for Sam Lofland and Miranda Zent
Standing Rock is the reservation where Sitting Bull was killed by Tribal Police. At Standing Rock in the Dakotas, after the visit by the holy prophet Kicking Bear, Ghost Dancers prayed and danced for the regeneration of the earth and the return of the buffalo during the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s.
In the aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre in 1866 (the Sioux called it the Battle of the Hundred Slain), General William Tecumseh Sherman argued an Indian policy of “peace within the reservation and war without.” The simplest way of bringing Plains Indians to confinement, Sherman wrote to Philip Sheridan, was “to invite all the sportsmen of England and America … for a Great Buffalo Hunt and make a grand sweep of them all.” The buffalo herds vanished from the Northern Plains between 1876 and 1882.
When Sitting Bull returned from Canada and surrendered in 1881, he addressed US military officers: “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last of my tribe to surrender my rifle. This boy [Sitting Bull’s son] has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.” [i]
The scene now turns to the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site, crossing the Missouri River about a mile upstream of the Standing Rock reservation. The Missouri River provides drinking water to 17 million people downstream, including the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. If this crude oil pipeline under the river were to leak—all crude oil pipelines leak—their source of water would be imperiled. Leaders of the tribe describe the Dakota Access Pipeline site as both a “sacred place” and a “burial site.”
Thousands of people from tribes around the country and their supporters have gathered at the pipeline construction site. Protestors have been arrested, gassed, attacked by dogs and shot with rubber bullets. They have been moved behind a wire fence, from where a young man—baseball cap with bill turned backwards, grey hoodie—stands firm, facing armed and uniformed guards. His pockmarked face is blessed with the anger and frustration of a moment of defeat.
An interviewer (on video here) poses a question to the young man while drums are heard in the background:
How do you feel with them coming on treaty land? How do you feel in your own land of your ancestors? How do you feel?
I feel disrespected.
I feel hurt.
I feel this hurt that these guys (gesturing towards the guards) won’t never understand.
I try to tell them, but…
The only reason why we’re moving back is because they’re armed.
That’s what it takes for them to push us back.
They carry weapons because they’re scared.
What does this land mean to you? This traditional land?
This land means everything.
And then a wondrous event occurs. From the heartland of America, from the deep wells of our national soul, a herd of stampeding buffalo appears in the horizon, lifting the spirits of the gathered protestors: Tatanka Oyate—the Buffalo Nation—a ghostly gathering of the sacred animal from which the Plains Indians derived their culture, sustenance and livelihood. The fabled creature that whites tried to exterminate in order to eradicate the Indian. A war-whoop goes up among the assembled tribes in the Dakotas—an echo of the war-cry of Crazy Horse (“It’s a good day to die!”) when he delivered the final cavalry onslaught against Custer’s soldiers at Little Bighorn.
Look at over there!
All the buffalo!
Look at all those buffalo!
Look at all those buffalo there!
They’re coming for you guys!
Here they come!
…..You’re scared, pretty much!
It’s a sacred animal.
George Bernard Shaw defined “miracle” as “an event that creates faith.” When Santiago appeared to the Spanish armies in battle, the soldiers gained the courage needed to defeat the Moors. When the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego on Tepeyac, the apparition created the faith required for the Archbishop to build a temple on the spot. When in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings King Aragorn showed up leading the Army of the Dead to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the saving of Middle Earth from the hosts of Sauron was assured.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “the world will little note, nor long remember” who we elect as president in today’s election. But the specter of the Sacred Buffalo Herd at Standing Rock, giving faith and courage to the people defending their water and ancestral lands, will long live in the songs of medicine men, in the tales of storytellers, and in the dreams of old men and women. As a foreshadowing of the prophecies of the Ghost Dance and the end of days, it merits our attention, prayers and contemplation.
We would do well to remember the warning of Chief Seattle: “The white man will never be alone. So let him be just and deal kindly with my people. The dead have power too.”
[i] Edward Lazarus, Black Hills/White Justice: The Sioux Nation versus the United States, 1775 to the Present (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 52-53: Robert L. Ivie and Oscar Giner, Hunt the Devil: A Demonology of US War Culture (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), 61.