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  • To Come to a Better Understanding: Medicine Men and Clergy Meetings on the Rosebud Reservation, 1973–1978 by Sandra L. Garner
  • Annie Culver

Sandra L. Garner, Annie Culver, Rosebud Reservation, American Religion, Native American Religion, Medicine Man, indigenous religion, indigenous magic, American magic, Medicine Men, conversion, colonialism, Native American magic, American Indian religion, American indian magic

sandra l. garner. To Come to a Better Understanding: Medicine Men and Clergy Meetings on the Rosebud Reservation, 1973–1978. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 210.

The recent focus of Indigenous studies in the U.S. centers on the roles and legacies of activism in civil rights struggles faced, and movements mounted, by tribal peoples. Contemporary accounts of Indigenous activism largely limit their scope to the American Indian Movement (AIM) and its various incarnations in the mid- to late twentieth century. This focus on AIM is a result of what is thought to count as activism in both popular and academic conceptions of resistance movements. Because AIM fits in closely with the narrative of other activist and civil rights movements like those mounted by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, other forms of activism, such as narratives about how Indigenous groups in the U.S. resist colonizing forces, have been relegated to the margins. [End Page 290]

Among the most significant (and pernicious) of these colonizing forces on the lives of Indigenous people in the U.S. has been the Catholic Church. In To Come to a Better Understanding: Medicine Men & Clergy Meetings on the Rosebud Reservation, 1973–1978, Sandra L. Garner provides a detailed account of a series of meetings between Catholic clergymen and members of the Lakota tribe living on the Rosebud Reservation in St. Francis, South Dakota in the mid-1970s. In tracing the meetings between the clergy and the people living on the reservation, Garner opens up a space to think through new ways of conceiving of an Indigenous activist tradition that relies heavily on interpersonal relationships, dialogue, and especially the transmission of spiritual and ritual knowledge between two groups often perceived as primarily antagonistic.

Garner's methodology, as she self-reflexively explicates it in the first chapter, takes an interdisciplinary approach that ties together ethnography, archival work, sociology, historical analysis, and critical race studies, among others. This multifaceted approach aids the reader in coming to an understanding of the ontological and epistemological models that the Medicine Men's Association (MMA) is communicating throughout the Medicine Men and Clergy Meetings (MMCM) that Garner describes. The MMA posits a commitment to multiplicity, nuance, and relationality as being at the root of Lakota philosophical and religious thought, expressed in the concept that the MMA members often refer to as mitakuye oyasin (translated as "we are all related") (16). Garner's approach does not, however, rely on the rhetoric of "even-handedness" or "hearing the story from both sides." She explicitly focuses her analysis on an "Indigenous-centered" reading of the meetings in an effort to do the crucial work of understanding the Indigenous perspectives that the Catholic Church (and other colonizing institutions) for centuries sought to suppress.

Garner's centralizing of the Lakota perspective in the book aids in drawing out the purpose of the meetings as described by both the clergy and the MMA members. They state explicitly that the aim of these conversations is "to come to a better understanding." In the book's second chapter, Garner begins by emphasizing the historical unevenness in understanding between the two groups. The Lakota participants, she says, "already felt that they had a very good understanding of the worldview and ethos of the priests. What they were really saying is that they wanted the priests to understand their worldview and ethos, to see them as legitimate, valid, and valuable" (25). In coming to a better understanding, the MMA hoped to foster better relations with the Catholic clergy while also asserting the legitimacy of their world-view. [End Page 291]

The most successful sections of the book are those in which Garner allows for the MMA members to speak for themselves, and then contextualizes the exchanges between and among the MMA members and the clergy for the reader. In...


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