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The ritual and significance of the Winnebago medicine dance online

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200 Journal of A merican Folk-Lore

All these general propositions are true; and it is also unquestionably
true that there has been a marked tendency for ceremonies to cluster
around that period of physiological change which we call puberty.
Similarly, in some cultural areas there has been a secondary, or, if
you wish, a constant association of puberty rites with a formal adop-
tion into the tribe. In Australia, for instance, the individual does
not become of active social importance until he has passed through cer-
tain rites at the age of puberty.

The essential point, however, is whether he does not always become
of active social importance at about that age. He unquestionably
does. We cannot, therefore, assume offhand that it is the fact of
puberty that is being emphasized by the initiatory rites. This would
be the case only if we could prove that puberty is invariably asso-
ciated with some form of initiation. If it is not, then we must
regard the clustering of the concept of initiation around the age of
puberty, among the Australians and other tribes, as a cultural peculi-
arity of these peoples. 1

In other words, the beginning of the social importance of an indi-
vidual may be associated with puberty initiation rites. Initiation
may, however, be associated with any period of development. For
instance, among the Christians and Semites, it is found associated
with birth in the forms of baptism and circumcision; and just as
with any age, so it may become associated with any social or cere-
monial unit. It can thus become associated with entrance into a
society; and we may consequently say that a society is only one of
the numerous cultural elements with which initiation has become
associated.

It is, however, a truism to state that initiation is essential for group
differentiation; excluding, of course, the case where membership in a
group is not synonymous with birth. When Schurtz, therefore, re-
constructs the evolution of initiation, and connects the initiation into
a society with that at puberty, he must have been guided by some
more fundamental facts than that of the presence of initiation. The
postulation of a genetic relationship between the two initiations lay

1 Van Gennep, in a very interesting chapter on "Initiatory Rites" (Chapter VI of his
Les Riles de Passage), has divided puberty into two divisions, — puberte physique and
puberte sociale, — and has shown that the age variations of both are considerable. He
insists that many writers have considerably obscured the points at issue by confusing
the two. Van Gennep believes that the puberte physique and puberte sociale rarely fall
together. It seems to me that this is not entirely borne out by the facts of the case; for
it must be remembered that, accompanying the physiological changes at puberty, there
are mental changes which in many cases permit an individual to become of active social
importance; and while I think that it is this social activity that is emphasized by the
initiatory rites, nevertheless the fact must not be overlooked that this social activity often
coincides with the physiological puberty. We must, of course, not identify physiological
puberty with any too definite a time, but allow for considerable fluctuations.



The Ritual of the Winnebago Medicine Dance 201

really in the fact that he detected in the form of initiation into the
society certain "symptoms" which he regarded as being primarily
associated with puberty initiation. These symptoms were the pres-
ence of "tests" as essential for admission into a society; and group-
initiation or the initiation of a number of youths at the same time.
That he was thinking of tests in the most general way, can be seen
by the following statement. "Das Austeilen von Schlagen . . . im
Duk-Duk hangt wohl mit den Mutproben der Knabenweihe zusam-
men." 1 It is hardly necessary to insist that the test concept used in
this generalized manner is found associated with the ordinary forms
of eligibility; so that, wherever the idea of eligibility is associated
with a social or ceremonial group, there it will be natural to find tests.
There is no need of giving any examples : they must occur to every one.
The test feature must consequently be considered so general a cultural
possession that its association with diverse cultural phenomena is
quite natural, and its significance will in each case depend upon specific
conditions. We cannot, therefore, predicate any general significance
for the association of the test feature in specific cultural complexes.

Schurtz's second symptom comes out strongly in his discussion
of the Ruk-Ruk Society of Northern Bougainville. 2 We have here,
he says, a remarkable connecting link between simple men's associa-
tions (Mannerbunde) , firmly established by puberty rites and secret
societies. He arrives at this conclusion, because he finds it customary
there to have a group of youths initiated into the society at the same
time. Here both the youth of the novices and the group initiation
are emphasized as being symptomatic of a development from former
men's associations (Mdnnerbilnde) .

It must, however, be remembered, as we have said before, that a
man becomes socially active at about the age of puberty, and that his
social activity will naturally take those channels customary in a given
tribe. The fact that a youth enters a society like the Ruk-Ruk, to
which most members of the tribe belong, should not excite wonder.
As a matter of fact, we should find it necessary to explain win he did
not join. His failure to become a member would most certainly be
associated, in such a case, with a low social status. What is to be
emphasized here is not the youth of the novices, but the intellectual
development occurring at that age. This comes out clearly in the
case of the Duk-Duk, where the parents generally purchase member-
ship for their children immediately after birth. Young children be-
have like regularly initiated members, but they only become active
members at the age of sixteen. Similarly in the Winnebago Medicine
Dance individuals may be initiated in early childhood, but it is at a

1 Schurtz, Altersklassen und Mannerbunde, p. 376.

2 Ibid., p. 379.



202 Journal of American Folk-Lore

much later period that they possess the powers of adult members.
As a matter of fact, admission depends upon so large a number of
factors in different societies, that it would be possible to draw up a
table that would include all ages from birth to old age.

In the same way the initiation of a group of individuals at one time
depends upon too large a number of factors to permit any single
interpretation. The burden of proof rests with Schurtz to show that
the presence of a specific test connects the Ruk-Ruk Society with
puberty rites, and that the presence of a group initiation in the Duk-
Duk connects that society with the men's associations.

Perhaps a few examples might bring out more clearly the different
kinds of initiation.

In the Ruk-Ruk Society the novices retire to the woods, work for
their sponsors, lay out their plantation^, etc. They are also supposed
to converse with spirits. 1 Similar conditions are found in the Matam-
bala Society of the Island of Florida. 2 This retirement to the woods
and to a holy precinct, and consequent re-appearance, are character-
istic of a large number of initiations. The work the novice performs
for his sponsor must also be regarded as a characteristic of this area.
The tests of the novice have been spoken of before. They are, as
might be expected, of the most diverse kind. In Fiji, for instance, a
ceremonial attack upon the novices occurs, which is said to symbolize
their death. 3

In Africa we find many of the characteristics noted above. In the
Purrah the novices retire to a holy precinct, and are said to endure
extreme hardship. Only warriors thirty years of age can be initiated. 4
In the Mumbo-Djumbo only youths older than sixteen are admitted. 6
The other conditions are similar to those of the Purrah. In the Simo
organization novices were circumcized and lived seven years in the
woods. 6 In the Mwetyi Society, in addition to probations, the youths
adopt a taboo of certain foods or drinks, to which they remain faith-
ful ever after. 7 In the Ndembo Society novices are shot by a rattle,
and fall down as if dead. They are then carried away to some holy
precinct, where often as many as from twenty to fifty individuals
remain at the same time. At this place they stay sometimes as long as
three years. Their bodies are supposed to disintegrate during this
time. When they are supposed to return, the shaman gathers their
bones and restores them to life. On the return to their villages, they
behave like unknown children, fail to recognize their relatives, to
understand their own language, etc. 8 In the Nkimba similar condi-
tions are found. 9

1 Schurtz, Altersklassen und Mannerbiinde, pp. 378 ff.

2 Ibid., p. 379. 6 Ibid., pp. 413-415. 8 Ibid., pp. 433~435.

3 Ibid., pp. 386 ff. 6 Ibid., p. 415. 9 Ibid., pp. 435~437-
* Ibid., pp. 410-413. 7 Ibid., pp. 430 ff.



The Ritual of the Winnebago Medicine Dance 203

The variability of the method and concept of initiation is thus seen
to be enormous. It might be interesting in this connection to point
out how certain ideas will cluster around initiation in one large geo-
graphical area, and how the same ideas will cluster around a different
cultural complex in another large geographical area. For instance,
in the South Seas and in Africa, initiation is found generally asso-
ciated with tests or probations; whereas in North America tests are
not associated with initiation into the society, but with the obtaining
of visions at the age of puberty.

2. Degrees. — To Schurtz, degrees are symptomatic of age classes.
Wherever he finds them in societies, and wherever they seem to be
correlated with certain ages, he concludes that they are vestiges of
former age groups. However, he seems to have overlooked one fact,

— that the same social and individual forces that would tend
toward the formation of societies would necessarily tend toward the
development of distinctions within them. It will depend entirely
upon the nature of the people and the individual history of the organi-
zation, in what manner these distinctions will be emphasized. One
of the possible methods of emphasizing them is marking off those with
common possessions in some definite manner. Here, again, much will
depend upon the kind of group into which the individual is initiated.
If, when he enters the society, he is initiated into all that pertains to it,
gradations will not be likely to arise. Generally, however, there is
certainly a marked tendency for some sort of gradation, be it due to
length of membership, insistence upon separate payments, unwilling-
ness of the older members to impart all to a new member who may
withal be quite young, a desire to impart piecemeal in order to enhance
the value of the teachings, etc. Whether these possible lines of
cleavage will associate themselves with definite markings or rites,
is a question of individual cultural development. They may or they
may not. In Melanesia, for instance, they did not.

In the Ruku-Ruku 1 of the Fiji Islanders we find three gradations,

— those of uninitiated youths, grown-up men, and old men. In the
Purrah - there were two gradations, consisting respectively of those
over thirty and of those over fifty years. In the Egbo 3 Society there
are eleven degrees, into which membership may be purchased one
after the other in an ascending scale. In Old Calabar 4 there are five
classes.

In the Purrah we are dealing with an exceedingly intricate complex,
in which military and judicial functions are quite prominent. The
age factor seems secondary and artificial. In the Egbo there is no
age factor at all. In the Ruku-Ruku an age factor exists. Owing

1 Schurtz, Altersklassen und Mannerbiinde, p. 386. 3 Ibid., p. 4.20.

"■ Ibid., p. 410. * Ib ' d - P- 422.



204 Journal of American Folk-Lore

to the social value of the Ruku-Ruku, all individuals seem to be
potential members at birth. At the same time, the oldest members
always have specific functions to perform. In this way two groups
are formed. Those who do not belong to these two groups belong
to the third group. All that can be said here is, that a society has
utilized a rough age factor for specific purposes. That in reality
the entire tribe is divided into three divisions, is due to the fact that
all the members of the tribe are members of the society. This is
therefore not a phenomenon that has any general significance in the
evolution of society, but is purely and simply a phenomenon of certain
secret societies. The threefold division is not due to a persistence
of a former threefold division of the tribe, but grew out of the needs
of a specific society. The same remarks hold for the twofold division
of members in the Purrah. Similarly the four and eight degrees
found among the Ojibwa Midewiwin are due to a development within
the society. To-day practically all the members of the tribe belong
to the Midewiwin, and the tribe may be said to be divided into four
divisions. (However, in this case the main element, that of the
association of a certain age with a certain degree, does not exist,
because there is no fixed age at which a man buys admission into the
higher degrees.)

It will consequently be necessary to determine the significance of
degrees in each particular case before any general significance can
be attached to them.

3. Exclusion of Women. — The admission of women into a society is,
according to Schurtz, a secondary feature. This followed directly
from his negative position with regard to women's Geselligkeitstrieb,
and from his assumption that societies were merely transformed
men's associations, which in turn were transformed age groups. The
question of the Geselligkeitstrieb of women hardly lends itself to any
accurate discussion, as, generally speaking, women have not been sur-
rounded by those conditions which played an important part in develop-
ing that trait among men. In our own civilization, where men and
women are to a certain extent subjected to the same conditions, a
large number of women societies has developed, and large numbers of
women have been admitted into men's societies. Among us, this
admission of women is due to the fact that they are now in the same
industries that men are. However, there are manifold factors which
can and do bring about the admission of women into men's societies
or their exclusion therefrom. The nature of some societies may exclude
men, just as it may exclude women. A soldiers' society will exclude
women, because women are not soldiers. Similarly a sewing society
will probably exclude men. The exclusion of women will therefore
depend upon the specific functions of a society; but the right of



The Ritual of the Winnebago Medicine Dance 205

women to participate in certain activities will again depend upon the
manner in which each specific culture area separated the spheres of
action of men and women.

The possibility of infinite variation must force upon us the conclusion
that we can only begin to investigate the reasons for the exclusion
or admittance of women when we have a clear understanding of the
ideas each tribe possesses with regard to the specific functions of the
men and women. This determination is in a large number of cases
utterly impossible, because we are in no position to know whether
the reasons now given are historically the true ones. If, for instance,
in a men's college fraternity women are debarred on the ground that
the fraternity is interested in fencing, card-playing, etc., which are
occupations of men, historically this is not the true reason. Ori-
ginally fraternities were merely social gatherings of individuals who
attended a college. There were no women students to admit. To-
day, when women attend the colleges, wherever new fraternities arise,
women are admitted. It is thus apparent, that, in the absence of his-
torical evidence, we must be extremely careful in interpreting the
reason for this exclusion.

In Melanesia, for example, women are entirely excluded from the
societies. However, in Melanesia, societies are associated with a multi-
tude of religious and social functions in which women are not per-
mitted to participate. In other words, the Melanesians draw the line
of demarcation between the activities of men and women along
these lines. If, for instance, in the New Hebrides, women have nothing
to do with the funeral and mortuary rites, and a secret society is inti-
mately connected with such rites, then we ought not to be surprised
that women are not admitted into the society. It seems to me, there-
fore, that we should make much better progress in our study of this
phenomenon in Melanesia and in Polynesia, if we were first to exam-
ine whether either the conceptions of the tribe, or the nature of the
specific society, or the cultural elements with which it was associated,
debarred women from membership.

A few examples from Africa will emphasize this point even more
forcibly, and at the same time indicate along what lines the respective
spheres of men's and women's actions are drawn there. In the Purrah
Society, women are excluded. The society has general war and judicial
functions which do not come within the domain of women, accord-
ing to the ideas of the tribe. In the Attonga Society l of Senegambia,
only women are admitted, and the society is associated with mortuary
rites. In the Dschengu we have another women society connected
here with the cult of some water deity. 2 In the region around the

1 Schurtz, Altersklassen und Mannerbunde, p. 416.

2 Ibid., p. 426.



206 Journal of American Folk-Lore

mouth of the Ogowe there are a number of powerful women societies
associated with various elements. 1

If we now proceed to Schurtz's contention, that women societies
are merely imitations of men's societies, we shall see that, as a general
statement, this is as unjustified as is his interpretation that the admis-
sion of women into societies is a secondary feature. That it is true
in a number of cases, is unquestioned. However, when, as in Africa,
we see a very strong tendency for the formation of societies, and see
at the same time a very large number of women societies, it seems
far more justifiable to assume that the women societies are formed
in response to the same tendencies as those of men. To judge from
parallels in other parts of the world, it is extremely likely that women
will form societies wherever men show a strong tendency to do so.
A number of factors may, however, interfere with a development of
such societies. For instance, it is quite plausible that where, as
among the Melanesians, a strong society-forming tendency existed,
and women did not participate in it, some strong reason existed which
might perhaps be ascribed to the fact that women do not there par-
ticipate in those rites that are almost universally associated with
societies.

In North America there are numerous examples of women belonging
to men's societies. A cursory examination will bring out what were
the possible factors at work there. In the Objibwa-Menominee Mide-
wiwin, women are admitted. Now, in the Ojibwa-Menominee culture,
women may become shamans as well as men, and the society based
on shamans will naturally include both sexes. If there are fewer
women than men, this is because fewer women become shamans. In
the Winnebago Medicine Dance, wealth and certain requirements
possessed by both men and women are the only essentials for admis-
sion; and both sexes can accordingly become members. In the pres-
ent Sore-Eye Dance, women are admitted. Formerly the same
society, known as the Night Dance, excluded women. The reason
is very simple. Formerly, supernatural communication with the
night spirits was essential for membership, and owing to the
specific associations attached to these night spirits, women never
obtained visions from them. When subsequently it was no more
essential to have had a vision, and membership could be purchased by
any one, women were admitted. Among the Blackfoot, women are
part members of the religious society, because, according to Blackfoot
ideas of property, the former have a part in the medicine-bundle of
the man. The possession of the medicine-bundle is necessary for ad-
mission into the society. 2 It is thus apparent that the explanation for
the exclusion of women from a society must lie in a large number of

1 Schurtz, Altersklassen und Mannerbiinde, p. 429.

2 Oral communication of Dr. Wissler.



The Ritual of the Winnebago Medicine Dance 207

factors, not the least important of which is the nature of the specific
ideas of property and the respective spheres of activity of nun and
women.

4. Functions of the Society. — Our analysis of the five ceremonies has
clearly established the differences in the functions of the societies.
To Schurtz these differences were due to developments from one- his-
torically primary function. His line of argument is a direct conse-
quence of his assumption that secret societies have developed from
the men's associations.

If we glance at the West African, the Melanesian, the Polynesian,
North American, and our own societies, we see that their functions
are legion. Now, it can be demonstrated that where the whole or a
large part of the tribe is included in a society, that society will possess
many of the functions of the tribe, because individuals are primarily
carriers of their culture, and secondarily members of a society; or,
it might be better said that these two functions of an individual are
so inextricably connected that they cannot be thought of apart. It
can also be demonstrated that specific societies have associated with
them a variety of functions. In each case we are dealing with the
same phenomenon. The number of possible combinations is prac-
tically infinite. It is, however, a suggestive fact that certain functions
of a society are distributed over large areas. In Melanesia, for in-
stance, the most constant functions of societies seem to be those con-
nected with mortuary rites and ancestor worship. In Africa, again,
they are primarily judicial and administrative. In the case of our
five North American ceremonies, they are religious and magical. For
the latter our explanation lay in assuming that we were dealing there
with a common cultural background. The same explanation holds
true for Melanesia and Africa. In other words, societies, like all
other social units in which an individual takes part, must necessarily
associate themselves with the cultural background in which they are set.

5. Conclusion. — The study w r e have undertaken can only indi-
rectly be considered an examination of Schurtz's theories. What we
have attempted is the analysis of a number of ceremonies, in order to
discover what tendencies were operative in their growth. These exam-
ples, combined with others taken from the South Seas and Africa,
have demonstrated clearly that there exist in the world certain gen-
eral ideas that may associate themselves with any type of social and
ceremonial organization. Ceremonies in origin historically distinct
may thus come to possess general and often specific resemblances. It
is consequently of extreme importance, in any scheme of social recon-
struction, to determine first whether the common elements in the
ethnological data compared are not due to such a convergent evolu-
tion.



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Online LibraryPaul RadinThe ritual and significance of the Winnebago medicine dance → online text (page 7 of 7)