The Medicine Bag
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. "The Medicine Bag" by
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, published in BOY'S LIFE, March 1975. Reprinted/recorded
by permission of the author.
During Reading Strategy
Continue Making Mental Pictures
kid sister Cheryl and I always bragged about our Sioux grandpa, Joe Iron
Shell. Our friends, who had always lived in the city and knew about Indians
only from movies and TV, were impressed by our stories. Maybe we exaggerated
and made Grandpa and the reservation sound glamorous, but when we’d
return home to Iowa after our yearly summer visit to Grandpa, we always
had some exciting tale to tell.
We always had some authentic Sioux article to show our listeners. One year
Cheryl had new moccasins that Grandpa had made. On another visit he gave
me a small, round, flat rawhide drum that was decorated with a painting
of a warrior riding a horse. He taught me a real Sioux chant to sing while
I beat the drum with a leather-covered stick that had a feather on the
end. Man, that really made an impression.
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. So when Grandpa came to visit us, I was so ashamed and
embarrassed I could’ve died.
Vocabulary from the Selection
Guided Reading Question 1
What does the narrator think when Grandpa comes to visit?
There are a lot of yippy poodles and other fancy little dogs in our neighborhood,
but they usually barked singly at the mailman from the safety of their
own yards. Now it sounded as if a whole pack of mutts were barking together
in one place.
I got up and walked to the curb to see what the commotion was. About a block
away I saw a crowd of little kids yelling, with the dogs yipping and growling
around someone who was walking down the middle of the street.
I watched the group as it slowly came closer and saw that in the center of the
strange procession was a man wearing a tall black hat. He’d pause now and
then to peer at something in his hand and then at the houses on either side of
the street. I felt cold and hot at the same time as I recognized the man. “Oh,
no!” I whispered. “It’s Grandpa!”
I stood on the curb, unable to move, even though I wanted to run and hide. Then
I got mad when I saw how the yippy dogs were growling and nipping at the old
man’s baggy pant legs and how wearily he poked them away with his cane. “Stupid
mutts,” I said as I ran to rescue Grandpa.
When I kicked and
hollered at the dogs to get away, they put their tails between their
legs and scattered. The kids ran to the curb where they watched me and
the old man.
“Grandpa,” I said and felt pretty dumb when my voice cracked.
I reached for his beat-up old tin suitcase, which was tied shut with a
rope. But he set it down right in the street and shook my hand.
, Grandchild,” he greeted me formally in Sioux.
All I could do was stand there with the whole neighborhood watching and
shake the hand of the leather-brown old man. I saw how his gray hair straggled
from under his big black hat, which had a drooping feather in its crown.
His rumpled black suit hung like a sack over his stooped frame. As he shook
my hand, his coat fell open to expose a bright red satin shirt with a beaded
under the collar. His get-up wasn’t out of place on the
reservation, but it sure was here, and I wanted to sink right through the
“Hi,” I muttered with my head down. I tried to pull my hand
away when I felt his bony hand trembling and looked up to see fatigue
his face. I felt like crying. I couldn’t think of anything to say,
so I picked up Grandpa’s suitcase, took his arm, and guided him up
the driveway to our house.
Mom was standing on the steps. I don’t know how long she’d
been watching, but her hand was over her mouth, and she looked as if she
couldn’t believe what she saw. Then she ran to us.
“Grandpa,” she gasped. “How in the
world did you get here?”
Guided Reading Question 2
How does the narrator react to seeing Grandpa surrounded by dogs?
She checked her move to embrace Grandpa, and I remembered that such
a display of affection is unseemly
to the Sioux and would embarrass
, Marie,” he
said as he shook Mom’s hand. She smiled and took his other arm.
As we supported him up the steps, the door banged open and Cheryl came
bursting out of the house. She was all smiles and was so obviously glad
to see Grandpa that I was ashamed of how I felt.
yelled happily. “You came to see us!”
Grandpa smiled, and Mom and I let go of him as he stretched out his arms
to my ten-year-old sister, who was still young enough to be hugged.
Guided Reading Question 3
What does Grandpa think about displays of affection?
How does Cheryl greet Grandpa?
“Wicincala, little girl,” he greeted her and then collapsed.
He had fainted. Mom and I carried him into her sewing room, where we had
a spare bed.
After we had Grandpa on the bed, Mom stood there helplessly patting his
“Shouldn’t we call the doctor, Mom?” I suggested, since
she didn’t seem to know what to do.
“Yes,” she agreed with a sigh. “You make Grandpa comfortable,
I reluctantly moved to the bed. I knew Grandpa wouldn’t want to have
Mom undress him, but I didn’t want to, either. He was so skinny and
frail that his coat slipped off easily. When I loosened his tie and opened
his shirt collar, I felt a small leather pouch that hung from a thong
his neck. I left it alone and moved to remove his boots. The scuffed old
cowboy boots were tight, and he moaned as I put pressure on his legs to
jerk them off.
I put the boots
on the floor and saw why they fit so tight. Each one was stuffed with
money. I looked at the bills that lined the boots and started to ask
about them, but Grandpa’s eyes were closed again.
Mom came back with a basin of water. “The doctor thinks Grandpa is
suffering from heat exhaustion,” she explained as she bathed Grandpa’s
face. Mom gave a big sigh, “Oh, hinh
, Martin. How do you suppose
he got here?”
We found out after the doctor’s visit. Grandpa was angrily sitting
up in bed while Mom tried to feed him some soup.
“Tonight you let Marie feed you, Grandpa,” spoke my dad, who
had gotten home from work just as the doctor was leaving. “You’re
not really sick,” he said as he gently pushed Grandpa back against
the pillows. “The doctor said you just got too tired and hot after
your long trip.”
What does the narrator notice around Grandpa’s neck?
Grandpa relaxed, and between sips of soup, he told us of his journey. Soon
after our visit to him, Grandpa decided that he would like to see where his
only living descendants lived and what our home was like. Besides, he admitted
sheepishly, he was lonesome after we left.
I knew that everybody
felt as guilty as I did—especially Mom. Mom was all Grandpa had left. So even after
she married my dad, who’s a white man and teaches in the college
in our city, and after Cheryl and I were born, Mom made sure that every
summer we spent a week with Grandpa.
I never thought that Grandpa would be lonely after our visits, and none of
us noticed how old and weak he had become. But Grandpa knew, and so he came
to us. He had ridden on buses for two and a half days. When he arrived in
the city, tired and stiff from sitting so long, he set out, walking, to find
He had stopped to rest on the steps of some building downtown, and a
policeman found him. The cop, according to Grandpa, was a good man who
took him to the bus stop and waited until the bus came and told the driver
to let Grandpa out at Bell View Drive. After Grandpa got off the bus,
he started walking again. But he couldn’t see the house numbers on the other side when
he walked on the sidewalk, so he walked in the middle of the street. That’s
when all the little kids and dogs followed him.
I knew everybody felt as bad as I did. Yet I was so proud of this eighty-six-year-old
man who had never been away from the reservation, having the courage to travel
so far alone.
“You found the money in my boots?” he asked Mom.
“Martin did,” she answered, and roused herself to scold. “Grandpa,
you shouldn’t have carried so much money. What if someone had stolen it
Grandpa laughed. “I would’ve known if anyone had tried to take the
boots off my feet. The money is what I’ve saved for a long time—a
hundred dollars—for my funeral. But you take it now to buy groceries so
that I won’t be a burden to you while I am here.”
“That won’t be necessary, Grandpa,” Dad said. “We are
honored to have you with us, and you will never be a burden. I am only sorry
that we never thought to bring you home with us this summer and spare you the
discomfort of a long trip.”
Guided Reading Question 6
Why did Grandpa decide to visit Martin’s family?
Grandpa was pleased. “Thank you,” he answered. “But do not
feel bad that you didn’t bring me with you, for I would not have come then.
It was not time.” He said this in such a way that no one could argue with
him. To Grandpa and the Sioux, he once told me, a thing would be done when it
was the right time to do it, and that’s the way it was.
“Also,” Grandpa went on,
looking at me. “I have come because it is soon time for Martin
to have the medicine bag.”
We all knew what that meant. Grandpa thought he was going to die, and he
had to follow the tradition of his family to pass the medicine bag, along
with its history, to the oldest male child.
“Even though the boy,” he said, still looking at me, “bears
a white man’s name, the medicine bag will be his.”
Guided Reading Question 7
Why didn’t Grandpa come to visit earlier?
I didn’t know what to say. I had the same hot and cold feeling that
I had when I first saw Grandpa in the street. The medicine bag was the dirty
leather pouch I had found around his neck. “I could never wear such
a thing,” I almost said aloud. I thought of having my friends see it
in gym class or at the swimming pool and could imagine the smart things they
would say. But I just swallowed hard and took a step toward the bed. I knew
I would have to take it.
But Grandpa was
tired. “Not now, Martin,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal. “It
is not time. Now I will sleep.”
So that’s how Grandpa came to be with us for two months. My friends
kept asking to come see the old man, but I put them off. I told myself that
I didn’t want them laughing at Grandpa. But even as I made excuses,
I knew it wasn’t Grandpa that I was afraid they’d laugh at.
Nothing bothered Cheryl about bringing her friends to see Grandpa. Every
day after school started, there’d be a crew of giggling little girls
or round-eyed little boys crowded around the old man on the patio, where
he’d gotten in the habit of sitting every afternoon.
Guided Reading Question 8
What does Martin think about wearing the medicine bag?
smile in his gentle way and patiently answer their questions, or he’d
tell them stories of brave warriors, ghosts, and animals; and the kids
listened in awed silence. Those little guys thought Grandpa was great.
Finally, one day
after school, my friends came home with me because nothing I said stopped
going to see the great Indian of Bell View Drive,” said Hank, who
was supposed to be my best friend. “My brother has seen him three
times, so he oughta be well enough to see us.”
Guided Reading Question 9
What do Cheryl’s friends think of Grandpa?
When we got to my house, Grandpa was sitting on the patio. He had on his
red shirt, but today he also wore a fringed leather vest that was decorated
with beads. Instead of his usual cowboy boots, he had solidly beaded moccasins
on his feet that stuck out of his black trousers. Of course, he had his old
black hat on—he was seldom without it. But it had been brushed, and
the feather in the beaded headband was proudly erect, its tip a brighter
white. His hair lay in silver strands over the red shirt collar.
I stared just as my friends did, and I heard one of them murmur, “Wow!”
Grandpa looked up, and when his eyes met mine, they twinkled as if he were
laughing inside. He nodded to me, and my face got all hot. I could tell
that he had known all along I was afraid he’d embarrass me in front
of my friends.
Guided Reading Question 10
What changes had Grandpa made to his appearance for the boys’ visit?
Guided Reading Question 11
What does Martin realize that Grandpa knew?
boys,” he greeted and held out his hand.
My buddies passed in a single file and shook his hand as I introduced them.
They were so polite I almost laughed. “How, there, Grandpa,” and
even a “How-do-you-do, sir.”
“You look fine, Grandpa,” I said as the guys sat on the lawn
chairs or on the patio floor.
“Hanh, yes,” he agreed. “When I woke up this morning,
it seemed the right time to dress in the good clothes. I knew that my grandson
would be bringing his friends.”
“You guys want some lemonade or something?” I offered. No one
answered. They were listening to Grandpa as he started telling how he’d
killed the deer from which his vest was made.
Grandpa did most of the talking while my friends were there. I was so proud
of him and amazed at how respectfully quiet my buddies were. Mom had to chase
them home at supper time. As they left, they shook Grandpa’s hand
again and said to me,
“Martin, he’s really great!”
“Yeah, man! Don’t blame you for keeping him to yourself.”
“Can we come back?”
But after they left,
Mom said, “No more visitors for a while, Martin. Grandpa won’t
admit it, but his strength hasn’t returned. He likes having company,
but it tires him.”
That evening Grandpa called me to his room before he went to sleep. “Tomorrow,” he
said, “when you come home, it will be time to give you the medicine
I felt a hard squeeze from where my heart is supposed to be and was scared,
but I answered, “OK, Grandpa.”
Guided Reading Question 12
How do Martin’s friends react to Grandpa?
All night I had weird dreams about thunder and lightning on a high hill.
From a distance I heard the slow beat of a drum. When I woke up in the
morning, I felt as if I hadn’t slept at all. At school it seemed
as if the day would never end, and when it finally did, I ran home.
Grandpa was in his
room, sitting on the bed. The shades were down, and the place was dim
and cool. I sat on the floor in front of Grandpa, but he didn’t
even look at me. After what seemed a long time, he spoke.
“I sent your mother and sister away. What you will hear today is
only for a man’s ears. What you will receive is only for a man’s
hands.” He fell silent, and I felt shivers down my back.
Guided Reading Question 13
What does Martin dream about?
“My father in his early manhood,” Grandpa began, “made
a vision quest2
to find a spirit guide for his life. You
cannot understand how it was in that time when the great Teton Sioux were
first made to stay on the reservation. There was a strong need for guidance
from Wakantanka, the Great Spirit. But too many of the young men were filled
with despair and hatred. They thought it was hopeless to search for a vision
when the glorious life was gone and only the hated confines
of a reservation
lay ahead. But my father held to the old ways.
Guided Reading Question 14
How did Grandpa’s father find his spirit guide?
“He carefully prepared for his
quest with a purifying
sweat bath, and then he went alone to a high butte3
top to fast and pray. After three days he received his sacred dream—in
which he found, after long searching, the white man’s iron. He
did not understand his vision of finding something belonging to the white
people, for in that time they were the enemy. When he came down from
the butte to cleanse himself at the stream below, he found the remains
of a campfire and the broken shell of an iron kettle. This was a sign
his dream. He took a piece of the iron for his medicine
bag, which he had made of elk skin years before, to prepare for his quest.
to his village, where he told his dream to the wise old men of the tribe.
They gave him the name Iron Shell, but neither did they understand the
meaning of the dream. The first Iron Shell kept the piece of iron with
him at all times and believed it gave him protection from the evils of
those unhappy days.
Guided Reading Question 15
What did Grandpa’s father find in his sacred dream?
“Then a terrible thing happened to Iron Shell. He and several other
young men were taken from their homes by the soldiers and sent far away
to a white man’s boarding school. He was angry and lonesome for his
parents and the young girl he had wed before he was taken away. At first
Iron Shell resisted the teacher’s attempts to change him, and he
did not try to learn. One day it was his turn to work in the school’s
blacksmith shop. As he walked into the place, he knew that his medicine
had brought him there to learn and work with the white man’s iron.
“Iron Shell became a blacksmith and worked at the trade when he returned
to the reservation. All of his life he treasured the medicine bag. When he
was old and I was a man, he gave it to me, for no one made the vision quest
Grandpa quit talking,
and I stared in disbelief as he covered his face with his hands. His
shoulders were shaking with quiet sobs, and I looked away until he began
to speak again.
“I kept the bag until my son, your mother’s father, was a man
and had to leave us to fight in the war across the ocean. I gave him the
bag, for I believed it would protect him in battle, but he did not take
it with him. He was afraid that he would lose it. He died in a faraway
Again Grandpa was still, and I felt his grief around me.
“My son,” he went on after clearing his throat, “had
only a daughter, and it is not proper for her to know of these things.”
He unbuttoned his shirt, pulled out the leather pouch, and lifted it over
his head. He held it in his hand, turning it over and over as if memorizing
how it looked.
Guided Reading Question 16
What did Grandpa’s father discover about his medicine?
“In the bag,” he said as he opened it and removed two objects, “is
the broken shell of the iron kettle, a pebble from the butte, and a piece
of the sacred sage.”4
He held the pouch upside down and dust drifted
bag is yours, you must put a piece of prairie sage within and never open
it again until you pass it on to your son.” He replaced the pebble
and the piece of iron and tied the bag.
I stood up, somehow knowing I should. Grandpa slowly rose from the bed
and stood upright in front of me holding the bag before my face. I closed
my eyes and waited for him to slip it over my head. But he spoke.
“No, you need not wear it.” He placed the soft leather bag
in my right hand and closed my other hand over it. “It would not
be right to wear it in this time and place where no one will understand.
Put it safely away until you are again on the reservation. Wear it then,
when you replace the sacred sage.”
Grandpa turned and sat again on the bed. Wearily he leaned his head against
the pillow. “Go,” he said. “I will sleep now.”
“Thank you, Grandpa,” I said softly, and left with the bag
in my hands.
Guided Reading Question 17
What is in the medicine bag?
That night Mom and
Dad took Grandpa to the hospital. Two weeks later I stood alone on the
lonely prairie of the reservation and put the sacred sage in my medicine
Guided Reading Question 18
Where does Martin go?