Among the Ojibwa of the Western Great Lakes, carved wood dolls and puppets played an important role in rituals related to the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Societies. The Midewiwin has been described as a set of ceremonies and ritual practices overseen by recognized priests possessing specialized knowledge of curing and malevolence (Hickerson, Harold. The Chippewa and Their Neighbors: A Study in Ethno history. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 19700, pg 52.) Herbs, medicine bundles and other objects including carved wooden dolls were used in these Midewiwin ceremonies.
While the Midewiwin society is believed to have originated among the Ojibwa, medicine societies can also be found among the Eastern Sioux groups. Here, wooden figures typically represent the Tree Dweller, Canhotdan, a benevolent spirit approached for success in hunting. The keeper of the figure was said to have the power to make Canhotdan magically dance during rituals associated with the Medicine Dance Society (Ewers, John, C. Plains Indian Sculpture: A Traditional Art From America’s Heartland. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986, pg. 127). It has been suggested that the ritual use of Tree Dweller figures is in fact the westernmost extension of Midewiwin influence (Skinner, Alanson B. Notes On Mahikan Ethnology. Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee 2(3):87-116. Milwaukee: 1925, pg. 73)
Among the Ojibwa, figures such as these were used exclusively in Midewiwin Society rituals. As proof of their owner’s magical powers, the puppets we made to “move by themselves” (Hoffman, W.J. The Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwa. 7th Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, 1891, pg. 204-205), or slowly “emerge from a bag by themselves” (Densmore, Francis. Menomini Music. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 102. Washington: 1932, pg. 94). Several of the figures that have survived exhibit a hollowed out cavity in the chest used to contain herbal potions to aid in the curing of sickness, the most important role of a Midewiwin Society practitioner.
This important figure is one of only five known featuring a cavity, and the only example with the cavity located in the back rather than chest area. A drilled cylindrical channel runs from the top of the cavity to the top of the head through which smoke might have risen in ritual uses. The superbly refined lines and proportions of the head and face are highlighted by traces of red pigment in the eye, ear and neck areas, likely replicating body painting techniques that a Midewiwin practitioner might have employed during curing performances. The significance of the dyed deer hair headdress is unknown, however it may relate to the red pigmentation seen in the facial and neck areas.
Surviving examples of 18th century wooden sculpture from the Eastern Woodlands are rare. The subtlety of expression, together with the balanced composition create an overwhelming sense of monumentality, and place this remarkable figure among the masterpieces of Native American art.