Friday, April 11, 2008

Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions by John Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes

I didn't know how long I had been up there one that hill--one minute or a lifetime. I felt a hand on my shoulder gently shaking me. It was old man Chest, who had come for me. He told me that I had been in the vision pit four days and four nights and that it was time to come down. He would give me something to eat and water to drink and then I was to tell him everything that had hapopened to me during my hanblechia. He would interpret my visions for me. He told me that the vision pit had changed me in a way that I would not be able to understand at that time. He told me also that I was no longer a boy, that I was a man now. I was Lame Deer.

Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions is a book written in the 1960's by Lakota (Sioux) medicine man John Lame Deer with the help of Richard Erdoes, a white author. It is part primer and part polemic, with much of its 300 pages devoted to explaining to the reader the intricacies of the Lakota culture, with special attention to the spiritual and cultural role of the medicine man. In the above passage, Lame Deer describes his hanblechia, a "vision quest" ceremony that involves staying in a "vision pit"--a sort of ramshackle sweat lodge made in the earth, or a sensory deprivation chamber--until the vision appears to you. In Lame Deer's case, his vision portends that he is to study as a medicine man, a job which is equal parts doctor, priest, and social worker in the Lakota community. Others have visions that cause them to turn into a heyoka, a sort of Lakota version of a clown who must do everything backwards, an "upside-down, backward-forward, yes-and-no man, a contrary-wise." Basically, for a heyoka, every day is opposite day. But his role in the society isn't just humorous, it's spiritual as well, and Lame Deer avers that the "clown has more power than the atom bomb. This power could blow the dome off of the Capital."

But also the book is a screed against the culture of the wasicun, a Lakota word meaning "fat-taker," applied to the descendents of colonialists and referred to in opposition of Lakota culture. Some of the more interesting sections of Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions are the ones like the chapter "Sitting on Top of Teddy Roosevelt's Head," in which Lame Deer and Erdoes take a visit to Mt. Rushmore, a colossal monument to wasicun culture in the middle of Lakota holy ground. In these sections Lame Deer spares no punches for American culture, lambasting its love of money and lack of spirituality, and the way that it has marginalized and depressed Native American culture. It's hard to deny the power and rightness of these sections--the history of the ruling American establishment in regards to Native Americans is one of few proud moments. But while Seeker of Visions has no difficulty diagnosing the depth and degree of the problem, it offers few solutions for the survival of traditional Lakota society in the modern world.

4 comments:

Carlton said...

This sounds interesting...in a "me" sort of way. Did you have to read it for a class?

Christopher said...

Yes, I did.

Judy said...

Love this author, man, father and as teacher. He son and grandson teaching too but now in Germany mostly I think. John Fire said something like the "old Indians are gone. The Indians of today are the artists, poets, musicians and comics..." Thanks

Judy said...

Love this author, man, father and as teacher. He son and grandson teaching too but now in Germany mostly I think. John Fire said something like the "old Indians are gone. The Indians of today are the artists, poets, musicians and comics..." Thanks