- Ghost Dance? Photography, Agency, and Authenticity in Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions
. . . the eyes
will take nothing
without the proper lens.
The soul will not leave.—Gordon Henry, “Chant on Being Photographed”
On the back cover of the paperback edition of Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, immediately below a promotional blurb (“‘A Masterpiece’— Robert Brunett [sic], author of The Tortured Americans”), appears the phrase, “With 32 pages of photographs.” Positioned in this supplementary relation to the text, collected together and placed, arbitrarily it seems, between pages 86 and 87, the p hotographs disappoint me at first. In these small, grainy half-tones, many bled to the inner edge of the page, the South Dakota landscape loses its expansiveness; the portraits look like snapshots, indifferently exposed. Once I get past my initial aesthet ic expectations, though, I see that the photographs form a narrative. The story begins with the rootedness of the Sioux 1 in the land, goes on to evoke cultural loss (rural slum, bar, jail), and concludes by emphasizing persistence and revitalization (sweat lodge, ceremonies, sacred pipe). The arrangement of the photographs, it turns out, roughly parallels the [End Page 493] structure of Lame Deer’s verbal narrative, which, insofar as it follows a chronological organization, consists of an opening dream vision, a decline (bad experiences in BIA schools, loneliness on the rodeo circuit, “Getting Drunk, Going to Jail”), 2 and a revitalizing account of the medicine tradition. 3
The textual and photographic narratives’ concern with cultural persistence and revitalization speaks to the growing interest in Native American traditions during the late 1960s and early 1970s (when the book was being produced). Lame Deer’s perception of his role in this renewal is evident, for example, in a comment he makes while describing the symbolic occupation of Mt. Rushmore in the spring of 1971: “A year ago most young people wouldn’t have bothered with an old medicine man. What part could he play in their fight? But now everything is changed. Those young, educated Indians come to me and say: ‘Tell us about the old ways, about the sacred pipe; it will make us more Indian’” (91). Elsewhere Lame Deer says that he is trying to bring back a prior revitalization movement, the ghost dance, by “interpret[ing] it in a new way” (224). 4 Later chapters are devoted to the yuwipi ceremony, the sun dance, the sacred pipe, and so on, most of which receive some photographic representation.
Although such a narrative might easily proceed without the supplement of photography, the presence of the photographs themselves, together with the treatment of photography in the text, invite us to consider an important aspect of cultural persistence and revitalization: the control of representation. In this context, photography does turn out to be supplementary, but in a deconstructive sense, which I will try to elaborate here. Historically, photography has constructed Native Americans as objects rather than subjects. 5 However, in this book, photography is positioned as being under the control of Sioux culture. This positioning takes various forms, one of which involves photography’s promise to authenticate Richard Erdoes’s role as the conduit of Lame Deer’s self-representations, by serving as the model for Erdoes’s interactions with Lame Deer and with Sioux culture in general. Yet the extent of this photographic authentication-effect is limited. That is, while photography foregrounds the issue of representational control and allegorizes the collaborative process, it cannot hope to authenticate an important component of Lame Deer’s story—the Sioux medicine tradition and his place in it—in part because (as I will suggest in my conclusion) the structure of [End Page 494] the visible in this tradition renders any such attempt at authentication irrelevant.
Lame Deer’s concern over the control of representation emerges in the second chapter, “That Gun in the New York Museum Belongs to Me,” 6 and continues throughout the book. The concern is clearly evident, for example, in a critique of the gigantic statue of Crazy Horse that is being carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, near Mt. Rushmore. “There are two things wrong with this statue,” Lame Deer points out. The first is that...