Medicine People of the Northern Sierra Miwok
By Glen Villa Jr., Last Revised: September 7, 2011
The Northern Sierra Miwok had two types of doctoring people, those who doctored with supernatural powers called "sucking doctors" or "koyabe" and those who doctored using herbal remedies and pressing techniques called "pressing doctors" or "wene’eenu." Some koyabe, not all, also had the ability to poison people with medicines or supernatural abilities and were called tuyuku or poisoner. To some extent, every person in the old days knew herbal remedies and was able to cure minor illnesses without the help of a doctor.
Only a few herbal remedies and pressing techniques are still used today, however there is no "sucking doctor" or "pressing doctor" alive today. The best modern day example of a koyabe is the portrayal of John Coffey in the movie The Green Mile. John Coffey is able to cure and heal people by seeing the illness in people and sucking the illness out. John Coffey was also a tuyuku in the sense that he was able to blow an illness into someone else. Although it is a Hollywood portrayal, the acts and general idea of the process of healing and poisoning is similar to the Northern Sierra Miwok beliefs of healing and poisoning.
John Powell (1840 – 1925)
John Powell was a koyabe until his death in 1925. He was a powerful enough doctor that his grave was respected and cleaned with caution after his death. John Powell was also considered a tuyuku.
Nicolas Villa Sr. told a story about how John Powell would say that when he died he was going to come back as a rattlesnake. Not long after John Powell died, a rattlesnake showed up at Frank Powell’s house and moved in. Nicolas Villa Sr. remembered seeing the rattlesnake coiled up in the corner of Frank Powell’s house when his family would visit. Frank Powell considered the rattlesnake his father. The rattlesnake would rattle every once in a while to remind you it was still there.
Frank Powell (1872 – 1954)
John Powell's son, Frank Powell, was also a koyabe and practiced doctoring until his death in 1954. When Alec John died in 1931, Frank Powell sucked an owl claw out of Alec’s throat in an attempt to save his life. On another occasion, Frank Powell cured a broken arm by sucking an owl feather out of the arm. When Lilly O’Connor, wife of Pedro O’Connor, died in 1941 Frank Powell conducted the funeral rituals. Billy Villa talked about about how spirits bothered Frank Powell so much, that he had to live in a house separate from his wife.
Billy Villa (1892 – 1981)
Frank Powell had trained and taught a non-Indian, Billy Villa, who married a Northern Sierra Miwok woman, the practices of being a "pressing doctor." By 1948, when Rita Villa Pinion died, Billy Villa had already begun performing the funeral rituals for Frank Powell. Billy Villa practiced his medicine until his death in 1981. After Billy Villa's death, an old Indian woman from the Auburn Rancheria went to Ione seeking Billy Villa to doctor her. The woman was disappointed when she was told he had died.
Charley West (1850 – 1911)
Nicolas Villa Sr. talked about how Charley West was a medicine man. Whether Charley West was a koyabe or a wene’eenu isn’t exactly clear. He was a powerful enough doctor that his grave was respected and cleaned with caution after his death. This suggests he had supernatural abilities and was likely a koyabe and possibly a tuyuku, however there is no account of him sucking anybody to cure them or poisoning anybody.
Charley Maximo (1861 – 1943)
All accounts of Charley Maximo’s doctoring techniques suggest he doctored by singing and pressing on people. There are no accounts of Charley sucking on a patient to cure them. One time Mabel Walloupe was sick and seeing ghosts, Charley Maximo doctored her to make it go away.
Pedro O’Connor (1864 – 1942)
Pedro O’Connor doctored by sucking and pressing. Frank Villa one time ate too many cherry plums and had a stomach ache. Pedro O’Connor cured Frank by sucking out the illness.
Billy Villa told a story about some doctor who was called the "goat doctor" because many of his patients paid him with goats. Another story was told about at a Big Time at Buena Vista a bear showed up and the men gathered their guns to shoot the bear but some visitors from Tuolumne pleaded that they not shoot the bear because they claimed it was their father. The bear left then a little while later their father showed up.