Sneve explores family relationships in ‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ at several levels. Martin’s nuclear family, comprised of Martin, his sister Cheryl, his mother, and his father, is in many ways a typical suburban American family. The members of the family get along well with each other, and the family relationships do not seem to be a source of anxiety or problems for anyone. Indeed, there seems to be a considerable closeness and respect among the members. Martin treats his mother with respect, doing what she asks him to do. He also does not tease or fight with his sister. In addition, Martin’s father (who is white) demonstrates respect for his wife and her cultural traditions in that he supports the annual family trip to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation so that his wife can visit her family and the children can learn more about their own cultural heritage.
Family relationships are also important beyond Martin’s nuclear family and include the relationship between the members of the family with Grandpa, Mom’s grandfather. Martin’s mother, and by extension, her children, are Grandpa’s only living relatives. The family demonstrates their respect for Grandpa by visiting him yearly. Grandpa demonstrates the importance of the family to him by making a long, arduous journey to travel from South Dakota to visit them in Iowa. Also, Martin’s father makes a special point of showing respect to Grandpa when he apologizes for not inviting the old man to return with them to their home after their annual summer visit.
Family relationships are also highlighted when Grandpa arrives at Martin’s home. Although Martin is embarrassed by his great-grandfather’s appearance and actions, he nonetheless treats the man with love and respect, helping him find their home, and calling the doctor to care for him. He also respectfully listens to Grandpa’s story about the medicine bag and accepts the artifact from him in a gesture of acceptance of family tradition.
The importance of family relationships, however, is perhaps best illustrated by Grandpa’s commitment to passing on the medicine bag to Martin. He tells Martin the story of his own father’s vision quest, and the creation of the medicine bag. The story is clearly highly significant to Grandpa. Passing the medicine bag on to a male descendent is an important familial responsibility for Grandpa. As his own son, Martin’s grandfather, died in World War II and had no sons, Grandpa undertakes the journey to Iowa so that he can personally give Martin the medicine bag. Grandpa also reveals how important family is for him by his love for Martin’s family, and his continued grief for his lost son.
In many ways, ‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ is a story about the continuity of family from one generation to the next. In spite of the historical suppression of Native American traditions and the geographical distance separating Martin from his mother’s family in South Dakota, the familial relationship remains strong. The family becomes the vehicle for preserving important stories and the cultural heritage.
Native American Culture
A closely related thematic concern in ‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ is Native American cultural identity. Sneve offers several illustrations of this identity, first in her depiction of the stereotypical television Indian that Martin tries to identify with in front of his friends. A more potent exploration of the theme, however, is also quite subtle. In the story that Grandpa tells Martin about his father, Iron Shell, Grandpa says that his father was taken to an Indian boarding school against his will. Native Americans were taken away from their families and homes beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through more than half of the twentieth century in an effort to assimilate them into white culture. At the boarding schools, Native Americans were not permitted to speak their own languages or engage in spiritual and traditional rituals. The very purpose of the schools was to erase their identity as Native Americans.
That Iron Shell retained his cultural identity despite this treatment suggests that he was both brave and strong in the face of pressure. At the same time, the story demonstrates his ability to learn how to live in the white world without losing himself. This lesson is an important one for Martin. He, too, must choose how his Native American cultural identity can coexist with his white cultural identity. As he lives in the white world of his father, he must know how to get along and maintain his dual identity. At the same time, he learns, across the course of the story, that his mother’s Native American heritage is also an important part of who he is. Coming to terms with his cultural identity is a necessary step in Martin’s maturation.
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.