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Reuben Snake papers carry his spirit to National Museum

SUITLAND, Md. - At the time of his death in 1993, Reuben Snake, known throughout Indian country as ''Your Humble Serpent,'' was known around the nation and the world for the power of his spiritual presence.

It was a power that led him to insist, successfully, that the religious rights of American Indians would not be trampled along with their land rights, their civil rights and their intellectual property rights.

James R. Botsford, now director of the Indian Law Office of Wisconsin Judicare Inc. in Wausau, Wis., was manning his first law office in Walthill, Neb., in 1984 when he met Reuben Snake. Walthill is a border town of the Winnebago Indian Nation; Snake greeted him with the announcement, ''I've been waiting for you.'' Snake became his best friend and his best client in the ensuing years, as they changed state law and achieved more respectful state/tribe agreements.

He was still in his office in April 1990, when the Supreme Court decision came down in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. From an especially complex line of reasoning that sprang from a mere unemployment case, the highest court in the land had ruled that the religious right of Native American Church members to peyote use did not cancel Oregon's generally applicable laws against the use of hallucinogenic substances like peyote. As a lifelong member of the NAC, Snake recognized that the decision threatened the church itself, just as if bread and wine had been banned from the Eucharist.

Snake announced the decision, but with extreme prejudice: ''Well, we're going to have to go and overturn it.''

Botsford reminded him that he himself was a one-man band with a part-time assistant, and that he knew Snake's own telephone had been disconnected the day before for nonpayment. ''So how are we going to overturn the Supreme Court?''

Snake responded, ''We'll find good friends along the way.''

They found them in Congress, which ultimately passed a countervailing law that protected peyote use for purposes of the NAC. Snake had only a few years to live by that time, but in this cause he compressed them into his finest hour. ''He really was already sick at that time,'' Botsford said. ''He gave it more than he had, and he expired along the way. But by that time he had built the momentum.''

In a statement read into the Congressional Record the day following Snake's death, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii anticipated the passage of a law securing Native religious rights. He credited the tireless efforts of an ill man, a man with little hoses in his nose for much of that time, with laying the groundwork for vital legislation that protected, among other practices, the liturgical uses of peyote in the NAC. It came to pass that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act amendments of 1994 became a late monument to Snake's imperishable memory.

But the monuments, of which the Dec. 18 donation of his papers to the National Museum of the American Indian is only the most recent, have sprung up posthumously as well. Four years after his death, at a Releasing of the Spirits ceremony for Snake on the Winnebago homelands in Nebraska, his spiritual power had not been diminished by death. It had grown.

The all-night NAC ritual was reaching an end. Sage fronds covered the ground around a dwindling fire, signifying, like palm branches at Easter, that a cherished spiritual presence treads higher ground than Earth and shouldn't touch it. The mildly vivifying effects of peyote - no hallucinogenic visions to report here, mama - had long since vanished.

After many prayerful, profoundly heartfelt testimonials to Snake's earthly goodness and guidance, a Winnebago elder turned the actual release-of-the-spirit prayer over to an NAC spiritual leader from the neighboring Omaha Tribe. The Winnebago and Omaha tribes have a common history and language; and the spiritual leader in question spoke the old holy language, which is to everyday use as the King James Bible is to demotic English (or more accurately, as classical Hebrew is to Yiddish). The elder who had asked the man to speak apologized in advance, knowing that even the few Native language speakers would not be able to follow the fluent speech in full.

For non-Native speakers, only two words in the lengthy prayer were recognizable: Reuben Snake. Precisely as they were spoken, the unmistakable strains of thunder drummed along the sky nearby, and stopped.

Afterward, a roadman of the NAC met the wonderment of nonmembers with the matter-of-fact word that it would be more surprising if the thunder hadn't sounded at the name of Reuben Snake. He was a member of the Thunder Clan. The Thunder Beings had called his spirit home.

The occasion seemed appropriately remembered Dec. 18, as the Snake family donated his documentary collection to the NMAI. Speeches, autobiographies, manuscripts, videos and audio tapes will be available to posterity at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland; but posterity should know too that a powerful spirit moves in these materials. In a dominant culture committed to documents, Reuben Snake is a necessary reminder that words and images may embody a spirit in the mind without necessarily containing it.

That noted, the collection bequeathed to the NMAI documents one of the leading careers in the modern era of Indian country. In a lifetime of public leadership that included the chairmanships of his own Winnebago Tribe, the National Congress of American Indians and many organizational boards, Snake found time for scholarship dedicated to the restoration of Native cultural knowledge. At a period when economic considerations were alien to Indian country, Snake preached economic empowerment for tribes on their own terms; and he practiced what he preached, both at Winnebago (where his tenure as chairman pulled the tribe out of financial trouble and established the foundations for its current unprecedented prosperity) and through board service with First Nations Development Institute and the Seventh Generation Fund.

But many may be drawn to the NMAI archive for Snake's humor. Here again, to hear him speak even once in his humorous vein was to glimpse a spirit that probably can't be translated except through art. His writings and recordings, though, contain titles like ''Your Humble Serpent - Wisdom of Reuben Snake,'' ''Being Indian Is ...'' and the various speeches where his humor especially shone.

And not to be neglected - a number of unfinished and/or unpublished manuscripts are shaping up as the raw material of future monuments.