Friday, February 15, 2019

Poem Retrospective XV

Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson because he was raised by the Wilson family after having been orphaned, became a respected spiritual leader among the Paiute Indians. During the solar eclipse of January 1,1889, he is said to have had a vision about Jesus Christ returning to resurrect the Paiute dead and restore the land to Native Americans. Wovoka, who was a pacifist, thought that this would happen on its own through moral reform and the regular performance of a Circle Dance, but as the news of the vision spread, it changed, as such things do. A couple of Lakota mixed the vision with a belief that shirts properly prepared by the Circle Dance, which they tended to call a Spirit Dance or Ghost Dance, could by spiritual power stop bullets; tensions between the U.S. government and the Sioux had been boiling over again, and the U.S. government was engaging in an active campaign to pacify the Sioux. That the U.S. government had had prior experience of religious movements among the Sioux being preludes to all-out war, did not help matters, so they attempted to arrest on rather flimsy grounds the great Sioux spiritual leader, Sitting Bull, which of course, led to fighting. During this hostile period, the 7th Cavalry happened to run into the Miniconjou Lakota Sioux, who were in the process of moving to the Indian Agency, and, intending to disarm them, escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek. There they began the process of disarmament. What happened next is unknown -- there are quite a few different stories -- but shooting broke out, with the Lakota entirely at a disadvantage. It's thought that more than half the warriors were shot before they even had time to fire any shots at all. What's more, the cavalry had Hotchkiss guns, early machine guns, and turned them on the Sioux camp, killing women and children. It took time for the officers to regain control of their men, and by that time, most of men, women, and children were dead, without only about 50 survivors out of about 350. The Ghost Dance movement continued, clandestinely, for some time afterward, but as a movement largely dwindled out from fear of U.S. retaliation for it. The Ghost Dance is still performed in a number of variations, though.

Ghost Dance

On Milky Way in holy skies
now walk the souls that lived and died;
it bears them to the earth below,
the starlit mountains crowned with snow.
Now Christ has sent the winds of peace!
He bade the war and violence cease;
he brings to morning living rain
and brings the bison to the plain.
He bears the dead to earth below,
from evening stars to mountain snow.

But feel the darkness in the land!
Such venom in the heart of man!
How will the serpent treat the dove
who bears abroad these songs of love?
The prophet dances, agents lie,
in battlefields the people die
with bullets in their hearts and hands,
their blood poured out to wet the lands:
from mountains crowned with shining snow
their spirits flee this earth below.

A prophet once was crucified
and on the tree he bled and died
as jeers beneath the bloody cross
were mocking him for pain and loss.
He was the Christ; the Roman lance
had pierced him for his spirit dance.
There was a people, proud and tall,
with sun-like mien and worthy all;
for dancing in the winter snow
to bring the spirits here below
they fell beneath the flaming guns,
both score by score and one by one.

What thing may live may also die.
What heart may laugh may also cry.
But those who die may also rise
beneath the starlight in the skies
and hunt and dance and play the games
to which their fathers gave the names.
Thus Christ upon a path of light
will come again some starlit night
to bring the dead to earth below
for spirit dances in the snow.

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