Shamanic Drumming Blog

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Ghost Dance at Standing Rock

Siege at Standing Rock
Early Wednesday morning, the acting secretary of the army -- appointed two weeks ago by President Trump -- ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to reverse course and grant the permits necessary for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be completed. Hours later, the barricades on Highway 1806 were taken down, paving the way for a raid of one of the Water Protectors' newly established camps by militarized police and the North Dakota National Guard. American Indian activist Chase Iron Eyes was among dozens of demonstrators arrested after trying to establish a new camp on private property located on the west side of N.D. Highway 1806 in southern Morton County, North Dakota. 

For much of 2016, demonstrators in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, withstood tear gas, arrests, rubber bullets and severe weather while camped out in an isolated area that has become known as Oceti Sakowin Camp. While on its face, the encampments are demonstrations against an oil pipeline, some have called the battle between a Dallas-based oil company and the Standing Rock Sioux a larger civil rights movement for Native Americans -- a comparison bolstered by law enforcement's use of water cannons on protesters in late November 2016.

The Last Ghost Dancers

Chase Iron Eyes, a former Congressional candidate and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, calls the demonstration "our Ghost Dance." The Ghost Dance was a new religious movement incorporated into numerous American Indian belief systems in the late 1880s in an attempt to revitalize traditional culture and to find a way to face increasing poverty, hunger, and disease. According to the teachings of the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka, proper practice of the dance would reunite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to indigenous peoples throughout the region. He also stated that the people must be good and love one another, and not fight, steal, lie or engage in war.

The Ghost Dance was based on the circle dance. Participants joined hands and sidestepped clockwise around a circle, stooping to pick up dirt and throwing it in the air, all the while singing special songs and striving to fall into a visionary trance. Each ceremony lasted for five successive days and was repeated every six weeks. The ritual dance swept throughout much of the Western United States, quickly reaching areas of California and Oklahoma. As the Ghost Dance spread from its original source, Indian tribes synthesized selective aspects of the ritual with their own beliefs.

The Ghost Dance affected the Lakota Sioux bands who adopted it more than any other group. Though the Ghost Dance provided hope to all American Indians, it proved particularly appealing to the Lakota at Standing Rock, and on all the newly defined Sioux reservations, who were in poor health, starving, and suffering relentless assaults on their traditional way of life. It also appealed to Lakota leaders such as Sitting Bull, who had resisted assimilation under the Dawes Act of 1887 which authorized the President of the United States to survey American Indian tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians. Sitting Bull and his followers let it be known they would not take allotments when the time came; they stated they had not signed the Sioux Bill and would therefore "continue to enjoy their old Indian ways."

Brutal Suppression of the Ghost Dance

Wovoka's prophecy of a new golden age, however, did not come to pass. Instead, the peaceful indigenous movement was met by a brutal Army suppression. The Lakotas' white neighbors and reservation officials viewed the movement as a threat to U.S. Indian policy and believed the Ghost Dance ceremonies indicated that the Lakotas intended to start a war. Reservation officials called on the U.S. government to outlaw the dancing. The government dispatched the U.S. Army and called for the arrest of key tribal leaders such as Sitting Bull and Big Foot. Indian police from Standing Rock killed Sitting Bull while arresting him. Two weeks later, on December 29, 1890, members of the Seventh Cavalry killed Big Foot and at least 145 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota ("Sioux") men, women, and children (casualty estimates range to higher than 300) in the Wounded Knee Massacre, thus eliminating key leaders most opposed to the United States and its Indian policy.

The Ghost Dance died out among the Lakotas after Wounded Knee, but experienced a revival during the 1970s as part of the Red Power movement. To many, the Ghost Dance represented resistance to U.S. Indian policy and American culture and was a rallying point for preserving traditional Indian culture. The Ghost Dancers envisioned a perfect world, a vision of an idealized past that would be restored to those who honored the traditional way of life.  It gave people hope amid tragedy. Again, the Sioux stand on the brink of uncertainty, with a new administration in the White House and a president who has ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to reverse course and grant the permits necessary for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be completed.

In a recent interview, Chase Iron Eyes responded to the president's order by declaring, "We are staying. We don't have a choice but to stand up. The world is depending on us. We have been referred to as the Ghost Dancers of our time. The thing that's different though is that we have a world of allies that have supported us because they see themselves in this struggle. We have the critical mass to win and to change the trajectory of our planet."

The battle to protect the land and natural resources of Standing Rock from the threat posed by the Dakota Access Pipeline has only just begun. To help power the movement to protect Mother Earth and win justice for the Lakota people, please visit the Lakota People's Law Project at

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