JOHN GREGORY BOURKE was an extraordinary man. He served as an Army officer in the post-Civil War Indian wars and at the same time studied Indian languages and customs as an ethnologist. He read Shakespeare during free time in camp and educated himself in anthropological theory. With insatiable curiosity about aboriginal ceremonies and folklore, acute powers of observation, and exceptional writing skills, he accumulated voluminous field notes, which he turned into highly-respected scientific monographs. The Apache Indians were so impressed with his diligence in writing that they called him the "paper medicine man."
Bourke's military assignments seemed little more than a stage for his scientific studies. When he was fighting with General George Crook against the Sioux and the Cheyennes in the Battle of the Rosebud (a prelude to Custer's defeat in 1876), he observed and interrogated Crook's Shoshoni and Crow scouts and described the campaign from the Indian side. In the Southwest, as a member of Crook's staff during the Apache wars, Bourke spent every spare moment learning about the Indians, developed close friends among them, and attracted informants who supplied him information about customs and religious ceremonies kept hidden from most whites. With a brashness touching upon arrogance, he invaded the Hopis' kivas to witness their snake dance, and he observed and described the sun dance of the Oglala Sioux and the secret dances of the Zunis. His devotion to scientific study of the Indians impressed his army superiors, who willingly assigned him to ethnological fieldwork and for a time to duty in Washington, D.C., where he could devote full time to writing.
Through it all, Bourke kept a detailed diary, from his first assignment to the West on graduation from West Point in 1869 to a few days before his death in 1896. The diary is full of forceful prose and personal comments that betray Bourke's cynicism and his Victorian standards. Together with his field notes it formed the basis for his writings. His most popular book, On the Border With Crook, retraced his military experiences with Crook and made the general famous. His ethnological studies won support from American ethnologists of the day, the encouragement of the historian Francis Parkman, and an international reputation. Books like The Snake-Dance of the Moquis of Arizona and The Medicine Men of the Apache were models of ethnological description, and the German translation of his Scatological Rites of All Nations carried an introduction by Sigmund Freud, who called it "not merely a courageous undertaking, but one of great service."
JOSEPH C. PORTER, curator of Western American History and Ethnology in the Center for Western Studies, Joslyn Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, makes full use of Bourke's extensive diary and other writings. In well-crafted chapters he recounts Bourke's career within a rich context of the maturing discipline of anthropology and the factionalism and rivalry that marked the post-Civil War army. He notes Bourke's sympathy for the Indians and his violent criticism of U.S. Indian policy -- Bourke called the army's Apache policy "the quintessence of idiocy; poppycock sublimed into madness." When the Chiricahua Apaches were imprisoned in Florida after their surrender, Bourke joined eastern humanitarians to fight for fair treatment and release of the Indians. It is one of the ironies of his career that Bourke, who began as a militant Indian fighter, ended it as a collaborator with the Indian reformers.
Porter rightly sees Bourke as a man of the Gilded Age, whose views about the Indians' destiny were quite different fron those of today. Bourke accepted the anthropological wisdom of his time, which posited inexorable progress of human society from savagery to civilization. He saw in the Indians' customs a reflection of white experience in centuries past, and his goal for the Indians was rapid acculturation to white ways. Bourke was, in essence, a "salvage" anthropologist, observing and recording Indian ways with a great sense of urgency before inevitable detribalization and transformation.
The drama in Paper Medicine Man cannot hide the sadness. Army politics deprived Bourke of promotion, and his military career never reached the pinnacle he thought he deserved. He suffered from extended periods of illness, aggravated by severe depression and hardly helped by his impatient drive to finish the scientific studies for which he had gathered so much material. Finally, it was too much. He died on June 8, 1896, in appearance an aged and decrepit man, two weeks before his 50th birthday.
Strangely, until the appearance of this book only short sketches of Bourke's remarkable career were available -- a pamphlet by William Gardner Bell, for example, and an article by John A. Turcheneske. Porter's sympathetic yet properly critical account of this soldier-scientist at last gives Bourke the full attention he deserves.