Echoes of the Ghost Dance

Memory is long in Indian Country and histories get obscured through the haze of stories untold or skewed in the telling. By the late 1800s, the nomadic Sioux had been relegated to 320 acre plots, their children sent to boarding schools for assimilation into Christendom, and the great buffalo herds all but extinguished. Their once fluid land base had been reduced to an area the size of the state of South Dakota, and then reduced again to the roughly five reservations they now occupy. In the 1890s, a spiritual awakening intermixed with millennial anxiety, rebellion against the oppressors, and cultural expression of autonomy swept the destitute tribes. It was known as the Ghost Dance; a consolidation of secular round dances conducted with the conviction that earnestness and spiritual alignment would rid the land of its brutal occupation, and bring back the buffalo, the disappearing birds, fish and plants, and the old ways.

The Ghost Dance scared white settlers and their BIA enforcers who saw it as a call to arms, a resurgence of a powerful warrior spirit. Perhaps it had those elements, as the warrior spirit of the Sioux runs deep, but when people are starving and facing the harsh Great Plains winter dressed in rags and without shoes, it is very difficult to amass a credible threat to the cancer of colonization. In spite of the reality of the situation, BIA agents asked for troop reinforcements, claiming that Sitting Bull’s leadership posed a great threat to westward expansion. Panic set in among the white settlers, Sitting Bull was arrested for not intervening in the illegal dances, and was subsequently shot and killed in suspicious circumstances. The Ghost Dance continued to sweep through Native American tribes.

Ghost Dance. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain
Ghost Dance. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain

To the settlers, the dancing was seen as ritualistic, primitive, Dionysian, and the ululations, pitch-singing and drumming heard as cries for revenge of all that was lost. At Wounded Knee, a Lakota dance began near the banks of a little river. Earth was thrown into the sky as an offering to the heavens, a pathway for the return of lost animals, a holy offering. Was it a signal for rebellion? A gunshot was heard, and the massacre began. White soldiers, still humiliated from the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn), and hungover from a night of hard drinking, opened fire with carbines and mounted Hotchkiss guns, and when the roar of bullets cleared, the blood of 153 Lakota seeped into the tall grass prairie. Escaping women and children were tracked for miles, slain where caught.

Memory is long in Indian Country, and the devastation of colonization continues. We witness the  zealotry of security as they release bloody nosed dogs who lunge at their leashes to bite and rip at bodies. We see the glee in the troops as they pepper spray point blank in the faces of peaceful and prayerful people. We understand the genocidal consequences of our continued investment in economies of extraction, our attack on the water of life itself. Helicopters whirl overhead, surveilling the camps, and militarized police mix with private security to protect corporate interests as they plow through sacred sites of what once was legally decreed Sioux land. Police are armed, protectors are not. There is money at stake, a lot of it, and South Dakota seems wholly owned by petroleum industries.

“But things are different now. Wounded Knee could never happen again,” you might be thinking. Yes, things are always different, but history repeats itself, or more accurately, is not finished. This is the same history. As Digital Smoke Signals’  Myron Dewey says in a video post, “So we got this in reference to the Ghost Dance. When they were in prayer, they were in circle, and then they (the soldiers) created propaganda and  went in, and that was the issue. We do not want to repeat history.”

This is followed up by a direct call to action from Joye Braun of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who makes a direct plea for our participation in this ongoing and escalating standoff:

“We need everyone to come to camp now! This is not pretend anymore… Pack up, get your bags, and come here now! Come through the South Dakota side, and get to Standing Rock! …This is ground zero. Now! We need you here, right now!”

Memory is long in Indian Country. The ghost of Sitting Bull watches over the protectors. At night, drums thud to the fire’s glow, and northern lights arc across the open sky. There is singing, ululation, laughter, prayer. As you drift into sleep, you just might hear the hope and promise of a Ghost Dance of the Great Plains whisper through the buffalo grass. There is a lot at stake here, and we have a slim chance of getting it right, maybe this time…

History is always skewed, but there is that arc, they say, that sometimes bends towards justice.

An image of Sitting Bull was produced behind this message under the growing number of flags at Sacred Stone Camp (photo credit: Joe Brusky)
An image of Sitting Bull was produced behind this message under the growing number of flags at Sacred Stone Camp (photo credit: Joe Brusky)