‘‘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.