Medicine woman in the moon: An Algonquin traditional story


The totem pole that in September will grace the NLM herb garden and become a focal point for the Native Voices exhibition depicts the Algonquin traditional story of the Medicine Woman in the Moon.

The Algonquin traditional story of the Medicine Woman in the Moon is an ancient, powerful parable with two timeless lessons:

–       Be careful what you ask for. It may not come in a form you expect.

–       Appreciate and protect what you already know, as it must last you throughout the ages.

Painting interpreting the Algonquin medicine woman in the moon

Courtesy Jewell James

The Algonquins http://www.ushistory.org/us/1c.asp were the most populous and widespread Native American nation when French and English settlers arrived in North America. The Algonquins inhabited most of what is now Canada south of Hudson Bay between the Rockies and the Atlantic Ocean, with many different tribes united by a common language.

Most Algonquian-speaking tribes also shared creation myths and religious beliefs, such as the Medicine Woman in the Moon that resides at the top of the NLM totem.

As the story goes, a woman healer was so knowledgeable and well versed in traditional medicine that she could cure most illnesses affecting her people. Her healing powers were known and deeply respected among all the surrounding tribes.

However, even the Medicine Woman did not know how to cure an occasional illness. So, she retreated into the forest to a sacred place, where she drew a circle of life. She fasted, meditated, and prayed to the Great Spirit seeking answers.

During one of her reflective periods, the Medicine Woman realized she did not know when the world would end. Determined to find the answer, she withdrew to meditate and pray, as usual. In time, the Great Spirit sent a Manitou (a spirit, in Algonquian tradition) to tell her she that she sought an answer to a question too dangerous for humans to know.

The Manitou delivered the message and departed. The Medicine Woman got up to leave but, realizing the Great Spirit heard her, she decided to persevere and re-ask the question. Again, the Great Spirit instructed the Manitou: “Tell her that she must hide from other people, and that I will tell her in my time.”

After the Manitou delivered that message, the Medicine Woman decided to locate herself on the Moon. And you can see her there to this day. She sits before a fire, weaving a headband, her corn meal cooking. Behind her is her walking stick; her cat combs her hair.

When the Great Spirit finally gives her the answer she seeks, the Medicine Woman will finish her headband and the cat will finish combing her hair. The Medicine Woman will eat her corn meal, grab her walking stick, and come home.

But for now, the Medicine Woman in the Moon waits for the Great Spirit, who will tell her in time.

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