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Sacred Medicine Bundle

An important aspect of Native American oral tradition involves sacred bundles of relics that help storytellers remember tribal stories and histories. According to newspaper reports from the 1930s, certain members of the Hidatsa’s Water Buster Clan were responsible for praying for rain and also for safeguarding a sacred medicine bundle that contained two ancient human skulls wrapped in a buffalo robe. The skulls represented two huge eagles that had turned into human beings – they were Thunder Birds, sky spirits that could send rain.

At some point, the keeper of the bundle unexpectedly died, and a relative sold the bundle to a Presbyterian missionary for $30. It was subsequently purchased by a New York museum in 1927.

When the drought and dust of the Great Depression hit the prairies, the Water Buster Clan believed it was because the medicine bundle hadn’t been properly kept. So, in 1933 they began the very difficult task of raising $400 to send a delegation to New York to get the bundle back. Unfortunately, the museum wasn’t willing to part with it.

The Water Busters’ spokesman was Arthur Mandan. He wasn’t a member of the Clan, but he was on the tribal business council and was known for his powers of persuasion. His children say that Mandan went so far as to get the issue before Congress, but it was when the newspapers picked up the story that the museum finally consented to trade the bundle for an equal artifact.

The clan offered a roughed-up stone hammer and a sun-bleached bison horn stuffed with sage, and it was this week in 1938 that the exchange took place.* In New York, Arthur Mandan, 75-year-old Drags Wolf, and 84-year-old Foolish Bear were given the red-carpet treatment, including a dinner at the home of Joseph Kennedy and a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt. When a museum staff member began to open the medicine bundle for press photographers, Foolish Bear and Drags Wolf rushed forward to shield the contents.

When the bundle was safely back in North Dakota, the Hidatsa celebrated through the night. They say the clouds burned red for a day and a night, and in the spring, the rains came back and turned the prairies green.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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