A Medicine Man
Changed Him into an Author
The adventurous life of the prize-winning illustrator, photographer, and author, Richard Erdoes
He was the man they called, "Inyan Wasicun." Native Americans are rather reserved when it comes to giving white people names – a name can turn an outsider into family. It's not the head-dresses politicians slip on before running cameras that really speaks of something across Indian Country – no, a name is what's important.
Richard Erdoes fled across the Atlantic in 1940; the Gestapo was not amused by his caricatures. By then the twenty-eight year-old art student was already a veteran wayfarer: he had lived in Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin, Budapest, Paris, in Italy, the Balkans...
"I am the embodiment," Richard loved to say, "of the old multicultural, multilingual Hungarian-Austrian Empire. I am equal parts Austrian, Hungarian and German, as well as equal parts Catholic, Protestant and Jew – plus I even have a little Mohammadan in me."
The German exile community immediately welcomed Richard, the talented illustrator, to New York City; Oskar-Maria Graf invited Richard to join his Stammtisch, in the background Bertolt Brecht was forever musing about, and it wasn't long before Richard found work as an illustrator at National Geographic and Life Magazine – where he met his wife Jean.
Richard and Jean had three children and the entire family travelled the road to papa's far-flung work assignments. When Life Magazine sent Richard out to do a photo series on life on the Indian Reservations, the Native Americans immediately took a liking to the man: he travelled accompanied by a lot of banter and life – the same way they hit the road.
Richard and Jean invited their Indian friends to come visit them in New York, and it wasn't many who turned down the opportunity. Soon the district around the Erdoes' apartment on West 89th came to be known as "Sioux Side."
For myself, when travelling through the U.S. as a journalist concerned with Native American issues, West 89th was my first stopping place – plus the last place I poked in my head before returning to Europe. At Jean and Richard's, civil rights activists rubbed shoulders with American Indian Movement activists – pooling their resources, they hammered out strategies to aid such political prisoners as Leonard Crow Dog, Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier. Richard helped out with the graphics: for instance, the logo that belongs to the Indian Treaty Council was dreamed up at his work desk.
The respect Richard enjoyed among traditional Native Americans came from his collaboration with Tahca Ushte, a medicine man of the Minneconjou, one of the Lakota-speaking tribes. Tahca Ushte means 'Lame Deer' in English, and in the stacks of folders assembled by the FBI, Lame Deer's name was 'John Fire.'
At the end of the sixties Tahca Ushte rented an apartment on West 89th and hosted gatherings where songs were song and stories traded until the early morning hours. Late one night, while they were passing around the Canupa, the traditional pipe, Tahca Ushte told his neighbor Richard: "You will write my book."
"I should write your book?" Richard replied. "I paint and do illustrations, but I'm no writer."
Tahca Ushte said he realized that, but that his medicine knew better: soon he would be one, a writer. Richard's next objections were that his English wasn't perfect, and that he knew absolutely no Lakota.
"Such can be learned," Tahca Ushte replied, confident.
"And who will ever print it?" Richard asked, "I have absolutely no name as an author."
"Soon you will have one," said the medicine man, "because it will be our book, and the spirits tell me that it will be a success."
Tahca Ushte dictated the table of contents, Erdoes wrote a test chapter, and two days later, the prize-winning photographer Peter Bash, who also made a living as a literary agent, had signed them up with Simon & Schuster.
Not long after, in the dark of a remote hut on the Rosebud Reservation, a group of Lakota men performed a ceremony with small stones dug up from the earth, the Yupwipi ritual. Here Richard received his Indian name, Inyan Wasicun. 'Inyan' is the stone plus the message it bears; 'Wasicun' usually means 'the white man' – but it can also mean a 'being with special powers'. A loud voice in the darkness said: "We support you in this book. If all goes well, then the name Inyan Wasicun shall come to mean 'the interpreter of the mysteries'. But if it meets no good fortune, than your name shall simply mean 'white man with stones in his head'."
Lame Deer – Seeker of Visions was published in 1972 and became a best-seller. You can still pick it up in bookstores. For students of cultural anthropology at most universities across the U.S., the Ushte-Erdoes collaboration is still on the required reading list. What separates this work from most of its bookshelf neighbors is of course its origins: here no white academic went out into the field to copy down some traditional lore to support or disprove some theory, but an Indian medicine man sought out Richard, a white man, to collaborate on a book with a living message. Soon other Native Americans came forward with more ideas, and in much the same working manner as with Lame Deer, Richard wrote the biographies of Lame Deer's son Archie Fire, Mary Crow Dog, Leonard Crow Dog, and Dennis Banks. Together with the Native American anthropologist Alfonso Oritz, Richard also edited the foremost authoritative reference on Native American folklore, American Indian Myths & Legends.
Last April when I spoke to Richard for the last time, he said: "Many circles have closed themselves during my life, and I am happy about that, happy except for one circle: seventy years ago I fled Germany, and now I am winding up my life in a land where fascism is on the rise."
On the night of July 17, Richard Erdoes, 96, went out from his house in Sante Fe to join his many friends in the great hunting grounds in the sky. This summer at a number of powwows a song will be sung in honor of Richard Erdoes – the interpreter of the mysteries, Inyan Wasicun.
English translation: Craig Reishus
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