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Multicultural America Lesson
The Medicine Bag
by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve



Almost every human society holds a special reverence for the powers that may bring protection or healing for the physically and spiritually sick. In Native American culture, this is often the realm of the Medicine Man (or woman)-a person skilled in ritual and in traditional cures. While a Medicine Man can undergo a difficult process to reach his station, a common tribe member might also collect and carry his or her own healing and protective items in a "medicine bag."

The medicine bag is often a part of this Native American tradition of spiritual healing. The bag normally contains natural objects that bring meaning and power to the bearer. Objects like special feathers, plants, and unusually shaped stones are common. One might also have a variety of bags for different reasons. In this selection, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve introduces the Sioux tradition of passing a medicine bag to a new generation as another generation passes into the spirit world.

About the Authors

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (b. 1933) is a celebrated author, editor, and historian. She was born on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and is a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe. Sneve earned a B.S. (1954), and a M.Ed. (1969) from South Dakota State University and taught English at many institutions. She also became an editor and joined various boards of directors-including the Native American Advisory Board.

While known for her fiction and nonfiction works for all ages, Sneve's children's stories are valued for introducing children to Native American culture and traditions. Among her works are Jimmy Yellow Hawke (1972); High Elk's Treasure (1972); When Thunders Spoke (1974); Betrayed (1974); The Twelve Moons (1977); and The Trickster and the Troll (1997). Her "First Americans" educational series (beginning in 1993) focuses on the histories of particular tribes like the Sioux and the Apaches.

(Tested vocabulary words used in the online vocabulary quiz are underlined.)

  1. authentic—real; genuine.
  2. moccasins—soft leather slippers traditionally worn by Native Americans.
  3. tepee (TEE-pee)—cone-shaped tent of animal hide traditionally used by Plains Indian peoples.
  4. procession (pruh-sehsh-uhn)—group of people or things moving forward, often in ceremony.
  5. bolo tie—tie of leather or cloth string held together with a sliding device.
  6. unseemly—improper.
  7. vision quest—individual's search for a spiritual sign or message. A vision quest formed part of young people's coming-of-age in many Native American cultures.
  8. Teton Sioux—largest and westernmost of the Sioux peoples.
  9. Wakantanka (wah-kuhn-TANK-eh)—most important spirit in the Sioux religion, regarded as the creator of the world.
  10. butte (byoot)—steep hill with a flat top standing alone on a plain.
  11. sage—plant with grayish-green leaves belonging to the mint family of plants.


Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection and improve your comprehension of the essay.


Answer the Questions to Consider questions in the book as a way to deepen your interpretation of the selection.

1. What special items do you treasure and why?

2. How is the Sioux idea that things are done when it is "the right time" supported by the events of the story?

3. Why do you think the author included Martin's dream? What does the dream hint at?

4. How does the medicine bag represent the generations of the narrator's family?

5. How might Martin describe his Grandpa at the end of the story?

6. How does the story reflect both the old ways and the new ways of the Teton Sioux?

7. What place do you see in the modern world for traditions such as the medicine bag?

Literature Connection

1. In "The Medicine Bag," what does the writer's use of dialogue reveal about Grandpa's character?

2. What does dialogue reveal about the attitudes of the different family members toward Grandpa?

3. Why do you think the writer uses dialogue to create the scene in which Grandpa passes the medicine bag on to Martin?


Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

Jimmy Yellow Hawk (1972)

High Elk's Treasure (1972)

When Thunders Spoke (1974)

Betrayed (1974)

The Chichi HooHoo Bogeyman (1975)

The Twelve Moons (1977)

Dancing Teepees: Poems of American Indian Youth (1989, ed.)

The Trickster and the Troll (1997)

Multicultural America-Part 2: Traditions

Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). The famed poet's story of her upbringing in a black Southern community.

Alex Haley. Roots (1977). Best-selling saga about the author's heritage, from his African ancestors through slave days to his own time.

Gish Jen. Typical American (1991). Acclaimed novel about Chinese-American life in the U.S.

Mary Paik Lee. Quiet Odyssey (1990). Autobiography describing a Korean immigrant family's life on the West Coast.

Gary Soto. Living Up the Street (1985). Memoir of a boy's efforts to reconcile his family's Mexican traditions with American culture.

Piri Thomas. Down These Mean Streets (1974). Story of growing up in New York City, by an author with Puerto Rican, Cuban, and African-American ancestry.

Alice Walker. The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970). Realistic novel about an African-American family of sharecroppers.

Shawn Wong. Homebase (1979). Award-winning chronicle of four generations in a Chinese-American family.

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