By Zig Zag
“Hope Springs Eternal–The Ghost Dance,” by Howard Terpning
Over the last few months there’s been a lot of noise made about the power of peaceful prayers and ceremonies in resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. According to many participants, it was this emphasis on prayer that stopped the pipeline dead in its tracks, and paved the way for a historical victory.
But most of us understand that, at this point (late December 2016), over 92 percent of the pipeline has already been built, and only the last section—scheduled to go under Lake Oahe—has been delayed. While we can admire the courage and determination of those who stood against the police repression, which included pepper spray, less-lethal projectiles, water cannons and baton strikes, we should not dismiss the fact that, until the US Army Corps of Engineers announcement on December 4, 2016 (that they would not allow the easement for the DAPL to cross under Lake Oahe without further study), the protest movement was having minimal impact on construction.
There certainly were delays caused, particularly in September when activists “locked down” to machinery, but these were delays of short duration (a few hours, while cops figured out how to remove the locking devices used). And once police figured out how to block activists from reaching construction sites altogether, work proceeded as business as usual.
Aside from those who aligned themselves with the Red Warrior Camp, the great bulk of the protest camps resigned themselves to peaceful prayer walks to the frontline and ceremonies. Pacified elders, NGOs, and tribal bureaucrats worked hard to ensure that this was the extent of any sanctioned actions emanating from the camps. And because the Red Warrior Camp did not submit to these demands, the Standing Rock Tribal Council issued a declaration demanding that they leave, in early November.
In regards to the NGOs and bureaucrats, we already know why they sought a de-escalation in the confrontational attitudes expressed by the warriors within their ranks: it makes for bad public relations when you want to have the great masses of settler society and government officials sympathizing with your action. Along with legal challenges, gaining the sympathy of the “public” is the primary strategy of the NGOs and tribal officials as a way of creating political pressure on officials.
And to some extent this strategy was successful, but mostly because Obama did indeed sympathize with the struggle of Natives. He had visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation in June 2014 and made his sympathies with Native peoples clear (for some background see this article: “In Dakota Access pipeline controversy, Obama’s ties to tribes played pivotal role”, Washington Post, Dec 5, 2016). Nearing the end of his second term as president, blocking construction under Lake Oahe was a politically expedient move for Obama (and may in fact be only a delay until Trump officially takes over).
But all this is another matter to be addressed at another time. Right now, my main concern is with the process of pacification that is being spread through this myth that peaceful prayer and ceremonies are all that is required to gain victory.
The Ghost of the Ghost Dance
Remember the last time that Native peoples thought that prayers and ceremonies would be enough to make radical change in the face of an armed and obstinate opponent? It was called the Ghost Dance, a spiritual revivalist movement spearheaded by a Paiute shaman named Wovoka. Although based in Nevada, Wovoka’s vision of renewal for Indigenous peoples spread across American reservations during 1889-90.
Wovoka claimed he had received a vision from God, and that if Natives practised the Ghost Dance this 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 Indian peoples.
A variation of the Ghost Dance concept adopted by some Lakota in South Dakota was the wearing of the Ghost Shirt, which it was claimed would protect its wearer from bullets.
This spiritualist movement greatly alarmed government officials, who feared it was a precursor to armed rebellion (although there is little evidence that this was the case). The Bureau of Indian Affairs agent on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, James McLaughlin, claimed that Sitting Bull was behind the movement, and demanded military forces be deployed to counter the threat (at this time, Sitting Bull lived in Standing Rock). Consequently, some 5000 troops were sent to the region.
On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was shot and killed by a BIA police officer (Bull Head) during an attempt to arrest him for his promotion of the Ghost Dance.
Then, on December 29, 1890, soldiers from the 7thCavalry attempted to take weapons from a camp of Ghost Dance participants near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation, in South Dakota. A shot was fired during the commotion, and the soldiers opened fire on mostly unarmed men, women, elders and children. As many as 300 people may have been killed, including 25 soldiers—many of whom were killed by friendly fire.
There are other examples of spiritualists claiming that their prayers would protect them from armed violence. When US troops moved to destroy Prophet Town, the base for the Shawnee leader Tecumseh’s growing confederacy, his brother Tenskatawa, known as the Prophet, told warriors that they would be protected and could not be shot. In a surprise attack on the soldiers carried out on November 7, 1811 (known as the Battle of Tippecanoe), over 50 warriors are estimated to have been killed. They withdrew from the fight, the village was abandoned as the warriors and their families dispersed, and it was subsequently burned by US troops.
Don’t get me wrong. I also believe in the power of prayers, ceremonies and spirituality. I’ve attended many types of ceremonies over the years: sweat lodges, potlaches, sun dances, pipe, peyote, etc. But I do not believe that prayers and ceremonies in and of themselves are enough. We still need to take action in the physical realm. Sitting Bull is a good example: prior to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, he prayed and sun danced and received a powerful vision guiding his people to victory. But they used their weapons and fighting skills to achieve that victory.