurors”), nanaandawi’wininiwag (doctors), or midéwiwin (“priests”) of the Midéwiwin or Grand Medicine Society. These various cultural specialists occupied important roles in Ojibwe society, serving as healers, herbalists, ceremonial experts, advisors, and ritual practitioners, and still do so today.
Du Vernet only ever refers to medicine men, overlooking the important healing work that women too would have performed. This might serve as a reminder that all of Du Vernet’s observations were filtered through is own experiences of gendered power in Christianity, in which men traditionally held spiritual power. Though his diary does describe some powerful grandmothers and notes women’s work with beads and cedar, he does not discuss them as spiritual leaders.
McNally, Michael. Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Johnston, Basil. The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. New York, Harper Collins Publisher, 1995.
Johnston, Basil. Ojibway Ceremonies. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1982.