In the closing years of the 19th century, Indians throughout the American West began to dance. Dervish-like, they danced for hours and days on end, in the belief that their ecstasy would call forth the gods, bring back the dead, and banish the conquering Europeans from North America. A Paiute elder named Captain Dick explained to a white observer just how this was to take place:
All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in the next spring Big Man come. He bring back game of every kind. Game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live again. They all be strong, be young again. Old blind Indians sec again and get young and have fine time. When the Old Man comes this way, then all the Indians go to the mountains, high up away from the whites. Whites can’t hurt the Indians then. Then while Indians way up high, big flood comes like water and all white people die, get drowned. After that water go away and then nobody but Indians [and] everywhere game. Then medicine-man tell Indians to send word to all Indians to keep up dancing and the good time will come.
Thus assured, they danced, Paiute and Sioux, Cheyenne and Zuni, Jicarilla and Washo, hoping to work magic and bring back that good time. Although it promised cataclysm, the dance itself offered no violence. Even so, the American government took a dim view of the dancer’s efforts. The War Department dispatched columns of troops to put down the Ghost Dance, as it had come to be called, wherever it showed itself. Thousands of Indians died in this decade-long campaign of suppression, notably at a South Dakota center of the insurrection with the resonant name of Wounded Knee.
Today, at millennium’s end, in places across the West like Wounded Knee and Pyramid Lake, Ganado and Lodge Grass, talk of a new Ghost Dance fills the air. Native prophecies now making the rounds hold that the next two years will bring the return of the White Buffalo and an apocalyptic end to the white invaders, who will be driven into the Eastern sea. (They will be helped into the ocean, say seers who add a bit of Nostradamus to the mix, by a Chinese nuclear strike.) All the Indians have to do, according to the prophecy, is wait, watch, and dance.
This is strange and unsettling talk, and it has found many willing ears in the Indian nations. Outside of those nations, it is a well-kept secret—not so much because it is withheld from whites, but because it is not publicized to the outside world in the way of almost everything that happens in Indian country. The dancers are gathering, and thus far they have not been impeded by agents of the federal government, although you can be sure that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are taking note of who comes.
One has to travel into Indian country to hear about the Ghost Dance, or, failing that, to turn to Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Silko’s sprawling 1991 novel Almanac of the Dead, an episodic tale of the Native American retaking of conquered homelands, to catch bits and pieces of how the new apocalypse is meant to unfold. Had this talk been aired a quarter of a century ago, all of America would have heard about these latter day Ghost Dance prophecies. But today the mainstream media accords little attention to Native American issues, even those with the occult edge American audiences seem so hungry for. And on the other side of the line that divides Indian country from what anthropologists call the dominant culture, no organized propaganda-making force exists to bring those issues before the larger public and, in this instance, to warn Anglo society that the end is nigh. The reason is simple: the pan-Indian nationalist movement, so much a part of the countercultural newsmaking machine in the late 1960’s and early to mid-70’s, has disintegrated and very nearly disappeared as a result of external pressures (like the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation) and the internal dissension and the splintering tendency common to dissident movements everywhere.
American Indian radical-nationalist politics first drew international attention in the early winter of 1969, when an unknown number of activists, certainly fewer than a hundred, occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The American Indian Movement (AIM), an activist organization previously confined to Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, grew to prominence through that action, bringing fame (or notoriety) to Richard Oakes, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Browning Pipestem, and John Trudell, among other leaders. It also helped focus Indian activists on developing what movement strategist Clyde Warrior called “true Indian philosophy geared to modern times.” That promise was never fulfilled, largely because AIM’S adherents could never quite figure out just what constituted that true Indian philosophy, apart from a vehement dislike for the federal government and for the traditional tribal leaders in places like Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee who, in the activists’ eyes, had sold out to the conquerors.
In their fine book Like a Hurricane, Native American historians Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior chart AIM’s fortunes through the three years culminating in both Richard Nixon’s reelection and the infamous siege at Wounded Knee, where armed AIM members and sympathizers held off federal agents and soldiers for eight weeks, becoming an international cause in the process. The period between Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, the authors write, “was for American Indians every bit as significant as the counterculture was for young whites, or the civil rights movement for blacks.” Significant though it may have been, it had a far smaller impact on the larger world; AIM’s young, untested leadership was simply unprepared to take their struggle into the arena of reasoned discourse and away from the cameras.
Smith and Warrior make their case with admirable balance, noting that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, usually the heavy in books of this sort, was full of well-meaning and sympathetic individuals, and that AIM had its .share of bad actors, including people who at Alcatraz busied themselves “bootlegging liquor and thrashing residents who criticized the leadership or who asked too many questions about finances.” Still, the authors argue, most of the activists who put themselves on the line at Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, and elsewhere gave powerful voice to the voiceless peoples hitherto tucked away on reservations, “the most ignored population in the United States.”
The glory days were few and short. As quickly as Indian radicalism had exploded on the national stage, it faded, disintegrating under the weight of its own internal contradictions and divisions and from the relentless legal assault by federal and state governments. According to radical Indian scholar Ward Churchill, this “relentless legal assault involved the FBI’s filing 300,000 charges against AIM members, 140 against leader Russell Means alone; the onslaught was unprecedented, and it has not since been repeated.” Given the internationally favorable publicity accorded them, however, AIM might have been able to withstand the FBI’s campaign—which, subsequent hearings showed, also involved infiltration by agents provocateurs and harassment, at Pine Ridge, by members of the GOONS (“Guardians of the Oglala Nation”), who are believed to have killed 342 AIM members between 1973 and 1976.
But AIM broke apart because of its own internal divisions, which came into sharp relief early on. One instance, as Smith and Warrior note, was Alcatraz, where competing factions sought to seize leadership of the organization. (Means, now a sometime actor in Disney movies, was one of the winners in this struggle.) Another was the misguided seizure in 1972 of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, which happened accidentally: AIM participants in a civil rights march on the Capitol simply had nowhere else to stay, and they occupied the federal building to escape the weather. In the authors’ words, “what happened was not a political conspiracy but a logistics meltdown,” hardly the stuff of a grand revolution.
AIM lingers, but it is a shadow of its former self, its energies largely devoted to a campaign to free former leader Leonard Peltier, who is now serving a life sentence in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for his role in the 1975 murder of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. As Fergus Bordewich, the sympathetic author of Killing the White Man’s Indian, remarks, the present pan-Indian nationalist movement is crippled by “ethnic chauvinism, [an] instinct to confuse isolation with independence, and a chronic habit of interpreting present-day reality through the warping lens of the past.” Such damning words have made his book highly unpopular in some circles, yet Bordewich is not unsympathetic, and he sees much hope for a revitalized Native America that will someday determine its own destiny, if only its leadership will attend to endemic problems like gambling, alcoholism, suicide, and poverty, and address the federal government’s inability to determine how Indian nations fit within the United States.
A politically revitalized Indian America will very likely have to turn elsewhere than AIM for its leadership; AIM appears to enjoy little support outside a few college campuses, and certainly it cannot claim to represent a majority of constituents on any reservation. Given the absence of any other national political organization run by and for Native Americans, many observers believe that—at least for the moment—pan-Indian nationalism is a dead cause. They may be right; certainly the struggles now taking place among Indian nations themselves suggest that larger alliances are unlikely, as Navajos contend with Hopis over land and grazing rights, as Sioux and Crows recapitulate centuries-old enmities over territorial claims, as Klamaths and Yuroks contest fishing grounds. But small signs like the new Ghost Dance suggest that such a movement, whether led by AIM or not, is only dormant. All that is required for it to awaken is the emergence of a common threat or two.
One possible catalyst is a scientific controversy that, like the Ghost Dance, has received little public attention. In July 1996, two hikers discovered the remains of what appeared to be a white male in a gravel bed along the Columbia River outside of Kennewick, Washington, on land administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Forensic scientists judged the well-preserved skeleton to be 9,300 years old, and archaeologists interested in the peopling of the New World set about revising the prehistoric record to accommodate the controversial notion that Caucasoids may have crossed over from Eurasia at the same time as, or perhaps even earlier than, the descendants of today’s Indians, who, the theory goes, made their way over the Bering land bridge from northeastern Asia during the last Ice The scientists were stymied, however, by the leaders of the Umatilla Indian Nation, under whose tribal jurisdiction the skeleton’s provenience fell. Invoking the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which allows Indian tribes to claim the remains of their ancestors, the Umatilla demanded the immediate surrender of the Kennewick skeleton.
The scientists argued that they had much work yet to do in conducting tests that would better identify the genetic heritage of Kennewick Man. And, they argued, the tentatively dated remains far predated the Umatilla people, meaning that the Umatilla should have no jurisdiction over the skeleton. They sued to stop the repatriation, and last June the U.S. Federal District Court in Portland agreed with their argument, ordering the Corps of Engineers not to release the skeleton to the Umatilla. The Umatilla are now appealing the decision, and the matter will almost certainly go all the way to the Supreme Court—which will, archaeologists hope, order a redefinition of the act to limit the access of tribes to aboriginal artifacts that predate their cultures.
What does this scientific controversy have to do with the larger issue of pan-Indian nationalism? Only this: in introducing the startling possibility that today’s Indians may not be descended from America’s first settlers, the scientists may, however unwittingly, open a new debate over Native Americans’ moral claim to the ownership of the New World. The facts of the matter are far more complicated, as the scientists are quick to point out. “Caucasoid,” for instance, does not mean “Caucasian,” but as Douglas Preston explains in a recent article in the New Yorker, there is already talk about the emergence of pan-Indian opposition to the scientists’ findings, opposition that may take on a we-were-here-first sloganeering around which an AIM-like group could profitably form.
Native American opposition is in fact forming around recent congressional attempts to tax tribal commercial enterprises following the introduction of highly profitable legal gambling on reservations throughout the country. This new, fantastically rich revenue stream caught the attention of two U.S. representatives, Asa Hutchinson (R-AK) and Gerald Solomon (R-NY), who separately introduced legislation to tax such tribal income by as much as 35 percent—a huge hit in the age of welfare reform. Neither bill cleared the House Ways and Means Committee, and neither would likely have survived a constitutional hearing, inasmuch as the Supreme Court and the Internal Revenue Service alike have repeatedly ruled that American Indian tribes are not taxable entities; m the same spirit, the federal government does not tax state revenues from lotteries or gaming. Still, Native American activists with whom I have spoken fear that some form of the Hutchinson-Solomon bills will eventually be passed into law—in which instance national Indian resistance is likely to be spirited.
“As soon as they wake up and recognize the fact that the U.S. government doesn’t respect them as sovereign, Indian people will get down to what the real issues are,” says University of Arizona law professor Robert Williams. He is certainly right. The real issues are not skeletons, but laws; not death, but taxes; not ancient insults, but modern troubles. The pan-Indian nationalist movement may well only be sleeping. If something rouses it, its Ghost Dance will be heard everywhere.
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