The Medicine Bag
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
My kid sister Cheryl and I always bragged about our Sioux grandpa, Joe Iron Shell. Our friends,
who had always lived in the city and only knew about Indians 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 which 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 greatgrandfather, 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.
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
“Hau, Takoza, 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
bolo tie 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 pavement.
“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 in 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
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?”
She checked her move to embrace Grandpa, and I remembered that such a display of affection is
unseemly to the Sioux and would embarrass him.
“Hau, 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
“Grandpa!” she 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.
“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 shoulder.
“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, Martin.”
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
around 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.”
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 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
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 for so long, he set
out, walking, to find us.
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 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 from you?”
Grandpa laughed. “I would’ve known if anyone 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.”
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.”
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, 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.
Grandpa would smile in his gentle way and patiently answer their questions, or he’d tell them
stories of brave warriors, ghosts, 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
them. “We’re 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
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.
“Hau, hoksilas, 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 suppertime. 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 bag.”
I felt a hard squeeze from where my heart is supposed to be and was scared, but I answered,
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.
“My father in his early manhood,” Grandpa began, “made a vision quest 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.
“He carefully prepared for his quest with a purifying sweat bath and then he went alone to a high
butte 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 find-ing
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 which reinforced 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
“He returned 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. This 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.
“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 teachers’ 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 anymore.”
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 place.”
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.
“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.” He held the pouch upside down
and dust drifted down.
“After the 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.
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 bag.