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Martin Iron Bull


Martin Iron Bull was born in 1875 and grew up at Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock reservation. Martin and his brother, Four Swords, were trained from a young age to be medicine men in the tradition of their father and grandfather. A WPA worker interviewed him in the 1930s.

“My grandfather, Boat Lip, died in Montana about 1879,” Martin said. “He was 100 years of age and had been a medicine man for over 50 years. At the time of his death he was stooped and could not sit or stand erect. His hair was long and white, and his eyesight was gone.

“He knew his time was short, so he called his friends and relatives to him and told them he was going away but would not die and for them not to cry when he was gone. He told them he would be living on a nearby hill. At this time the weather was cloudy and rainy,” Iron Bull said. “He told his friends he would leave them the first day the sun shone. A few days later the sun came out. Boat Lip asked to be placed in a round frame willow enclosure. The top was left uncovered, and the sun shone down upon him. Boat Lip said he would leave as the sun went down. He carried out his promise.”

Martin’s grandfather had a separate tipi for each of his five wives and their many children. “He was good, kind, and gentle,” said Iron Bull. “He made medicine for the warriors, the hunters, and the sick and wounded. To help him make medicine, he used a stuffed skunk, badger, and a small coyote; a necklace made of shells, claws, stones, and pieces of hooves, and a pipe.

“There was very little sickness among our people,” he continued. “We were strong and healthy, and most of us lived 80 to 90 years. In the winter months we wore only moccasins, breechcloth, mittens, and a skin cap. On the coldest days a buffalo robe was thrown over the shoulders... In the morning we washed our faces and hands in the snow.

“I started school at the Substation but had to quit because of my eyesight. During my boyhood around Cannon Ball, I spent my time playing, herding and watering horses, and taking long walks in the woods along the Missouri River. At that time most of the Indians who were sick went to father to be cured. They believed in him and went to him in preference to the white doctor in Fort Yates. I was taught to only believe in the Great Spirit. I never attended a white man’s church.

“When my brother died in 1925,” Martin said, “I then became the medicine man. I have been treating sick Indians who come to me ever since. In treating someone, I sing and say prayers to the Great Spirit and give them a dose of herbal medicine. If I am called, I will go to the sick Indian’s home and administer to him.

“In some cases I have the person take a steam bath. In front of my house is a round willow framework about 7 feet in diameter and 3 feet high. This is covered with two or three layers of canvas. In the center of this bathhouse is a round iron pan about two feet in diameter and eight inches deep. This is placed in the ground, the top of the pan being even with the ground. Stones about six inches in diameter are heated in an open campfire and when hot are carried into the bathhouse and placed in the pan. Cold water is poured on the rocks. This makes a steam that fills the bathhouse.”

Martin Iron Bull was also a successful farmer and rancher at Cannon Ball. He ended up owning 26 quarters of land, most of which he leased to white settlers.

(Taken from The Way it Was: The North Dakota Experience; Native People, edited by Everett Albers and Jerome Tweton)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm