- American Indian Medicine Ways: Spiritual Power, Prophets, and Healing ed. by Clifford E. Trafzer
Indigenous medicine, healing ceremonies, creation myths, spirits, Ghost Dance, shamanism, medicine women, colonialism
Clifford E. Trafzer, author of the phenomenal Chemehuevi Song (2015), has brought together ten essays on Indigenous medicine and its role in American Indian culture and history. Nine contributors, including Trafzer, cover topics ranging from creation stories, healing ceremonies, and spiritual movements to historic and contemporary figures representing the Quechan, Navajo, Apache, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Washani, Tolowa, and others. Among the honored are Main Poc, Kenekuk, Smohalla, Wovoka, and Kenneth Coosewon. The chapter devoted to Annie Jarvis, Essie Parrish, and Mabel McKay, among others, is particularly noteworthy. For anyone interested in Indigenous spiritual customs, American Indian Medicine Ways is a worthwhile read. Indeed, this book is of great pedagogical value to anyone wanting an introductory text on oral tradition, ceremony, and medicine people in Indigenous history and society, and how these themes provide a lens through which to understand the impact of colonization on Indigenous peoplehood. This volume is also valuable to those interested in Indigenous historiography, especially when it comes to tribal resources.
At the same time, there is something rather quaint about this anthology that makes it feel dated, even though it is a recent publication. Because of the emphasis on historical figures, such as Kenekuk, Smohalla, and Wovoka, Indigenous peoples once again seem to be stuck in the past. The book misses an opportunity to examine the role of medicine ways in the Indian protest movement, from the American Indian Movement's campaign against tribal government corruption at Pine Ridge, which led to the 1973 confrontation with federal forces at Wounded Knee, to more recent efforts at stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the Resolution Copper Mine at Oak Flat, or the reduction of Bears Ears National Monument. Less dramatically, but no less important, is the absence of an essay about traditional medicine ways in the Indian Health Service. Furthermore, there are no essays focused on the problem of "plastic shamans," or cultural appropriation. In fact, the latter issue was omitted from the portrayal of Kenneth Coosewoon, who was introduced to the sweat lodge tradition by Wallace and Gracie Black Elk (261), who have been criticized for commercializing Lakota religion. Speaking of Coosewoon, more information should have been provided about his and his wife Rita's work at bringing the sweat lodge into the prison system, which has been a major development in American Indian religious freedom case law since the early 1970s.
With respect to the historical component of this anthology, one of the promising, yet unevenly fulfilled, highlights can be found in the first essay, in [End Page 125] which Trafzer and Benjamin Jenkins argue that "too many historians have avoided addressing spirits as factors that influence the course of Native American history," as they seem to be categorically "unhistorical." In response to this, the authors proposed "a few ways of thinking about spirits within three cultures"—the Quechan, Navajo, and Apache—"that studious readers may apply to other tribes in Native America" (46). What follows, however, is a general survey of Creation Stories and the ceremonies they inspired in the three cultures named. Not uninteresting but also not groundbreaking.
A clearer example of the book's limits is the essay on Main Poc by R. David Edmunds, author of the much-lauded The Shawnee Prophet (1983). On the one hand, Edmunds's essay is an important contribution to the historical discourse on Tecumseh, Tenskwatewa, and the Red Stick War, in that Main Poc's role as a war leader is brought to the foreground in significant ways, complicating the intertribal alliance that Tecumseh built against American settlers and the implications this had for the War of 1812. On the other hand, Main Poc is described as a special type of medicine man, a "wabeno," or someone whose power consists of fire. Yet, despite Main Poc being described as possessing extraordinary powers, none of this power is part of...