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  • The Soul of the Indian:Lakota Philosophy and the Vision Quest
  • David Martínez (bio)

The religion of the Indian is the last thing about him that the man of another race will ever understand.

—Charles Eastman

I want to emphasize at the outset that, as the subtitle indicates, this is a work of philosophy. As such, my treatment of the vision quest, or hanbleceya, will differ substantially from the disciplines that typically define American Indian studies, such as anthropology, history, political science, and literary criticism.1 I especially want to stress that this is not an exercise in ethnography.2 Instead of accumulating data from physical observations or extrapolating conclusions from field interviews, I have analyzed the vision quest for its philosophical content, based on material already published, in which I highlight resources "written by" Lakotas, including works actually composed by Lakota writers and works in which a Lakota played a major collaborative role.3 At the same time, by prioritizing Lakota texts, we cannot assume that the vision quest under examination is in some pure, precolonized form.4 After all, virtually all of the current scholarly resources on Lakota culture and history only extend as far back as the nineteenth century.5 [End Page 79] Consequently, what we are compelled to embrace in order to make this project in Lakota philosophy feasible is a Lakota intellectual tradition that has undergone all the influences and pressures of the Assimilation Period (1890-1934), Reform and Termination (1934-1961), Red Power (1961-1973), and Self-Determination (1973-present). These epochs, of course, define American Indian intellectual history as a whole, not just for the Lakota. Nevertheless, when I describe this essay as "philosophical," my analyses and reflections are based solely on the Lakota tradition, rather than the Western canon, for determining the direction of my discourse.

The purpose of examining the vision quest through the works of modern Lakota intellectuals is not to demonstrate how Christianized or diluted this ritual has become, but rather to appreciate the extent towhich Lakota values are retained in spite of the various influences (including outright oppression) that have impinged on Lakota society. This is possible because, as I will argue, the vision quest maintains an inextricable relationship to a given place. More than the result of ritualized fasting and sleep deprivation, the vision quest expresses perceiving the land in mythological terms. More specifically, these mythological terms come from the Lakota oral tradition, in which mythic events are recounted as the order of first things, from which Lakotas derive precedents for their customs and beliefs, and which make a connection between these events and the land in which the Lakota dwell. Engaging in a vision quest, therefore, places one within the nonlinear time of myth, thereby transcending the linear events that have influenced and altered Lakota society.6

In order to get to these conclusions, though, we will have to deal with the most influential and controversial work of modern Lakota literature, Black Elk Speaks. Furthermore, since we are dealing with the vision quest, we will also have to take into consideration The Sacred Pipe, which is a kind of vade mecum of Lakota rituals.7 While there have been subsequent and significant works added to the Black Elk scholarly tradition, for example, Raymond DeMallie's The Sixth Grandfather, such works only gain their significance from illuminating the primary works that Black Elk did in collaboration with John G. Neihardt and Joseph Epes Brown, respectively.8 Black Elk Speaks, in particular, is given primacy not because it is the most authoritative account of the Lakolwicoun,9 or the Lakota way of life, but because this work is the one that has been canonized across a range of academic disciplines, including philosophy, not to mention being recognized as a major religious work by American Indians across the continent.10 As Vine Deloria Jr. states in his introduction to Black Elk Speaks:

The most important aspect of the book, however, is not its effect on the non-Indian populace who wished to learn [End Page 80] something of the beliefs of the Plains Indians but upon the contemporary generation of young Indians who have been aggressively searching for...


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pp. 79-104
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