LAME DEER, SEEKER OF VISIONS: THE LIFE OF A SIOUX MEDICINE MAN, John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes. 1972, Simon and Schuster Touchstone Book. Available from The Mail Order Catalog, 800-695-2241. 288 pages, Lakota glossary, Pine Ridge photo inset. $5.50
Hey, what a bargain this book is! Only 50 cents more than I paid for it in 1973, seems it didn't sell too well, and hasn't been reprinted, so it costs about its original price. It's an excellent story, too. Lame Deer is funny, profound, wise, and honest. He tells of his wild young-man's life, running around, drinking, getting into and running away from trouble. His story is quite different from the kind of wooden portentious solemnity that non-Indians seems to want from spiritual people:
"I had a thirst for women. Their soft moaning had something to teach me. It could also get me killed. At a dance on one reservation, I met a girl and took her to my hideout nearby. Then I noticed I'd forgotten my coat, and went back to the powwow to get it. When I got there, I ran into her husband, pawing the ground, looking ean. Of all things, he turned out to be one hell of a big policeman and he had seen me sneaking off with his wife. He had his gun out in a flash and started banging away at me, calling me some bad names at the same time. I didn't stop to listen, but jumped on the nearest horse and away I went. He didn't hit me, but one of his bullets hit the horse in the rump. Poor horse, he hadn't done a thing. In 1930, I got what I deserved. I was married by force...."
"I believe that being a medicine man [wichasha wakan, holy man] is a stat of mind, a way of looking at and understanding this earth, a sense of what it's all about. Am I a wichasha wakan [holy man]? I guess so. Seeing me in my patched-up, faded shirt, my down-at-heels cowboy boots, the hearing aid whistling in my ear, looking at the flimsy shack with its bad-smelling outhouse--it all doesn't add up to a white man's idea of a holy man. You've seen me drunk and broke. You've heard me curse and tell a sexy joke. You know I'm no better or wiser than other men. But I've been up on the hilltop, got my vision and my power, the rest is just trimmings. That vision never leaves me."
Lame Deer explains many spiritual things, symbols, ceremonies, in the same strong, characteristic, earthy fashion. Ihanblechia (vision-quest), yuwipi (little ant-wstones, tied up man), initi (sweat lodge), heyoka (the backwards clown), Sun Dance. I think maybe the reason why there are still lots of copies of this book to be bought at 1972 prices is that earthy, funny, reality he projects. Nuageers like breathy, portentious, awesome-prending stuff, spiritual gibble gabble, gibberish. Lame Deer is poetic sometimes, awesome things happen (i.e. during Yuwipi that he takes Erdoes to), he conveys beauty and every emotion of humanity, without losing his human reality. Unlike guru types, or those who seek themn, he lays no claim to being good, or even better or wiser than other men. He cried for a vision; the vision and what powers grew from it are gifts, not characteristics of himself.
He and Erdoes also take part in several then-current political struggles involving the Black Hills and the gunnery lands. And in this context -sitting on a stone preisent's head, surrounded by gunners -- he tells Erdoes about treaties, land, and dollar-value comparisons. Near the beginning of the book -- but for me it's most important passage -- he says:
"You, Richard are an artist. That is one reason we get along well. Artists are the Indians of the white world. They are called dreamers who live in the clouds, improvident people who can't hang onto their money, peopl who don't want to face 'reality'. They say the same things about Indians. How the hell do these frog-skin people know what reality is? The world in which you paint a picture in your mind, a picture which shows things different from what your eye sees, that is the world from which I get my visions. I tell you, that is the real world."
Yes, I think so, yes it is. Yet had I never thought of it that way until he said it, and I read it there, it was like seeing a very big colored light all at once, lighting up dark corners. I met Lame Deer only once, during the 1974 First International Indian Treaty Conference, organized by AIM in South Dakota. I was wearily slaving on press releases (though there was essentially no press coverages), getting slapped around by FBI-CIA-Army Intelligence infiltrator Doug Durham, and feeling sorry for myself. Lame Deer, who was then around 70, came into the windowless press room and talked to me for a while. I never forgot him or what he said then, but later, this particular passage in his book was of far more importance to my personal life. Reviewed by Paula Giese
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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: Wednesday, April 03, 1996 - 6:00:30 AM