Meaning of Midewin

The name Midewin (also spelled Midewiwin and Medewiwin) is derived from the term for the Grand Medicine society of the Indians of the Great Lakes Region. Tribal groups who had such curing societies include the Ojibwa, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi, the last of whom were prominent residents of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie region from the mid 1700’s to the early to mid-1800’s. According to the Potawatomi, Mide’ or Mida (pronounced mid-day), means ‘mystic’ or ‘mystically powerful’ (Landes, 1970). The curing rituals performed by the members of the Midewin relied heavily on a tradition that incorporated mystical elements arising from the beliefs about the spirits that protected the A-nish’-in-a’ beg (term used by the Ottawa, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Menomonee to describe “the original people,”) (Hoffman, 1891).

The first historic mention of the Midewin is in connection with the Potawatomi who inhabited the Detroit region of Michigan in 1714 (Draper, et al. 1855 - 1911). The origins of the society, however, most certainly predate this time (Clifton, 1978). Hickerson (1963) suggests that the Midewin served as a unifying element among different tribes. There are descriptions of “sorcerers, jugglers, and persons whose faith, influence, and practices are dependant on assistance of ‘Manitous,’ or mysterious spirits,” as early as 1642 in the Jesuit Relations (Hoffman, 1891), but the Midewin society is not specifically mentioned.

Sauk Otter Pelt

Sauk Otter Pelt
According to the Ojibwa (Hoffman, 1891), the Midewin came into existence when the servant (Mi’’ nabo’zho - Great Rabbit) of the Good Spirit (Dzhe Man’ido) saw the helpless condition of the A-nish’-in-a’-beg (the original people) and wanted to give them the means to protect themselves from hunger and disease. He chose to communicate with the people through an Otter, which subsequently became a sacred spirit of the Midewin. An Otter Pelt was often used thereafter as a medicine bag, which contained the sacred curing items used in the healing ritual. The Great Rabbit gave the Otter the sacred drum, rattle, and tobacco to be used in curing the sick. Through song, he related the wish of Dzhe Man’ido (Good Spirit), that the original people be spared from hunger and have long and comfortable lives. The Great Rabbit conferred upon the Otter the secrets and mysteries of the Midewin, and with his Medicine bag “shot” the sacred mi’gis into the body of the Otter. The mi’gis was a white shell that was sacred to the Midewin, and the Otter, having been ‘shot’ at with it gained immortality and the ability to pass on the secrets of the Midewin to the A-nish’-in-a’-beg, the original people.

The Midewin consisted of a number of individuals who had been initiated into the society in a ceremony that took place in four stages. Each stage confered a greater level of power upon the initiate (Hoffman, 1891; Spencer, 1977). There was a cost associated with each stage, and not all individuals went beyond the first. Although the collective members of the Midewin had the power to cure, the individual did not (Spencer, 1977). Both the initiation ceremony and curing rituals incorporated reenactments of the story of the origin of the Midewin. The sick were treated with tobacco, drums, and rattles. A variety of herbs were also used in curing patients. For the most part, however, the curing ritual relied heavily on faith. The songs sung by the members of the Midewin for initiation and curing ceremonies were carefully preserved as pictographs or hieroglyphs - a series of symbols that served as mnemonic devices - carved into birch bark scrolls. These scrolls offer us insight into the origin and tradition of the Midewin.

In the Me-da-we rite is incorporated most that is ancient amongst them - songs and traditions that have descended not orally, but in hieroglyphs, for at least a long time of generations. This rite has perpetuated the purest and most ancient idioms of their language, which differs somewhat from that of common everyday use. (Hoffman, 1891).

Each member of the society owned a medicine bundle or bag, a pelt (usually an otter, after the origin myth), containing sacred objects. During a curing or initiation, an initiate or patient was ‘shot’ with the medicine bag (the pelt of an otter or other animal), containing the sacred white shell in an elaborate ceremony. The patient then spit the shell out of his/her mouth at the end of the ceremony as an indication that supernatural power had been carried into their bodies (Spencer, 1977).

Shooting the mi'gis during a curing ceremony (Hoffman 1891)

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