Medicine Woman

Dedicated to my mother, Delphine Edwards, Medicine Woman, and to the man who never gave up and married her, Scotty Edwards. Happy birthday and happy anniversary of 53 years.</i>

When my father was a young man and the traditional medicines were used, every warrior had eyes for a beautiful young woman named Rainbow Dress.

The warriors were forever trying to impress her with their running, hunting and other skills. Rainbow Dress, however, could run faster, throw farther and catch as many fish as any man.

Sometimes she would purposely taunt them to race with her, and they would: and they would all lose. But she teased them and got them so mad that they always took her challenge.

One young man, Little Squirrel, would just watch: he never teased her or tried to beat her at tasks. Every so often Rainbow Dress gave him a smile as she fetched water for her father’s sweat lodge.

To Little Squirrel her smile was the prize, not winning at games and fishing. But he knew she was much too busy taking care of her father, Speaks with Many Voices. He was a great medicine man and kept all his people well.

Many people came to him to be taught, but he saved his teaching for his daughter. He knew that his time on earth was nearing an end and that he needed to sweat more. He wanted to give his thanks to Taltupa and needed to pray for his people, for their well-being had always been his concern. And he was concerned for his daughter’s wisdom to be the medicine woman of the village and to help guide her brothers and sisters in all things.

With all this in his heart, he decided to sweat every day for 31 suns that rose every day. The night before his sweat began, he had Rainbow Dress sit with him by the fire. They talked of when she was little and how she always had knowledge and used it well.

Rainbow Dress enjoyed the talk with her father, but she could feel in her heart that something was wrong. Finally she asked, “Father, why do we talk so much of me? Is there something wrong?”

He smiled. “You are smart,” he said. “The man you pick to be your husband will have his hands full.” They both laughed, and Rainbow Dress wished that moment could last forever. But he suddenly became very serious.

“I am old and soon I will be with my father. I need you to help me with the sweat. I will sweat for 31 days. I need you to heat the rocks and always make sure my bowl is filled with water. I am asking you for your patience, for as long as I sweat you must sit outside and learn from all around you.”

“I will, father, but why?” Rainbow Dress asked.

“Because on the 31st day, by the time the moon shines in the sky, I will leave you. But I will always be with you in spirit and watch over you. Then you will be the medicine woman for the people. So I want you to gather all your berries, roots, barks and leaves – all I have taught you to make medicine with – and put it in a bag.

“This will be your medicine bag and it will be with me every day that I sweat. When I am gone, you must always remember to sweat, give thanks and not be too proud to ask for help. Do your best to guide our people. Do you understand all I have said?”

“Yes,” she replied. Her father said, “Good, because this is the only time I will say this. But there is one more thing, my daughter: Leave room in your heart for love, for the power of love is what makes all things possible. Promise me this.” And Rainbow Dress promised.

Before she knew it, morning had come and as her father had asked her, she had her bag filled with a little bit of everything she would need.

As the days passed, Rainbow Dress did as her father had asked and studied everything around her. Then when night came, she helped him home and prepared dinner. She could see he was growing tired and sometimes struggling to walk or sit, but she did as she was told.

After 30 days of sweating for her father, Little Squirrel came to Rainbow Dress while she was filling her bowls with water. He offered to help as an excuse to talk to her.

She was stubborn, but she remembered what her father told her. They talked as they filled the bowls and laughed about how Rainbow Dress always seemed to win all the races when they were young. The sweet evening of conversation made her forget the coming sadness.

Finally, the last day of sweating and praying for Rainbow Dress’ father came. She wished the day would last forever rather than having to say good-bye to him, and it was harder than ever to help her father walk home.

Little Squirrel saw them struggling through the trees and ran to help. Normally Rainbow Dress would not have accepted his help, but her father smiled and did so. As they covered him by the fire that night she knew her life would soon change fovever, and it was hard to keep her sadness in.

Little Squirrel reached out to hold her hand. Even though her first thought was to pull away, she looked into his eyes: and what she saw made her smile. She saw love.

Love has many shapes and sometimes you cannot see it, even when it’s right in front of you. Rainbow Dress saw and felt it, and was comforted.

She did not feel so alone anymore. Rainbow Dress and Little Squirrel sat all night with Speaks with Many Voices, and by morning he was gone. Rainbow Dress’ sadness was strong, but her father’s words were stronger. She did all her father had asked of her. She learned much more, and became “the medicine woman” and a very respected person among her people.

The one medicine she learned, and the most important, was Love. She and Little Squirrel wed and, as she tended to her people, she stressed the importance of this medicine, too. For we all possess it, and sometimes love really can cure all.

Lim lim.

Ken “Rainbow Cougar” Edwards, from the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, is an accomplished painter and storyteller. Edwards is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and is a longtime cartoonist for Indian Country Today.