Share This Article

Revenge-minded relatives and tribesmen took extreme measures.

The Wishram medicine man struggled as men bound his hands and feet, looped a noose around his neck and tied the other end of the rope to the saddle pommel atop an Indian pony. One man slapped the horse on the rump, sending the animal running. As it bolted, the noose tightened, choking the life out of the medicine man. His executioners drew on this method of hanging as this stretch of the Columbia River lacked trees from which to dangle a noose. The unfortunate Indian doctor suffered this gruesome death in the Dalles of the Columbia in Oregon in 1853. It wasn’t the medicine man’s enemies but his own Wishram tribesmen that killed him, in retribution for his failure to cure the smallpox that devastated their tribe. Other Indian tribes of Oregon held their medicine men similarly responsible, not only for deaths due to sickness or plague but also for any homicide among their brethren. Often the punishment was death.

Almost a half century later, in May 1901, Chief Tenawashi, an elderly Yakima medicine man, walked from his hut on the reservation one night to check on his ponies when someone shot him from ambush. The assassin then stepped out from his hiding place and fired a second bullet into Tenawashi’s prone body. The killer was thought to be a fellow tribesman, a relative of a patient who had succumbed to disease the previous winter. When questioned by authorities about the medicine man’s death, tribal members reportedly deadpanned, “He killed himself.” Years earlier Tenawashi had earned the esteem of both his tribesmen and a number of whites in the area. During the hard winter of 1881–82, for example, cattlemen of the Yakima Valley had lost many cattle, and some superstitious ranchers had called on Tenawashi to break the cold gripping the area.

The value placed on a shaman’s life could range from one extreme to the other. For decades the Yakimas held Teeson-a-way, a female healer, in high regard. During the severe winter of 1890–91 the tribe, faulting several medicine men for failing to bring on spring, killed them and threw their bodies into the snowdrifts. Tee-son-a-way escaped blame that time, but a more gruesome fate awaited her in 1903 after she failed to cure a patient. As the aged healer sat alone in her wickiup, a vengeful relative entered, struck her a deathblow with a stone and then lopped off her head.

When it came to judging medicine men who failed to cure the sick, several tribes followed the rule of three—a healer could lose two patients in a row, but should he lose one more, it was three strikes, and he was out. In 1884, to cure his dying son, a Paiute in central Nevada named Frank called on the powers of a tribal healer who had already lost two patients. No doubt the medicine man felt a sense of dread as he, according to one account, “chanted his songs, beat sticks, invoked spirits and stirred up his nauseating medicine with ever-increasing vigor.” It was no use, as the boy was mortally ill. As tribesmen focused on the dying child, the medicine man fled north for his life. Within an hour of his son’s death Frank, with rifle and knife in hand, set off after the failed healer, caught up to him in Paradise Valley and killed him.

In 1904 a tribesman murdered Unapacha Heecha, a Paiute medicine man in northwest Arizona Territory, after the healer failed to exorcise an evil spirit thought to have brought deadly illness to the villages along the Colorado River. His killer, Arda Mecha, shot Heecha through the head and then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide—a practice sometimes required of the assassins of unsuccessful healers.

In the early 1860s an unknown plague afflicted the Pima Indians in Gila Crossing, New Mexico Territory (in present-day Arizona), killing several people in a single day. Tribesman duly killed three medicine men suspected of conjuring up the disease. In his book The Pima Indians, anthropologist Frank Russell reported that the sickness vanished in the wake of the executions. Russell recorded yet another epidemic among the Gila Crossing tribes in 1884–85 that prompted the execution of two more medicine men.

Army officer and diarist Captain John G. Bourke claimed in his 1892 book The Medicine-Men of the Apache that in that tribe’s culture a healer could face execution if he lost just one patient. He could escape capital punishment if he could prove the death was due to witchcraft and out of his hands. Failing that, he could flee or die.

Healing, then, was risky business. Successful medicine men, however, could reap rich rewards. The Sioux would pay the price of a horse just to consult a medicine man and were ready to surrender their possessions or go into debt to secure the shaman’s mystical powers.

It wasn’t unheard of for a medicine man to use his powers for ill-gotten gains, which, if discovered, could certainly incur the ire of tribesmen. In the early 1870s, during the tensions between Indians and white settlers in northern California, a self-proclaimed medicine man from the upper Klamath River claimed he could turn the whites into stone. Visiting tribes along the Klamath, he directed villagers to perform dances to entice the spirits of the dead to return to fulfill his scripture. The false prophet charged each person taking part in the procession of dances a half dollar. As the days passed and the spirits failed to materialize, the villagers grew disenchanted. Their disappointment soon turned to anger, and they threatened to kill the medicine man if he did not return their money. Before they could carry out the threat, the greedy sage took to his heels, lest he become a spirit himself.

Those charged with murdering their medicine men sometimes had to answer to the white man’s law. In October 1890, shortly after the death of an important Yuma chief in Arizona Territory, the tribe’s medicine man Hekow, who had tended to the chief, disappeared and was presumed dead. A U.S. marshal later arrested Yuma Chiefs Miguel and Pedro and three of their tribesman for questioning. But the marshal got no answers. It figured some of the dead chief’s relatives had taken revenge against Hekow, but neither Miguel, nor Pedro nor anyone else in the tribe would reveal the identity of the killer or killers.

In California in the late 1880s medicine man Juan Batista tried to control members of his tribe on the Tule River Reservation by playing to their superstitions. He claimed to be able to mortally punish those who displeased him by means of his strong venom. Indeed, some tribesmen who displeased him did succumb to illness. At some point Batista became enamored with the wife of Chief Jim Hunter, and soon after the chief became sick and died. This proved too much for the Tules, who plotted to kill their medicine man. Poncho Francisco, Salt Lake Pete and two other Indians did the deadly deed and were charged in federal court with Batista’s murder. The question arose: Are the defendants guilty under white man’s law if they followed Indian law while on the reservation and were ignorant of U.S. legal statutes? After much deliberation the four were spared a death sentence and convicted of manslaughter. In December 1888 they were sentenced to five years in prison. Almost two years later, in October 1890, in a precedent-setting reversal, President Benjamin Harrison commuted their terms to two years, and three were released (Salt Lake Pete had died while in jail).

A year later three Yuma Indian executioners were not extended the same consideration. The trio had beaten and strangled a failed medicine man and later returned to burn his body. The shaman’s wife provided eyewitness testimony in court, the jury found them guilty, and the judge handed down death sentences. On January 15, 1892, at the gallows in the county jail yard, an executioner hanged the three convicted killers. No doubt a few medicine men in the West sighed with relief.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.