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Otter Medicine

Dreamed early 1850s by The-Fringe, Crow Indian healer, as told by Plenty Coups to Frank Linderman, 1928

"Who was the most powerful Wise One in your own time?" I [Frank Linderman] asked.

"One of the most powerful men I ever knew was The-Fringe," he [Plenty Coups] replied. "I have seen him do wonderful things. Though I was very young when he had his great dream, I remember it well enough. Our village was in the Bighorn basin, not very far from Oo-tsche-dea [The-snow-melting-wind-river] where the country is beautiful and the mountains are high. There is a spring in that country which we call Medicine Water because it heals the sick, and it was there The-Fringe had his great dream.

"The Medicine Water lies at the foot of a little hill, and in the center of the water, which nearly boils, there is a small island. The-Fringe went there to dream, reaching the island by walking a pole which two friends helped him place from the shore. Then, because he requested it, his friends went away and left him on the island, going high up into the mountains to dream, themselves. They could see The-Fringe on the island from their beds, but, looking down the third morning, found him gone. A cloud of fog hung over the Medicine Water, hiding all the island; but even when the sun came and drove it away, The-Fringe was not there. Something that lived in the Medicine Water had taken him away. But, as they had promised The-Fringe before leaving him that they would not do so, they did not go near the spring until the morning of the fourth day. When they at last drew near the Medicine Water, they saw him, not on the island where they had left him, but on the shore itself.

"Nothing could live in the Medicine Water, and there was no way The-Fringe could reach the shore and live. Yet there he was, standing alone in the sunshine on the shore, the morning of the fourth day. When they came near enough to speak to him, he held up his hand and they stopped, half afraid.

"'Go to the village,' he told them, 'and tell the Wise Ones to gather together. Have them build four medicine-sweat-lodges in a row from east to west. They must use one hundred willows in making the first one, and none but the last must be covered until I am there. Tell them also to make plain medicine-trails from the door of each, through the sweat-lodges, to the west, and when they have finished to send for me.'

"His friends did all he asked them. And when The-Fringe entered the village he called eleven Wise Ones, and with them smoked in the first sweat-lodge. Then he led them to the fourth, which was covered, and said, 'Roll one hot stone inside, and burn some e-say upon it.' When the Wise Ones had done this, The-Fringe told his dream.

"He said that on the first and second nights on the island the hot Medicine Water had washed his body and burned his skin, but that he had not moved or cried out.

"'On the third night a Person came to me,' said The-Fringe. 'He had matted hair and looked strong and not very good-natured. He told me to stand up and follow him, which I did.

"'He sank beneath the boiling Medicine Water, and I followed, feeling no hurt. We came at last to a great painted lodge that was red and black in stripes up and down it, and I saw many horses near. The lodge was tall, even considering its great size. An Otter was on one side of it and on the other a White Bear. Both were angry because I was there and spoke crossly to me; but the Person said, "Be quiet! This is my son," and neither the Otter nor the White Bear spoke again while I was there.

"'We entered the striped lodge, the Person and I, and because it was daytime in there, I could see very plainly. "Look about you, my son," said the Person, walking around the fire, where right across from me I saw his woman sitting.

"'She was strangely handsome, and tall. When she smiled a little at me, I knew she was very kind, that her heart was good. But she did not speak or make a sign to me, and while I stood there looking and wishing she would do one or the other, the Person said, "This is all, my son. You may go now."

"I felt sad at the Person's words, but had turned to the door to go outside when the woman asked, 'Why do you not give this son of yours something he may use to help his people, some power for good, if used by a good man?"

"'I thought at first the Person did not hear her. But at last he picked up a strip of Otter skin and a picket pin and gave them into my hand. "Take these, my son," he said in a voice so kindly that I was not certain it was his own.

"'"And will you give him nothing else?" asked the woman across the fire. "Will you tell him nothing?"

"'The Person smiled. I saw his face change greatly. "Women are kind," he said, and took me by the hand. "I will tell him that this water will heal the sick among his people, if they will use it," he said, leading me out of the striped lodge that was red and black.

"'When I wakened I was not on the island where I had made my bed, but on the shore bordering the Medicine Water. This is my dream, O 'Wise Ones! Tell me what it means.'

"They told him the striped lodge, painted red and black, meant that he would heal wounds, become a great Wise One among them. They said the picket pin showed that he would possess many horses, gifts from the men and women he had healed; and that the Otter and the White Bear would be his Helpers throughout his life on the world. They told him, too, that the Otter was his medicine, but said he would never become a chief, that he was too kindly to become even a great warrior. 'You are like the Person who led you beneath the Medicine Water,' they said. And this was all they told him.

"Next day the village moved, and when we passed the Medicine Water, we each dropped in a bead, or something else very pretty; so that the [dream] Father of The-Fringe, and his Woman, might have them. This we have done ever since, when passing that way. And as long as there are Crow people they will continue to make such offerings to the Medicine Water, as they pass.

"All his life, just as the Wise Ones had said, The-Fringe was a quiet, gentle man; and if he ever caused even the enemy any suffering, nobody ever heard about it. He joined many war-parties, but always returned without distinction, so that by our laws he could not marry until he was twenty-five. But besides his gentleness, The-Fringe was bashful, and when he had reached thirty he was still single. People were smiling by this time; the women talking a little, of course.

"But every time a war-party left our village The-Fringe went with it, and only one person in the whole tribe knew why he went. This person was a beautiful young woman, the daughter of one of our most successful warriors. She knew The-Fringe loved her, that he hoped first to count coup and have his name spoken in council, so that he might pridefully ask her to marry him. She understood that he was too bashful to speak to her father until he had distinguished himself in some brave way, and there was nothing she could do about it but wait, since her lover would not avail himself of his right to marry, which his age now gave him.

"The year The-Fringe was thirty we had a desperate fight with the Sioux, and in the battle a brother of this young woman was struck by an arrow that pierced his body below his arms. Its feathers stuck out of his armpit on the right side. He was going to his Father when they laid him down in the lodge.

"The-Fringe was a powerful Wise One with many followers, by this time. He had many horses, and was popular, even though he was not a fighter. But no Wise One would ever offer to heal a sick or wounded man. It was necessary for somebody who was a relative of the suffering one to make request, if the services of a Wise One were needed. But when this young warrior was laid in his father's lodge, The-Fringe saw his opportunity and told a close friend, 'I would try to heal that young man, if his people would ask me.'

"Of course they asked him. The young man's father came after The-Fringe, himself. There was no time to waste. The-Fringe at once stripped and began to paint his body.

"'I will give you many horses, anything I possess, if you heal my son,' said the father, while The-Fringe was painting himself.

"'There is only one thing on the world I want,' answered The-Fringe, looking across the lodge at the young woman he loved.

"'I am willing,' she said. And that was the first anybody, besides themselves, knew they were in love. The young woman spoke out, because she was afraid The-Fringe would not have the courage.

"'It is well,' said her father, surprised. And while his helpers carried the wounded man to the chief's lodge by the river, The-Fringe began to sing his Medicine Song.

"There was a sandy shore in front of the lodge, and the people formed a way from the lodge door to the water, in straight lines. But the helpers made the people near the water move back, so that the open way was shaped like the chief's lodge itself, its sharp point in the door.

"The-Fringe wound a strip of otter skin around his head, tossed another strip, which had been cut so as to include the animal's tail, over his shoulder, and, singing to the drums of his helpers, lifted his medicine out of its bundle. It was a whole otter's skin, with the head stuffed. On the shoulders and cheeks of The-Fringe I saw that there was mud, just as there always is on an otter's when he plays in the mud along a river. He whistled like an otter, dipped the medicine skin in a paunch kettle of water, and sprinkled it upon the wounded man, while the helpers sang to their drums.

"The young man sat up. Just then I could not see The-Fringe, but I heard him whistle four times like an otter, and by and by beheld him coming out through the door of the lodge, followed by the wounded man.

"They walked into the river, where The-Fringe dived like an otter, smoothly, and without disturbing the water. Four times he dived, twice upstream and twice downstream, while the otter skin seemed itself to be alive and swimming. Then I saw its nose at the wounds of the young man, saw its tail wiggle in the water as if it sucked blood and was pleased and its nose lift itself away from the wounds to let black blood fall on the water. But there was only a little of it. Red blood came quickly, and as quickly The-Fringe stopped it. "You are healed,' I heard him say. And this was true. The young man was well again. Two lumpy scars were where the holes had been."

Plenty-coups smoked awhile in silence, and when he spoke again, ended his story-telling. "I might tell you much more," he said, "but it would be nearly like the stories you already know. My life was much the same thing year after year, when I was young and strong. Now the old life is ended. Most of the men who knew it have gone, and I myself am eager to go and find them."

Source:'s online text of "Plenty Coups, Chief Of The Crows" (p.299-310)

Editor's Note

The most startling feature of this dream isn't its content but its tangibility. The-Fringe is apparently transported to the far shore of a boiling pool through the other world--the world of his dream.

I've seen no name for dreams that leave physical traces or consequences; for convenience I've dubbed them Natalian dreams, after the earliest report I've found, by Natalius the Confessor in 155 AD. Before assuming fraud or error or insanity, remember: only a few decades ago, many thought lucid dreams were also a myth. Best to collect data before making judgments. If you've had such a dream, I'd like to know! See list below...

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: shamans - dream incubation - Natalian dreams (dreams with physical consequences) - water - heat - otters - bears - parenting - giving and generosity - work, career advice in dreams and life-paths - shyness - love - perseverance - weird dream medicine - miracles - transcendent dreams - weddings - Crow tribe - dreams by Plenty Coups - Montana - over a century later Wayan dreams of a hot-spring portal: Razi and the Holy Wino of Shasta

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