The short story “The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve was published in 1975 and reflects on the relationship between a Sioux man and his grandson in the nexus of reality, fiction, identity, and heritage.
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve is an American author whose works primarily focus on the representation of the aboriginal Americans divorced from myth and savagery, and rather invested in a traditional yet non-stereotypical way of living to set an alternate outlook for her contemporary readership.
The Medicine Bag | Summary
This is a story about a teenage boy Martin and his relationship with his grandfather who belongs to the Native American land of South Dakota. Hailing from a mixed heritage, Martin is conscious about his grandfather’s unexpected visit to his house and fears the oblivion of the fantastical image surrounding the old man that he otherwise shares with his friends after every summer visit. The conflict between reality with fiction threatens his reputation and he adopts all means to prevent his friends from meeting the grandfather. But one day the friends coerce their way into his house and find the old man charming and nothing less than an exotic sight. Following the pleasant meeting, the grandfather reveals to Martin his knowledge of the latter’s anxiety and embarrassment over his visit. He further familiarizes the young boy with his mythical ancestry and past to convey the emotional significance of the medicine bag that has been around his neck for years. Since he is approaching the end of his life, the grandfather desires to pass on the bag to the rightful male heir and the story ends with Martin wearing the bag after his grandfather’s death, thus accepting his mixed identity with love and respect.
The Medicine Bag | Analysis
This first-person narrative centers on embracing your mixed heritage and realizing the essence of traditions as a gesture of love and respect towards your familial identity as well as your ancestors. The story is set in Iowa and creates a light mood with sadly a regretful tone on the account of the narrator Martin whose dual feelings towards his grandfather stand as a commentary on the contemporary generational conflicts. While he doesn’t dislike his grandfather, he certainly does not enjoy his presence in the house which interferes with and threatens his modern identity. Like any child of his age, he does not wish to be constantly reminded of his mixed ancestry and the inevitable ownership of the medicine bag which he despises until the end of the story.
Martin is conscious of losing his popularity, a vanity that children of his age usually engage in. But gradually he begins to alter his opinions regarding the grandfather as he entertains his friends at his best. Still, the looming despair of having to adopt the medicine bag troubles him and it is only when the grandfather reveals to him the past and significance of the bag that his bubble of exoticism bursts and brings him closer to reality. The Sioux have long endured the limitations of the reservation scheme by the government and Martin’s great-grandfather ventured on a journey in search of a guiding spirit and envisions a dream about the “white man’s iron” which is not fully interpreted even by the wise men of his day. However, the great-grandfather finds a broken shell of an iron kettle and collects a piece to be treasured in his medicine pouch by investing faith in its magical property to keep all evils at bay. But one day he was forcefully taken away by the soldiers to work as a blacksmith and he learned the art of using the white man’s iron. Upon his return, the medicine bag was then passed down to the grandfather who attempted to pass it down to his own son i.e. the mother’s father but his reluctance to take it along to the war causes his death, according to the grandfather’s belief.
While the medicine bag definitely carries along with its myth and a superstitious belief system, it also sustains emotions and love for children which only wishes well and safety for them. The grandfather’s inevitable passing away communicates the need to appreciate people and things when they are with you rather than subjecting them to avoidance and ignorance. The bag becomes a symbol of continuity and a driving force to live life spiritually and honestly.
The Medicine Bag | Themes
Reality V/S Fiction
The author’s primary focus to pen down a narrative that expels all stereotypes surrounding Native Americans is highlighted by Martin’s fantastical appropriation of his grandfather’s identity and life in South Dakota in his stories shared with his friends. People in other parts of the States know about the Native population only through the less realistic portrayal on television and cinema which is often colored with prejudice. They are exoticized and considered otherworldly which in truth is not an appropriate representation. They are in fact people with high reliance on traditions often misunderstood as a primitive way of living. But instead, it is their respect and homage to their ancestors that compels them to continue with customs such as wearing the medicine bag and passing it to subsequent generations. The emotions shadowing such rituals bury under the mythical air and thus lose significance in the modern and young generation. Martin conveys an unrealistic picture to his friends about his grandfather which marvels them every time they listen to one of his stories. The friends’ sudden visit one day puts Martin in a fix and threatens his reputation but his grandfather plays along with the fantasy his grandson has built upon him and dresses as per his narration without even informing him. Thus, the Native Americans are not unusually dressed braided men but just like any other U.S. citizen.
There are three generations in the story— the grandfather, the parents, and the grandkids, each with their own worldviews. The old man represents tradition while the other two subsequent generations reflect modern ideals and lifestyles. At the vulnerable age of eighty-six, the grandfather journeys for two days to reach the house of his daughter to pay a surprise visit which they welcome with an overwhelming response. It is a poignant expression of the unrecognized responsibility that young people have towards their older family members. While this impression is implicit, the ideological conflict between Martin and the grandfather is evident through the former’s disgust at the sight of the ill-conditioned medicine pouch. It is until he learns about the significance of the tiny bag that he experiences an ideological shift and prepares himself to step into the shoes of his grandfather. In the era of modernity and technology, the medicine pouch thus becomes a gentle reminder of Martin’s roots and his grandfather.
The Medicine Bag | Characters
He is the narrator of the story through whom the readers view the grandfather’s visit and thus the clash of tradition with modernity. Hailing from a mixed heritage, he is embarrassed by his native roots and prevents his friends to meet his Sioux grandfather. For him, Native America is a place of fantasy away from the real world he inhabits. He even fears and experiences disgust at the thought of becoming the heir to the shabby medicine bag his grandfather had been carrying around his neck for years because it represents a new identity for him, rooted in tradition and nativity. However, one-to-one interaction with his grandfather and the subsequent knowledge of the great mystical power of the medicine bag assures him to undergo a change of heart and accept his adherence and responsibility towards his mixed heritage. He is thus a bildungsroman character who grows mature during the course of the story and learns about the priorities in his life.
She is the narrator’s ten-year-old sister who unlike her brother wholeheartedly welcomes her grandfather and even encourages her friends to meet him in person. At a young age, she exhibits maturity in her acceptance of her mixed ancestry and is far away from hypocrisy.
Joe Iron Shell
He is the narrator’s eighty-six-year-old grandfather belonging to the Sioux tribe of Native Americans and thus a representative of tradition in the modern city setting. His old age loneliness and thus the consequent tiring journey he takes up to visit his family the latter in the light of guilt for abandoning the old man. But he never complains and instead settles well with them. However, he is aware of Martin’s unhappiness with his stay and thus familiarizes him with the purpose of his visit which is to pass over the medicine bag to him as the rightful heir in the nearing event of his death. His narration of the mythic past concerning the bag enlightens his grandson on the relevance and value of the little token of love, identity, and remembrance which enables him to assimilate his ancestral identity into his modern white American one. His death at the end of the story leads to Martin’s epiphany as he decides to wear the medicine bag.
Mother and Father
An interracial couple, the mother belongs to the Native American Sioux tribe and the father is a white American. Their guilt of never inviting the grandpa to their house after his surprise visit is a powerful representation of the contemporary family setting where young children leave their hometowns to move into big cities and abandon their aging parents who reduce to recipients of annual visits and dinners. The mother loves her grandfather dearly and looks after him during his stay but her character also speaks volumes about her irresponsibility towards her old grandfather living alone in the remote setting of South Dakota.
The Medicine Bag | Literary Devices
“His rumpled black suit hung like a sack over his stooped frame.”
“We never showed our friends Grandpa’s picture. Not that we were ashamed of him, but because we knew that the glamorous tales we told didn’t go with the real thing. Our friends would have laughed at the picture because Grandpa wasn’t tall and stately like TV Indians. His hair wasn’t in braids but hung in stringy gray strands on his neck, and he was old. He was our great grandfather, and he didn’t live in a tepee, but all by himself in a part log, part tar-paper shack on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.” This reflects the contrast between reality and fiction that commercial media tends to exhibit, blurring the truer version and existence of the Native Americans.
“She was all smiles and was so obviously glad to see Grandpa that I was ashamed of how I felt.” This expresses the contrasting attitudes of the narrator and his sister toward their grandfather’s visit.
“I felt cold and hot at the same time as I recognized the man.”