12 July

LAME DEER AND THE GHOST DANCE

ALERT! Smoke signals are rising over Oakland and someone wants to put them out. The City of Oakland is trying to close down a sweat lodge ceremony, which for many tribes is the first rite of purification. While mainstream religions are supported by a country based upon religious freedom, the religious rights of the original Americans always seems to be the first to be extinguished. Their belief in worshipping and protecting nature has been considered naïve and anti–progress by a government constantly looking for an excuse to steal their land.

In fact, at this moment, the current government is looking for a loophole to dissolve the reservation treaties so the corporations can once again profit from Native Americans’ loss. But now that the climate is teeter tottering on the edge of an environmental catastrophe, these views seem very shortsighted. We are at a time in history when the protectors of the earth have squared off with those who believe the earth’s resources are nothing more than commodities to be used without concern for our environment. In fact, the environmental movement in the US began with Native Americans and the Ghost Dance revival that came to Standing Rock in the 1880’s.

The first time I ever heard of the Ghost Dance was from the Lakota medicine man John Fire Lame Deer. I was an underage street kid at the time and he was leaving a liquor store. I asked him to buy me a six-pack of beer and he said sure, and kept the change. When I offered him a bottle he took it without a thanks and began to walk away, but then turned around and decided to drink it with me in a park nearby, where a lot of college coeds hung out.

Lame Deer was an old wiry Indian with a face as worn with crevasses as the Black Hills he came from. He wore a cowboy hat and boots with long grayish black hair. For the moment I was honored that he had befriended me, but quickly realized that this was just a ploy on his part to get me to introduce him to the young white girls I knew.  

That summer Lame Deer and I continued to drink at Tom Horn’s grave, the last of the free roaming cowboys, in a small cemetery in Boulder, Colorado. Lame Deer told me that Tom was rubbed out by greed just like the Indians, so Lame Deer felt that Tom’s ghost danced with the Lakota people. Lame Deer used Tom Horn as a bridge to the story that he wanted to tell me. I had never heard of the Ghost Dance before, but it was a subject that Lame Deer constantly returned to since it had had a traumatic effect on his life. He was a small child at the Ghost Dance massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 when the ceremony was outlawed and the last free roaming band of Native Americans were exterminated.

Ever since that time, Lame Deer had been continually perplexed by just one question: if the government really believed that the Ghost Dance was just the ignorant superstition of a desperate people, why was the ceremony still illegal in modern times? Unbelievable as it may seem, in 1969 they were still arresting practitioners and imprisoning them for Ghost Dancing. Then again, if the dance did have a supernatural power why did it fail the Native American people who had performed the ceremony?

Later that summer, Lame Deer finally stopped drinking and took me into the mountains on a vision quest. After eating the peyote I threw up just as the rain began. Then the night filled up with thunder and lightning and a driving wind that seemed to constantly change in the ominous sky. All night long Lame Deer spoke about the Ghost Dance, believing that the ceremony had a much more ancient origin than Wovoka’s revival movement in the 1880’s. He also believed that the ceremony would be the key to the future survival of the human race, which appeared to be obsessed with destroying the very environment it needed to survive.

Soaked and cold, I waited all night for a vision that did not come. By sunrise the rain had stopped and a beautiful morning was being born. On instinct I walked towards the cliff, with Lame Deer following close behind. As I approached the edge, a giant blue heron swooped up in front of me so closely I could feel the beat of its massive wings. In that moment I knew that I would go to Mexico in search of the origin of the Ghost Dance.

Five years later I returned from Mexico and went to Boulder where I found Lame Deer sitting at Tom Horn’s grave. I told Lame Deer that I believed that I had found the Ghost Dance’s origin in Oaxaca’s ‘Mountain of the Clouds” where the patron of Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl, had performed the first Ghost Dance thousands of years ago. The locals believed that when Quetzalcoatl died he bled semen and from his seed a sacred mushroom had grown which held the secret to the Ghost Dance. Lame Deer listened attentively and then told me that before I died, the Ghost Dance would fulfill the Prophecy of Seven Generations and save the Tree of Life along with the human strand of the weave of nature.

That winter in 1974, just a couple weeks before the American Indian Movement’s standoff at Wounded Knee, tribal leaders had secretly met in Boulder. Many of those meeting were vets who had returned from Vietnam plagued by the horrors of war and unable to sleep. On the Sioux reservations, they found two elderly Indians who still practiced the old time religion: Lame Deer and Frank Fools Crow. Through sweats and ritual they gave these young vets back the ability to sleep and a hope for the future.

At the modern day Wounded Knee standoff, Leonard Crow Dog, whose family had brought the Ghost Dance to Lame Deer’s Rosebud reservation, was arrested for Ghost Dancing and put in Leavenworth prison. While in prison, orders were given from up top to beat both Crow Dog and activist Leonard Peltier. Four years later Crow Dog was released, but Peltier still remains in prison to this day, though all the evidence shows he is innocent of his supposed crime. Even though the law banning the Ghost Dance was finally lifted in 1978, the persecution of Native Americans religious rights still continues across our country, in Oakland and the prison cell of Leonard Peltier.

During the Wounded Knee standoff, I arranged for provisions to be sent to support the activists there and then returned to Mexico to continue my search for the origin of the Ghost Dance. I never saw Lame Deer again, but thirty-years later I brought some of the very last pure blood American Buffalo to Leonard Crow Dog on Lame Deer’s Rosebud Reservation. At his sunrise ceremony to welcome the buffalo home Crow Dog spoke about the buffalo. Crow Dog believed that this herd of small buffalo were the sacred buffalo of White Buffalo Calf Women and their return was a sign that it would soon be time to Ghost Dance again.

After the ceremony was completed, Crow Dog and I spoke about the lost steps to the Ghost Dance, which I believed that I had found still being practiced in the Mountains of the Clouds. Crow Dog felt that it was time to bring all the tribes and people who protected the Earth Mother together. So I pray, whether these elders are already ghosts or still living, dance you old timers dance, and may your spirits be felt on Standing Rock, Oakland or wherever the struggle takes you.