262: Hidden Spirit Workers

There are a lot more of what we would call “spirit workers” here in the Ozarks than meets the eye. That is, folks who heal by means of some supernatural force, not necessarily just from God, but by the power of the angels or spirits they might have encountered here on the land. When folklorists went through the Ozarks back around the turn of the century they noted the prevalence of the “charmers” and power doctors, who knew how to blow out burns, stop bleeding, or buy warts. They noted that the majority of these folks were passed their gifts by older relatives, or old folks they knew in the area. But for me this isn’t the full story, because as with many, many folk traditions Ozark healers have often been reluctant to tell everything, especially to so called “furiners” in suits. There’s a wide spectrum of spirit beliefs here in the Ozarks, passed down through many ancestors, to the point that when I sit down and read accounts of certain healing rituals I can’t help wonder if they were born from out of work that would be considered heretical, or at the very least unfit for the likes of good country folk.

I found a great example of this in Mary Parler’s collection entitle Folk Beliefs of Arkansas where an interesting story was collected about a cancer charmer in Missouri:

“Izom Hill, a resident of St. Paul, Arkansas, many, many years ago, was noted to cure cancers. People would write him from other states asking to be cured. He would never tell anyone what he did or when he performed any act of curing cancer. A young man working for Mr. Hill decided he would watch and find out what methods he used. One morning Mr. Hill got out of bed, crept outside in his night shirt, went to a cedar tree standing in the corner of his yard. He turned his back to the tree and over his left shoulder he grasp a twig and broke it off – saying words of some sort. Then he did the same thing over his right shoulder – then he stamped his feet three times. Turned and went into the house. He dressed, had breakfast, and went to work. The person was cured of cancer.” ~Parler FBA II 1677

It makes me curious about where this man learned to heal this way. What influenced this morning ritual? And of course we’ll never really know, but we can draw some interesting conclusions from those few people who have talked about more spiritual matters. Some say they are influenced by God and God alone, fair enough, it’s a cultural basis that is well known across the world, where folk healers use the shell of their religion to work by supernatural means. The intersession of the Saints I can understand, but there is very little Saint veneration in the mostly Protestant Ozarks. So where does the power come from? The folklorists have little to say on the matter, other than mentioning that healers have often boasted receiving their power from “Indian” burial grounds, but these stories are to be taken with a grain of salt as there are many who have pushed their connection to the indigenous peoples as a way of legitimatizing their healing work (and it’s still happening today).

For me it seems there’s a hidden world underneath what we have in the folklore record. I’ve talked to four old timers who I would consider to be spirit workers, although they would never identify as such. These are amazing stories because of how open these healers were with me. I can imagine that the same healers interviewed years ago might have had similar stories to share, if only they could have talked with someone that understood. I’m changing the names of the people I talked with out of respect for their work.

The first is Martha, who told me she received her gift of healing when she was a child from an “Indian spirit” as she called it, inside of a sycamore tree. She would go out everyday and put her ear up to the tree and listen to the voice inside telling her exactly what plants to use, and how to make the medicines and pray the prayers she needed. This lasted throughout her childhood until the point she said she couldn’t hear the voice anymore and figured the spirit went on its way. When I met her she was 85 and still using the same medicine she was taught as a child.

Another is Kate, who was an Ozark seer and healer who had remarkable visions at night of angels and talking animals, all of whom helped her with her healing work. The visions started when she was a child (a common theme among most of the healers I’ve talked with, having a gift that first manifested in childhood) and at first she was scared of the dreams she was having. Oftentimes they would take hold of her while she was out working and made her fall to the ground with seizures. Each vision was like going to school, she would tell me, where the voices and angels would tell her how to heal people in her family or send her out to visit the sick in other communities. She would often go miles to a house she’d never been to, to visit and heal a sick person whom she’d never met before. As she grew older the visions became less and less intense as she started to relax and let happen what needed to happen. She never married, and had no children. She was supported by her nieces and nephews who would come and bring her food and listen to her talk to them about dreams. As far as I could tell they didn’t see the dreams as doing any harm, probably because she was also an active member of the community and healer of many.

Another is Hank, who I’ve talked about before, who took his power up out of snakes, the rattlesnake being the most powerful, who he said were holy spirits in disguise. He had religious ties to the charismatic Pentecostal Church and saw his work as a God-given extension of his faith and life calling. To this day I still don’t fully understand his rattlesnake medicine but I know it works, I’ve seen it work on several sick people, and his lasting friendship and influence is a great part of my life. He’s also the reason I’ve come to not kill snakes.

The last is Joe, who collected twisted roots, animal bones, feathers, and other natural oddities which he called “signs of God’s power” in the world. He named everything he found and would used each of these objects in his healing work. Whenever a patient came to the house he’d meet with them, then all alone he’d pray a vigil and pick out objects that were meant for each person. Then he’d call them back and using the objects he’d heal them. I never saw his working, but as far as I could tell it was an outwardly simple process with no doubt very complex inner workings. His influence definitely rubbed off on me, and is the reason I collect so many bones and other holy “signs” to use in my own work.

Ozark healers are complex, and always have been. There’s a hidden world underneath everything you see. There’s a connection to the land, to the rocks, hills, and plants that runs deep, all the way back through the ancestors. It goes so much deeper than just the folklore collected by academics, influenced by often not so subtle biases and racism. There’s a flame of power, born out of the need to survive, that still burns in people, despite hardship and loss. The power hasn’t died in the Ozarks, it’s doing now what it’s done in the past, stay hidden for all but those who need it.

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