Russell Means was someone whose imposing presence dominated a room, and anyone who ever met him remembers the intense gaze, measured handshake, and immediate sizing up of your qualifications. In his final book with Bayard Johnson, If You’ve Forgotten the Names of the Clouds, You’ve Lost Your Way: An Introduction to American Indian Thought and Philosophy, this same presence, his Sicun, is strongly felt. Albert White Hat, Sr. translates the meaning of the Lakotah1 word Sicun as “leaving your spirit or your influence someplace.” And he says, “if you’ve ever read a book and got a sense of the author’s feelings, then that’s something like the meaning.” Reading If You’ve Forgotten the Names of the Clouds is an opportunity to sense Means’ feelings and presence, and to remember his influence. In a direct and succinct way, so well known of Russell Means, the book is a guide that provides the essence of Lakotah philosophy as he understood it, and learned from his ancestors and the old people from Pine Ridge and Rosebud after joining the American Indian Movement. It centers on ways to live a good life each day, anpetu waste, as well as lessons about what makes life meaningful, how to maintain good relations, and the things people need to do. It does this through instruction in the ways of Lakotah People as presented in the mythologies, sacred ceremonies, and what Means terms as an “introduction to matriarchy,” the importance of women. At the same time, the book contrasts these ways of life with patriarchy and the current move toward what Means and Bayard suggest is “the direction of destroying life – at every level, from the microscopic the macroscopic” (p. 48) by the dominance of patriarchal society.
The book is divided into forty-five vignettes, including the forward and epilogue. Each vignette provides insight into American Indian and Lakotah thought and philosophy in short densely packed paragraphs. As short descriptive sketches of particular philosophical ideas and thoughts, the vignettes begin with a quote by elders, ancestors or Means himself. The first fourteen vignettes address Lakotah philosophy, knowledge and ceremony that includes discussions of matriarchal time and “the natural purity of women,” as well as the sacred rites of inipi, sundance, crying for a vision, the ball ceremony and the coming of White Buffalo Calf Woman, among others.
In subsequent vignettes, the authors examine the role of marriage, family and children as ways to encourage the development of good relations, the virtue of generosity, and “living by natural law.” This begins the basis for a comparison of matriarchal society versus patriarchal society. As the authors’ indicate, the impact of patriarchy in Native and Indigenous communities has contributed to significant cultural, physical and spiritual loss. And they make specific comparisons to the devastating effects of colonialism and patriarchy. In the forward Means notes, “The Trickster has completely tricked my people. The Trickster, or Iktomi, has come into out land, and completely colonized the Lakota Nation…. The Heyoka, the one who lives backwards, has come into our land to try to get people out of this death condition.” The book proceeds to examine briefly the role of the Heyoka in bringing the world back into balance since “the basic premise of a Heyoka is as a teacher, teaching us how not to live by doing everything backwards in the physical sense” (p. 84). This examination becomes more of a call to arms—a final message for those he leaves behind. Yet, If You’ve Forgotten the Names of the Clouds does not end with a conclusion, but rather with thoughts and ideas for living today and the “balance and holiness of all things.” The philosophy, wisdom and ideas presented in each vignette never dictate a path; they only point the way.
Readers that are unfamiliar with the content of this work may find the commentaries hard to understand, but stimulating in its ability to generate interest in American Indian thought and philosophy. Those more familiar with the ideas may be challenged to learn more about the issues and the contexts that Means and Bayard address. Then, to speak with elders and honestly say, “I don’t know the names of the clouds.” The book never tells readers the names of the clouds, there is a sense that to learn these names you must study the philosophy and take it in as part of you. As Means indicates, the Trickster has been very busy. Yet through the return to traditional ways, working to erase the effects of colonization, and remembering we all have the spirit of the Trickster inside of us, we can begin to understand and heal. As Albert White Hat, Sr. relates, like the Trickster “we all have a tendency to be shrewd and manipulate others.” But it is up to us to find the path back, and the message is “it is still not too late.” Means and Bayard do not provide answers or a map to follow on this path, but rather they point us in a direction, and from there it is up to us. As commented by Vine Deloria, Jr. a number of years ago, the most valuable contribution of this guide to living may be Means’ “ability to light the eyes that have been dimmed so long.”
Kathleen J. Martin