Pat had a medicine man friend over in the Flathead tribe and their main ceremony is the Blue Jay dance. When he was visiting at my house one day, I told Pat about a Stellar Jay coming into my pigeon coop to steal food. Pat was immediately interested, his eyes lighted up. “Is he a young one, can you catch me a young one?” Pat wanted to know. I told Pat I thought so. Over the next several days I kept warning the Jay “I’m going to catch you and give you to Pat!” The Jay paid no attention. So one morning I took a fish landing net out to the coop and cornered the Jay. Next thing he was in the net and then a cage. I called Pat and let him know. Pat waited several weeks to come pick the Jay up (Medicine men are careful, they don’t want something dying on their hands.) The Jay was eating well, he especially liked earthworms. Finally Pat came and collected the bird, after I had left for Germany on business. So the Jay lived initially in a cage at Pat’s house while they got to know each other. He named the Jay ‘Strawberry’ for his favorite new treat. Eventually the Jay was trusted outside the cage and would steal from the plates at mealtimes. One day it was overlooked that a window was opened while the Jay was out of his cage and he went out the window. But Strawberry was back in the window just at supper time! So Strawberry was ready to be a Medicine Man that was Pat’s plan for the bird.
When it came time of year for Blue Jay ceremony over at Flathead country, Pat arrived and made a great stir when he introduced Strawberry to the Flathead Medicine Men. The bird was a Chief, the Boss Medicine Man, a High Priest, whatever you want to call it. Strawberry learned to mimic the drumbeats to the sacred songs, and if a medicine man was praying over a bowl of berries for the ceremony, the bird could help himself from his perch on the rim of the bowl. The Flathead medicine men wanted to keep Strawberry, but Pat would not let the bird go. So a deal was struck: that Pat had to bring the bird to ceremony each Blue Jay dance season.
It worked out that way for a couple of years. Strawberry was a traveling medicine man and visited ceremonies in Flathead, Ojibwa, Cree and Blackfeet country. Strawberry became a master of ceremonial drumbeat. But as the way of the world will have things, Pat’s main medicine man friend at the Blue Jay Dance ceremony had passed away, and so Pat set Strawberry free back at my house, and I was not home at the time.
One morning I was up and outside doing chores, when, from a fir tree in my yard, not twenty feet away, I heard the perfect cadence of a Giveaway Dance; a ceremonial song was being tapped out. As the hair stood on the back of my neck, I tried to look out of the corner of my eye to see what on earth was happening. The bird finished off the song perfectly, right to the staccato ending, and made my skin crawl. Then I saw it was a Jay, and he laughed at me and flew off. I went into the house and had a long, quiet cup of coffee at the kitchen table, where I could see the tree through a window.
A couple of days or so later, it was early spring, I noticed a large gathering of Jays in a Cottonwood tree not far from the house. The tree had buds, but was not yet leafed out. I sat on a stump and only watched. There were well over 100 Jays in that tree. Every Stellar Jay for miles around must have been present. One Jay was apparently telling a story, anyway he was the only person speaking for the most part. Every now and again this Jay would pause and the rest of the these Jay people would briefly make a collective racket. Then Strawberry was speaking again and next thing, there it was, he was tapping out a recognizable ceremonial beat for the rest of the birds.
I would not be surprised if, twenty-five years hence, some naturalist notes the peculiar ‘drumming’ of the Stellar Jays in Glacier National Park. The old time Indians would know better.
Chelsea Nied photo credit
Collected stories, folklore and anecdotes concerning my many years life with Blackfeet Indians and traversing Native American territories