- To Come to a Better Understanding: Medicine Men & Clergy Meetings on the Rosebud Reservations, 1973–1978 by Sandra L. Garner
In To Come to a Better Understanding, Sandra Garner exhibits a knack for delivering fresh insights and courageous arguments about the relationship between Lakota medicine men and non-Native clergy in the context of Rosebud Reservation during the 1970s. She does so through a close reading of the Medicine Men’s Association (MMA), an organization that entered into conversations with Catholic priests during the mid-1970s to foster “a better understanding” of Lakota and Christian belief systems. At the heart of the book reside the attempts made by these Lakotas to portray Indigenous and settler belief systems as something other than mutually exclusive. [End Page 763]
Basing her work on transcriptions of meetings held between Lakota medicine men affiliated with the MMA and Catholic priests, Garner presents her argument thematically rather than chronologically. While she clearly contributes to our understanding of history by demonstrating how activism took many forms (and not just the confrontational or militant ones that are so closely associated with the 1970s), she is not concerned with how that happened in the context of the Medicine Men and Clergy Meetings sequentially or over time.
This was a smart move, and the book is more successful for it. Garner conceptualizes the chapters as “concentric circles,” and she draws from the full breadth of the meetings between 1973 and 1978 in each of them. The structure works magnificently, as we learn about not only Lakota epistemologies and ritual practices but also the medicine men themselves (and their relationships with the priests) from what she, following scholar Jodi Byrd, describes as an “indigenous-centric perspective.”
Throughout these chapters, Garner demonstrates that speaking is an “agentive practice.” That is to say, Lakota medicine men were engaging in politically purposeful acts by trying to convey a sense of the complexity, dynamism, adaptability, and ongoing relevance of Lakota religion to the Catholic priests—the inheritors (and perpetuators) of a long tradition of overt hostility toward it.
Among the most memorable and impactful aspects of this work, however, are the self-reexive portions. Indeed, it is through these sections, which come relatively late, that the book truly coheres and gains a sense of immediacy. We come to learn that Garner was married to a Lakota, lived on the Rosebud Reservation, and came to know about the MMA through her father-in-law. This section not only makes her engagement with her “subject” more personal and real, but it also demonstrates her positionality and skills as an ethnographer and participant observer.
In another engaging chapter, Garner reports on how she discovered that the library that holds the MMA tapes and transcripts actually recast them as “dialogues” when they created an inventory and why that designation is problematic. This, in turn, serves as a springboard into a critical exploration of the constructed nature of “the archive” and the limits of collected memory, as well as the ongoing appropriation of Indigenous knowledge and the need for intellectual repatriation. A book characterized by breadth and acuity, To Come to a Better Understanding takes Lakota beliefs, epistemologies, and practices seriously and makes a strong case for their inclusion in the field of religious studies. Moreover, she does so with extraordinary sensitivity and respect toward just how complex these knowledge systems are. And finally, Garner writes about Lakota religions in a way that is accessible to readers who may not have background in the area. This is an excellent book that makes a vital contribution to scholarship on American Indian and Indigenous Studies and especially work devoted to the so-called Red Power Era. [End Page 764]