Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Magic and the Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



There are authentic accounts from various observers in many parts of the New World , from the earliest historical period to the present time, that the Indians practised so-called magic arts, or sorcery. The earlier writers marvelled at these arts, and evidently wished their readers to marvel. They often attributed the power of the Indians to Satan. Father Acosta, in the 16 th   century, spoke in awe of the Mexican magicians flying through the air, assuming any form they pleased and having telepathic knowledge of events occurring at distant places, and the same may be said in a general way of the [Inuit]. The Rev. Peter Jones wrote in the first decade of the 19 th century: "I have sometimes been inclined to think that, if witchcraft still exists in the world, it is to be found among the aborigines of America ." His personal experience was among the Chippewa. The Nipissing were called Jongleurs by the French on account of the expertness in magic of their medicine men. Some writers of the present day marvel as much as did their predecessors; but instead of attributing the phenomena to Satan, seek the cause in spirits or something equally occult. The feats of Indian magicians, as a rule, may be easily explained as sleight-of-hand tricks, and their prophecy and telepathy as the results of collusion. Their tricks are deceptions, very ingenious when it is considered how rude their tools and appliances are, but not to be compared with the acts of civilized conjurors who make no claim to superhuman aid.


Distinct from such tricks of illusion and deceit, there is evidence that the Indians were and still are versed in hypnotism, or, better, "suggestion." Carver (1776-78) speaks of it among the Sioux, and J. E. Fletcher observed it among the Menominee about the middle of the last century. Mooney describes and pictures the condition among modern Indians.


Sleight-of-hand was not only much employed in the treatment of disease, but was used on many other occasions. A very common trick among Indian charlatans was to pretend to suck foreign bodies, such as stones, out of the persons of their patients. Records of this are found among many tribes, from the lowest in culture to the highest, even among the Aztecs. Of course such trickery was not without some therapeutic efficacy, for it, like many other proceedings of the shamans, was designed to cure disease by influence on the imagination. A Hidatsa residing in Dakota in 1865 was known by the name Cherry-in-the-mouth because he had a trick of producing from his mouth, at any season, what seemed to be fresh wild cherries. He had found some way of preserving cherries, perhaps in whiskey, and it was easy for him to hide them in his mouth before intending to play the trick; but many of the Indians considered it wonderful magic.


The most astonishing tricks of the Indians were displayed in their fire ceremonies and in handling hot substances, accounts of which performances pertain to various tribes. It is said that Chippewa sorcerers could handle with impunity red-hot stones and burning brands, and could bathe the hands in boiling water or syrup; such magicians were called "fire-dealers" and "fire-handlers." There, are authentic accounts from various parts of the world of fire-dancers and fire-walks among barbarous races, and extraordinary fire acts are performed also among widely separated Indian tribes. Among the Arikara of what is now North Dakota, in the autumn of 1865, when a large fire in the center of the medicine lodge had died down until it became a bed of glowing embers, and the light in the lodge was dim, the performers ran with apparently bare feet among the hot coals and threw these around in the lodge with their bare hands, causing the spectators to flee.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., p. 270.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College