Wisdom from Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions

Wisdom from Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions

The revelation of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program reminded me of my earlier presentation at the sixth annual Society for Humanistic Psychology conference. I presented on Lame Deer, a Lakota Sioux medicine man, whose critiques of western culture (circa 1971) and his antidotes that are very similar to those of humanistic psychology.

I want to share his critiques here because it is not inconceivable that the fate of the American Indian might be a fate that all Americans might face with our shrinking civil liberties. In particular, he warns us against the loss of the sacred and the un-sustainability of our environmental actions—something that is apparently just coming to our attention. Lame Deer distinguishes the Indian from the “white man,” but I think it fair to substitute the term “Western Culture,” although we could certainly also use the term “corporate culture.”

Lame Deer sees Western Culture as a soul-sickness

1. Western Culture sees everything as money and is constantly stealing/hoarding.

“You have raped and violated these lands, always saying, ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme,’ and never giving anything back. You have despoiled the earth, called things dead that are alive (rocks and minerals) but also ‘domesticated’ animals to the point they have no power, bred animals into ‘toy dogs’ and caged chickens to grow breasts so big they can stand.“ (p 120)

2. The symbols of Western Culture is the cage.

“Square is white man’s symbol: Everything is square your house, office, door, dollar bill, and jail. Your gadgets—TV, radios, washing machine, computers, cars. Everything has sharp corners and edges, blocks of time, even terms for people are ‘straight’ and ‘square’…. You become a prisoner inside all of these boxes.” (p. 111)

“So, you hardly see an eagle these days. The bald eagle is your symbol. You see him on your money, but your money is killing him. When people start killing off their own symbols, they are in a bad way.”

3. Western Culture has domesticated men and women into workers and housewives-who live in neighborhoods but have no community.

“You have not only altered, declawed and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves. You have changed men into chairmen of the board, into office workers, into time-clock punchers. You have changed women into housewives, a truly fearful creature.” (p. 120) Don’t smoke, don’t leave drink there, don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t….

“To the Indian kid the white boarding school comes as a terrific shock. He is taken from his warm womb to a strange, cold place. It is like being pushed out of a cozy kitchen into a howling blizzard” (p.27).

4. Western Culture hides death and is afraid of death and the world it created.

Americans want to have everything sanitized. No smells! No B.O. or bad breath or feminine odor! “I think white people are so afraid of the world they created they don’t want to see, feel, smell or hear it….You are spreading death, buying and selling death. With all your deodorants, you smell of it, but you are afraid of its reality; you don’t want to face up to it. You have sanitized death…” (p. 121).

5. Western Culture made man into a “consumer” not a human being.

Sioux call white man the “fat-takers” because “[Y]ou have taken the fat of the land. But it does not seem to have agreed with you. Right now you don’t look so healthy—overweight, yes, but not healthy. Americans are bred like stuffed geese—to be consumers, not human beings” (p. 37).

Similarities between Lame Deer’s philosophy and Humanistic Psychology

1. Human life needs meaning, aliveness, and connectivity.

“Why do Indians drink? To forget when the land used to be ours: no highways, factories or fences. Because we are not men we are minors. We can’t own money, paint our houses the color we want. The reservations (instant slums) made us beggars living on handouts, life with no possibility of honor” (p. 74). “If you get a job you have to obey others, never talk back so you drink to forget the person you’ve become…. You drink because you don’t live; you just exist. That might be enough for some people; it is not enough for us” (p. 75). Man needs a pathway to honor (p. 87). “[We need] to gain confidence to run our affairs, to direct our own destiny, to be your own man—that’s what we are striving for” (p. 100).

2. Humans need community=sharing, cooperation, non-ownership, being-with.

“In their own homes Indian children are surrounded with relatives as with a warm blanket. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older brothers and cousins are always fussing over them, playing with them or listening to what they have to say…. Indian children are never alone. If the grown-ups go someplace, the little ones are taken along. Children have their rights just as the adults” (p. 27).

3. Creativity—Visions are the pathway to the creative well. Dreams and making art are sacred paths—not valued in the West.

“Artists are the Indians of the white world. They are called dreamers who live in the clouds, improvident people who can’t hold onto their money, people who don’t want to face ‘reality’” (p. 37). The realm of the imagination is the “world from which I get my visions. I tell you this is the real world, not the Green Frog Skin World. That’s only a bad dream, a streamlined, smog-filled nightmare” (p. 37).

4. Holism—Humans are responsible for their environment, for the animals, and others.

“When we killed a buffalo, we know what we were doing. We apologized to his spirit, tried to make him understand why we did it, honoring with a prayer the bones of those who gave their flesh to keep us alive; praying for their return, praying for the life of our brothers, the buffalo nation…. To us life, all life, is sacred” (p. 121).

“[T]he great spirit pours a great, unimaginable amount of force into all things—pebbles, ants, leaves, whirlwinds—whatever you will. Still there is so much force left over that’s not used up, that is in his gift to bestow, that has to be used wisely and in moderation if we are given some of it” (p. 114).

“We Sioux spend a lot of time thinking about everyday things which in our mind are mixed up with the spiritual. We see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life” (p. 107).

“You have love for all that has been placed on this earth, not unlike the love of a mother for her son, or of a son for his mother, but a bigger love which encompasses the whole earth. You are just a human being, afraid, weeping under that blanket, but there is a great space within you to be filled with that love. All of nature can fit in there” (p. 139).

5. Therapy as Freedom seeking—Freedom is finding a path to honor and self-directedness. A person is going to go down a lot of wrong paths. Seeking is an active process. Humans must be multi-dimensional.

“There were still many things I had to be—an outlaw, a prisoner and a roamer, a sheepherder and a bootlegger, a rodeo rider and a medicine man. Still wanted to lead many lives, finding out who I was” (p. 34).

“I was slowly forming an idea of where I wanted to go. I could dimly see my place, but I could also see a number of different roads leading up to it and I did not yet know which one to take. So I tried them all, coming to many dead ends” (p. 34).

“You have to be God and devil, both of them. Being a good medicine man means being right in the midst of the turmoil, not shielding yourself from it. It means experience life in all its phases. It means not being afraid of cutting up and playing the fool now and then. That’s sacred too…. Sometimes the bad side gives me more knowledge than the good side (p. 76).

6. Therapy as Healing—not one method. Healer learns the basics from teachers/tradition but must find own path to help others.

“You are sacrificing yourself here to be a medicine man. In time you will be one. You will teach other medicine men. We are the fowl people….You will learn about herbs and roots, and you will heal people. You will ask them for nothing in return. A man’s life is short. Make yours a worthy one” (p. 6).

The final quote is from another Medicine Man, Peter Catches. Here, he talks about becoming who you are:

“We live off nature, my wife and I; we hardly need anything. We will somehow live. The Great Spirit … takes care of me, waters me, feeds me and makes me live with the plants and animals as one of them. This is how I wish to remain, an Indian, all the days of my life. This does not mean that I want to shut myself off. Somehow many people find their way to my cabin. I like this. I want to be in communication, reach out to people everywhere, impart a little of our Indian way….

“At the same time, I want to withdraw further and further away from everything, to live like the ancient ones…. Someday I’ll still move my cabin farther into the hills, maybe do without a cabin altogether become part of the woods. There the spirit still has something for us to discover—an herb, a sprig, a flower… and you can spend a long time in its contemplation thinking about it….

“So as I get older, I burrow more and more into the hills. The Great Spirit made them for us, for me. I want to blend with them, shrink into them and finally, disappear in them” (p. 140-1).

Lame Deer & Erodes, R. (1994). Lame Deer, seeker of visions. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

— Richard Bargdill

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