THE BOOK OF ELDERS by Sandy Johnson


The Life Stories of Great American Elders
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 An amateur ethnographer's attempt at recording the life stories of various aged Native Americans. Novelist and writer Johnson (Walk on a Winter Beach, 1982) was at a low point in her life when an unforgettable incident set her on a spiritual quest that resulted in this volume. Her brother and father had both recently died; writer's block prevented work on a novel; she was financially strapped; and she was having second thoughts about her then-current project--the biography of a nun who worked with Indians in the last century. Then, in a waking dream, she saw a wizened Indian face beckoning her. To what? She had to find out. Thus began a three-year journey through Indian country, interviewing tribal elders. As it turned out, she claims, the face she had seen was that of Pete Catches, a noted Oglala Lakota medicine man, whose interview leads off the volume. Those represented give a fair cross-section of Native experience in the 20th century. Some persons are familiar. Martin Gashweseoma and Thomas Banyacya discuss Hopi prophecies about humanity's impending destruction of the world. Janet McCloud, a Tulalip, discusses those who fraudulently peddle Native spirituality and also the fights over fishing rights that brought her to prominence. Others profiled are less well known. Mike Haney, half Seminole and half Lakota, is described by Johnson as one of ``tomorrow's elders.'' He discusses his involvement with the American Indian Movement and his battle with alcohol. An epilogue tells of Pete Catches's funeral. Dan Budnik's black-and-white photos are beautiful but add to the author's romanticized, white vision of what constitutes the authentically Indian. Although there is much of interest here and the pieces appear to be in the words of those interviewed, the fact that Johnson says nothing about her methods in gathering and recording the stories should make readers wary.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-06-250837-7
Page count: 256pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1994