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The Choctaw Journey: The Mystery of the Medicine Man

By Sandra Knispel | Published 17 Feb 2011 01:04pm | comments
The headwaters of the Pearl River, immediately adjacent to the cave from which, according to tribal lore, the Choctaw emerged from the center of the earth.

To this day, the idea of a Native American medicine man conjures up vivid, exciting images in most of us. But to some Choctaw in Mississippi, combining Western medicine with a traditional approach is nothing unusual. MPB’s Sandra Knispel concludes our series on the journey of the Mississippi Choctaw Indians.

With the arrival of missionaries and their acceptance into the tribe in the 19th century, reading and writing was introduced to a culture that had thus far solely relied on oral traditions. But according to Dr. Kennith York, director of the development division of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, formal education came at a steep price.

“I think Christianity really hurt many people. The belief system that Christianity brought to Native Americans and asked that we set aside our belief system has really hurt the Native Americans."

Part of that belief system revolved around the tribal medicine man, or Alikchi, a spiritual healer. Today they are few and far between but the Mississippi Choctaw still have one in their midst.

“Throughout the years you have to kind of start learning things through your communication with the stars, the moon," James Johnson said. "You communicate with the universe and the universe itself kind of give[s] you the understanding where you can be connected with the creator and the creator itself teaches you more about the herbal medicine.”

The only thing that distinguishes medicine man James Johnson optically from other Choctaw is an armadillo claw on a chain around his neck, a gift from a colleague in Mexico. To this day, some ailing tribal members consult with Johnson, who has been practicing tribal medicine for 42 years.

“Basically, you test where the pain is. You feel the pain and you close your eyes and just kind of observe it. At that time is when you see through your visions the cause of the pain.

Trained by his grandfather, the now 56-year old started healing family members at the age of 14. But as the only medicine man of the tribe he’s caught in somewhat of a catch 22. Johnson says he can only heal others, the herbs would not work on himself.

“Because I’m part of that energy and that energy is just going to flush it out, just like that. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve tried it in the past when I was about 21-years old when I really started being [a] public figure to be as a medicine person. I kind of started getting sick because I was just overdoing [it} taking care of other people. So, I started seeing if I could use those medicines on myself. I just got sick more.”

Back as a child Johnson told his mother of one particularly vivid dream in which he was suspended from a tree. Little did he know that decades later that dream would come true when Johnson participated in a Lakota tribal ceremony that is not for the faint of heart.

“You get pierced on your chest and then you’re tied to that rope on that pole on that tree. It’s called a sundance tree.”

Yes, you did hear correctly. Metal hooks in the skin and suspended from a tree.

“You’re tied to that tree from that rope and you get pierced on the chest and on your back. You’re hung onto that rope for four days. Sometimes they break off within hours. [Reporter: “Doesn’t that hurt like crazy?”] No, [not] when you’re in that stage of belief, faith.”

[Johnson starts chanting] Johnson, singing a Lakota chant here, says he sees up to 40 or 50 patients a week. He leaves it up to them to decide if and how much they want to pay him. But his tradition is disappearing.

“Slipping away little by little. Because we see our children more speaking in English than their own language.”

Now, Johnson is looking for someone to follow in his footsteps. His children are not interested, but he’s not worried. His faith rests with his children’s children.

“I’ll know when they are ready by observing. Their interest is going to be around grandpa. Their interest is going to be around the medicine. Until then you know that they’re not ready to preserve that medicine yet. I’m confident, yes I am, but I don’t know yet which one. It already has been told. It might be one of the girls,” he said chuckling. “I’m looking forward to that.”

Like fry bread, basket making, the game of stickball, tribal chants and dancing, a medicine person is part of the fabric that holds together the ancient tapestry of Choctaw traditions. Traditions that are worth preserving.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News.


The headwaters of the Pearl River, immediately adjacent to the cave from which, according to tribal lore, the Choctaw emerged from the center of the earth.



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