Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

The Glasgow Ghost Shirt -- v

To call the Ghost Dance a sensation is not sufficient. It was more. It became a faith, the dance itself its most devoted expression. And while some whites who had already moved into adjacent areas and even on the reservation itself found the masses of dancers somewhat entertaining, many others grew fearful of the fervor created by the new Native religion and the sheer effect of so many people having extraordinary fits of what seemed ecstasy. Most importantly, to Daniel Royer, the Agent at Pine Ridge, the phenomenon grew especially fearful. Most claim the appointment of Daniel Royer to be sadly, but typically idiotic since the man had no history whatsoever in Native ways. That he was both appalled and deeply fearful of what he saw happening on Pine Ridge and elsewhere is as understandable as it was tragically misguided. He begged Washington for help in controlling the fervor, and Washington responded with more and more troops. Nothing angered Lakota warriors like blue coats.

Where this is going will not be a surprise. What was to happen on December 29, 1890, is a story as well-known as the name of the almost incidental creek where the horror played out— Wounded Knee. But understanding what happened is greatly significant in understanding how it is that Marcella LeBeau became the person she is.

The Lakota people put a special spin on the Ghost Dance phenomenon, something no other tribe added. The origin of that spin was in the mind and heart of Kicking Bear, from Cheyenne River, himself a mystic, and one of those who’d visited Wovoka in Nevada. Kicking Beat returned a true believer, and somehow began to sing a new song with a unique promise. Kicking Bear began to preach that wearing a specially created ghost shirt or ghost dress meant that those who did could assume themselves resistant to hurt or injury—therefore, even to cavalry bullets. Properly and purposefully dressed, dancers could not die. They were holy. Their dancing made possible the coming of the Messiah in the spring, when the old days would return with the buffalo and the old ones.

There was no dancing on December 28, 1890. Not all the men and women and children in Big Foot’s band were dancers. At Cheyenne River, generally one in five men, women, and children were converts, although the percentages increased within the southern reservations. Hundreds danced at Pine Ridge. Red Cloud had asked Big Foot to come to Pine Ridge because of the frenzy the Ghost Dance had created between those who became true believers and those who remained skeptical or uncommitted.

So what exactly did happen on the morning of December 29, 1890? There were no phones; there is no video. There is far more certainty to what we know resulted than what we know of how exactly it began.

With nothing to stop it, sound travels easily on a landscape as barren as the open hills around the creek at Wounded Knee. Imagine the bleat of reveille cutting through the morning cold. It’s eight o’clock, and the sun rises magnificently, albeit late, winter solstice just a few days behind. Many women, some of them singing, are packing for the 17-mile trip to Pine Ridge, where they anticipate meeting relatives and friends. Children play innocently around the ragged tipis and wagons, and for the first morning in many, most have eaten well.

That Big Foot was a man with a peaceable heart doesn’t mean all his people were. After Sitting Bull was murdered on the Standing Rock Reservation, many of his people were in shock, horrified by the outright murder of their leader, the most famous Lakota of them all in the late 19th century. Some were ready to fight—and die. Amid the frenzy of the Ghost Dances, the government had asked reservation agents to create a list of warriors they believed to be dangerous. Another Minneconjou chief, Hump, had determined that he and his camp would turn themselves in to the cavalry, Sitting Bull was now gone, murdered; Big Foot was left almost alone among those called “hostile” for refusing to go back to or stay on their appointed reservation.

Often in his later years, Big Foot, like many aging leaders of all tribes and in all times, found it difficult to control his braves, the young, the headstrong given to fighting. What’s more, the old chief was fighting off pneumonia, so sick he often had to be carried to talks with the appointed cavalry officers. By temperament a peaceable man, physically weak and unquestionably ill, he was in no shape to fight the thousands of soldiers who’d assembled that day, the largest encampment of American troops since the Civil War.

By Indian messenger, the commanding officer, Col. Forsyte, called the men of Big Foot’s band to parley at the spot where the chief’s tent stood, maybe 300 yards down the hill. Spread around the entire encampment like a huge lariat, even beyond the dozens of Indian ponies just west of Big Foot’s camp and the ravine behind it, 76 unmounted sentries, equally spaced, watched the movement. On the rise beyond the ravine and set against the horizon, a long line of mounted bluecoats waited menacingly, just in front of them some dozens of the cavalry’s Indian scouts. From the vantage point of the soldiers, the field seemed well in hand, the position geometrically arranged to prevent escape. There is no fighting, no chaos, yet.

As they were commanded, something close to one hundred men—no one knows for sure—from Big Foot’s band take their places in the council circle. Behind them, those lines of bluecoats move quickly to separate the men from their women and children.

Monday, August 08, 2022

The Glasgow Ghost Shirt - iv

[Sometimes people asked me where my interest in Native American history came from. The answer begins here--with the Ghost Dance, a phenomenon I first discovered in Ian Frazier's Great Plains. My own birthright is deeply religious in the European Calvinistic tradition, so I fascinated by a species of religious faith and ferver that Frazier calls "the first American religion." Why do people believe what they do remains a perplexing and fascinating question. Thus, today's installment begins something of an explanation of "the Ghost Dance."]

The problems faced by both Big Foot and Red Cloud, Lakota headmen, in December of 1890 had other origins as well, origins rooted thousands of miles away in Nevada, where a Paiute mystic named Wovoca saw a vision during an eclipse. What he experienced was a beautiful dream of peace and good will, a vision of heaven.

That vision was so blindingly beautiful that First Nations all over the west met in celebration to dance as Wovoka had instructed. A committee of Lakota holy men, appointed by Sitting Bull, had returned from Nevada earlier that year, returned from a meeting with the Paiute, who claimed to be Jesus. Those who traveled returned as converts. Perhaps foremost among them was Kicking Bear, from Cheyenne River, a disciple of a religious ritual dance that became the primary sacrament of what grew into a spectacular new religion.

There was no dancing in the camp at Wounded Knee on December 28, 1890, the night before the massacre; but for just about a year, the phenomenon white people called “the Messiah craze,” a spiritual prairie firestorm had spread throughout the fragmented reservation system, as it had elsewhere throughout the West.

Wovoka designed the ritual from his own visions. Erect a sapling in the middle of an open area—the tree, a familiar symbol from rituals like the Sun Dance, then banned by reservation agents. Then purge yourselves—enter sweat lodges, prostrate yourself before Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious; and offer yourselves as sacrifice. Often warriors would cut out pieces of their own flesh and lay them at the base of that sapling to bear witness to their humility for being the conduit for the people’s blessing.

Wovoka, whose Euro-American name was Jack Wilson, considered himself “the Messiah,” a claim that was confusing to some who’d come to believe that Jesus was a white man. Unsure of his own perceptions, Kicking Bear approached Wovoka to see if the man had the tell-tale scars of the crucifixion. His feet were not visible beneath his moccasins, but there was a scar on his arm. Wovoka told the Lakota who’d come to see him that Christ had once left the earth for heaven when he was rejected by white men, but that he’d come back to tell the good news of the return of all that was good and pleasant about life as the people had known it before the coming of the white man.

Wovoka told them and other religious seekers to dance—women and men together, something rare back then in Native religious traditions. He told them to dance around that sapling totem, dance and dance and dance, not to stop until they fell from physical exhaustion and spiritual plenitude. Dance until the mind floats upward and the spirit emerges. Dance into frenzy. Dance into ecstasy.

Across the American west, dozens of tribes gathered in wide-open spaces to worship, to participate in the ritual Wovoka created. It was a frenetic, mystic ceremony, a blend of Christianity, mysticism, and Native ritual, but spread abundantly by the sheer desperation created by the Lakota’s sense of the imminent end of a way of life they knew and loved. If the people would dance, Wovoka had told them, beauty would return because the Wakan Tanka had heard their prayers and felt their suffering. He’d bring with him the old ones, the ancestors—hence the name, “the Ghost Dance.” The buffalo would return as well, and once again, bountifully, the people could take up their beloved way of life. If they would dance, a cloud of dust from the new heaven and the new earth would swallow the wasicu, the white man invaders, all of them. If they would dance, their hunger would be satiated, their desperation comforted.

“The great underlying principle of the Ghost dance doctrine,” says James Mooney in his study written already in 1896, “is that the whole Indian race, living and dead, will be reunited upon a regenerated earth, to live a life of aboriginal happiness, forever free from death, disease, and misery.” It was that simple really, and that compelling. It was a vision of a beatific afterlife.

Throughout the West, the whole First Nation danced. Throughout the newly created Great Sioux Reservations open belief in the Ghost Dance flourished, nowhere more dedicatedly than at Pine Ridge, where somewhere close to half the people were converted. At Cheyenne River, one in five became apostles of Wovoca’s teaching and became dancers; but the numbers and the percentage of believers grew among those Lakota in the reservations farther south.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Sunday Morning Meds -- Woes of the Wicked

“Many are the woes of the wicked. . .” Psalm 32:10

Maybe so. Maybe not.

Proportionally, in this world do the wicked suffer more or less than the righteous? I’m not sure. Some forms of suffering the righteous undergo aren’t even background music in the lives of really bad people. Only the righteous know when they’ve messed up.

But that’s a topic for another time. Give me a minute or so to brag up my granddaughter.

My son and his long-time girlfriend came to a relatively congenial parting of the ways recently. It was tough on him. My guess is that it was tough on her, too, but I know it was tough on my granddaughter, who’d come to nearly worship the ground the young lady walked upon.

How does one explain a break-up to a four-year-old? Her father told her what she had to understand was that, well, people change. That seemed to help.

The next day, at day-care, she ambled up to her teacher with the news that her uncle wasn’t going with his girlfriend anymore.

“Oh, really,” the teacher said.

“Well, you know,” Jocelyn said, deadly serious, “people change.”

Her teacher told Jocey’s mom that she had all she could do not to laugh.

I don’t know that Jocelyn told her teacher a truth she’d totally digested, or if her mind was acting like a tape recorder; but if she understood her father’s explanation, then I’m pleased because at four years old she’s arrived at the level of wisdom that some (many?) don’t achieve until much later, if at all.

We’re talking about wisdom here, and today’s passage brings to mind the word wisdom because I’m not as sure as David is that he’s exactly right about the claim he so brashly offers. In my world, the wicked aren’t always woeful; sometimes, like it or not, they prosper.

We don’t have to look all that far to find an entirely contradictory appraisal right here in the Psalms. “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong,” says Psalm 73. “They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.” No woes there.

The Bible is a less squeamish about contradiction than we are. What seems true in one verse seems a whole lot less so just down the block. How do we make sense of such things?

Eugene Peterson, in his “Introduction to the Wisdom Books” in The Message, claims that “the Psalms are indiscriminate in their subject matter—complaint and thanks, doubt and anger, outcries of pain and outbursts of joy, quiet reflection and boisterous worship.” It’s all here in this book. “If it’s human,” he says, “it qualifies.”

The richness of David’s somewhat immodest claim in this line is not that it is forever true. The essential joy of what he claims about the woes of the wicked is the rich human happiness he feels in forgiveness. About the specifics, maybe he’s not to be trusted; after all, he sings a different song later in the concert.

But about the big picture, he’s on the money—and the big picture in Psalm 32 is the triumph of forgiveness. About that, there’s every good reason to brag.

Friday, August 05, 2022

The Glasgow Ghost Shirt - iii

from Edward Curtis

Hunger became a way of life throughout Native America in the 19th century. The reservation system created all kinds of opportunities for graft, for heartless white folks to simply disregard specified treaty conditions when it became not only possible but simple to line their own pockets with goods intended for the Indigenous. Government agents were notorious for their graft. The good ones were so few that they seemed heroes to people who depended upon them for the trials required in the Dakota Territory.

Meat and flour and coffee and all kinds of provisions had to be purchased somewhere by someone. Who will protect the rights of faraway tribes of “heathen savages,” when buying the cattle required by treaty to be sent west? Who will advocate for Indians when those cattle are slaughtered? —who will be sure the meat intended for Native people isn’t simply what the slaughterhouse knows no self-respecting white people would eat? Who will make contractually sure that the delivery gets to the reservation before the meat is spoiled? Who among the whites really care to do any of those jobs? Who really cares about those people anyway? They're barely human.

And why, out there in the middle of miles and miles of empty prairie, empowered by all kinds of goods flowing into the reservation, wouldn’t some crafty agent simply build bigger barns and warehouses to create his own businesses, his own means by which to dispatch the goods when no one is watching?

The reservation system created opportunities for graft that many adventurers, many criminals, simply determined were theirs for the taking. And the result among Native people was hunger, dissipation, disease, and suffering. The result was Big Foot moving slowly south with his people in December of 1890, all the way from Cheyenne River to Pine Ridge, and Wounded Knee.

Big Foot and his people were out there in territory off their reservation in large part because they were desperately hungry and needy. They had nothing. Red Cloud wanted Big Foot to help him deal with his problems, and Big Foot wanted Red Cloud to help him determine how to deal with white people.

But why were they under arrest at Wounded Knee? How did they come to be camped beneath the eyes of the Seventh Cavalry, in the sights of the Hotchkiss guns Lakota people had long before called “the guns that shoot at night and kill in the morning.” Were Big Foot and Red Cloud planning to mount an insurrection against a force of U.S. military that had swelled to become the largest single group of U. S. military assembled anywhere since the Civil War?

Very unlikely. Red Cloud, who some say is the only Lakota chief to win a war against white intruders, had signed on to a peace treaty and already seemed determined to no longer go to war. Big Foot, who was himself dangerously ill with pneumonia, was never known as a warrior but a peace-maker.

Ever since June of 1876, when General George Armstrong Custer had led a fighting force into battle at the Little Big Horn, Washington worked ferociously at restraining the Lakota, at keeping them on their respective reservations.

The obvious motivation was control. If the Lakota people--and the other First Nations bands--could be kept in one place, the opportunity to manage them would be greater than it would be if they were allowed to continue their nomadic way of life. Even though much of the land was being colonized by white folks, so much open land existed in the northern Great Plains that keeping track of the indigenous was impossible when they left the confines of the reservation.

Which is exactly what Big Foot had done. When he did, he and his people walked directly into a characterization that allowed them to be seen as law-breakers. Because they left Cheyenne River, they were considered “hostiles,” law-breakers.

Even though it would be thirty years until Marcella LeBeau was born, this whole story—and so much more—plays a role in the life of Marcella LeBeau, and the history which gives that life meaning and character.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

The Glasgow Ghost Shirt - ii

Big Foot's Band

There’s no escaping the fact that reservations were debilitating to the Lakota people. The adjustment to daily life without freedom—that central American ideal—was far more difficult than anyone, then or now, could imagine. As Joseph Marshall says in The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn, “People who once felt their spirits expand because they knew their lands went far beyond the Horizon now felt their spirits shrink within the incredibly small physical boundaries imposed upon them” (141).

Some thirty years later, and a dozen years after Greasy Grass, the battle at Little Big Horn, a band of Minneconjou led by a 65-year old tribal headman named Big Foot, left the Cheyenne River Reservation and headed south in a winter that seemed abnormally warm.

Big Foot was a man not given to making war. It was early winter, 1890, and his people—the majority of them women and children--were on their way to the Pine Ridge Agency. By reputation and experience, Big Foot was not a fighter. He was known throughout the Lakota bands as someone who could engineer peace, someone capable of working at reconciliation. Even though Big Foot was adamant about holding to traditional beliefs and practices, he advocated education for the children of the band, his way of bridging the immense changes that were clearly arriving with the hundreds of thousands of white people moving through and into Lakota homelands.

Because Big Foot had a reputation as someone who could make peace where there was disorder, Red Cloud had asked him—and his people—to come south to Pine Ridge Reservation, where the government had moved Red Cloud and the Ogallalas. What was likely just as strong a motivation was that Big Foot, sensing the promise of trouble at Standing Rock and Cheyenne River, determined that taking his people to Red Cloud at Pine Ridge meant going where a proven leader like the old chief could help him—and them—understand and deal with the disturbances all around.

When two young Hunkpapas, beaten and hungry, came into Big Foot’s band and told them Sitting Bull had been murdered and his people scattered, Big Foot offered them, and others of Sitting Bull’s followers, sanctuary. It was that group—Big Foot’s band, maybe 200 people, and a number of Hunkpapas who’d been with Sitting Bull—who were moving south toward Pine Ridge in December of 1890. Those were the people—men, women, and children--who would, by order and under the watch of the U. S. Seventh Cavalry, end up camped along a creek called Wounded Knee.

Why were they there? To answer that question and to understand why General Nelson A. Miles’ cavalry was hovering over them, far south of their home at Cherokee River, the word treaty is required because treaties created the reservation system. At least among the Siouan people, the reservation system created cause-and-effect sequences that inevitably led to unspeakable suffering.

The contracts of all treaties written up throughout North America were essentially the same: Native people—Comanche, Kiowa, Lakota, Santee--would give up land for the promise of sustenance. Sustenance wasn’t simply a gift horse. Sustenance meant the necessities of life. Along with the brutish slaughter of thirty million bison or more, reservations—enclosed land, distinct property lines—not only robbed Native people of the culture that had served them well on the Great Plains, but ravaged it. The disappearance of that magnificent animals (in May of 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, making the buffalo “the national mammal’) purposefully destroyed the cultures of dozens of First Nations.

It wasn’t simply the love of the hunt that led to the disappearance of the buffalo, the slaughter was deliberate and despicable. Buffalo Bill Cody used to tell people he’d killed as many as 5000 bison himself. 

Eastern adventurers and old world royalty packed passenger trains on newly laid tracks out West to savor the excitement of a buffalo hunt, even though such excursions often ended up to be little more than target shooting with rifles powerful enough to bring down a bull bison hundreds of yards off. The slaughter of the buffalo not only robbed Native people of their primary source of meat and protein, it decimated the rhythms and ritual life of the Lakota people. 

That the slaughter of all those bison was an act of war can be proven by hundreds of statements of politicians and generals: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every dead buffalo is an Indian gone.” The demise of the buffalo was itself a campaign in the wars Euro-Americans fought against Native people.

When there were no more buffalo, a tribe’s source of nourishment and sustenance, disappeared, and Native people found themselves dependent on foodstuffs Washington promised with the signed treaty, promised but rarely brought in the quantity and condition they had sworn to deliver.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

The Glasgow Ghost Shirt -- i


Ft. Laramie, Wyoming

No amount of nuance or circumlocution can shade the plain-and-simple truth that from 1492 well into the 20th century, what happened on the American continent was a monstrous land grab. 

What was once indisputably “Native land” was drawn-and-cornered into lots, acres and sections, a few of which were “reserved” for indigenous people. The land where the first nations lived in liberty as wholesome as anything dreamed in the white man’s founding documents was stolen away in the unlikely name of “progress.” With sustained passion, Euro-Americans either wanted the land itself or wanted to get rich selling it off to others.

All of that had begun long before Wigmuka Waste Win, “Pretty Rainbow Woman” was born to Florence Four Bear and Joseph Ryan, on October 12, 1919. It started in 1492, then again in 1620, the moment newcomers put their boots down on a land they called “new.”

The sad truth is such things continued to happen thereafter as well. To understand and appreciate the life and contributions of Pretty Rainbow Woman, much of the century in which she lived—and even the century before she lived—needs to be opened and understood. What she valued—and continues to value—was created by stories that began long before she opened her eyes in the log home not all that far from the banks of Moreau River.

Just a few decades before she was born, a decades’ long series of fights, many bloody, some not, occurred throughout the Dakota Territory, skirmishes and full-fledged battles between the Euro-Americans invading, en masse, the traditional lands of Native people, including the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. Each of those fights had its own history and origins, but they all arose from a clash of cultures which occurred when a people given, heart and soul, to the ownership of private property met a people whose character was formed and sustained by a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life, a fight between two tribes really, one white and one red, both of whom wanted their freedom.

The Lakota way of life meant taking up residence wherever water and grasses were abundant for the horses, and wherever the buffalo could be located. The requirements of that level of mobility made the accumulation of goods, of things, not only unnecessary, but a problem, even an impediment. Some argue that no single factor was more important in understanding the Great Sioux Wars as that immense cultural divide—people who measured their worth in things in opposition to those who did not in part because they could not.

Those fights—and that conflict—shed blood and loss on both sides, and prompted the American government, in 1865, to assess the possibilities for peace between those doing battle throughout “Native” America, an expanse that ran from Minnesota to Oregon, from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, from Texas to California. That study, released in 1867 and titled “A Report on the Condition of the Indian Tribes,” established an Indian Peace Commission, who reasoned that further conflicts could and should be avoided by separating the opposing forces, thereby keeping the fighters apart. 

The Indian Peace Commission determined to continue what had already become standard operating procedure among the Euro-Americans, the creation of more “treaties” with Native people, legal documents meant not only to establish boundaries to determine who would live where on the measureless lands of the West, but also to set what price Washington would pay for the compliance of the Indian tribes. Simply, Washington said to the Native people they chose to speak to, “Give up your land, and we’ll make sure you won’t starve.” That, at least, was the promise at Ft. Laramie in 1868, as it had been in any number of treaty negotiations and signings before.

What happened at Ft. Laramie is itself a story that needs to be told, even though it happened a half century before Marcella LeBeau was born. For the moment, what is important to know is that the most distinguishing result of the Peace Commission, “The Report on the Condition of Indian Tribes,” and the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, was, and is, the establishment of lands “reserved” for Native people — “reservations.”

The story doesn't begin with reservations, but nothing changed Native life in North America like the reservations created by hundreds of treaties between Natives and their colonizers, none of which--it must be said--white folks ever kept.

Ft. Laramie Treaty talks, 1868

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

The Glasgow Ghost Shirt--an introduction

Strangely enough, this picture showed up in the Washington Post recently, years after it was taken and run earlier in the paper. The picture accompanied a story on repatriation because the leather shirt here pictured begins a story that, a century later, resulted with its return to the people of the Cheyenne River Reservation. The woman pictured above is Marcella LeBeau, a member of the Two Kettle band of Lakota (Sioux) people many of whom live on the Cheyenne River reservation.

I knew Marcella, knew her very well. She died six months or so ago; she was 100 years old. For a couple years before Covid, I worked with her, hoping to help her put down her life story on paper. That project didn't work out, for several reasons--one of which was Covid. 

With her, I did write quite a bit of her story however, and, when I saw this picture and read the article, I thought it a shame, really, that the book never got finished. Because the Post's interest in stories of repatriation continues, the story I'd like to tell--the story behind the picture above--is still relevant.

Let me say this, too. I've spent a lot of my retirement years learning some Native American history--I'm not complaining. I've loved every minute of it and still do. But when I'm asked to speak about some aspect of Native American history, I'm surprised by how much ordinary people simply don't know. Twice, I've been in front of senior citizen groups in the region--when I bring up the Spirit Lake Massacre  (which happened, I'll grant you, in 1857), very few in the room know at all what I'm talking about, even though the massacre occurred an hour or so east of her in the middle of what is, without question, one of the major vacation spots in the entire state.

What's more striking is a second question--"What happened at Okoboji is really clearly related to the Dakota War of 1862 just north of us in Minnesota. How many of you have heard of that?"

Even fewer.

The vast majority of my blog's audience is white. Therefore, I think I can safely say that most of those who tune into what's happening on this blog likely know very little about the story of those who were here long before, right here on ground we tend to believe was ours in 1870 and still is ours today.

This part of Marcella's story is long and includes lots of details that might be skipped if they weren't essential to understanding just exactly what happened here in the last decades of the 19th century especially. 

The story concerns Marcella LeBeau's efforts to retrieve a Lakota ghost shirt from the distinguished place it made for itself already a century ago in the biggest and best of the museums in Glasgow, Scotland. It's an amazing story, but it will take some time to tell. If you're interested, stay with it--if you're not, go ahead and try.

I'll start telling it tomorrow.