In 1700’s, Choctaw Doctors’ Opinion
Could Mean Life or Death
In “History of the American Indians”, published in 1775, Adair says that the Indians of his acquaintance believed the time of a man’s death to be fated, and the following item regarding Choctaw doctors would seem to indicate that this fate was revealed to and consummated through the medical fraternity:
“The Choctaw (sic) are so exceedingly infatuated in favor of the infallible judgment of their pretended prophets, as to allow them without the least regret to dislocate the necks of any of their sick who are in a weak state of body, to put them out of their pain, when they presume to reveal the determined will of the Deity to shorten his days, which is asserted to be communicated in a dream.
Since a doctor who lost a patient might be in jeopardy of his life while he was permitted to put an end to the existence of one whose death he had prophesied, it might be thought that the scales would be weighted heavily against the patient. This lends credibility to the following story reported in the memoirs of Milfort while visiting the Creek Nation:
The Choctaws revere greatly the priests or medicine men of whom I have just spoken, and in whom they have a blind confidence which the latter often abuse. These doctors exact high payments for their labors over a sick man, and almost always in advance. Their avarice is such that, when illness lasts for a long time, and the patient has nothing left with which to pay the doctor, the latter calls a meeting of the sick man’s family and informs them that he has employed all of the resources of his profession, but the sickness is incurable and it can end only in death.
The family thus forewarned decides that, the patient having already suffered a long time and being without hope of recovery, it would be inhuman to prolong his sufferings further and it is right to end them. Then, one or two of the strongest of them go to the sick man, ask him, in the presence of the entire family, how he is, and while the latter is replying to this question, they throw themselves upon him and strangle him.
In 1782 one of these who had been sick for a long time and who had nothing more to give to his doctor, found himself in danger of being strangled in the manner I have just described. As he was suspicious and was on his guard, he watched for the moment his family was assembled to hear the report of the doctor and decide to put an end to his sufferings by putting him to death. He took advantage of this moment to flee and escape the ceremony, which awaited him. He dragged himself, as well as he was able, as far as a forest, which fortunately was near his dwelling. He was not able to carry with him provisions of any kind, and found himself reduced to the necessity of living on the flesh of wood rats, known under the name of “opossum,” which are very appetizing and very healthful. His flight caused all his family great astonishment, but the doctor persuaded them that he had gone away only to conceal his inevitable death.
While this unfortunate was wandering in the forest, he remembered that he had frequently visited the Creeks in order to carry thither the belts or strings of beads which serve them as records. He determined to take refuge with them and inform them of his reasons for fleeing from his own country, not doubting that he would find help and protection in a nation with the generosity of which he was acquainted. He then sought out McGillivray, who was at that time head chief, and explained to him the reasons for his journey. He reminded him that he had visited him many times on behalf of his chiefs. McGillivray received him kindly though he was unable to recognize him for he looked like a skeleton. Food was given him and as he was still sick, some days later he had him take some emetic (i.e., cassina) diluted with sassafras water. This medicine was sufficient to cure his sickness, but as this savage had suffered much and had been ill for a long time, he remained four or five months with McGillivray in order to become wholly restored to health; I saw him often and he related his adventure to me himself. When he felt entirely restored, he returned to his own nation. About eight months had then elapsed since his escape, and his family had raised a scaffold and performed all the ceremonial rites preceding and accompanying funerals which I have described above. The doctor had so strongly persuaded the relatives of this savage that he could not recover from his illness that, when he appeared in their midst, they looked upon him as a ghost, and all fled. Seeing that he was left alone, he went to the house of one of his neighbors who, seized with the same terror, threw himself on the ground, and persuaded that this was only a spirit, spoke to him as follows:
“Why have you left the abode of souls if you were happy there? Why do you return to us? Is it in order to be present at the last feast, which your family and your friends hold for you? Go! Return to the country of the dead lest you renew the grief which they have experienced at your loss!”
The other, seeing that his presence caused the same fright every where, determined to return to the Creeks, where he saw again, in course of time, many of his relatives, since these were in the habit of coming there every year. It was only then that he was able to disabuse them and persuade them that the doctor had deceived them. They, angered at such a piece of rascality, sought out the doctor, heaped upon him the most violent reproaches, and afterwards killed him so that might deceive no one else. They then made all possible representations to this savage in order to induce him to return to them, but he refused steadily and married a woman of the Taaskiguys by whom he had three children, and he lives at the place where Fort Toulouse formerly stood.
Text in this historical article is from Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians, by John R. Swanton. (Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution,) pages 213-214.