Medicine Bundles

Medicine Bundles

The Daily Create is about “what’s in your pockets?” I like the symbolic image of the bolsa, the pouch as a seed place–testicles or womb– where hidden things whisper to life in the dark…

In my part of the world, many people both male and female wear medicine pouches on a leather thong around their necks, tucked in under their clothes. Made of tanned elk or deer hide–or a scrap of calico cloth–these bundles contain amulets sacred to the wearer.

“Opening the Sacred Bundle” Oil Painting by Howard Terpning. Courtesy:



Spread out in an aluminum pan under a medical examiner’s light, the contents would appear to be ordinary bits of gemstone, shell, or bone, but when contained inside their bundle and carried like a small second womb or testicle sac over the heart, they are charged with the meaning given to them by the wearer: a piece of Baltic amber to commemorate ancestors lost in a war; a feather from Raven, the Creator bird; a shell still whispering the power of the sea.

The tradition of the medicine bundle is inherited from Native American tribes all across the continent; however, the cultural context has been lost or changed. Medicine bundles in tribal cultures were subject to a latticework of rules and taboos unique to each tribe as well as sharing some pan-tribal commonalities.

In the 21st century, certain cultural elements have accompanied the medicine bag on its journey through deep time; primarily that its contents are sacred, private, and may only be handled by the owner. In my experience, the objects are often acquired in ceremony, which imbues them with special powers often associated with healing (hence, “medicine”) in the imagination of the owner.

Screen shot of a Google Image search for "medicine bundles"
Screen shot of a Google Image search for “medicine bundles”

The objects contained in a medicine bundle go to the source of who that person is. If I knew what was in your bundle, I would know an enormous amount about who you are in the world; that is, if you told me the stories attached to them: the war vet who carries a blue bead meant in the Middle East to ward off the Evil Eye–what terrifying memory is he protecting himself from? The mother carrying the tiny, clean skull of a vole–has she lost a pregnancy? Does she invite a new child into her womb by carrying three sunflower seeds; does she honor her own mother with those dried rose petals?

These are real objects with real value to real people, but they gain their power because they are rooted and growing in the imaginations of their people. Imaginal objects set up their own field of resonance and will link in the mind to related objects of its kind whenever its Person encounters them.

“Eagle Owl” Original Watercolor by Cheryl Renee Long. Courtesy


For example, Julia Shadow-woman lost her beloved dog. She took her grief for a walk in the meadow by the river. As she passed under the big riparian cottonwoods, she found a perfect small, fluffy feather with the distinct markings of an owl. Julia associated her love and grief with the owl feather, which she interpreted as a gift from the wild.

Julia knelt, took off her medicine bundle, and with a prayer and a small ceremony done in her own way, she tied the feather into her bundle and sent it down into the mysterious well of her imagination, where it found a home and began to grow.

In the evening, on her way home, Julia Shadow-woman saw an owl swoop low over the road in front of her car, and she knew the spirit of her beloved dog had been invited to live with the owls. From then on, every owl became sacred to Julia.

"Snowy Owl, Nisqually Delta 2012" Original Watercolor by Cheryl R. Long Courtesy
“Snowy Owl, Nisqually Delta 2012”
Original Watercolor by Cheryl Renee Long


One day, Julia saw an ambassador owl from the local raptor rehabilitation center recruiting volunteers in her town square. She answered the call and began to volunteer at the raptor center working with injured owls. At first, she only cleaned their cages, but soon she was tossing them in the air in the flight cage, encouraging them to fly on reset bones. Julia felt she was servicing the owls in thanks for them receiving the spirit of her dog and letting him live with them in the air, sharing their wings, which she now helped to heal when they were broken. Julia went on to be a veterinarian specializing in raptor rehabilitation; like so many here in the West, she was a scientist who carried a medicine bundle.

"Barn Owl" Original Watercolor by Cheryl Renee Long Courtesy
“Barn Owl”
Original Watercolor by Cheryl Renee Long


Some may say Julia was superstitious or indulged herself in magical thinking, or was betraying her scientific training, but the rich, dark currents of the human imagination don’t have anything to do with such accusations. It works the way it works. It can certainly be suppressed; it can be polluted; it can be channeled. It is a fluid medium like blood or lymph or water, and it, too, births life, sustains life, gives habitation to that ineffable “me” the ancient ones called the seat of the soul. Dr. Julia Shadow-woman’s entire human existence is made richer, is given direction by her imagination’s healthy embrace of owls both real and imaginary.

Not everyone carries a real medicine bundle, but most people I know have one in their hearts–symbols that speak to us in dreams, in a sparkling network of coincidences, and peer out at us from the hidden cracks in the marketplace of the world.

“Last Light” Original Watercolor by Cheryl Renee Long Courtesy



3 Replies to “Medicine Bundles”

  1. Lovely.

    The use of symbols is as old as human consciousness. The manner is unique for each of us, and this type of use is more deliberate and personal than many now allow themselves. I love touching into the subterranean stream of ceremonial instinct represented by medicine bundles. Thank you!

  2. Medicine bundles are a portable way of making the invisible symbols and currents of connection we all carry, tangible. My entire house is currently cluttered with objects from my departed parents’ long lives. I have become Psyche: incessantly sorting, sifting, recycling, letting go and mostly, remembering. I need to clear a path through the clutter in order to continue with my own life. Maybe choosing a few treasured objects and bundling them, is one way to find order and meaning in the jungle…

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