Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thunderbirds and Dragons on The Northern Plains

Pictograph of a thunderbird on stone.
Thunderbirds & Dragons on Northern Plains
Spring Returns And With It Comes Legends
By Dakota Wind
GREAT PLAINS - The sun set in a dark cloudy sky. There was very little color. No pinks, reds, oranges, or purples. No fanfare for the setting sun but for a dark blue and black sky. The clouds seemed to absorb whatever colors the setting sun usually paints on the evening sky. The stars flickered fitfully through the haze of those thin gauzy clouds that like to hang in the far upper atmosphere. A cool breeze blew across fields of brown grass, what was left of last year’s growth of native prairie grasses. The breeze itself carried a hint of frost that nipped at the inside of my nose when I inhaled deeply, as if one can truly smell cold but its really no different than one can smell rain, only this was colder.

The family had long since gone to bed. The boys usually bid their mother an innocent “goodnight,” and she usually goes in to tuck them in. There’s no “goodnight” for me. Instead, I like to bid them a “Sleep well and wake,” as though there’s no other way for me to say a simple goodnight, and I like it like that.

The rain began to fall as I was preparing for bed. I say “prepare” as though I’m getting ready for a journey of some kind, but preparing myself consists of raking a comb through my silky fine hair, brushing my teeth with that new foaming toothpaste which I rather prefer to the regular paste, and splashing some water on my face, all before I slip under the covers and wrestle with my pillow. My pillow looks like a regular pillow, but it somehow gains a life of its own as I lay my head down as though it decides to get too fluffy and too hot or my head sinks too far into it. But the damn pillow looks just fine sitting there on the blankets.

I’ll slaughter a goat and offer it to the God of Thunder like the heathens of ancient Europe...

The rain fell in large heavy drops. I thought it was hailing at first, but the news person said that pea-size hail was on its way yet. Well, I’ll tell you weather man, I’ll slaughter a goat and offer it to the God of Thunder like the heathens of ancient Europe, but it won’t change the fact that hail is here and it’s falling with the rain on my car.

While the heavy rain and pea-size hail that the weather man said was going to arrive later fell on the house and my car, and maybe its why I personify my car as though its alive that gives me dreams that my car is a version of Bumblebee from Transformers, that gentle breeze carrying that taste of winter decides to change into a roaring beast that’s whipping the neighbor’s garbage cans and shit through our front yard and down the street.

As I’m listening to the wind and rain, personifying my car and wrestling my pillow, I stop for a moment and imagine what it was like for the ancestors to go through a spring thunder storm. I remember reading something on the internet about long ago giant birds called “Teratorns.” Apparently there are as many teratorn sightings as there are bigfoot sightings, these giant winged terrors.

The teratorn is said to have flown before the storms looking for thermals to carry it above the storm it flew before. It is said to have been capable of carrying off people and even bison.

...their wings were the clouds and lighting flashed from their eyes...

Did the ancestors see giant birds? I think so. We have stories of the Wankiya, the Thunderbeings, or as some call them, the Thunderbirds. Thunderbirds rode in on the clouds. No, their wings were the clouds and lighting flashed from their eyes, lighting bolts flew from their claws when they opened their taloned grips.

The Wankiya were a force of nature, that is they weren’t necessarily good but nor were they evil. They flung to the earth their lightning in an ages-old duel with other forces of nature. No, they cleansed the earth, purified the earth with pure rain and electric wrath. Sometimes these Thunderbirds would stretch out a claw and grapple with Unkcegila. Think dragon or serpent. When the Thunderbird and the serpent fought, the fury of the wind was unleashed and the serpent was carried up into the sky and destroyed. The world was cleaned and the day could begin anew, at peace.

I imagine a world, a mystical world, the world before the horse and gun. When the mysteries of creation were respected, honored, and cherished. When the Thunderbirds were real and they really would snap up the unwary traveler or a bison for a meal. I imagine the ancient world of the Great Plains and the dragon or dragons slithering up and down the Missouri River, filling the flood plains, and charming human and animal alike to enter and drown in the crushing depths of the corners of the river.

...I imagine I’m a warrior in another time and place looking at the front right hoof of my pony...

I wonder that such things are real. Did my ancestors personify the wind and rain and river as I personify my pillow and car? I don’t know. They saw things, Teratorns and Loc Ness creatures, things they couldn’t explain and shared hushed stories around the lodge fire. I’m certainly not sitting around the tv and night telling my boys how my pillow makes me snore or how my car drags its ass when I drive it – I finally got under my car and saw that it was a piece of plastic. And then I imagine I’m a warrior in another time and place looking at the front right hoof of my pony only to find a burr or rock.

As I wrestled my pillow and hit it into a comfortable mass, our youngest calls out to his mother. I experience the impulse to go in there and tell him about how the Thunderbirds would snatch children but I decide to wait until he’s older. I don’t think my wife would appreciate my interjection of culture at the moment, but just the thought of it makes me smile. I cleared my throat and said to her, “Your son is calling you.”

I fell asleep comforted by the memory of my grandparents telling me about the traditional Lakota view of the spring thunderstorms.  The wind and rain doesn’t bother me and I slept soundly, and I dreamt of my car as Bumblebee.

Monday, March 5, 2012

How The Ghost Dance Came To The Lakota

"The Ghost Dance Of The Oglala Lakota At Pine Ridge," by Frederic Remington.
How The Ghost Dance Came To The Lakota
From The Northwest To The Great Plains

By Dakota Wind
GREAT PLAINS - The origin of the Ghost Dance stemmed from the introduction of Christianity to the native people of the Northwest, specifically the Shaker Movement in which Christians prayed and danced for the Second Appearance of Jesus Christ.

Rev John Slocum
Pictured here is the Rev. John Slocum. The Indian Shaker church still exists today.

In October 1881, a Squaxin Indian man living on the Southwestern arm of Puget Sound known locally as John Slocum knelt down in the woods to pray. Slocum reflected about the impacts that hard liquor, gambling, idleness, and general vice had affected his life and the life of his people. He took ill and by all accounts, died. By those same accounts, later in the day, Slocum revived and told everyone of his journey to heaven, where he was given a choice: either go to hell or return to the world and minister to his people. He chose to live again.

Slocum’s shaker ministry quickly spread to the native population in the Northwest, causing some unease among settlers because the Indian Shakers had their own priests and built their own churches. The Presbyterian ministers actively sought to include the Indian shakers in the body of the Presbyterian Church.

The Indian shakers became known for visiting the shut-in and sick, and just as known for praying themselves into a trance over the same. A ritual followed the trance in which the sickness was pulled out of the patient and absorbed by the priest/medicine man who fell down dead and the patient recovered.

James Moony worked for the Bureau of Ethnology. Moony traveled to various native reservations to preserve and analyze as many native traditions as he could. He wrote many ethnological reports, one of which was his "The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890."

James Mooney, author of The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee, collected the story of two shaker medicine men venturing south into central Oregon to a tribe there where they apprenticed a young Indian man of the tribes, whom Mooney postulates could be none other than Wovoka, The Cutter.

Wovoka was the son of a highly respected medicine man or prophet of the Indian people in Mason Valley, called Tavibo. Tavibo died about 1870, leaving a fourteen-year-old Wovoka. Wovoka came into the employment of David Wilson and was given the Anglo name, Jack Wilson. David Wilson employed Wovoka until about 1886, when Wovoka decided it was time to share his experience of heaven and the message he received.

During the solar eclipse of August, 1868, Wovoka had fallen asleep and was taken up to heaven. There he saw all the people who had already departed and he met with God. Wovoka received the mission to go back to his people and tell them “They must be good and love one another, have no quarrelling, and live in peace with the whites; that they must work, and not lie or steal; that they must put away the old practices that savored of war; that if they faithfully obeyed his instructions they would at last be reunited with their friends in this other world, where there would be no more death or sickness or old age.”

Wovoka is seated here with leaders of the Northern Arapaho tribe.

Wovoka was given a dance to take to the Indian peoples, a dance which must be performed for five consecutive days. Mooney, who interviewed Wovoka when he made a study of the Ghost Dance religion in December, 1890 to April 1891, said that Wovoka disclaimed responsibility and association with the Ghost Dance shirt which had become an important part of the Sioux Ghost Dance. In fact, Wovoka asserted to Mooney, that it was “better to follow the white man’s road, and to adopt the habits of civilization,” and that his religion or practices were ones of universal peace. 

Wovoka had gone to live among the Paiute Indians of Utah and spread his message and vision. From there his message spread east to the Northern Arapaho and Shoshoni of Wyoming, then on to the Lakota and Cheyenne. A few of the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan became caught up in the news from Fort Washakie, WY.

In the fall of 1889, three principle delegates, Porcupine (a Northern Cheyenne from Montana), Kicking Bear (Mniconjou Lakota, Cheyenne River Agency, SD) and Short Bull (Sicangu Lakota, Rosebud Agency, SD) made a pilgrimage to Fort Washakie to hear about the Ghost Dance for them selves.

Fort Washakie in 1892.

The Ogallala Lakota, Sword, had this to say, “In 1889, the Ogalala [sic] heard that the son of God had come upon earth in the west. They said the messiah was there, but he had come to help the Indians and not the whites, and it made the Indians happy to hear this.”

Porcupine, Kicking Bear, and Short Bull didn’t stop at Fort Washakie, but continued on to Pyramid Lake stopping along the way to witness the Ghost Dance. According to Porcupine, they were treated with kindness by the whites as they journeyed to the lake, and that even the whites participated in the Ghost Dance.

From Pyramid Lake, the delegation journeyed to Walker Lake where Wovoka himself led the Ghost Dance. After the dance there, Wovoka entered into a trance. According to Porcupine, Wovoka awoke and proclaimed to all that he went to heaven, saw all those who had died before, and that he had been sent back to instruct the native people. Porcupine essayed further that Wovoka claimed to be the returned Christ, that the dead would be resurrected, the Indian people would live forever; that there would be universal peace, and death and destruction to those who refused his message.

The delegation returned home.

The Ghost Dance at Sitting Bull's camp along the Grand River in South Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. Unknown photographer, 1890.

In October, 1890, Kicking Bear introduced the Ghost Dance to Standing Rock at Sitting Bull’s invitation to perform the dance at his camp along the Grand River. The Indian Agent, Major James McLaughlin, dispatched the Indian police to arrest Kicking Bear, but they returned to the agent’s office unsuccessful. Sitting Bull promised McLaughlin that Kicking Bear would leave when he was finished, which he did after two days.  Sitting Bull didn’t not discourage the Ghost Dance on Standing Rock, and on the Cheyenne River reservation, the Indian police couldn’t stop Big Foot’s band from dancing.

It is important to note that as the Ghost Dance was coming to a head North and South Dakota had recently entered the Union as states. Indian reservations were made smaller. Hunting grounds were being settled and turned into farmland. Traditional and culturally significant landmarks were given over to citizens for farming or ranching. Drought had caused native farmers’ crops to fail two years in a row and those who received government issued rations received a third to a half of what was promised by treaty. People were nearly starving. It was a desperate time and the native peoples turned to a desperate faith.

General Nelson A. Miles pictured here with former U.S. Army Scout Buffalo Bill Cody. Together they survey the field after Wounded Knee.

General Miles, of Civil War fame and for capturing Indian leaders like Chief Joseph and Geronimo, advised that no additional military force was necessary, to let the Ghost Dance run its course, that “the excitement would die out of itself.” Indian agents at Lakota Sioux agencies became increasingly alarmed because they could not stop the dancing.

On October 31, 1890, Short Bull rounded up his Ghost Dance followers and encouraged them to gather in one place and prepare for the coming of the messiah, even if they were surrounded by troops, even if they were fired upon. The Lakota who participated in the Ghost Dance firmly believed that their Ghost Dance shirts made them impervious to bullets; that the bullets would pass through them without causing injury.

On November 17, 1890, soldiers were ordered to report throughout the Indian agencies at Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge, under the field command of General Miles, altogether about 3,000 soldiers. No action was needed as the mere presence of soldiers was enough to dissuade dancers from dancing. John Noble, Secretary of the Interior, immediately ordered full rations to be distributed as was agreed to in treaty.

Farmers near New Salem rally to defend themselves against the perceived Ghost Dance threat. The farmers even went so far as to build an earthen fort, even cristening it "Fort Saurkraut." This farmer's volunteer militia wasn't authorized by General Miles or the Department of War. Unknown photographer, 1890.

The Department of War assumed control of Standing Rock, with arresting Sitting Bull as the next step. To convince Sitting Bull that his cooperation was necessary, former US Military Scout William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, was sent to persuade Sitting Bull to turn himself in. Cody arrived at Fort Yates on November 28, 1890, but his orders to continue to Sitting Bull’s camp were halted by Agent McLaughlin.

According to Mooney, Agent McLaughlin believed that a conflict would follow if the military were to arrest Sitting Bull. The military arrest was delayed on the advice of McLaughlin who told Cody that he’d send Indian police, which he did on December 14th, 1890. Lt. Bull Head lead the attempt to arrest Sitting Bull came with the dawn on Dec. 15 and ended in disaster with the death of Sitting Bull and seven of his followers, and the death of Bull Head and seven of his police officers.