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Review: “Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions” by Richard Erdoes

A review by Daniel A. Brown
©2010 Daniel A. Brown

This book, published in 1972 about a contemporary Lakota elder and holy man was co-written by an unlikely source. Born in 1912 in Frankfort, Germany; Richard Erdoes was a shy, lonely kid, finding solace in nature and loving American Indians thanks to Karl May, who was famous in Europe for writing fantastically vivid Western epics.

Fleeing Hitler, Erdoes re-settled in New York City, but found himself traveling to the wide open prairies of South Dakota, which filled him with a sense of peace. It was only a matter of time before he came into the company of Lakota spiritual elders, one of whom, John Fire Lame Deer, decided that he wanted Erdoes to write a book about his life and Lakota traditions. And so they began, at a time when Native Americans were finally emerging from their own Dark Ages of having their culture suppressed. “Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions” is the result of this collaboration.

The story is narrated exclusively by its namesake and the old guy is a hoot. Profane, hilarious, sacred and profound, he destroys every stereotype about not only grim, unsmiling stoic Indians, but also grinning, antiseptic New Age “teachers”. Raised on the Rosebud reservation right after the turn of the century, he began life as an angry, if not, imaginative rebel who refused to accept his humiliating station in life. Early in his story, Lame Deer describes this mad car-stealing spree in which he hijacked several Model T’s in the middle of a South Dakota blizzard while “drunk as a boiled owl”, one of the colorful metaphors that Lame Deer peppers his language with.

Sent to a reformatory, he learned a trade and after a stint as a sign painter, rodeo clown,  peyote-church worshipper, tribal cop, and sheep herder; all described in nuances that suggest an indigenous Garrison Keillor, he finally settled down into what he decided was his true mission in life, namely, “Being an Indian”.

A major portion of the narrative concerns the explanation of Lakota rituals and spiritual world-view that are most likely well-known to any informed reader. But these sections are not what make this tale unique. It is more about Lame Deer observing how the secret threads of life operate differently from the linear pattern we have come to expect: Go to school, get a job, get married, move up the ladder of material success, and then retire.

Lame Deer looks at this differently, the result of his own erratic life. “The ‘find-out’”, he explains, “It has lasted my whole life. In a way I was always hopping back and forth across the boundary line of my mind.” He identifies with artists because they are the “Indians of the white world”. Meaning, they are the dreamers and visionaries who see the spirit realm and usually have trouble navigating the “Green Frog Skin World”, the colorful adjective referring to Lame Deer’s term for money. Lame Deer understands only too well what a corrupting influence the Green Frog Skin has had, not only on his own people, but on humanity at large.

“Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions” might seem dated in the present culture of Indian casinos and New Age megabucks but it is an excellent bridge between the current and the traditional as well as a shrewdly entertaining read. Both Lame Deer and Erdoes have passed away but their book is a fitting tribute to the integrity of both men and their unusual partnership.

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