Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Ghost Dance

We've heard it too many times:
“the worst shooting in US history…”

With saddened respect to all those who are mourning victims of various public outrages, these may also be teachable moments for the US about her own history.

For it is an insult to the native people of this hemisphere to overlook their collective slaughter with mass shootings by the US cavalry ending barely 100 years ago.

How hyped 9/11 was as the worst bloodshed in the US people since the Civil War. Which is an outrageous truncation of history. The US’ common incapacity to understand her own history becomes her collective blindness towards current and future circumstance.

As to seldom learned US history, consider the massacre of Wounded Knee.

December 29, 1890
Briefly, depending on who does the counting (and numbers are hotly contested between “official“ sources and the Lakota people), between around 350 to over 500 people were shot down in a mass slaughter on that date. Most of the people were sick, starved, and exhausted from being pursued by the US cavalry. They were attacked at dawn. A great number of those slain that day were elderly, very sick, or infants. Nursing mothers were shot in the back, babies were tossed into the air as targets. Corpses lay frozen in the snow for days afterwards. A mass slaughter by gunfire.

Maybe it wasn’t the worst of the Indian shootings, although some say it was. For there were many such instances. Again, by the late 1880’s the US Cavalry was employing genocidal tactics (supplying trading posts with smallpox-infected blankets, etc.) to slaughter the remaining Indians who did not want to live in those prison camps we now call reservations.

Ironically, the massacre at Wounded Knee occurred in response to a native American interpretation of the Christian gospel:
By the late 1880s, many Indian tribes, desperate and facing a dire existence of poverty, hunger and disease, sought a means of salvation to revitalize their traditional culture. The evolution of a new religion, the Ghost Dance, was a reaction to the Indians being forced to submit to government authority and reservation life. In early 1889, a Paiute shaman, Wovoka, (son of the mystic, Tavibo, whose teachings influenced the new religion) had a vision during an eclipse of the sun in which he saw the second coming of Christ and received a warning about the evils of the white man… Knowledge of the vision spread quickly through the Indian camps across the country. Word began to circulate among the people on the reservations that a great new Indian Messiah had come to liberate them, and investigative parties were sent out to discover the nature of these claims. On one of the excursions, it is said that the messiah appeared to an Arapaho hunting party, crowned with thorns. They believed him to be the incarnation of Jesus, returned to save the Indian nations from the scourge of white people. Delegations were sent to visit Wovoka in western Nevada and returned to their camps disciples, preaching a new religion that promised renewal and revitalization of the Indian nations. Among those who met with Wovoka, Good Thunder, Short Bull, and Kicking Bear became prominent leaders of the new religion which was called the Ghost Dance by white people because of its precepts of resurrection and reunion with the dead. [source].

Their belief:
Kicking Bear (quoting Wovoka):
"The earth is getting old, and I will make it new for my chosen people, the Indians, who are to inhabit it, and among them will be all those of their ancestors who have died... I will cover the earth with new soil to a depth of five times the height of a man, and under this new soil will be buried the whites...The new lands will be covered with sweet-grass and running water and trees, and herds of buffalo and ponies will stray over it, that my red children may eat and drink, hunt and rejoice." [source]

This is US Christian history. As to its bloody end, consider: the “United States of America,” hasn’t been a nation for long - 232 years. Her people tend not to know much about their own history. We now hear inflammatory hate speech in the name of schemes to “take back America." If this century’s atrocities are touted as the “worst ever,” this is sheer propaganda.

By August of 1890, the U.S. government was fearful that the Ghost Dance was actually a war dance and, in time, the dancers would turn to rioting. By November, the War Department sent troops to occupy the Lakota camps at Pine Ridge and Rosebud, convinced that the dancers were preparing to do battle against the government. In reality, the Indians were bracing themselves to defend their rights to continue performing the sacred ceremonies. In reaction to the military encampment, the Lakotas planned various strategies to avoid confrontation with the soldiers, but the military was under orders to isolate Ghost Dance leaders from their devotees[source].

The US Cavalry saw women doing the Ghost Dance, and failed to realize that women never participate in war dances.

The misunderstandings multiplied. Here is one account of all that happened (you will notice wildly differing numbers of those assassinated going from one website to another).

Wovoka's gospel of salvation was filled with Christian as well as Indian elements. Men and women were first to purify themselves and forswear alcohol and violence. Then they were to dance in a large circle, chanting and appealing to the spirits of their ancestors. When they did, Wovoka promised, the whites would vanish, the buffalo would cover the earth again.

"The Ghost Dance, I think, was a desperate prayer. They thought that, well, it may be possible that all of this has been a bad dream, or all of this is passing and there will be the restoration of the world we knew and loved."
- N. Scott Momaday

The people, wearing the sacred shirts and feathers, now formed a ring. We boys were in it. All joined hands. Everyone was respectful and quiet, expecting something wonderful to happen... The leaders beat time and sang as the people danced, going round to the left in a sidewise step. Occasionally, someone... fell unconscious into the center... As each one came to, she, or he slowly sat up and looked about, bewildered, and then began wailing inconsolably.

Pine Ridge Agency
November 12th, 1890
We need protection and we need it now. Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy... The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.
Daniel F. Royer

Responding to the pleas of a frightened Indian agent, Washington dispatched General Nelson A. Miles with 5,000 troops, including the Seventh Cavalry, Custer's old command. At Pine Ridge and Rosebud in South Dakota, the ghost dancers feared that the soldiers had come to attack them, and fled to a remote plateau surrounded by cliffs which nervous whites soon began calling "the Stronghold." [source]

The presence of the great warrior Sitting Bull alarmed the Calvary, who expressed concern that the Ghost Dance would turn to violence. Therefore the military was ordered to arrest those imagined to be the agitators including the Sioux Chiefs Sitting Bull and Big Foot.

On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull and eight of his warriors were slain at the Standing Rock reservation by agency police sent to arrest him, who claimed Sitting Bull had resisted arrest. Some of Sitting Bull's followers escaped to Big Foot’s camp of Miniconjou Sioux, many of whom were Ghost Dancers.

Big Foot did not want to further aggravate the situation. But due to the murder of Sitting Bull, Big Foot was counted as one of the "fomenters of disturbances," and his arrest had been ordered, resulting in his group being transferred to Fort Bennett.

On the night on December 23, a band of 350 people left the Miniconjou village concealed by darkness beginning their150 mile week-long trek through the frozen Badlands to hopefully find shelter at Pine Ridge Agency. They carried the elderly Chief Big Foot (who had pneumonia) in hopes of discovering Chief Red Cloud's promise to them of food, shelter, and horses. The Indians say that Big Foot and Red Cloud wanted peaceful terms with the US Calvary.

They were encompassed by the troops of Major Samuel M. Whitside and the Seventh Calvary (General George Custer's erstwhile regiment) on December 28. Big Foots' people hoisted a white flag, but the army drove the band to the bank of Wounded Knee Creek where they looked up along the ridge to see four Hotchkiss cannons aimed at them. The Calvary's supposed intention was to remove them to a different local camp, but a rumor was panicking the Indians, that they were to be deported to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), reputed for worse living conditions than any prison.

Colonel James Forsyth arrived with reinforcements that evening to take command of the situation. The Indians were interrogated throughout the night, leaving them sleepless as well as panicked. Eyewitnesses reported soldiers drinking and reveling all night in celebration of capturing Big Foot.

The soldiers ordered that the Indians be stripped of their weapons, and this further agitated an increasingly tense and serious situation. While the soldiers searched for weapons, a few of the Indians began singing Ghost Dance songs, and one of them (thought to be the medicine man, Yellow Bird, although this is still disputed by historians) threw dirt in a ceremonial act. This action was misunderstood by the soldiers as a sign of imminent hostile aggression, and within moments, a gun discharged. It is believed that the gun of a deaf man, Black Coyote, accidentally fired as soldiers tried to take it from him. Although the inadvertent single shot did not injure anyone, instantaneously the soldiers retaliated by spraying the unarmed Indians with bullets from small arms, as well as the Hotchkiss canons which overlooked the scene (Hotchkiss canons are capable of firing two pound explosive shells at a rate of fifty per minute).

With only their bare hands to fight back, the Indians tried to defend themselves, but the incident deteriorated further into bloody chaos, and the [350 - ?] unarmed Indians were outmatched and outnumbered by the nearly 500 U.S. soldiers.

The majority of the massacre fatalities occurred during the initial ten to twenty minutes of the incident, but the firing lasted for several hours as the army chased after those who tried to escape into the nearby ravine. According to recollections by some of the Indian survivors, the soldiers cried out "Remember the Little Bighorn" as they sportingly hunted down those who fled -- evidence to them that the massacre was in revenge of Custer’s demise at Little Bighorn in 1876 (Recorded by Santee Sioux, Sid Byrd, from oral histories of several survivors.)

Many of the injured died of exposure in the freezing weather, and several days after the incident the dead were strewn as far as approximately two to five miles away from the original site. By mid-afternoon on December 29, 1890 the indiscriminate slaughter ceased. Nearly [three-hundred men (including Chief Big Foot), women, and children - ?] -- old and young -- were dead on the frosty banks of Wounded Knee Creek. Twenty-nine soldiers also died in the melee, but it is believed that most of the military causalities were a result of "friendly" crossfire that occurred during the fighting frenzy. Twenty-three soldiers from the Seventh Calvary were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the slaughter of defenseless Indians at Wounded Knee.[source]

I suggest that too many of the US people mostly don’t even know who or WHERE we are.

The writing of any history - and particularly the history of the American Indian - in such a way that its true realities are transmitted without distortion is an almost impossible challenge. Words on a page can hold the elements of history, but not how it felt to be there. The colors, the sounds, the smells - they are all gone. It was not common for American Indian statements to be recorded except by the white world. Additionally, the military perspective is shrouded in accusations and blame between officers. Many denounced the events of Wounded Knee as a criminal act while others supported the awards of medals of honor to surviving soldiers.

American Indian Perspective:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.” - Black Elk

Soldier’s Perspective: Prior to the events, Colonel Forsyth instructed, “Disarm the Indians.
Take every precaution to prevent their escape. If they choose to fight, destroy them.” As the bullets flew, Forsyth shouted, “For God’s sake, stop shooting them.”

On April 12, 1920, Lt. General Nelson A. Miles (retired) said in his testimony before the
Commission on Indian Affairs: “The action of the officer was more reprehensible . . . and I have regarded the whole affair as most unjustifiable and worthy of the severest condemnation.”

However, the most damning words came from the media. If there is a true villain of Wounded Knee, it is the media who sensationalized the story. Many historians theorize that without the general call for “more Indian blood” in many print forms that there might not have been a massacre at Wounded Knee. Once this blood that had been “hollered for” was shed, the American Indians formerly called “treacherous” and “murderous” were now “innocent victims.” The soldiers formerly depicted as heroic defenders of the frontier were now guilty of “slaughter without provocation.” Politics also came into play: Both Republican and Democratic papers resurrected the ghost of George Armstrong Custer and joined in promoting the false notion that the Seventh Cavalry had somehow participated to avenge Custer’s fall.[source]

Now that we live in Mexico - a nation littered with pyramids - amid the scions of those who built them thousands of years ago - I am ever more amazed at the lies which have prevailed in the name of US public education. Like, “Columbus discovered America.” In US education we were taught to believe and celebrate that lie. But more advanced cultures than the Spanish flourished for millenia before European invasions of the western hemisphere.

Since moving to Mexico, I have queried everyone I know who was educated in the US system, and so far every person born post-WWII who was educated in the US public school system was never taught that there were cultures immediately to the south of the US border who built pyramids. I know a civil engineer who graduated with honors who, until I told her, had no idea there were pyramids in Mexico.

And this is just for a start, as to how misled we are to our own history and collective culture, never mind the bitter experiences of those native people who inhabited the US long before Eurocentric culture prevailed.

What about history? How far back must history go for contemporary voices to deem it irrelevant - 100 years? 500 years? More?

Citizens of the contemporary US, with the exception of veterans of foreign wars, have seen nothing compared with the native peoples who lived here, once Europeans brought mass slaughter and cultural eradication.

Even the Civil War was a scant taste of death compared to previous centuries and the arrival of the Spanish.

A better understanding of history is the sole hope of healing the fledgling democracy recently called the US. Understand: in comparison to what came before it, the nation is but a European refugee camp. Fragile. Manipulated by a greedy pirate class of rulers. Who only want the people... to forget.


The passengers in the gondola are the native chiefs who were taken captive following the battle of Wounded Knee. In order to destroy leadership and the will of the plains people, these men were paroled into a bizarre forced exile as actors in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show on its tour through Europe (the photo was taken in Venice, Italy).