Native American Perspectives: Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions on European American Culture and Religion
Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions by John Lame Deer
Living in America today, we often take for granted several things about ourselves, our country, and our relationship with the land we live on. This is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, only human. However, we should not always limit ourselves to operating within the current of what we are familiar with and understand. America itself, even as far back as our forefather’s presence on it, has offered us a different perspective on the Europeans settler’s presence here. That perspective still exists today, though it is much more difficult to find it. The toil in discovering it is, as often happens when investigating to learn another’s viewpoint, beneficial and revealing.
To start with, let’s examine the relationship between the existing Native American Cultures that were here when Europeans first arrived and the subsequent European-American culture that has developed since their arrival. Furthermore, even when examining this relationship it becomes crucial to understand which culture’s point of view you are examining the relationship from. The vast majority of scholarly and literary works on this subject have pervasively European/American views. To get outside of this perspective, we shall turn to Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions to provide us with a distinctively Native American view point on both Native American culture and it’s uniquely relationship with White American culture. In the book, Native American John Lame Deer, member of the Lakota tribe and co-author, provides us with an insightful glimpse into the life of the Lakota who he has lived to see forced into assimilation with mainstream America culture.
An examination of this book can provide us, through an understanding of both specific and general concepts discussed in the work, an analysis of the relationship of the cultures in question from the distinctly Native American point of view we have already established the need for. This point of view shall be examined to understand the Native American perception of unique and similar aspects of both culture’s religious beliefs and economic principals. It becomes important to understand the concepts and opinions expressed in this book are only that of one individual, not the entire Lakota peoples. This being said, Lame Deer is a very well informed and experienced holy man in Lakota society and it serves well to take note that his own people give his words much authority. Therefore, if any personal account could carry enough significance to make it useful in the enterprise we are herein engaged, Lame Deer is such an account as shall become apparent from the quotes and discussion of them below.
As we first approach the work, we find that throughout the course of the book, Lame Deer illustrates several aspects of Native American culture with pointed and often times humorous explanations of why “the white man” does not understand this or that about the Native American. For example, the Native American culture Lame Deer describes is filled with simplicity. Lame Deer states, “I am an Indian. I think about ordinary, common things like this pot,” (96). This contentment has often times been misunderstood for simple-mindedness by a mainstream American culture that has become, as Lame Deer sees it, “prisoner[s] inside all these boxes…white man’s gadgets—boxes, boxes, boxes, and more boxes—TV sets, radios, washing machines, computers, cars” (101). Lame Deer disdains the complications of American culture as futility in a way surprisingly reminiscent of traditional European American disapproval of the apparent simplicity of Native American culture. This brings to mind another point that must be noted now, at the beginning: the continued senseless repression and assimilation Lame Deer, and whole generations of Native Americans experienced at the hands of the United States government, is a large factor in the shaping of Native American’s opinion of our culture, whereas the reverse cannot be said to be true. So, when Lame Deer sees futility where we see innovation, and where he values simplicity where we idolize productivity, we can begin to understand a bit more about how complex this relationship really is.
A Traditional Lame Deer 4th of July Performance
Let’s move on to another point to make this divide more apparent, Lame Deer states that as a Native American, thinking about simple things like a pot is not a sign of a simplistic mind but rather the sign of a people whose focus is much more about spiritual and kinship relationships. As he puts it, “We Indians live in a world of symbols and images where the spiritual and the commonplace are one. To you symbols are just words, spoken or written in a book. To us they are part of nature, part of ourselves…we try to understand [things] not with the head but with the heart…what to you seems commonplace to us appears wondrous through symbolism” (96). This difference has never been fully understood by the governing bodies peopled with European-Americans attempting to make decisions that looked out for the interests of both Native Americans and the ever-growing white population. How could they, even if they were well meaning, make good decisions without a firm understanding of the difference between them and the Native Americans they were making treaties with, etc?
These differences seem small at first, but they lie near the heart of almost every conflict between the two cultures in our history. Surely this alone warrants this closer examination. If Native Culture sees value and meaning in symbols and items that are often worthless by America’s Cultural and economic standards, how much more meaningless are things we hold dear like financial security and private property? The difference is fundamental. Not only this, but as Lame Deer’s words indicate, this difference is a much bigger deal to their culture than ours. The reasons for this only seem too obvious. When one starts to understand the significance Native Americans place on this difference in juxtaposition to the ways the United States has tried to force tribes to become “mainstream”, it becomes possible to understand the underlying bitterness in their perspective as well as the staggeringly different religious and economic value systems of both societies in a way that can, perhaps, help make things better..
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This gap between the perspectives of Native American and mainstream American culture fluctuates as we examine their predominant religions. The Native Americans do not see the Christianity the Europeans brought with them as evil. Nor do they blame it for the mistreatment they have suffered at the hands of its proponents. Lame Deer is not so naïve as to believe the hearts of the white man are more purely religious as that of Native American. As he shrewdly states in his book, “The trouble is not with Christianity, with religion, but with what you have made out of it. You have turned it upside down. You have made the religion of the protest leader and hippie Jesus into the religion of missionaries, army padres, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials. These are two altogether different religions,” (205). Lame Deer sites many similarities between the Bible and traditional Native Spirituality. For example, even in sacred Native ceremonies, traditional symbols have come to represent both “The Virgin Mary, [and] the White Buffalo Calf Woman” (212). This tolerance and acceptance on the part of Native Americans is in stark contrast to the non-tolerant religious attitude of European settlers who first colonized America. When someone of a different culture can recognize the beauty in our religion and look past it to see our faults as our own, perhaps we could treat them with the same respect.
When comparing religion, however, there are also some not-so-flattering descriptions given by Lame Deer of the white man’s religion. Even so, Lame Deer is again, as a person who takes religion seriously, careful to point out that these details are products of Americans prejudices, not the teachings of Jesus. As he puts it, “White people need a church house, a preacher and a pipe organ…there are so many things to distract you: who else is in the church, whether the other people notice that you have come, the pictures on the wall, the sermon, how much money you should give” (2). At the heart of these observations are the differences between our cultures, not religious beliefs: Lame Deer idealizes simplicity, not complexity. The often-time needless complications the white man’s culture has forced on his religion have not gone unnoticed by outsiders, like the Native Americans. This again, should humble and remind us to listen before speaking.
John's Family's Website
- LAME DEER - the lame deer family
Meetings with Lame Deer, Archie Fire Lame Deer, John Fire Lame Deer, Josephine Fire Lame Deer, Inipi-Sweatlodge-Schwitzhuetten...
This complication of religious service and ritual contrasts a Native American spirituality which stresses that, “being a medicine man, more than anything else, is a state of mind, a way of looking at and understanding this earth, a sense of what it is all about” (147). There is no mention of ritual, or specific location here. Whereas “White people pay a preacher to be ‘good,’ to behave himself in public, to wear a collar, to keep away from a certain kind of woman…the [medicine man] just acts like himself” (146). Though not every Christian Church follows the guidelines Lame Deer mentions here, there is still truth to what he says. If this were not so, there would not be massive scandals in the church, etc. These statements reveal Lame Deer’s bitterness towards the “white man” his people have learned consider them hardly more than savage, but they also reflect the hypocrisy readily apparent and lamented by so many others in modern day Americanized Christianity. Again, the most insightful aspect of the way Native Americans see these differences is their ability to see past the hypocrisy and complexities to the underlying similarities that lie at the heart of religions of all serious minded people. Surely there is a lesson for us there, and surely the people who teach us such lessons are more than savages.
The differences in spirituality between Native Americans and mainstream American Culture find themselves rooted in one of the most significant fundamental differences between the two cultures, “Indians chase the vision, white men chase the dollar,” (35). “In our attitude towards [money] lies the biggest difference between Indians and whites,” (31). A logistical extension of the Native American concepts we have examined thus far is a central concept of kinship with all living things. This same thing cannot be said about mainstream American Culture. “For a white man each blade of grass or spring of water has a price tag on it,” (32). Lame Deer maintains that the economic world of the dollar, or “The Green Frog Skin,” is a world that imprisons men (31). The results are as numerous as the problems seen on any nightly news program. Lame Deer’s words ring ominously more and more familiar as technology and world economy evolve: “Artists are the Indians of the white world. They are called dreamers…people who don’t want to face ‘reality.’ …How the hell do these frog-skin people know what reality is? The world in which you paint a picture in your mind…different from what your eyes see…that is the real world, not the Green Frog Skin Word. That’s only a bad dream, a streamlined, smog-filled nightmare,” (33).
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To turn now, to economic concerns, though they have never been far from our discussion, trying to understand a culture that has such little need or desire for currency can be quite difficult for someone with a European/American economic background. If we are obsessed with anything, it is money. Once again, if we examine how things began, in early encounters between our two cultures, this difference over the esteem of financial power served to add an underlying tension to an already poor state of affairs between settlers and Native Peoples who were in conflict over resources, land, and any number of other issues at all times. When Native Americans treated European Settlers “riches” as meaningless, they were insulted back. When they found bright and shiny objects that looked “wonderful” that Europeans with their “superior science” found “common”, they were again, looked down upon. Lame Deer relays some insults he has heard about such as, “look at the dumb sons of bitches wasting all that dough” (32). The fact of the matter was that Native Americans had built and entire way of life that didn’t involve money, or the complications of it. White settlers did not understand that trying to “improve” this culture by “civilizing” it with a religion full of ceremonies and economic system based upon the supreme value of the dollar would require the destruction of a way of life for whole nations of people. The well meaning “conversions” of Native Americans by early missionaries not only killed many with diseases, but destroyed the entire way of life, culture, and understanding. This is not a fault of Christianity, it was a fault of the European settler’s inflated opinions of themselves and their understanding of what other people needed.
The economic assimilation America’s booming population and economy demanded of the Native American’s and their land would similarly destroy their way of life by removing what traces they had of their own identity and their ability to preserve what they had once valued. The European Settlers were not evil men who set out to steal a land and murder its inhabitants and their culture. They simply had no experience with cultures and religions so different from the mercantile system that had first brought them to the New World. They, in their limited understanding, had no clue that there could even be a place so different, nor did they understand just how devastating their point of view might be if they didn’t re-examine it based upon new information they encountered. Their great crime was of pride and assumption, yet Lame Deer, and many Natives like him, have seen past this fault.
Other Books on Native American Culture
The book, Lame Deer Seeker of Vision, goes much deeper into specific aspects of Native American religious ceremony and traditional life than we have touched on here. I did want to mention that in case you wanted to know more about it. It also chronicles some amazing “wild-west” adventures of a true Lakota cowboy, if there is such a thing. Ultimately though, I feel the book’s biggest contribution is the fact that it voices the cry of a Native Culture that has been so mistreated and misunderstood by mainstream American culture. The voice of Lame Deer is not one of bitterness, though one may well justify such bitterness if it were so. The voice of Lame Deer is not simplistic, ignorant, or lazy as Natives have been accused of being. Rather, his voice is clear, powerful, and wise. This, I believe, is a true representation of his people, his spirituality, and the uniqueness of the culture that has survived despite the white man’s best efforts to annihilate and/or assimilate it. The book is invaluable in this service and should be read by anyone seeking accurate, true depictions of the complicated and unique relationship between Native Americans and the white man.
As for the issue of the relationship between the two cultures, sadly, now it is almost an academic exercise. There are very few Native Americans left compared to their once great numbers, and in many cases, their great oral traditions have been lost as have their traditional homelands. We live in the land of the free and home of the brave, but we walk about on land that, in many ways, our forefathers took. We talk about “getting back to what this country was founded on”. I think we need to talk a little more honestly about where we have come from and the mistakes we made back then. We do not need to move backwards, we need to move forwards while remembering the past. We have to confront what we, as descendents of European Americans, actually are the inheritors of. If we are ever to become better, we must first ask ourselves, who are we truly, and where have we come from? Lame Deer, Seeker of Vision is an invaluable tool for the 21st century American concerned with this task.
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