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Course & Subject Guides

Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian, Spring-Summer 2018: Arikara Medicine Ceremony

This library guide is an overview of the Archives & Special Collection exhibit on Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian.

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Arikara Medicine Ceremony

Photogravure of Arikara Medicine Ceremony - the Ducks

Arikara Medicine Ceremony - The Ducks, 1908

Three members of the medicine fraternity, painted to represent ducks and holding the rushes among which waterfowl rest, in their dance around the sacred cedar. 

Print caption by Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, Portfolio V, Plate no. 163, 1909.


Observations by Curtis

Observations on  Religion, Ceremony, and  Performance 

Ever since the days of Columbus the assertion has been made repeatedly that the Indian has no religion and no code of ethics, chiefly for the reason that in his primitive state he recognizes no supreme God.  Yet the fact remains that no people have a more elaborate religious system than our aborigines, and none are more devout in the performance of the duties connected therewith.  There is scarcely an act in the Indian’s life that does not involve some ceremonial performance or is not in itself a religious act, sometimes so complicated that much time and study are required to grasp even a part of its real meaning, for his myriad deities must all be propitiated lest some dire disaster befall him.

Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, Text I, xvi, 1907.

Curtis device

The Medicine Ceremony

The Arikara developed the legerdemain of their all-summer medicine ceremony to such an extent that other tribes, far and near, learned of their wonderful and potent magic…

This remarkable ceremony of the medicine fraternity of the Arikara has long been dormant, the agency officials having suppressed it about 1885.  The writer, desiring to learn as much as was possible of a rite that had such unusual recognition among all the northern plains Indians, made arrangements with the remnant of the fraternity for a performance of it; not of course presuming to make it an all-summer one, or hoping to revive the sleight-of-hand, the secrets of which they admit have been lost, but to reproduce the ritualistic features…

In former times it was the custom, in the early spring before the planting season, to open one of the medicine bundles fabled to have been left with the several bands by Mother (the Corn). The act was accompanied by a repetition of the myth of the genesis and migration of the Arikara, and there followed a dramatic enactment in the nature of a prayer for bounteous crops.

Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, Text V, 70-71, 1909.

Curtis device


Banner of photos of Arikara people