Tejas Witch Doctors & Comanche Kevlar

In 1715, Fray Isidro Félis de Espinosa, priest for the mission of San Juan Bautista de Rio Grande (now the city of Guerrero in Coahuila) was chosen as the ecclesiastical head of an expedition to Christianize the Tejas (Hasinai).

He devoted himself to the task, learning their language and customs. He succeeded in baptizing several, but the mission was forced to retire to San Antonio when war broke out between Spain and France. 

Fray Isidro’s experiences with the Tejas are vividly described in his Crónica. He described their customs and way of life in detail, finding much to be admired. He considered their religion naive and errant, but saw in it evidence of the soul’s longing for the truth. 

Their medicine men, however, where a different story. Here’s what he had to say about them:

“The whole country is cursed with the pest of doctors or medicine men.

They are a mixture of superstitions and lies, with a great admixture of trickery, which I do not yet know to be real witchcraft. These much bepainted medicine men have their own particular insignia of feathers which they wear upon their heads and curious necklaces of serpents’ skins, and a seat in the houses which is higher than the seat for the chiefs. 

To cure a patient, they build a big bonfire and provide an abundance of fifes and an abundance of feathers. Their instruments are little polished sticks with slits like a snake’s rattles. These rubbed on a hollow skin make a noise nothing less than infernal. Before playing they drink their brewed herbs, covered with foam. They then, without moving at all, begin to dance to this infernal music. 

The ceremony lasts from the middle of the afternoon until near dawn. The medicine man stops his singing at intervals to apply his cruel treatment to the patient whom they have sweating on a grate over many coals that are kept burning under the bed.

In the midst of the piteous complaints, the medicine man explains that the treatment he is giving is very mild. The doctors continue to suck and to spit. They put into their mouths a worm or blood which they have previously provided and declare that they took it from the body of the patient. 

It is certain that they devour whatever physical possessions the patient may have for their pay (whether the sick person lives or dies), for their cruel treatment lasts as long as there is anything they can eat or take. 

Tejas Village Life

With other patients they cover the liver with stones and really suck their blood. They do the same thing for snake bites, spitting the poison from between their open lips. This is reasonable because the effect follows naturally. They declare they can divine whether or not the patient will die. If it is a prominent person there is a meeting of medicine men and each one tries out his own prescription. 
Naturally a cure sometimes follows because of these remedies for they apply the herbs with which this country abounds. The great quantities of bitter drinks which the medicine men drink under the pretense that it is for the benefit of the patient, is a fantastic.

It sometimes happens that the pain or sickness is caused by a tumor or swelling. For this they apply the treatment of the stone and sucking with the lips. 

They make the whole nation believe that sickness has it origin in the evil deeds committed by the neighboring nations of the Bidais, Ays, and Yacdoas, who have many witch doctors. These, they say, come in secret or send the disease from their country because they are wicked and witches. 

To remove this (sickness), which they say is like a big white needle, they have their dances, songs, and treatments above mentioned. Before undertaking them, they call to their aid the Bidais medicine men. They declare that the Bidais come to aid them in the shape of owls. There are three kinds of owls on earth and when the Indians hear the sound of the hoot of an owl they raise a shout of joy as if they had won a victory.” 

But things were not so rosy for the medicine men of the Tejas’ cousins, the Nacocdoches. Fray Isidro states that:

“Among the Nacocdoches, who are also Hasinai, the medicine man usually receives death if he does not effect a cure or if his reputation as a healer becomes poor. In this case, the relatives of the man who dies as the result of the unsuccessful treatment, seize him with their claws, and beat him in the temples with sticks until he can not get well.”

Texas Trivia Question:

What did Comanches construct their shields from to make them bullet resistant?

Trivia Answer

Pages from books.

Charles Goodnight explained it best:

“When the Indians robbed houses they invariably took all the books they could find, using the paper to pack their shields. They knew, as well as we did, the resistance paper has against bullets. Paper offered more resistance to a bullet than anything to be had upon the frontier, unless it was cotton. The Indians knew this and stole all the books and paper they could find.

Their shield was made by forming a circular bow of wood two or three feet across, over each side of which was drawn untanned buffalo hide from the neck of the buffalo, the toughest and thickest they cold get. They filled between the hide with paper.

In times of action, the Indian had this on his elbow and always aimed to keep it at an angle between you and him. Very few of the old fashioned rifles would penetrate these shields. The rifle I carried then (1861), and still have, would knock a hole right through them at any angle.

I once shot an Indian down on the Quitaque. I did not kill him, but he dropped his shield. Between the folds of hide was a complete history of Rome, and the boys had considerable fun passing the sheets around and reading them.”

A Comanche War Shield
Sold at Bonhams in 2006 for $88,500