For weeks after I read this book, I couldn’t speak about it without crying. Not because I was sad about what we did to the Native American people — I was, but that’s not why. I felt devastated that I had not lived my whole life with the sense of freedom and dignity the author describes. It seemed that I, and my fellow Americans, had missed out on so much when we chose to conquer rather than learn from his people.
Luther Standing Bear experienced Lakota life before and after his tribe was moved to a reservation. He learned the white man’s ways, yet maintained his original understanding of the Native American ways. In Land of the Spotted Eagle, he offers vivid descriptions of his Lakota upbringing and insights into the Native American mind and spirit. He also discusses the many ways in which the white man misunderstood and mischaracterized his people and their culture.
While his descriptions of the lives and roles of women in the tribes were, perhaps understandably, less insightful and inspiring than I would have liked, I found it easy enough to look past those parts. I’m glad I did because he shared a great deal more that I wanted to emulate.
Overall, Luther Standing Bear offered a detailed account of a people who had a long tradition of honoring and respecting the natural world and each other. I’m so grateful to him for writing this book and showing me that people once lived lives of great depth and meaning on this land. And they didn’t need money to do so.
Here is a passage from the book on the medicine man and how he learned from the animals:
“Now the medicine-man derived his knowledge from the infinite source – Wakan Tanka. For him knowledge was not in books, nor in the heads of professors, but in the works of Wakan Tanka as manifested in the creatures and beings of nature. This association of knowledge with all the creatures of earth caused him to look to them for his knowledge, and assuming their spiritual fineness to be of the quality of his own, he sought with them a true rapport. If the man could prove to some bird or animal that he was a worthy friend, it would share with him precious secrets and there would be formed bonds of loyalty never to be broken; the man would protect the rights and life of the animal, and the animal would share with the man his power, skill, and wisdom. In this manner was the great brotherhood of mutual helpfulness formed, adding to the reverence for life orders other than man. The taking of animal life for food and clothing only became established, and frugality became regarded as a virtue. Animal life took its place in the scheme of things, and there was no slavery and no torture of four-footed and winged things. By acknowledging the virtues of other beings the Lakota came to possess them for himself, and for his wonder and reverence and for his unsurpassed humbleness and meekness Wakan Tanka revealed himself to the medicine-man.”
-Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle