Last updated: September 2, 2020
“… this pipe is us. The stem is our backbone, the bowl our head.
The stone is our blood, red as our skin. The opening in the bowl is our mouth and the smoke rising from it is our breath, the visible breath of our people.” - Lame Deer
Early Life and Vision-Seeking
John Fire Lame Deer was born near the Rosebud Indian Reservation in 1903 to parents Silas Fire Let-Them-Have-Enough (Hunkpapa Lakota) and Sally Red Blanket (Miniconjou Lakota). He was largely raised by his maternal grandparents before being forced to attend day school on the reservation. The school attempted to assimilate American Indian children into Euro-American culture, and Lame Deer claimed the teachers only taught 3rd grade. He attended the school for six years but did not learn to read, write, or speak English. Lame Deer then attended boarding school for two years before running away. Of his school years he later said, “They couldn’t make me into an apple – red outside and white inside.”
At the age of 16, he participated in his first hanblechia, or vision-seeking. He wished to become a medicine man, and the ceremony would mark his transition from boy to man. He spent four days and nights alone in a vision pit on a high hill, finding solace in his pipe. Eventually, a vision came to him in which his great-grandfather, Chief Tahca Ushte (Lame Deer), appeared before him. Young Lame Deer understood he was to take his great-grandfather’s name and awoke from the vision pleased. Throughout his adult life, he preferred this traditional Lakota name to the Christian name (John Fire) he had been given.
The Heyoka and the Rodeo Clown
Lame Deer’s mother died when he was 17 years old. Her death altered his family and transformed his life. His father gifted him livestock, but Lame Deer soon traded these for rodeo gear and a Model T Ford. He joined the rodeo circuit, first as a rider and later as a cross-dressing rodeo clown named Alice Jitterbug.
Lame Deer was also a heyoka, or sacred clown, within his tribe. A heyoka is someone visited by Thunder-Beings in a dream, and they are known for their contrary and often comedic behaviors. Lame Deer compared his role as a heyoka to that of being a rodeo clown, describing the latter as “almost like doing spiritual work.” Lame Deer’s contradictory nature was not limited to his time as a rodeo clown. Throughout his early adulthood he was variously a wanderer and a prisoner; a criminal and a law officer; a sheepherder and a bootlegger; a hippie and a veteran; a womanizer and a holy man. Time spent in saloons, jail cells, and the U.S. Army taught Lame Deer more about the English language than his formal education ever had.
Spiritual Influence and Legacy
As Lame Deer matured, he recognized that the pipe religion held more value to him than peyote rituals or Christian teachings. He performed pipe ceremonies and participated in activist movements protecting Lakota traditions and beliefs, including a sit-in at Mount Rushmore where he was accompanied by friend and artist Richard Erdoes. Over the course of their friendship, they collaborated on Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions (1972), a book that appealed largely to youth of the 1960s – 70s counterculture movement. In his final years, Lame Deer expressed his pleasure at witnessing this cultural shift of minorities finding their voices and speaking out. He died in 1976 at the age of 73, but his descendants continue to uphold his mission and spiritual practices.
**Photo citation: Richard Erdoes photographs from the Richard Erdoes Papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, © Yale University. All rights reserved.