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September 30, 1771

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Hearne witnesses a shaman swallow a piece of a bayonet in order to heal a man of sickness, but called it a "very nice piece of deception"





A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772

Samuel Hearne


Important Text:

Several of the Indians being very ill, the conjurers, who are always the doctors, and pretend to perform great cures, began to try their skill to effect their recovery. Here it is necessary to remark, that they use no medicine either for internal or external complaints, but perform all their cures by charms. In ordinary cases, sucking the part affected, blowing, and singing to it; {190} haughing, spitting, and at the same time uttering a heap of unintelligible jargon, compose the whole process of the cure. For some inward complaints; such as, griping in the intestines, difficulty of making water, &c., it is very common to see those jugglers blowing into the anus, or into the parts adjacent, till their eyes are almost starting out of their heads: and this operation is performed indifferently on all, without regard either to age or sex. The accumulation of so large a quantity of wind is at times apt to occasion some extraordinary emotions, which are not easily suppressed by a sick person; and as there is no vent for it but by the channel through which it was conveyed thither, it sometimes occasions an odd scene between the doctor and his patient; which I once wantonly called an engagement, but for which I was afterward exceedingly sorry, as it highly offended several of the Indians; particularly the juggler and the sick person, both of whom were men I much esteemed, and, except in that moment of levity, it had ever been no less my inclination than my interest to shew them every respect that my situation would admit.

I have often admired the great pains these jugglers take to deceive their credulous countrymen, while at the same time they are indefatigably industrious and persevering in their efforts to relieve them. Being naturally not very delicate, they frequently continue their windy process so long, that I have more than once seen the doctor quit his patient with his face and breast in a very disagreeable condition. However laughable this may appear to an European, custom makes it very indecent, in their opinion, to turn any thing of the kind to ridicule.

When a friend for whom they have a particular regard is, as they suppose, dangerously ill, beside the above methods, they have recourse to another very extraordinary piece of superstition; which is no less than that of pretending to swallow hatchets, ice-chissels, broad bayonets, knives, and the like; out of a superstitious notion that undertaking such desperate feats will have some influence in appeasing death, and procure a respite for their patient.

1771. August.

On such extraordinary occasions a conjuring-house is erected, by driving the ends of four long small sticks, or poles, into the ground at right angles, so as to form a square of four, five, six, or seven feet, as may be required. The tops of the poles are tied together, and all is close covered with a tent-cloth or other skin, exactly in the shape of a small square tent, except that there is no vacancy left at the top to admit the light. In the middle of this house, or tent, the patient is laid, and is soon followed by the conjurer, or conjurers. Sometimes five or six of them give their joint-assistance; but before they enter, they strip themselves quite naked, and as soon as they get into the house, the door being well closed, they kneel round the sick person or persons, and begin to suck and blow at the parts affected, and then in a very short space of time sing and talk as if conversing with familiar spirits, which they say appear to them in the shape of different beasts and birds of prey. When they have had sufficient conference with those necessary agents, or shadows, as they term them, they ask for the hatchet, bayonet, or the like, which is always prepared by another person, with a long string fastened to it by the haft, for the convenience of hauling it up again after they have swallowed it; for they very wisely admit this to be a very necessary precaution, as hard and compact bodies, such as iron and steel, would be very difficult to digest, even by the men who are enabled to swallow them. Besides, as those tools are in themselves very useful, and not always to be procured, it would be very ungenerous in the conjurers to digest them, when it is known that barely swallowing them and hauling them up again is fully sufficient to answer every purpose that is expected from them.

1771. August. 6th.

At the time when the forty and odd tents of Indians joined us, one man was so dangerously ill, that it was thought necessary the conjurers should use some of those wonderful experiments for his recovery; one of them therefore immediately consented to swallow a broad bayonet. Accordingly, a conjuring-house was erected in the manner above described, into which the patient was conveyed, and he was soon followed by the conjurer, who, after a long preparatory discourse, and the necessary  conference with his familiar spirits, or shadows, as they call them, advanced to the door and asked for the bayonet, which was then ready prepared, by having a string fastened to it, and a short piece of wood tied to the other end of the string, to prevent him from swallowing it. I could not help observing that the length of the bit of wood was not more than the breadth of the bayonet; however, as it answered the intended purpose, it did equally well as if it had been as long as a handspike.

Though I am not so credulous as to believe that the conjurer absolutely swallowed the bayonet, yet I must acknowledge that in the twinkling of an eye he conveyed it to—God knows where; and the small piece of wood, or one exactly like it, was confined close to his teeth. He then paraded backward and forward before the conjuring-house for a short time, when he feigned to be greatly disordered in his stomach and bowels; and, after making many wry faces, and groaning most hideously, he put his body into several distorted attitudes, very suitable to the occasion. He then returned to the door of the conjuring-house, and after making many strong efforts to vomit, by the help of the string he at length, and after tugging at it some time, produced the bayonet, which apparently he hauled out of his mouth, to the no small surprize of all present. He then looked round with an air of exultation, and strutted into the conjuring-house, where he renewed his incantations, and continued them without intermission twenty-four hours. Though I was not close to his elbow when he performed the above feat, yet I thought myself near enough (and I can assure my readers I was all attention) to have detected him. Indeed I must confess that it appeared to me to be a very nice piece of deception, especially as it was performed by a man quite naked.

1771. August.

Not long after this slight-of-hand work was over, some of the Indians asked me what I thought of it; to which I answered, that I was too far off to see it so plain as I could wish; which indeed was no more than the strictest truth, because I was not near enough to detect the deception. The sick man, however, soon recovered; and in a few days afterwards we left that place and proceeded to the South West.

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