Day 804: The Dance Sensation That Swept The First Nations

originally published March 14, 2014

As a fiercely devout skeptic I have little patience for incorporating any spiritual routine into my life, apart from a daily dose of Otis Redding and/or Etta James, both of whom possessed vocal talents that by their very nature taunted non-believers with their otherworldly oomph. Religious rituals, from Cree to Christianity and all points in between, hold little appeal for me. But as a professional anthropologist (and by ‘professional’ I mean the exact opposite of that), I possess a healthy curiosity for the spiritual to-do list of others.

I have been to a couple of Native American round dances, and while I can’t speak with any praise to the music – there’s no backbeat, no groove, no emphasis on the ‘1’ – I admire the grace and harmonious tranquility to the process. It really jounces my think-meat to learn that this same dance directly led to an unthinkable slaughter.

I suppose it’s the old cliché of fearing what one doesn’t understand. Perhaps one can attribute the Wounded Knee debacle to abject stupidity or the tense national atmosphere due to the wretched economy under that spend-heavy rascal president, Benjamin Harrison. Mostly I think the massacre came about due to that tragic chemical collision between two of the most devious elements in the universe: ignorance and assholery.

By 1889, the bulk of the hostile skirmishes between Natives and Americans had subsided. The “old west” was beginning to peter out, and the new president was stubbornly set on filling in all that ‘territory’ space in the nation’s abdomen with legitimate states. On that list was South Dakota, which at the time was loaded with Sioux who had been “cordially assigned” chunks of land there by the US government. Their plan was to integrate the Native Americans by whatever means necessary.

Meanwhile, down in Nevada where the Northern Paiutes were Paiutin’ about, minding their own business, a spiritual leader named Jack Wilson (formerly known as Wovoka among his people) had a vision. It was the kind of vision you’d hope any prophet with the ear of many would have – one of peace, prosperity, and dancing.

Jack Wilson was well-known from tribe to tribe as a respected leader, a soul in touch with the heavens and an aspiring weather doctor. After this vision, which had occurred during a solar eclipse on New Year’s Day, 1889, Jack began preaching a message of universal love. Along with it came this circle dance, which symbolized the sun’s arc through the sky. Incorporating this dance into any tribal culture would, according to Jack, result in the eventual abolition of sickness, disease and war. He encouraged everyone to live harmoniously with the European newcomers.

Peace and love – a message that might have been a tough sell a few years earlier when the Europeans were aggressively “taming” the wild west. But the timing was right. A well-known Paiute healer named Hawthorne Wodziwob had begun the tradition of spiritual dances twenty years earlier after a typhoid epidemic had killed off roughly 10% of his people. The dance involved the summoning of recently departed spirits and bringing them back to their loved ones – it was probably right what his people wanted to hear at the time. Twenty years later, with Jack Wilson preaching the promise of a magnificent future for all Native Americans, the ‘ghost dance’ became a hit.

As the ghost dance was working its way from culture to culture across the Midwest, the government was trying to figure out how to effectively crap on a Lakota treaty and splinter the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller reservations, making room for European settlers, their children, pets and Dairy Queens. Family units were each given 320 acres of land and the men were taught to be farmers and good Christians. A lovely thought, but at the end of the 1890 growing season, when a particularly warm and dry stretch of weather made for a downright fetid harvest, the Sioux started to worry.

Their answer? Try out the ghost dance, see if maybe it can harness some of that almighty, all-enduring shimmer of the Great Groovy in the sky to bring them some good fortune. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was downright freaked out by this ritual. It didn’t matter that tribes all over the country were doing similar moves without it leading to war. It didn’t matter that even the Mormons in Utah had become fascinated by the dance. Thousands of additional US Army troops were sent to South Dakota, just in case things got ugly. And they did.

On December 28, a band of relocated Sioux set up their teepee neighborhood on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. The next day, the army swept through the community to round up any wayward weapons. Keep in mind, the Second Amendment didn’t apply to these non-citizens; no doubt the Army was certain this was in everyone’s best interests.

One deaf Sioux refused to give up his weaponry. The soldier tried to grab it but the man wasn’t letting go. A struggle ensued, and somehow someone’s weapon was discharged. That lone bullet – and where it landed, it really doesn’t matter – prompted the officer in charge to call out an order to open fire. Yes, on the community they had nearly stripped completely dry of weapons. The Sioux tried to grab hold of some of the confiscated weapons to defend themselves, but this so-called battlefield was little more than a killing field from the start.

For one thing, the Army had these:

That’s a Hotchkiss gun, a 42mm rapid-fire machine gun that the Army fired into the crowd from the surrounding hills. When the smoke cleared, 153 Sioux were killed, mostly women and children. 25 American troops were down too, most of them from “friendly” fire when the Hotchkiss guns spit their venom into the masses. And while twenty troops inexplicably received the Medal of Honor after this massacre, word spread fairly quickly, and even among the American citizenry this was looked upon as a disgraceful fiasco.

The ghost dance was immediately shuffled to the bottom of tribal repertoire around the country, as Natives feared they’d incite the same brand of paranoia that had led the Army to lose its shit in South Dakota. Here was a dance that was conceived as the embodiment of a prophet’s vision for racial harmony, peace and respectful coexistence, and it eventually led to an outright massacre.

Ignorance and assholery. Scattered throughout history like cheese on a baked potato, melting into its innards and affecting every little bite. Paranoia is a nasty little bitch.

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