Book Review: "To Come to a Better Understanding: Medicine Men & Clergy Meetings on the Rosebud Reservation, 1973—1978"

[This month's Cushwa post is devoted to a book review by recent research travel grant recipient Jason Sprague, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa. (You can see a brief interview with Jason about his dissertation, “‘The Shadow of a Cross’: Odawa Catholicism in Waganakisi, 1765–1825," here.) Speaking of our research travel grants, please start making your plans to apply for one now! The Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism gives annual grants for travel to the University of Notre Dame to use its archives and library. The application deadline is December 31; you can find out more about both the grant criteria and application procedures here.]

by Jason Sprague

To Come to a Better Understanding: Medicine Men & Clergy Meetings on the Rosebud Reservation, 1973—1978. By Sandra L. Garner. University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 210 pages. $45.00.

To Come to a Better Understanding provides a refreshing exploration of Native American activism in the 1970s. Sandra Garner offers an alternative point of view to a historiographical narrative dominated by the American Indian Movement (AIM), and demonstrates how cultural encounters and exchanges between Native and non-Native groups reflect long-standing Native traditions seeking understanding between disparate groups. The titular meetings, a series of 84 formal meetings between the Medicine Men's Association (MMA) and Jesuit priests from the St. Francis Mission, took place on the Rosebud Reservation between 1973 and 1978. Prior interactions between these two groups, who both operated as ritual specialists within the Lakota community, had typically been on unequal footing because of the Jesuits’ complicity in settler-colonial oppression. The MMA, Garner argues, used these meetings as a form of activism to critique and combat these historically ingrained and imbalanced relationships.

Garner identifies three observations which shape this book. First, she claims, the MMA representatives were devoted to the process of negotiation in expressing their views. Second, there was a general sense that Lakota lives, beliefs, and practices had been ignored or made invisible due to settler colonialism. These conversations and engagements therefore stemmed from a history of unequal power relationships. The MMA also felt overshadowed by AIM and Native intellectuals. Finally, the meetings expressed the worldview advanced by the MMA—namely, that everything is related and that this complexity can therefore only be understood through ritual experience.

Garner’s project is limited to a local case study of the meetings on the Rosebud Reservation, and centrally focuses on the MMA’s engagement within the meetings. To situate her study historically, Garner draws on multiple sources to represent the continuity of the Lakota worldview over time. Her focus on “the worldview and ethos advanced by the MMA participants during the MMCM” can be summarized using the Lakota term, mitakuye oyasin, “we are all related” (16). This worldview is shaped by kinship networks and reciprocal obligations. Understanding this worldview requires experience gained through ritual practice.

Garner’s methodological approach, which she identifies as indigenous-centric, combines ethnographic fieldwork and archival analysis. The MMCM dialogues are unique because of the leading role played by the MMA, who insisted the meetings be recorded, translated, and transcribed. Garner’s critical theoretical approach puts indigenous-centered approaches in conversation with Western approaches and views. For instance, she privileges the perspectives of the Lakota participants from the MMA as cultural mediators. The MMA’s desire to help non-Natives better understand Native culture was shaped by historically situated and imbalanced power dynamics. Salvage anthropology methods of the early twentieth century and oral history methods of the 1960s and 1970s were problematic because the former dismissed Native agency and the latter often involved unequal power relationships. Garner does not want to dismiss criticisms of these previous methodologies, but would rather focus on the collaborative efforts that made these works possible. She identifies the desire by some Native people to convey Native viewpoints to non-Natives as an expression of Native agency. Garner’s awareness of the flaws in previous methodologies reveals her concern with Native agency, and situates her book within the context of a long history of these types of collaborative efforts. Garner understands that MMA participants were not passive victims; she clearly reveals their understanding of history and their critiques of modernity and culture loss. Garner’s work is informed by Avery Gordon’s sociological approach concerning how historical conditions shape lived reality and the value of “subjugated knowledge” (10-11). Garner’s indigenous-centric focus also works well with Clifford Geertz’s interpretive approach, which focused on trying to see religion through the eyes of its practitioners.

Garner uses a limited data set for her source material. Her primary sources are limited to the MMCM audio recordings and meeting transcripts. These sources offer an indigenous epistemology, a local perspective, and a rich resource on Lakota religion. Her project is based on a close reading of these transcripts, but her textual analysis of these sources is limited. She has listened to some, but not all of the recordings, to get a sense of how the meetings were conducted and to make sure the transcripts accurately reflect the meetings. She only used the final product of the transcripts, which only reflect the English portions of the conversations, not the Lakota. The English translations were provided by the Lakota speakers, though, which demonstrates the MMA participants’ involvement in the transcription process. Some gaps in the tapes and transcripts render her source material incomplete and problematic. These gaps are a result of human error and the difficulty of archiving these types of materials. She admits that her analysis is therefore incomplete, and she calls on others to engage with these archival sources. Overall, Garner argues that these tapes and transcripts represent a rich deposit of late-20th-century Lakota thought.

Garner organizes the book thematically to better reflect the complexity and interrelatedness of the topics analyzed. The thematic structure weaves together political, social, and religious issues. Chapter One acts as an introduction, providing much of the context and background information for the book. Attitudes towards colonization and activism were changing at the time of these meetings. The Wounded Knee occupation at the Pine Ridge Reservation began soon after the initial meeting. The activists at Wounded Knee shared a common culture and a similar history of oppression with their Rosebud neighbors. AIM and the MMA were concerned with ways to help their local communities. For these groups, the Lakota future was at stake. Colonialism had a profound effect on Lakota material reality, as well as Lakota identity and pride. AIM and the MMA blurred the political, social, and religious in their efforts to explore what it means to be Lakota. Both groups put Lakota religion at the center of their respective social activist approaches. But the two groups differed substantially. AIM’s strategy was public, militant, and violent, while the MMA tried to build relationships with those complicit in their oppression by sharing knowledge and experience. The life experiences and demographics of the two groups also diverged. AIM members were from a diverse group of Native nations; they were young, urban, and primarily English speakers. MMA members, on the other hand, were experienced ritual specialists; they were older, from the reservation, and primarily Lakota speakers. AIM was a nativistic and panethnic Native movement. The MMA was a group which practiced Lakota virtues in a particular place and amid larger kinship structures.

After a second chapter focusing on methodological issues, Chapters Three through Six relate directly to the MMCM. They have overlapping themes which focus on the relationships and exchanges among MMCM participants. The chapter structures and the exchanges at the meetings represent an “intricate web of relationships” (21). Chapter Three introduces the MMA and its history, and presents brief biographies on selected MMA participants. This chapter examines the dialogic rhythm of the meetings. Participants were aware of how they were historically situated, and the difficulty of preserving and presenting cultural knowledge. This chapter focuses on how the MMA participants viewed themselves as “cultural ambassadors” involved in negotiating meaning (77). They saw their participation in the MMCM as an extension of their roles as ritual specialists because both activities involved interpretation.

Chapter Four focuses on a wider audience. Garner shows how the MMA helped to influence those beyond the meeting space of the MMCM. They discussed broader issues concerning colonialism and oppression, and advocated for a more inclusive and interconnected world based on kinship and reciprocation. The MMA participants sensed a moment of opportunity and wanted to take advantage of it to express their views and influence others.

Chapter Five focuses on the worldview of the MMA through understanding “the pipe” (22). The MMA participants used stories of the pipe to connect this world to the supernatural realm; MMA participants also saw themselves as mediators between this world and the supernatural. This chapter examines as well the MMA’s emphasis on experience, including ritual practice as a way of obtaining knowledge.

Chapter Six considers the importance the MMA placed on personal experience, the role and continuity of ritual, and the continued participation in ritual. Garner argues that the MMA participants believed that understanding comes primarily from experience rather than conceptual knowledge. From this point of view, it is knowledge gained through experience, specifically ritual experience, which is most essential for achieving understanding.

Chapter Seven acts as a short conclusion to the book. It focuses on the dissolution of the MMCM, summarizes the contributions of the MMA, and examines how an indigenous-centric approach is useful.

Garner recognizes that there is a long history of various forms of Native activism. AIM and MMA activism both reflect the broader social activism of 1960s America. Garner argues that an “AIM-centric focus” on militant activities obscures the history of activism and alternative strategies by other groups (14). Furthermore, framing activist groups as revitalizations of Native thought and practice obscures continuity, perpetuates narratives of loss, and casts activism as an action of recovery. Instead, Garner argues for a more nuanced engagement with the MMA and other activist groups. There is not one story of colonialism. Focusing on a single narrative of colonialism flattens rich cultural dynamics, marginalizes a lengthy history of activism, and subjugates local knowledge.  

For the Lakota participants of the MMA, the MMCM’s primary concern was “the transmission of Lakota values and explaining the ‘viable believable system’” as a functional and fully formed cultural system (16). This book calls attention to and seeks to interpret the importance of local knowledge. Garner situates the MMA participants’ knowledge within a long and continuous history and uses the MMA participants in the MMCM as a link between living historical knowledge and visions of a Lakota future. The MMA, as Garner demonstrates, consisted of complex people with a wide range of responses to the historical circumstances which shaped their lives. Throughout the MMCM, the MMA discussed the beliefs and practices that oppressed them and the intricacies of their lived reality. By embracing the MMA’s complexity, Garner is focusing on Native peoples’ “creative ability” to make meaning on their own terms (13). This is an important lens through which to look at the MMA and its various responses in the process of meaning making. Garner makes it clear that the MMA were not victims and that their story was not one of culture loss. Rather, theirs is a story of active, imaginative, and creative identity formation concerned with their visions for the community’s future.

Beyond the specifics of her case study, Garner’s analysis contributes to a better understanding of the process of meaning making and identity formation. This study is useful for demonstrating how to make connections between a specific case study and previous historical contexts and interactions. By including numerous scholarly voices in her analysis, Garner’s work can help scholars better understand the different lenses with which to approach historical events. Additionally, her “concentric-circle approach” is an effective organizing method and heuristic device for highlighting recurring themes and connecting different parts of her analysis (160) -- although the complexity of her structure may deter some readers less grounded in the historical events of the period. Her work has the potential to transform how scholars accept Native cultural knowledge as legitimate and valuable, examine the cultural continuity of experience, interpret Native engagement with modernity, and see multiple perspectives and relationships as equally valid.


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