GIFT OF POWER: THE LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF A LAKOTA MEDICINE MAN, Archie Fire Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes. Bear and Company Publishing, Santa Fe, NM, 87504., 505-988-5090. Available from the Mail Order Book Catalog, 800-695-2241; $14.95. Paperback, 1992. 280 pages, forword by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr..
Archie is John fire Lame Deer's son, he was born in 1935, and did not inherit that name or call himself Lame Deer until his father gave him that name on his deathbed. Archie's life story is sadder and narrower than his father's. Lame Deer had not married his mother, and the men did not really become aquainted until Archie was married with kids, fully grown. He was raised more traditionally -- well, I don't know much about his father's boyhood -- by his Rosebud reservation mother's father, until that grandfather died when he was 11. He was put into th St. Francis Boarding school, beaten for speaking Lakota and anything that displeased the priests or nuns. He ran away and cried for loneliness, he knew thy would catch him and bring him back.
The first time he saw or knew about his fathr (who had abandoned his mother before he was born) was when he was 14. John was dressed as a woman, clowning at at a rodeo. "He had chosen to do his act disguised as a woman because he was a heyoka, a Thunder Dreamer -- a forward-backward man who had to act in accordanc with his sacred clown nature." He doesn't rcognize the gangling, good-looking man who gives him some cookies and pop later. At another time, some old guys are making fun of Archie's dad laughing about how they would tell him to stop the rain at a powwow. John stops the rain, calling up a strong wind that parts the clouds (and blows down all the camp tents). "At that moment, I was proud to be his son."
They didn't become close. Archie drinks with buddies, gets in some fights, and goes to (the Korean war), lying about his age to get away from his troubles on the rez and see something of the world. (John had lied about his age before World War II -- he was in his 40's -- to get in and fight at Normandy.) When Archie gets out in 1955 he begins almost 20 years of drinking -- during which time he goes to Hollywood and supports himself as a movie Injun and stunt man, drinking heavily and getting into various forms of trouble. He tells his Hollywood stories, and I have to say it: it's not up to his Dad's bad wild youth.
John directly relates this to personal honor, being a man, that white society doesn't allow, and says "I'm an old wood-tick now, supposedly very wise and respectable, but I still can't help smiling when I think of the big commotion I caused. It had made me feel like a man, who was letting the world know of his manhood. It had made me feel that my living was a matter of some importance, that it had a purpose. That was worth going to jail for." Of course I don't agree with this, that's part of that dangerous philosophy I quoted in the review of John's book, and yet, and yet. That's part of John's wisdom, too, that insight. It might yet come to Archie, he's 20 years younger than his Dad was when his dad wrote his book.
Archie goes back to the rez. "I told him [John Fire Lame Deer] how I had been living, that I wanted to stop drinking, but wasn't able to walk away from it. He wanted to help me, but knew he couldn't. I couldn't help myself"
Throughout his adulthood, after he returned from the Korean War, he visited his father and learned from him and from old men on both Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. His own life during this period was chaotic, but he tells it funny and interestingly. I espcially liked the snake farm war.
Back in LA, in what must have been around 1970, at an AA meeting, an old doctor-drunk offers him a choice: "Here's a full bottle of bourbon, and here's a $20 bill to start you on a different road. Pick one or the other." He picked the $20, and started on the sobreity road, and has been straight ever since. He gets a job as a counselor, and starts visiting Native men in California prisons, in a BIA job. Warden Taylor at Lompoc asks him "Chief, what title shall we give you -- priest, medicine man, reverned, shaman, or what?" Archie suggests "spiritual advisor" because the others all seem wrong or phoney.
This was about the point in time -- 1976 -- I met Archie in California. I was out there working essentially alone without support on the case of 2 AIM members charged with a gruesome murder they didn't commit, had been framed for to protect the government informer who actually did it and to discredit AIM. Most Fridays, I and usually several other Indian women drove 100 miles (each way) to a sweat lodge being conducted in Paso Robles, arriving about midnight (I could never leave Ventura until nearly 7) and returning around dawn. There came to be problems with this sweat, it began to be conducted by an unqualified person, attended by California hippies, bikers, and it actually even became physically dirty. We didn't want to go any more.
About 10 miles from Ventura, Cosima Child, a Paiute woman set up a sweat in her back yard and asked Archie to conduct it there, which he did every Friday. He drove about 15 or 20 miles to her house and conducted 2 sweats, one for the men, one for the women. This was a real one, I began to learn Pipe songs that are learned only by singing inside. I also have to say what was most important to me was that it was my only social occasion in a hard and sometimes dangerous work, and secondly after the sweat was over, we had food. I wasn't eating any too well because of money, and would have gone anywhere for a big meal.
I was fascinated to read Archie's life story, because we never talked anything personal, about his life or childhood. I probably mentioned once I'd met his father but that was all. They were not close. In the circumstances, one just can't help comparing the two books.
Archie does say he has not reached the stage his father described as wichasha wakan but I think he will. He feels differently about it than John's idea of it, he emphasizes being humble, living close to the earth, and never to stop learning. He is too modest to say "and never stop helping" although the rest of his life from 1970 to the 1990's when he wrote this with Erdoes shows that part, too. I think he probably also does not share John's very dangerous "experience all, everything, be both god and the devil" philosophy, which has so much potential to just be an excuse.
Humble, helping, no, this wasn't the way John Fire Lame Deer thought of it, of himself, of his life. Interest and eagerness to learn new things just chracterized his life, his central self, he didn't talk (or write) about it. He uses strong language sometimes in the book, when what he is describing warrants it.
Lame Deer's autobiography was written in 1970, when there was little knowledge of or interest in Indian people. I'm sure the editors of the major publisher just thought of this book as "a colorful old character". The cultural and spiritual revival sparked by Wounded Knee in 1973 hadn't yet occurred. Now that it has and there are very substantial legal struggles about sovereignty, land, survival, going on all over the U.S. and Canada, Archie and Erdoes could not find a major publisher for this book. It was brought out by Bear and Company, a continuing enterprise built by Sun Bear (White Earth Ojibway Vincent La Duke, who has been much criticized for his involvement with Nuagers, died a couple of years ago). Books that contain certain realities are not wanted by major publishers now, for different reasons than in 1970. They don't want to encourage the spiritual and cultural revival from which tribal people are deriving strength.
There is a great difference between the two books, despite similarities in their lives. The two men, father and son, are very different. John speaks with iron, salt, fire, and laughter. Although he tells about many aspects of his spiritual life, his words have a vividness and reality that comes from his unique world view -- there isn't any of the sort of vague portentiousness that comes from Nuage influence, which unfortunately weakens some of Archie's story. I don't think John even once used the word spirituality.
Archie lacks his father's insight into people -- every person John so much as side-glances at in his book is alive; in Archie's book are very few real people except those closest to him; the rest are a background of cardboard cutouts. And John shared insights that still have not occurred to Archie:
"We drink to forget that there is nothing worthwhile for a man to do, nothing that would bring honor or make him feel good inside....The wino might be warm in winter in his [jail] cell, but what about his family? That's the sad part of the whole business [of drinking] what it does to the children. [He describes a bird that just drops its eggs and flies away.] Some winos are like that pishko-bird, forgetting they have kids to take care of, letting them hatch themselves out. They talk big in public, have a big mouth, but have very little wisdom." John himself was such a bird for much of his early life, Archie was an egg left to be hatched by his maternal grandpa, then by priests with leather straps, when Archie's grandpa died.
Comparisons aren't the point although the two books -- both told to the same amaneunsis, Erdoes, 25 years apart almost force it. Here are two generations who have lived through two different eras, and from very different viewpoints have written what are actually spiritual autobiographies. This is unique and valuable. Archie mentions his son, to whom the old name Tahca Ushte (Lame Deer) will be passed, who is showing such signs of his own spiritual power as giving his beautiful powwow dance outfit to a youth who had no family and nothing, so he could dance.
I wish that I might live to read it when that third generation youth writes his life story, too. Archie's son, unlike either John or Archie, is growing up in a solid family of people who are living their Indian history, culture, and spirituality. They aren't rich, but there isn't the desperate poverty either. No drinking. He will not have to face the same hardships or the dominant society's attempts to beat him into forgetting his history and culture, as both his father and grandfather did. I certainly hope the long road of booze with difficult redemption is one he never starts on at all. The hardships of his life will be temptations of a different kind, those of a white society that wants to consume him, to make him a plastic commodity to be marketed. That soft-seeming path is going to be in some ways more difficult to survive than the hard ones of grandfather and father, because its traps and dangers are disguised, and the majority of white society believes that what are actually traps and dangers are ideal values. good life-goals. It is harder to avoid attractively baited traps than overt, obvious enemies.
Famous, honored historian Alvin M. Josephy says in his forward that "Old John's horizon was that of the reservation; Archie's encompasses the whole world." Archie does tell of his involvement with Native struggles that took him to Europe, first for what eventually led to U.N. recognition of indigenous peoples, and secondly to travel and meet many supportive and spiritually yearning people there. However, mileage traveled, numbers, do not measure vision. John's is the greater vision, John sees more deeply -- into himself, into other people, into philosophical and ethical foundations of reality. Because of this depth of perception, John shows us the wider world, to my view, seeing it through the two sets of literary eyes, father and son, 20 years apart. What is smaller in numeric measurement is larger in reality.
I most strongly recommend the reading of both these books, especially by native young men, on the edges of becoming adult. Of the two, father and son, the father's sits forever in my mind like a live thing, often laughing. It crackles with the perhaps electrical life of the Wakinyan thunder-strength that made John Fire Lame Deer heyoka. Archie's lifestory is told strong, vivid, sad, funny -- but his father's book is more like some kind of live animal or a bird that just happens to look like a book. I am glad to have found and read Archie's book, but John Fire Lame Deer's book has been and always will be something important to my own life, like a very few other special books. Reviewed by Paula Giese
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Last Updated: Wednesday, April 03, 1996 - 6:00:30 AM