The Medicine Bag | Summary & Analysis

Summary of the medicine bag by virginia driving hawk sneve.

“The Medicine Bag”, a short story by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve was published in 1975 and reflects on the relationship between a Sioux man and his grandson in the nexus of reality, fiction, identity, and heritage. 

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve is an American author whose works primarily focus on the representation of the Aboriginal Americans divorced from myth and savagery, and rather invested in a traditional yet non-stereotypical way of living to set an alternate outlook for her contemporary readership.  

The Medicine Bag | Summary

This is a story about a teenage boy Martin and his relationship with his grandfather who belongs to the Native American land of South Dakota. Hailing from a mixed heritage, Martin is conscious about his grandfather’s unexpected visit to his house and fears the oblivion of the fantastical image surrounding the old man that he otherwise shares with his friends after every summer visit.

The conflict of reality with fiction threatens his reputation and he adopts all means to prevent his friends from meeting the grandfather. But one day the friends coerce their way into his house and find the old man charming and nothing less than an exotic sight. Following the pleasant meeting, the grandfather reveals to Martin his knowledge of the latter’s anxiety and embarrassment over his visit. He further familiarizes the young boy with his mythical ancestry and past to convey the emotional significance of the medicine bag that has been around his neck for years. Since he is approaching the end of his life, the grandfather desires to pass on the bag to the rightful male heir and the story ends with Martin wearing the bag after his grandfather’s death, thus accepting his mixed identity with love and respect. 

The Medicine Bag | Analysis

This first-person narrative centers on embracing your mixed heritage and realizing the essence of traditions as a gesture of love and respect towards your familial identity as well as your ancestors. The story is set in Iowa and creates a light mood with sadly a regretful tone on the account of the narrator Martin whose dual feelings towards his grandfather stand as a commentary on the contemporary generational conflicts. While he doesn’t dislike his grandfather, he certainly does not enjoy his presence in the house which interferes and threatens his modern identity. Like any child of his age, he does not wish to be constantly reminded of his mixed ancestry and the inevitable ownership of the medicine bag which he despises until the end of the story. 

Martin is conscious of losing his popularity, a vanity that children of his age usually engage in. But gradually he begins to alter his opinions regarding the grandfather as he entertains his friends at his best. Still, the looming despair of having to adopt the medicine bag troubles him and it is only when the grandfather reveals to him about the past and significance of the bag that his bubble of exoticism bursts and brings him closer to reality.

The Sioux have long endured the limitations of the reservation scheme by the government and Martin’s great-grandfather ventured on a journey in search of a guiding spirit and envisions a dream about the “white man’s iron” which is not fully interpreted even by the wise men of his day. However, the great-grandfather finds a broken shell of an iron kettle and collects a piece to be treasured in his medicine pouch by investing faith in its magical property to keep all evils at bay. But one day he was forcefully taken away by the soldiers to work as a blacksmith and he learned the art of using the white man’s iron. Upon his return, the medicine bag was then passed down to the grandfather who attempted to pass it down to his own son i.e. the mother’s father but his reluctance to take it along to the war caused his death, according to the grandfather’s belief. 

While the medicine bag definitely carries along with it myth and a superstitious belief system, it also sustains emotions and love for children which only wishes well and safety for them. The grandfather’s inevitable passing away communicates the need to appreciate people and things when they are with you rather than subjecting them to avoidance and ignorance. The bag becomes a symbol of continuity and a driving force to live life spiritually and honestly. 

The Medicine Bag |  Themes

Reality V/S Fiction

The author’s primary focus to pen down a narrative that expels all stereotypes surrounding Native Americans is highlighted through Martin’s fantastical appropriation of his grandfather’s identity and life in South Dakota in his stories shared with his friends. People in other parts of the States know about the Native population only through the less realistic portrayal on television and cinema which is often colored with prejudice. They are exoticized and considered otherworldly which in truth is not an appropriate representation. They are in fact people with high reliance on traditions often misunderstood as a primitive way of living. Instead, it is their respect and homage to their ancestors that compels them to continue with customs such as wearing the medicine bag and passing it to subsequent generations. The emotions shadowing such rituals are buried under the mythical air and thus lose significance in the modern and young generation.

Martin conveys an unrealistic picture to his friends about his grandfather which amazes them every time they listen to one of his stories. The friends’ sudden visit one day puts Martin in a fix and threatens his reputation but his grandfather plays along with the fantasy his grandson has built upon him and dresses as per his narration without even informing him. Thus, the Native Americans are not unusually dressed braided men but just like any other U.S. citizen. 

Generational Conflict

There are three generations in the story— the grandfather, the parents, and the grandkids, each with their own worldviews. The old man represents tradition while the other two subsequent generations reflect modern ideals and lifestyle. At the vulnerable age of eighty-six, the grandfather journeys for two days to reach the house of his daughter to pay a surprise visit which they welcome with an overwhelming response. It is a poignant expression of the unrecognized responsibility that young people have towards their older family members. While this impression is implicit, the ideological conflict between Martin and the grandfather is evident through the former’s disgust at the sight of the ill-conditioned medicine pouch. It is not until he learns about the significance of the tiny bag that he experiences an ideological shift and prepares himself to step into the shoes of his grandfather. In the era of modernity and technology, the medicine pouch thus becomes a gentle reminder of Martin’s roots and his grandfather. 

The Medicine Bag |  Characters

He is the narrator of the story through whom the readers view the grandfather’s visit and thus the clash of tradition with modernity. Hailing from a mixed heritage, he is embarrassed about his native roots and prevents his friends from meeting his Sioux grandfather. For him, native America is a place of fantasy away from the real world he inhabits. He even fears and experiences disgust at the thought of becoming the heir to the shabby medicine bag his grandfather had been carrying around his neck for years because it represents a new identity for him, rooted in tradition and nativity. However, one-to-one interaction with his grandfather and the subsequent knowledge of the great mystical power of the medicine bag assures him to undergo a change of heart and accept his adherence and responsibility towards his mixed heritage. He is thus a bildungsroman character who grows mature during the course of the story and learns about the priorities in his life. 

She is the narrator’s ten-year-old sister who unlike her brother wholeheartedly welcomes her grandfather and even encourages her friends to meet him in person. At a young age, she exhibits maturity in her acceptance of her mixed ancestry and is far away from hypocrisy. 

Joe Iron Shell

He is the narrator’s eighty-six-year-old grandfather belonging to the Sioux tribe of Native Americans and thus a representative of tradition in the modern city setting. His old age loneliness and thus the consequent tiring journey he takes up to visit his family the latter in the light of guilt for abandoning the old man. But he never complains and instead settles well with them. However, he is aware of Martin’s unhappiness with his stay and thus familiarizes him with the purpose of his visit which is to pass over the medicine bag to him as the rightful heir in the nearing event of his death. His narration of the mythic past concerning the bag enlightens his grandson on the relevance and value of the little token of love, identity, and remembrance which enables him to assimilate his ancestral identity into his modern white American one. His death at the end of the story leads to Martin’s epiphany as he decides to wear the medicine bag. 

Mother and Father

An interracial couple, the mother belongs to the Native American Sioux tribe and the father is a white American. Their guilt of never inviting the grandpa to their house after his surprise visit is a powerful representation of the contemporary family setting where young children leave their hometowns to move into big cities and abandon their aging parents who reduce to recipients of annual visits and dinners. The mother loves her grandfather dearly and looks after him during his stay but her character also speaks volumes about her irresponsibility towards her old grandfather living alone in the remote setting of South Dakota. 

The Medicine Bag |  Literary Devices

“His rumpled black suit hung  like a sack  over his stooped frame.”

“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, a part tar-paper shack on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.” 

This reflects the contrast between reality and fiction that commercial media tends to exhibit, blurring the truer version and existence of the Native Americans. 

“She was all smiles and was so obviously glad to see Grandpa that I was ashamed of how I felt.” This expresses the contrasting attitudes of the narrator and his sister towards their grandfather’s visit. 

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The Medicine Bag – Summary

‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ is a story narrated by a young Native American boy named Martin. Martin’s mother is also Native American, but his father is a white man who teaches at a college. Although Martin’s age is not mentioned, other details in the story suggest that he is thirteen or fourteen years old; in the opening sentence he refers to his ‘‘kid sister’’ Cheryl, who is ten years old, implying that he must be at least several years older than her. 

The opening section of the story provides some background information. Martin relates that every summer he and his sister visit their eighty-six-year-old great-grandfather (whom they called Grandpa) on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, where the Lakota live. When they return home to Iowa, they always tell their friends about the reservation, and they sometimes exaggerate about how exciting it is to be there. They also bring home with them authentic Lakota artifacts to show their friends who are fascinated with the items. 

Martin also explains, however, that they never show their friends any pictures of their great-grandfather because he does not look like they think an Indian should look, and because he does not live the way that television Indians live. Martin introduces this detail so that he can describe the embarrassment he feels when his great-grandfather shows up very unexpectedly walking down the street in Martin’s neighborhood. 

When Martin looks down the street to see why dogs are barking, he sees his great-grandfather, dressed in a tall black hat and baggy pants, walking down the middle of the road, apparently looking for Martin’s home. Although Martin is very embarrassed by how strangely Grandpa is acting and is dressed, he runs out into the street to help the old man with his suitcase and leads him to his home. Grandpa greetsMartin formally and shakes hands with him, revealing that the old man is very traditional in his customs. 

Martin’s mother sees them coming and is shocked that her grandfather has made his way from South Dakota to Iowa. She does not hug him, however, because that would not be considered dignified. Cheryl, however, is young enough to hug the old man, and she does so happily, the only one in the family who does not seem to be taken aback by the old man’s sudden appearance. Grandpa, however, collapses immediately after the hug. 

When Martin helps settle Grandpa into bed and undresses him, he realizes how old and frail the man is. He also discovers a leather pouch on a leather string tied around Grandpa’s neck. When Martin removes Grandpa’s boots, he finds them stuffed with money. 

After a visit from the doctor who believes that Grandpa is suffering from heat exhaustion, Grandpa eats some soup and tells Martin and his family why he has come to Iowa. He says that he was lonesome after the family left the reservation in the summer and decided he would visit his only living relatives. After receiving help from a policeman and taking a bus, Grandpa finally had made it to Martin’s street, but he was unable to see the house numbers clearly. Everyone in the family feels guilty that Grandpa had such a difficult journey, but Martin also feels respect for the old man who had been brave enough to set out into the unknown. 

Grandpa tells the family that the one hundred dollars that Martin found in his boots was the money he was saving to pay for his funeral, but he wants his granddaughter to buy groceries with it so that he will not be a burden to the family. Martin’s father treats Grandpa with a great deal of respect and apologizes that they never thought to bring the old man to their house before. Grandpa says that the time was not right for him to come to their house before, but now he wants to give Martin the medicine bag that hangs around his neck. Martin is horrified. He does not want the leather pouch but knows he must take it if it is offered to him. 

Grandpa stays with the family for two months. Although Cheryl has no trouble having her friends come to visit Grandpa, Martin is still embarrassed by the old man and does not want his friends to see him. Finally, one day his friends come to his house unannounced and say they want to meet Grandpa. 

Grandpa is dressed in his best clothing, and he greets the boys formally. He tells Martin that when he dressed in the morning, he knew that Martin’s friends would come for a visit, so he put on his good clothes. Then Grandpa begins to tell stories to Martin’s friends. The boys are both respectful and impressed, and Martin seems to see his grandfather in a different light. 

The next day, Grandpa tells Martin the story of the medicine bag, a story he says is only to be told to a man, and that the medicine bag must be only given to a man. Grandpa speaks of his father’s vision quest and how he achieved the name Iron Shell. While on the vision quest, his father found the shell of an iron kettle in an old campfire, so he took a piece of it and put it in the elk skin bag he had made in preparation for the quest. Grandpa also tells Martin that Iron Shell was later taken away from his home and sent to a boarding school far away. While he was at the boarding school, however, he learned the trade of blacksmithing. Iron Shell always kept his medicine bag with him, and he gave it to Grandpa when he was first a man. As Grandpa’s only son died fighting in a war (probably World War II), Grandpa did not have a son to whom he could give the medicine bag. For this reason, Grandpa wants Martin to have the bag.

Martin’s earlier fear of having to wear the medicine bag leaves him, and he waits for Grandpa to put it over his head. However, Grandpa just tells him to keep it safe and to put sage in it when he next goes to the reservation. 

The story ends quickly; Martin says that Grandpa has to go to the hospital that night. Two weeks later he is on the reservation, implying that Grandpa has died, and the family has brought him back to the reservation for burial. Martin does as Grandpa has told him—at the reservation, he puts a piece of sacred sage from the prairie in his medicine bag, signifying his acceptance of his cultural and spiritual heritage.

Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.

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the medicine bag thesis statement

"The Medicine Bag"

the medicine bag thesis statement

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

(b. 1933) Grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Her grandmothers were storytellers, sharing traditional Sioux legends and folktales that became an inspiration for Sneve´s work. She realized that American Indians were often misrepresented in children´s books, and she has worked throughout her writing career to portray American Indians realistically. In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Sneve a National Humanities Medal.

the medicine bag thesis statement

Rodrigo André Rodríguez Quan

September 04, 2020

8th Grade Literature

The story refers to a Lakota Indian Grandpa who travels to see his grandchildren. He wants to give the medicine bag (a Lakota tradition) to his grandchild Martin, because he thought he was dying. When he arrived a lot of kids, friends of Martin, gathered to listen to his stories. Grandpa likes to tell the kids stories. Mom says she is happy to see him doing so but he is too tired and needs to rest. One night Grandpa says he will give Martin the medicine bag. At the end Grandpa dies and Martin puts the sacred sage inside the medicine bag.

Marco Antonio Suazo Aguilar

Martin and his sister Cheryl always tell stories about their Sioux Grandpa- Joe Iron Shell- to their friends, who only know Indians from movies and TV. One day, their Grandpa arrives to Martin´s house where he was welcomed. Everyone is amazed of how he travelled by bus and walking. Grandpa was there to give the Medicine Bag to his only boy descendant, Martin, to continue the Lakota tradition because he was going to die soon. Martin accepts it and adds the sacred sage to it.

LESSON INFORMATION - Conflict and Symbolism in "The Medicine Bag"

the medicine bag thesis statement

  • Analyze conflict in a short story
  • Interpret the use of dialogue to reflect characterization
  • Interpret the use of symbolism in a short story

the medicine bag thesis statement

Unveiling Wisdom: Exploring "The Medicine Bag" Book

Introduction: journeying into the pages of insight.

Embark on a literary journey as we delve into the profound insights encapsulated in "The Medicine Bag" book. In this guide, we'll explore the narrative, themes, and significance of this enlightening work that promises to enrich the minds and hearts of its readers.

1. Synopsis: Unpacking the Story Within "The Medicine Bag"

Protagonists, plot, and cultural context.

Discover the essence of "The Medicine Bag" by exploring its synopsis. Unpack the story by delving into the lives of its protagonists, understanding the intricacies of the plot, and appreciating the cultural context that adds depth and authenticity to the narrative.

2. Themes Explored: Navigating the Tapestry of Wisdom

Generational wisdom, cultural heritage, and identity.

Navigate through the rich tapestry of wisdom as "The Medicine Bag" explores various themes. From generational wisdom passed down through ancestral lines to the exploration of cultural heritage and the quest for identity, the book weaves together a narrative that resonates with universal truths.

3. Character Analysis: Meeting the Protagonists

Relationships, growth, and symbolic significance.

Meet the protagonists of "The Medicine Bag" through character analysis. Explore their relationships, witness their growth throughout the narrative, and uncover the symbolic significance each character brings to the overarching story. Understanding the characters enhances the reader's connection with the book.

4. Author's Perspective: Insight into the Creative Mind

Author's background, influences, and motivations.

Gain insight into the creative mind behind "The Medicine Bag" by exploring the author's perspective. Learn about the author's background, the influences that shaped the narrative, and the motivations that fueled the creation of this enlightening book. Understanding the author's perspective adds depth to the reading experience.

5. Reader Reviews: Voices from the Community

Praise, critiques, and impact on readers.

Explore the impact of "The Medicine Bag" on readers through insightful reviews. Discover the praise showered upon the book, acknowledge constructive critiques, and understand how the narrative has resonated with the community of readers. Reader reviews provide a glimpse into the book's real-world impact.

6. Educational Significance: Incorporating into Curricula

Educational applications, discussion topics, and learning resources.

Examine the educational significance of "The Medicine Bag" and its potential incorporation into curricula. Explore discussion topics that spark meaningful conversations, and discover additional learning resources that can enhance the educational experience for students and readers alike.

7. Availability and Formats: Accessing "The Medicine Bag"

Print editions, e-books, and audiobook options.

Facilitate access to "The Medicine Bag" by exploring its availability in various formats. Whether through traditional print editions, e-books for digital readers, or audiobook options for those who prefer to listen, understanding the available formats ensures that the book can reach a diverse audience.

Conclusion: Embracing the Wisdom Within "The Medicine Bag"

As we conclude our exploration of "The Medicine Bag" book, it's evident that this literary work offers a profound journey into wisdom, culture, and identity. Whether you're drawn to its narrative, themes, or educational significance, embracing the wisdom within the pages of "The Medicine Bag" promises an enriching and transformative reading experience.


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    Medicine Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve y 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

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    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."

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