Tahca Ushte (Lame Deer) was a Lakota medicine man from a land now known as
(“Sioux” is a white name that insults the Lakota). His government-issued name was John Fire. He was born some time between 1895 and 1903, and died in 1976. His parents were of the last generation to be born wild and free. Two of his grandfathers had been at the battle of Little Big Horn, Custer’s last stand, and one of them survived the massacre at South Dakota Wounded Knee.
Lame Deer’s early years were spent in a remote location, where they had no contact with the outside world. He never saw a white man until he was five. At 14, he was taken away to a boarding school, where he was prohibited from speaking his language or singing his songs. The class work never went beyond the level of third grade, so Lame Deer spent six years in the third grade. He eventually gained renown for being a rebellious troublemaker. When he was 16, he went on a vision quest, and discovered that he was to become a medicine man.
Sons destined to become medicine men were often removed from school by their families, because schooling was harmful to the growth of someone walking a spiritual path. One father drove away truancy officers with a shotgun. For medicine men, the skills of reading and writing had absolutely no value.
When Lame Deer was 17, his mother died, and the family fell apart. The white world was closing in, making it hard for his father to survive as a rancher. He gave his children some livestock and wished them good luck. By that time, the buffalo were dead, their land was gone, many lived on reservations, and the good old days for the Lakota were behind them.
Lame Deer straddled two worlds, the sacred path of Lakota tradition, and the pure madness of the “frog-skinners,” — people who were driven by an insatiable hunger for green frog-skins (dollar bills). The frog-skinners were bred to be consumers, not human beings, so they were not fun to be around.
Lame Deer spent maybe 20 years wandering. He made money as a rodeo rider, clown, square dance caller, potato picker, shepherd, and so on. He always avoided work in factories or offices, “because any human being is too good for that kind of no-life, even white people.” He enjoyed many women, did more than a little drinking, stole a few cars, and shunned the conventional civilized life.
Between jobs he would return to his reservation and spend time with the elders. During World War II, just before
, he was thrown out of the Army when they discovered that he was 39, too old. Soon after, he abandoned the frog-skin world and became a full time Indian, walking on the sacred path of a medicine man. Normandy
For the Lakota, the
Black Hills were the most sacred place in their world. To retain possession of them, they surrendered much of what became Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. The treaty declared that the Black Hills would remain Indian territory “for as long as the sun shined.” Soon after, whites discovered gold in the Black Hills, and flooded into the holy lands with drills, dynamite, whiskey, and prostitutes. The Lakota were horrified by the behavior of these civilized Christians.
The frog-skinners exterminated the buffalo, and replaced them with livestock.
were beings of great power and intelligence. They even had a sense of humor. Lame Deer said that if buffalo were used in bullfighting, the cocky matadors would promptly be trampled and gored into extinction. Cattle were dullards that had the power bred out of them. Sheep and goats would stand calmly while you cut their throats. Buffalo
To provide additional vegetation for the dim-witted livestock, the prairie dogs had to go. Ranchers launched an intensive poisoning campaign that also killed more than a few children and pets. With the prairie dogs gone, there was far less prey for the wolves, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, badgers, hawks, and eagles. A diverse, thriving prairie ecosystem was replaced with monocultures of destructive sub-intelligent exotic species.
Sheep were amazingly frail. They often fell over, with their feet in the air, and couldn’t get back up again. If the shepherd didn’t rescue them, they would bloat up and die. Lambs often had to be hand-raised because their mothers didn’t recognize them or feed them.
“There was great power in a wolf, even in a coyote. You have made him into a freak — a toy poodle, a Pekingese, a lap dog. … You have not only altered, declawed, and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves. … You live in prisons which you have built for yourselves, calling them homes, offices, factories.”
In the 1880s, the Indians of the west were in despair, and the Ghost Dance movement was spreading from tribe to tribe. It was a grand magic act intended to bring a new world into existence via sacred song and dance. The dead would come back to life, the buffalo herds would return, the whites would get sent back home, and the civilized world would be rolled up like a dirty old carpet — the cities, mines, farms, and factories. This would reveal a healthy unspoiled land, with many teepees and animals, as it once had been.
Dancers were not allowed to possess things from the white world: liquor, guns, knives, kettles, or metal ornaments. They would dance for four days. Whites feared an armed uprising, so they attacked the dancers. Hundreds of unarmed Indians were murdered at the
Wounded Knee massacre.
The magic dancing did not succeed, but today many can see that a great healing is badly needed. Obviously, the madness cannot continue forever. Lame Deer was clear: “The machine will stop.” He said that a young man would one day come who would know how to turn it off. “It won’t be bad, doing without many things you are now used to, things taken out of the earth and wasted foolishly.” We will have to learn how to live more simply, and this will be good for one and all.
Lame Deer asked Richard Erdoes to help write his story, to pass along important information. He included several chapters describing the sacred culture of the Lakota. He wanted hold up a mirror for us, to give us a different perspective, to feed a sane voice into our lost and confused world. “We must try to save the white man from himself. This can be done if only all of us, Indians and non-Indians alike, can once again see ourselves as part of this earth.”
Lame Deer, John (Fire) and Erdoes, Richard, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions,
Washington Square Press, New York, 1994.