“The number of medicine men in active service”

The medicine man was an institution of Piutedom…The distinction was not what might be termed a popular honor. Whether the selection was made for some hereditary reason, or because of some event at his birth or in the early life of the doctor, his status was established at an age when he had no chance to object. It does not appear that he was expected to employ his skill until he had reached reasonably mature years, but his status was settled, however he might resent it when he came to understand the part cast for him in the drama of life. And resent it he usually did, for as soon as his ministrations had sent a sufficient number–generally three–of his fellows to the happy hunting grounds his own violent and sudden removal from mundane affairs would come as a matter of custom.

Among the former Piute residents of Owens Valley, during the early years of white occupation, was one Jim, who had been selected by fate for a doctor’s career. In consequence, Jim constantly carried a “sixteen-shoot gun”, prepared at all times to “heap kill um” if there were attempts either to force him to practice or to fasten on him the results of some other person’s lack of skill in exorcising evil spirits…

The standard of medical success, if not skill, required of Piute medicos was higher than among civilized peoples; for while a white doctor is in no danger of violence whatever his (or his patient’s) luck, the Piute healer did well to arrange his affairs immediately on the demise of his third patient. He was marked for early and unceremonious removal, by whatever means might be convenient for the kin of his last case. Stones, arrows, lassos, in daylight or darkness, regardless of place or anything but opportunity, were used to reduce the number of medicine men in active service. It was approved tribal law.

Chalfant, W.A. (1922). The Story of Inyo


4 thoughts on ““The number of medicine men in active service”

  1. I’m wondering about the juxtaposition of this anecdote with the Ebola posts. Accident? Or intentional?

    I’m thankful that the brave souls of MSF do not have to contend with a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule.

    • Accidental Harold, more or less, although no question I’ve been thinking about doctors and death a lot lately, so who knows where my brain’s going. I do find it interesting that there are some definite similarities in how the local people view the doctors and the whole medical establishment. They desperately want someone to make them well, and there is no one to do so in many cases. The tragedy of life, and death.

  2. Incredible. Many thanks for posting this here. Makes more pertinent one’s desire to point out the distinction between Ph.D. and Doctor (MD)…

    Not sure how I might countenance this observation – but I have to wonder whether Inyo’s family name was Face??

    Many apologies… just call me Bruce.

    • Inyo’s not a personal name but rather a county in California (and the most spectacular county I might add, not just in the state but the entire lower 48, containing both the lowest and highest points thereof). But anyway, I used to joke that among all the alpine rock climbing nirvanas in the county (and there are a LOT of them), there surely ought to be one called the Inyo Face. Alas, no, as far as I can tell.

Have at it

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