The primary function of these "medicine elders" (who are not always male) is to secure the help of the spirit world, including the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka in the language of the Lakota Sioux), for the benefit of the entire community. In crude terms the medicine man is, essentially, a shaman.
Sometimes the help sought may be for the sake of healing disease, sometimes it may be for the sake of healing the psyche, sometimes the goal is to promote harmony between human groups or between humans & nature. So the term "medicine man" is not entirely inappropriate, but it greatly oversimplifies and also skews the depiction of the people whose role in society complements that of the chief. These people are not the Native American equivalent of the Chinese "barefoot doctors", herbalists, nor of the emergency medical technicianswho ride rescue vehicles. "Medicine" in this context is mostly the result of poor translation btween Amerindian languages and English.
To be recognized as the one who performs this function of bridging between the natural world and the spiritual world for the benefit of the community, an individual must be validated in his role by that community. Most medicine men and women study their art either through a medicine society such as the Navajo Blessingway, or the Ani-Stohini/Unami Morning Song Way or apprentice themselves to a teacher for 20-35 years or both.
Medicine Man is a common Western Character, essentially a form of Character as Device Trope. Obviously, the role occurs in modern settings and genres as well. Almost always combined with the Magical Native American trope. It's fairly common for them to also be presented as The Healer and/or The Sage. If the setting/community is going through hard times, they may also be the Wasteland Elder.
Game and Story Use
- One way to create an exciting social dynamic within a Native community would be to have the Chief and the Medicine Man on opposite sides of some issue.
- This notion is explored in several films and novels. There's probably a specific trope that covers such a situation exactly, I just haven't found it on the TV Tropes Wiki yet.
- If a powerful evil spirit or other Monster Of The Week is stalking the land, the players might find that the Medicine Man of the local Native village has helpful folkloric knowledge of the creatures weakness.
- Even without magic powers, a respected elder would be a good NPC Mentor, capable of offering advice, sharing years of first hand experience, or pulling strings in the community.
- This is the usual job description for the Magical Native American.