American Indian Conjuring

Conjuring is said to be the second-oldest profession in the world, and may well be the oldest of the theatrical arts. It was the carefully guarded weapon of the priesthood used to establish a belief in supernatural powers among an uninformed public (Randi, 1992, p. XI). The dictionary defines a conjuror as “a person who practices legerdemain [sleight of hand]; juggler“. (Webster’s College Dictionary, 1992, p. 281). Another source defines conjuring as the art of “producing the appearance of genuine magic by means of trickery and deception” (Randi, 1992, p. XI).
Anyone who attended Sunday school as a child can recall the biblical account of Aaron’s battle with two sorcerers in Pharos’s court. In the story, each of the magi cast down rods that became snakes. The secret to the trick was the snakes had been drugged or hypnotized which made them look like sticks, then became mobile when stroked by the conjurors (Randi, 1992, p. 1). Eunios, a Syrian, stopped a rebellion of Sicilian slaves about 135 B. C. with his awe provoking fire breathing. He claimed a Syrian goddess had made him immune to fire. Florus, the chronicler, had other ideas.
He insisted that Eunios had the fiery substance secreted in nut shells in his mouth (Christopher, 1962, p. 6). In 1865 Robert Houdin, a French magician and clock maker, prevented a rebellion in Algeria with legerdemain. The French government asked the magician to discredit the Marabouts, an Arab religious faction who were using magic to incite a rebellion. He proved his illusions were more powerful than the magic of the Marabouts, thus stopping talk of rebellion (Magic History n. d. ). The line between natural and supernatural is often poorly drawn.

Among the American Indian people, sleight of hand feats, simple tricks, and snake charming were invested with mystical significance during tribal rites. Witch doctors and medicine men used the devices of entertainers to increase their reputation and influence (Christopher, 1962, p. 6). In this work, I will investigate the various means American Indian shamans employed to deceive the people into thinking they had supernatural powers. I will then expose their methods of prestidigitation and conclude with an examination of the loss of the art. Though American Indian hamans for centuries had often matched and surpassed the far more widely known fakirs of Calcutta and Bombay, few stories about their skill appeared in either the national or the international press, and this for a very sound reason: The Asian conjurers, lauded by travelers, performed in public for the money the could collect from their roadside shows. The American Indian’s magic was reserved for their tribe; few white men had an opportunity to study it. If a rare outsider tumbled on to a secret, he was swiftly inducted as blood brother and sworn to secrecy (Christopher, 1973, p. 69).
American Indian shamans were at their best in the open air under the night sky. When tom-toms beat and campfires cast flickering shadows, their strange feats were awe-inspiring to fellow tribesmen as the occasional flashes of lightning that streaked across the sky. The Navajo, like their counterparts in India, made snakes appear under inverted baskets. Pawnee, Hopi, and Zuni shamans made corn and beanstalks grow (mango trees were not available) during harvest rites. The feat in which a Hindu conjurer‘s assistant vanished and reappeared in a large basket was also done by the Apaches.
Swords were jabbed through the sides to prove that no one was inside in Asia; the Apaches had a more effective argument; they shot arrows through the fibers (Christopher, 1973, p. 69). In 1871, John Wesley Powell, a geologist and representative of the United States Bureau of Ethnology saw an exhibition of the skill of Cramped Hand and Bent Horn, two Ponca shamans. “One afternoon, near sunset, about two hundred persons, mostly Indians, stood in a large circle around a tent in which sat the shamans and their assistants. Presently the shamans and the aged chief, Antoine Primeau, came out of the tent and stood within the circle.
One of the shamans, Cramped Hand, danced along the inner side of the circle, exhibiting a revolver (Allen’s patent), one chamber of which he seemed to load as the people looked on. After he had put on the cap, he handed the weapon to the chief, who fired at the shaman. Cramped Hand fell immediately, as if badly wounded. Bent Horn rushed to his relief and began to manipulate him. It was not to long before Cramped Hand was able to crawl around on his hands and knees, though the bullet had apparently hit him in the mouth.
He groaned and coughed up incessantly, and after a tin basin was put down before him he coughed up a bullet which fell in the basin, and was shown in triumph to the crowd” (Powell, 1894, p. 417). The demonstration was breathtaking, but impractical in battle. This was traditionally done with a real gun and a gaffed round, the bullet having been replaced with a wax casting. The explosion of the charge and propulsion of the fake bullet through the air effectively vaporized the wax within a short distance.
The wax bullet can be made to look like lead by coating it with a black substance (Bagai, n. d. ). Cramped Hand had only to secret an identical bullet in his mouth during the falling action, the rest was acting. Much of what we know about the magic practiced by the first Americans comes from missionaries who worked among the Indians in the years when the New World was being colonized by Europeans. French priests reported from Canada in 1613 that the medicine men of the Algonquin tribes were the most formidable opponents they faced in trying to convert the Indians.
Twenty years later Gabriel Sagard-Theodat, a Recollect missionary, weary of the daily conflict with people whose customs he did not understand, called the Nipissing redmen “a nation of sorcerers” (Christopher, 1973, p. 70) There is a fascinating description of a trick by Fray Bernardio de Sahagu in his Historia de las Cosa de la Nueva Epa: “Seating himself in the middle of the market place at Tianquiztli, he announced that his name was Tlacavepan, and proceeded to make tiny figures dance in the palms of his hands. ” No one who witnessed the trick could offer a solution.
There is however a simple explanation: the small figures were manipulated by strands of long hair (like modern magicians invisible thread) tied together and attached to the conjurers feet. All he had to do was wiggle his toe and the figures came to life (Gosh, 2006, p. 21). Legends say that the early medicine men could bring miniature images of buffalo and warriors on horseback to life. They worked by the flickering light of a fire at the far side of the tent with observers grouped in a semicircle. At the command of the magician, the clay figures were supposed to have changed to flesh and blood.
Then the miniature Indians corralled the buffalo and hurled their spears and shot their arrows with deadly accuracy until the last animal fell with an arrow through its heart. When the drama ended, the figures reverted to clay and were tossed into the fire. Seldom has a puppet show received such praise. Whoever started the story must have imbibed too freely before attending the performance (Christopher, 1973, p. 75). Shamans of the tribes who lived along the St. Lawrence River boasted they could summon the rains or stop storms. They claimed their rites could render fields barren or produce bountiful crops ( Christopher, 1973, p. 0) The Franciscan friar, Louis Hennepin said of the shamans: It is impossible to imagine the horrible howling and strange contortions that these jugglers make of their bodies, when they are deposing themselves to conjure, or raise their enchantments” (Hennepin, 1869, p. 59). Paul Beaulieu, an interpreter for the Ojibwa at White Earth Agency, Minnesota (First settlement by white people, n. d. ), heard tales of Indian escape artists around the 1850’s. At Leech Lake, Minnesota he witnessed an Indian shaman clad in a breechcloth tied by a committee of twelve men.
The shaman’s ankles, wrists and hands were bound; his tied hands were forced down so that his knees extended up above them. A heavy pole was thrust over his arms and under his knees; then his neck was tied to the knees and he was carried into a tent. The structure was built on poles, interlaced with twigs, and covered with strips of birch and canvas (Christopher, 1973, p. 74). The flap had scarcely been closed when strange words and thumping sounds came from within. The tent swayed violently as the sounds increased in volume. When the disturbance ceased, the Indian shouted that the rope could now be found in a nearby house.
Cautioning the committee to keep a sharp watch on the tent, Beaulieu sprinted to the house. The rope was there, still knotted. He hurried back, let the other men examine the knots, and then called to ask if he could enter. Permission was granted and he found the Indian seated comfortably, puffing on a pipe (Christopher, 1973, p. 74). No explanation was offered for the astonishing feat. There is however, a way it could have been done, a method so obvious that Beaulieu and the committee would have overlooked it: a secret tunnel with cleverly concealed trapdoors at each end.
An assistant concealed in a passage under the tent untied the medicine man, squirmed through the tunnel, retied the ropes, then dashed to the house where the shaman had decided they should be found (Christopher, 1973, p. 77). Alexander Phillip Maximillian, who traveled in the west in the mid 1800’s, wrote of some amazing things accomplished with ordinary objects by Hidatsa and Mandan shamans. “The medicine of one man consists in making a snowball, which he rolls a long time between his hands, so that at length it becomes hard and is changed into a white stone, which when struck emits sparks.
Many persons, even whites, pretend that they have seen this and cannot be convinced to the contrary. The same man pretends that during a dance he plucked white feathers from a certain small bird, which he rolled between his hands, and formed of them in a short time a similar white stone“(Powell, 1894, p. 512). The performance of the bullet catch with Bent Horn and Cramped Hand was also followed by a demonstration of sleight of hand. “Bent Horn danced around, showing an object which appeared to be a stone as large as a man’s fist, and to large to be forced into the mouth of the average man.
Cramped Hand stood about ten or fifteen feet away and threw this supposed stone toward Bent Horn, hitting the latter in the mouth and disappearing. Bent Horn fell and appeared in great pain, groaning and foaming at the mouth. When the basin was put down before him, there fell into it, not one large stone, but at least four small ones” (Powell, 1894 p. 417). A proficient modern sleight of hand artist can change the color of billiard balls and manipulate coins and playing cards on stage with utmost ease, and can do the same with small stones and leaves from trees out in the open.
It is not at all hard to see (through practice) how the shamans could manipulate a snowball, feathers or rocks and make them appear as something they really are not. Dr. Franz Boas, an anthropologist at Columbia University (Franz, n. d. ) witnessed a burning alive illusion in northwest Canada. A young Indian girl was nailed inside a large wooden box that was burned in the center of a spacious medicine hut. As the smell of burning flesh permeated the structure, she could be heard singing. Eventually box and girl were consumed, only bones remaining among the ashes of the fire. The keys to this mystery according to Dr.
Boaz were a secret tunnel, a long speaking tube, and a dead seal. The girl slipped through a panel that could be lifted in the bottom of the box, crawled through the tunnel to the out side of the lodge, and began her song, which filtered back inside via the tube. Meanwhile, a helper pushed the carcass of a seal through the tunnel and into the box. The charred bones, of course, were those of the seal (Christopher, 1973, p. 77). Complicated advance arrangements and trained assistants were not needed for the oldest and most frequently performed American Indian mystery, the shaking tent.
Shaking tent conjuring was always done after sunset with the conjuring lodge put up an hour or so earlier and was taken down before sunrise the next day. The lodge was a small, often conical structure made of hoops and branch poles sunk into the ground covered with animal skins, blankets or cut spruce boughs (Christopher, 1973, p. 77 & 80). Often times the shaman was bound tightly hand and foot and also gagged. Once the tent flap was let down strange things began to occur: the ropes that bound the conjurer were thrown out of the top of the lodge.
The tent would shake violently and a succession of strange voices would be heard, supposedly those of animal spirits. Beavers and turtles were among the most common, conversing with the shaman and occasionally with the audience (Beyer, 2009). Many shamans produced the voice of only one animal; others boasted a wider repertoire. The more animals a conjurer had at his command, the more he was honored (Christopher, 1973 p. 80). All of the feats described in the shaking tent can be accounted for. Why was the performance always done after dark?
For much the same reason modern magicians use a darkened stage and smoke, to conceal the secret means of accomplishing the miracle. Why was the conjuring lodge put up an hour or so before the performance and taken down before sunrise? The answer is quite obvious: so the general uninformed tribesmen could not inspect the structure and find the secret. As for escaping out of the ropes that bound the shaman, it was a common escape trick. A famous duo called the Davenport Brothers had an act around the same time where they were bound securely in a cabinet which resembled an old-fashioned wardrobe.
Suddenly they produced music on guitars and bells and caused ethereal hands and strange shapes to appear. The Davenports were exposed many times, not only by magicians but by scientists and college students. The latter ignited matches in the dark. The flickering flames disclosed the brothers, with their arms free, waving the instruments which until then had seemed to be floating (Christopher, 1962, p. 99). The shamans needed to be in top physical condition (like Houdini) to carry out the first-class performances they presented.
The tent is scarcely ever still and at the same time singing, talking and ventriloquism occur (Howell, 1971, p. 50 & 82). While all American Indian conjurers do certain standard things like shaking the tent which, under contemporary conditions, may become the subject of a limited amount of skepticism, some conjurers apparently invent or acquire new tricks. The Saulteaux readily admit that certain individuals have either shaken the conjuring tent, or tried to shake it, with their own hands (Howell, 1971, p. 70 & 80).
As it happens, the enclosures used by the tent shakers were not actually as rigid as they seemed. The anthropologist Dr. A. Irving Hallowell emphasized in The Role of Conjuring in Saulteaux Society that “All I can say personally is that Berens River conjuring lodges were extremely easy to set in motion. They readily responded to the slightest pressure from without, as I can testify. ”(Howell, 1971, p. 83) The American Indian conjurers, who reportedly created marvelous wonders, were never willing to travel themselves and exhibit their feats for theater audiences.
However, the proprietors of medicine shows, who sold tribal cure-alls to small town audiences in the late nineteenth century, always claimed the man in the war bonnet who displayed the bottles was a celebrated Indian medicine man. Shungo-pavi was billed as a Moki medicine man that performed magic at the Cliff Dwellers exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis, Missouri, in 1904 later played in vaudeville. He wore beaded buckskins, moccasins, and a feathered headdress, but the tricks he performed were not of Indian origin.
A bottle and a glass changed places when covered by two tubes; a silk handkerchief vanished; only to reappear tied between two others. He waved an eagle feather instead of a wand when he pronounced his magic words. Occasionally one still hears of a traditional feat being shown at an Indian tribal ritual in the Southwest or a shaking tent in northern Michigan or Canada, but the day of a burned alive illusion in the dark night or of a shaman changing a snowball into a rock in the open air has long past (Christopher, 1973, p. 81).

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