Museum Villa Stuck, Richochet #9, 2015

Dangerous Dance

The Ghost Dance at Pine Ridge, by Frederic Remington

The Ghost Dance by the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge Agency as drawn by Frederic Remington (commons.wikimedia)



When word of the dances arrived back East, Washington officials were certain: those were war dances! The Indians were back on the warpath! The time had finally arrived to show those savages who was in charge. Far from forgotten was the humiliating defeat of the US 7th Calvary by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer lay slain, a man who had entertained ambitions of becoming the President of the United States. Custer's Last Stand. The Indian-hater, who loved to summon Indian female prisoners to his tent, would become one of the Wild West’s great legendary figures. Streets and cities would be named after him. But now the year was 1889, and the prairies quaked. From today's Oklahoma to the Pacific Coast, at nearly every reservation the Indians danced themselves into a trance-like state. President Benjamin Harrison had no choice but to place the US military on heightened alert.

What was going on? Wovoka, a medicine man of the Paiute, had experienced a prophetic vision during the solar eclipse of January 1, 1889: a new prairie dance ritual. Wovoka’s Christian name was Jack Wilson, and he was born and raised in Nevada?the same state in which decades later the US would test its atomic bombs. Suddenly there was a new dance ritual: the Ghost Dance! Like wildfire the Ghost Dance grew, the newspapers back East reporting on its spread as if it were some hostile epidemic. The Ghost Dance?the ritual invoked the invisible world, the Ghost Dancers calling on their departed ancestors to return.

The Ghost Dance was a round dance that disallowed all weapons?all spears, tomahawks, and rifles were prohibited. The Ghost Dancers were required to hold hands and revolve in a circle. The Ghost Dance ritual lasted four nights and five days and exacted the utmost concentration. Ecstasy. Most every Indian wanted to learn the Ghost Dance, and with good reason: Wovoka had paired the dance with a powerful message: if the Indians performed the Ghost Dance long enough, the missing tribes would reappear, the dead would be resurrected, the bison would return, there would be no hunger, the stone buildings and railroad tracks would disappear, and the prairies would once more flourish.

The Lakota stylized the dance according to their own traditions. Ornamented with traditional figures and symbols, their Ghost Dance Shirts, the Lakota believed, would protect them from harm of every kind?no bullet could penetrate the fabric. The Ghost Dance was an act of nonviolent resistance. The Native American Holocaust had long been underway, epidemics and Christian missionaries tightening the noose on Indian culture. Only the Ghost Dance saved the Lakota from utter despair. The dance lent its participants a kind of magical strength?their feelings of powerlessness were replaced by feelings of invulnerability. The invaders had no idea of what was going on. Their music had a different sound. Massacres were accompanied by military bands.

Then came December, 1890. A group of about three hundred men, women and children of the Minneconjou Lakota had surrendered and were on the way to Prisoner of War Camp 344. Big Foot, their chief, weakened by pneumonia, lay in a wagon wrapped in woolen blankets. A detachment of the 7th Cavalry Regiment escorted the group to Cankpe Opi, or Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians were told to pitch their teepees. Prisoner of War Camp 344 was erected in 1871 by the US Department of War; it was also known as Pine Ridge Reservation. Soon, the rest of the regiment arrived, and with it four Hotchkiss guns?the latest model of light artillery. In the early dark the guns were brought into position. On the morning of December 29, US officers ordered the Minneconjou to surrender their weapons. Soldiers collected the firearms, but one young Indian warrior, deaf and unable to understand English, refused to relinquish his rifle. He tried to make the soldiers understand that the gun was too important to him, that he needed it to hunt. During the ensuing scuffle a shot was discharged, harmless, into the air. The soldiers who surrounded the encampment took the shot as a signal. The Hotchkiss guns began fire. There was no time to escape. A few of the Indians broke into dance. In the hail of shrapnel and bullets, some two-hundred Minneconjou men, women and children died. Those who survived the massacre were taken to a church still ornamented by Christmas decorations; above the altar proclaimed a banner: Peace on earth and good will towards men. This is the scene with which historian Dee Brown finished his world-famous saga, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. The following day Big Foot's body was found: a crooked corpse bizarrely frozen in the snow. Once the frost subsided, a mass grave was dug. For their participation in the massacre at Wounded Knee, twenty soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

Come the turn of the century, there were still some 250,000 Indians living in the United States, and perhaps a thousand bison. Indians and buffalo (as the settlers falsely called the bison) didn't make a reappearance into the American consciousness until Hollywood Westerns conquered movie theaters. Again the Indians were scripted to die, but this time they were killed by the blanks of John Wayne and his ilk. Concurrently, Indian children were rounded up and placed in Christian boarding schools, or forcibly adopted by Mormon families. Drastic methods were used to stop Indian children from speaking their traditional languages. Indian policy was steered by the idea of quick assimilation into the American Way of Life.

But the Ghost Dance? It did not stop!

The earliest cinematographic records in American ethnography offer authentic Ghost Dance footage. James Mooney was the first ethnologist to record the dance, interview dancers, and explain the ritual's cultural context. He called the Indian phenomenon the "Ghost-dance Religion." A point where the visible and invisible worlds meet is something very real to America's indigenous peoples. White literature from the late nineteenth-century American West attests that Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake), the medicine man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, was one of the warriors who fought against Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. But during the fighting Tatanka Iyotake stayed behind in the hills and engaged in "making medicine" to influence the outcome of the battle.

Ghost Dance gatherings continued well into the nineteen twenties. Indian uprisings no longer a threat, the government in Washington had removed all bans from the ritual.

February, 1973. A second incident at Wounded Knee rocked the nation. The American Indian Movement (AIM), a Pan-Indian resistance organization originating from Minneapolis-St Paul, staged a symbolic occupation of the Wounded Knee cemetery and nearby Trading House to draw attention to the deplorable living conditions on US reservations. The AIM activists, playing with Indian stereotypes, fed the media what it wanted. The warriors in their war paint and leather fringe vests wore feathers in their long, braided hair, carried rifles, played drums, sang, chanted, danced, took white hostages. When Federal marshals demanded that the hostages be released, the hostages refused to emerge, for they sympathized with the Indian struggle. The occupation lasted some seventy-one days. Washington reacted in the same manner it had eighty-three years earlier: the National Guard, arriving with tanks, advanced upon the Indian warriors. By the end of the hostilities, two Indians had been killed, and a number of men on both sides had been wounded. The occupiers proclaimed the "Independent Oglala Lakota Nation." But the AIM demands for sovereign control of the traditional lands were never taken seriously by the officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Over the course of the next two years, Pine Ridge Reservation was racked by internal strife. The FBI took advantage of the situation by sending in some two thousand agents for hands-on training. The era would become as the "Reign of Terror." Those Indians with US loyalties (Indians whom the AIM people called "Apples"?for they were "red on the outside and white on the inside") were rewarded by the FBI with beer and ammunition. One bloody Pine Ridge incident reverberates to this very day: following an exchange of gunfire, two FBI agents and a Native American activist lay dead on the ground. Three Indians were sought in connection with the FBI murders; two of the men were soon caught and placed on trial. Both were acquitted owing to lack of evidence and the FBI’s role on the reservation during the Reign of Terror. But the FBI’s code of honor demanded that someone pay for the deaths of the two fallen agents. Once the third suspect was caught in Canada and brought back for trial, the FBI fabricated evidence and intimidated witnesses into committing perjury. The suspect?Leonard Peltier?was sentenced to two lifetime terms of prison. As of 2016, Leonard Peltier will have served forty years behind bars. In 1999 he published a book entitled, My Life is My Sun Dance. Among Plains Indians, the annual Sun Dance, in which pain leads the dancer to transcend reality, is the most important ritual of the year. Were Leonard a free man, he would also take part in the Ghost Dance?and in all likelihood, at a ranch called, "Crow Dog’s Paradise."

The Crow Dog family owns land just east of Pine Ridge on the Rosebud Reservation, the traditional home of the Sincangu Lakota. During the occupation of Wounded Knee, Leonard Crow Dog, alongside Wallace Black Elk, was the most important medicine man. Later, on some rather imaginative charges, and following a capture that involved helicopters, spotlights, and inflatable rubber boats, Leonard Crow Dog served two years in prison. His great-grandfather, Jerome Crow Dog, was a Ghost Dancer. Indians think in terms of cycles, and for Leonard it was a mission most vital to close the circle and again perform the dance of his great-grandfather at Crow Dog's Paradise. Documentary maker David Baxter captured the ritual on film. On the fourth day of the Ghost Dance a group of eagles appeared overhead, circling in formation. Eagles normally do not fly in formation.

Woodstock, 1969: America experienced a powerful cultural surge that continues to this day. Rock in the sixties recognized the power of Indian culture, and Indians recognized the power of the new music. Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree from Canada, wrote the song Universal Soldier, and the Dakota singer Floyd Red Crow Westerman landed a hit that resounded like a war whoop across Indian country: Custer Died For Your Sins. Westerman had grabbed the title from a friend of his who wrote texts with a very sharp feather, Vine Deloria, Jr. The environmental movement embraced the Indian movement. Concerts more and more became activist events, microphones used almost like weapons. Hippies and Indians joined hands, dancing. The United Nations in New York invited Thomas Banyacya, a spokesperson of the traditional Hopi, to appear before the General Assembly and interpret the warnings of the ancient Hopi prophecies. Suddenly white ranchers stood next to Indian ecologists and spoke of Buffalo Commons, a sweep of land stretching from Montana to Texas in which bison would once again graze on the waving grasses of the prairies. Native American languages revived, Indian Nations struck up ratifications to become nuclear-free territories, and the reservations became the vital cradles of renewable sun and wind energies. At the same time bridges crumbled and fell, skyscrapers revealed dangerous cracks, and great stretches of railroad tracks rusted from disuse, derelict industrial sections of defeated cities like Detroit bloomed into gardens. And when the great winter blizzards hit the Midwest, the cattle retreating from the cold, bison stood with their heads pointing into the wind to reveal the way of the future. It's almost as if someone had translated Wovoka's sermon into a new language. Just outside of Wounded Knee, the first Indian radio station, KILI, broadcasts the news in Lakota?a demonstration of tribal sovereignty framed by rock, rap, and powwow music.

"The Ghost Dance is not dead," says the Indian radio journalist Laura Waterman Wittstock. Those who comb song titles will discover the Ghost Dance of Robbie Robertson and the Ghost Dance of Pattie Smith. Plus there's the Ghost Dance of Bill Miller, a Lakota songwriter. Bill explains that he had visited an exhibition showing photographs of breasts being cut off, and of babies being tossed through the air to be impaled on soldier bayonets. The photography at the time was very slow, so we can only assume that the soldiers demonstrated their brutalities in slow motion. One is reminded of the torture photos taken west of Baghdad at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. Bill had waited until the anger within him died, then wrote his Ghost Dance version?a song of reconciliation.

Wasi’chu the Lakota call the whites. Wasi'chu? He who skims the cream and lives from greed, avarice. The final treaty between the Great Sioux Nation (Lakota, Dakota and Nakota) and the Great Wasi’chu in Washington was drawn up in 1868, establishing as central to the Sioux tribal lands their sacred He Sapa (Black Hills). Once gold was discovered and white prospectors swarmed the Black Holes, the treaty agreement wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. A good one hundred years later, the US government offered a symbolic dollar amount to make up for the forfeiture of treaty lands. The voices of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota united as one: "The Black Hills are not for sale!" In September of 2014, Indian and white musicians met in the He Sapa for a two-day musical festival called the "Unity Concert." The traditional guardians of the sacred mountains plan to win the local white residents as allies to their cause before they ask the Great White Father for the return of their treaty lands. Or maybe by then they will be received by a Great White Mother? The new wave of Indian music as a continuation of the Ghost Dance? "Yes, that's a way to see it!" says Winona LaDuke, the famous Indian activist from Minnesota. Her "White Earth Land Recovery Project" seeks to heal the wounds inflicted by the past few centuries.

English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus