EXCERPT: To Come to a Better Understanding

The following excerpt was taken from To Come to a Better Understanding: Medicine Men and Clergy Meetings on the Rosebud Reservation, 1973-1978 (Nebraska, 2016) by Sandra L. Garner. 

From Chapter 1: Which Kind of Indian?

Ghostly Matters: Modernity, Identity, and Loss

At the beginning of the twentieth century, one group who perceived the local, reservation Indian as outside modernity was the Society of American Indians (SAI). The SAI was one of the earliest pantribal American Indian associations whose scope was national. Although the group was composed of individuals from diverse nations, there were many similarities. Most notable among their commonalities, the members were well educated and profoundly shaped by the boarding school system, a primary vehicle of assimilation designed to bring the Indian into the modern era. Many SAI members were the first to break through the barriers of the glass ceiling in a historical moment when many at the local level of native communities had reached their nadir as a result of settler-colonial efforts. In spite of their varying degrees of assimilation, in their own complicated ways they too were activists working for American Indian rights.

At the October 2011 commemoration of the first meeting of the SAI, scholar Philip Deloria (2013), great-grandson of one of the original participants, made two key points about those who took part in the original meeting one hundred years earlier. He encouraged the audience of contemporary scholars to go beyond the “assimilation rant” directed at the original members of the SAI and to remember that they all worked actively to preserve some element of Native culture and envisioned a Native American future. Deloria urged the audience not to discount the efforts of the SAI, but rather to work to understand the “complexities embodied . . . [and] the strong-willed souls who lived through gut wrenching transitions and demanding social unevenness” (26). He also noted how his great-grandfather focused his efforts on life on the ground, in the community, and never returned to the SAI meetings after attending the first. While he proffered several reasons for this, Deloria also linked his explanation to what he referred to as the “dangerous assumption” made by many in the SAI “that reservation and rural people were not themselves also part of modernity” and his great-grandfather’s work was at the local community level (30).


The subjectivity of the SAI participants described by Deloria is attentive to both the historical conditions of the SAI participants’ lived reality and their complex and often messy responses to the processes of governmentality that shaped their lives. To Come to a Better Understanding is informed by the approach advanced by sociologist Avery Gordon, which is attentive to these same two issues. While Gordon is not the first to attend to the context and complexity of the historical subjectivity produced in the modern era, I’m drawn to her use of the metaphors of ghosts and haunting(s), the appearance of which, she argues, signals the complex effects, impacts, and affects of modernity. Gordon (2008, 8, 11) posits the ghost as a social figure and haunting as a signal of a historical subjectivity that requires analytical attention to historical context and the “complex personhood” produced by processes of dominance and governmentality. The phenomenon is so prevalent that she declares it is “a constituent element of modern social life.”8

Contemporary scholars at the centennial commemoration of the SAI clearly followed hauntings as they examined the complexities of the original SAI attendees. They provided nuanced attention to the impacts and effects of colonialism. In doing so, they offered a shifting epistemological model that intervenes in the ways the production of knowledge in modernity has served narratives that justify and legitimize continued oppression under various guises. Gordon writes that the task is “to reveal and to learn from subjugated knowledge.” She draws on Michel Foucault in arguing that “subjugated knowledge names, on the one hand, what official knowledge represses within its own terms, institutions and archives. . . . [It is] ‘disqualified,’ marginalized, fugitive knowledge from below and outside the institutions of official knowledge” (xviii) and has therefore received little attention.

An example of the subjugation of indigenous knowledge as it rubs up against the notion of official knowledge is clear in current debates about the status of American Indian studies in the academy—is it a field? Is it a discipline? These very questions attest to the reality that scholarly work in American Indian studies remains fugitive knowledge. The majority of academic institutions employ only a handful of scholars whose research focuses on American Indians and/or indigenous people and only a few offer PhDs, mas, majors, or minors in the field. On one hand, American Indian studies has come a long way in the last four decades. In a 1995 article, historian Dave Edmunds observed that the dearth of research in this field could be traced via an examination of the publishing history of the journal American Historical Review. During the first ten years of publication there was not a single article published in the journal about American Indian history, and from 1920 to 1960 there were only four articles that referenced Native Americans (Edmunds 1995, 720–21).

Historian Donald Fixico (Shawnee, Sac and Fox, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole) (1996, 30) observes that Native history was neglected for more than a century and a primary characteristic of the approaches at the time was that Native peoples were treated as peripheral objects while whites were the primary actors. Today this is no longer the case. Yet as Byrd (2011, xxxi) observes, “those outside [American Indian studies] perceive it as a project of recovery, culture, identity, and polemic,” the implication being that those are not legitimate concerns of the academy. This obfuscation prompted Warrior (2013, 233) to call for contemporary scholars to focus on the “wounds and ruptures” experienced by “the least powerful, the most vulnerable, and most reviled people from our communities and to stand with them as intellectuals and, as scholars to promote the visibility of their lives and realities.” This is the Native cohort that haunts Warrior and it is how the MMA [Medicine Men’s Association] described their lived reality.

Of the many MMA participants, only two are living today.6 Their names and lives are, for the most part, unfamiliar to a contemporary, nonlocal, audience, and, for that matter, many within the contemporary local community. While they are literally ghostly figures now, following the ghost and haunting metaphors as articulated by Gordon leads to an analysis that is attentive to the focus of the MMA. They discussed at length the ideologies and practices that served to oppress and they expressed the messy complexities of their own lives and the lives of others in their community.

As Philip Deloria observed at the SAI commemoration, the original organizers of the first SAI meeting did not consider the reservation Indians part of modernity. In reality Native peoples were not outside of modernity, as evidenced by the MMA; rather they were shaped by, responded to, and engaged with modernity. Then and now Native peoples respond to the historical conditions of colonialism that banished certain individuals, things, or ideas . . . rendered them marginal, excluded, or repressed” (Radway 2008, viii). Further, time-bound circumstances have “concrete impacts on the people most affected by them,” which shapes the very complex and messy ways that individuals respond (Gordon 2008, xv). Yet as Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) (2006, 253) persuasively argues in his seminal essay, “Towards a National Indian Literature,” there is a “creative ability of Indian people [to] gather in many forms of the socio-political colonizing force which beset them and make these forms meaningful in their own terms.” Focus on this creative ability is an important lens for considering the contributions of the MMA participants in the MMCM [Medicine Men and Clergy Meetings] as we see a wide range of responses from rejection to critique to syntheses that create new meaning.

The MMA participants were complex persons, ones that, I argue, remind us of Deloria’s caution regarding the original participants at the SAI, and like Deloria I argue that we should not judge or discount them too hastily. For example, all struggled with alcohol—either personally or within their immediate family. One participant attended the meetings intoxicated on more than one occasion (Big Crow 11/2/1976, 4). Another participant spent years in a federal penitentiary for manslaughter committed during an alcohol binge. They had varying, complex relationships with the Catholic Church. Some seemed assimilated to dominant society—in particular the Catholic Church—while others would not engage the Church at all. One could read these stories as the general story of victimization and tragedy. Yet each participant, a consummate storyteller in his or her own right, presents us with the irony of what theorist Homi Bhabha (2004, 123) calls the “ambivalence of mimicry,” which he argues has both disruptive and transformative potential. Rather than a focus on a strict narrative of loss, there is an irony communicated by the MMA members. In spite of centuries of the governmentality of colonial regimes, the participants were actively weaving, as Gordon (2008, 4) notes, “between what is immediately available . . . and what their imaginations are reaching toward”—a distinct Native (Lakota) identity. They were activists committed to their particular vision of a Native American, specifically, Lakota future.


6. Leonard Crow Dog, who was one of the youngest participants, was alive and well on the Rosebud Reservation as of August 2015. Ben Black Bear Jr., who acted, on occasion, as a translator for the group, is also a current resident of Rosebud Reservation.

8.See the introduction to Harkin (2004). Harkin lays out a systems theory approach to the study of revitalization movements in which the turn to revitalization is prompted by cultural stress, which creates cultural disequilibrium.



Bhabha, Homi. 2004. The Location of Culture. 2nd. ed. London: Routledge Classics.

Byrd, Jodi. 2001. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Delorica, Philip. 2013. “Four Thousand Invitations.” American Indian Quarterly 37, no. 3 (Summer): 23-43

Edmonds, Dave. 1994. “Native Americans, New Voices: American Indian History, 1895-1995.” American History Review 100, no. 3 (June): 717-40.

Fixico, Donald. 1996. “Ethics and Responsibilities in Writing American Indian History.” American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 1 (Winter): 29-39.

Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ortiz, Simon. 2006. “Towards a National Indian Literature.” In American Indian Nationalism, ed. Craig Womach, Robert Warrior, and Jace Weaver, 253-60. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Radway, Janice. 2008. Foreward to Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination by Avery Gordon, vii-xii. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Warrior, Robert. 2013. “The SAI and the End(s) of Intellectual History.” American Indian Quarterly 37, no 3 (Summer): 219-35.