The Ghost Dance

Alan Corkish

In 1889 Wovoka, an American Indian, Shaman of the Paiute tribe, claimed that he had fallen into a trance state during which God informed him that  in two years the ancestors of his people would rise from the dead, buffalo would once again fill the plains, and the white man would vanish. Wovoka was worshipped as a new messiah but the religious frenzy engendered by the cult and its accompanying Ghost Dance frightened nearby white settlers who tried to ban the tribes from performing The Ghost Dance.

Hostility between the two cultures  increased, culminating in the massacre by U.S. troops of about 200 Sioux  men, women, and children at  Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890.

Following the massacre the Indians lost faith in Wovoka and the Ghost Dance was abandoned. Allegedly.

Billy Wahnamee had five pelts on the sled which he pulled behind him. Five pelts and all of his traps, for his season had finished, his quota was to hand and now he plodded home through the cold, crisp snow.  He spat and the jet of saliva curved in an arc before crackling and bouncing as it came into contact with the frozen upper layer of snow.  It was, he estimated, about fifteen degrees below freezing, warmer than yesterday.  It had been getting warmer each day for over a week now and he noticed that the rivulets were beginning to move again a few inches beneath his feet.  It was a time to tread warily.  In a few days it would be Spring and he looked forward to that time. The temperature only yesterday had been closer to thirty below and Spring would be upon him in two days, perhaps three.  He felt better.

His cabin loomed before him and he crossed the log verandah and kicked the ice from his boots. Entering he secured the latch on the door and crossed to the potbellied stove.  Only when the flames were roaring in the iron flue did he remove his boots and his heavy mittens and set them to warm and dry.  He placed the iron pot filled with frozen elk meat and vegetables on the top of the stove and as the temperature inside the cabin rose he crossed to the radio and reluctantly donned the earphones.

“Takin’ some time off” was the core of his message. He’d completed his quota of pelts, but he didn’t tell them that, and in any case he had something else to do although he didn’t tell them that either. Always brief.  Always holding something back. But no lies. Just never tell them everything.  He clicked the off switch even as the voice at the other end was asking him about his stock of food and his progress towards quota.  It wasn’t that Billy Wahnamee didn’t like words.  He liked them too much maybe.  He hated wasting them. He would sit for hours gazing into the heart of the fire when the door of the stove was open and steam rose from every shred of his clothing and he’d struggle to recognize the words that rushed around inside of his head dancing and skipping, sometimes even flying, in the heat of their passion as they sought to become a part of him again.  At these times he’d remember Wovoka of the Paiute’s who’d taught the elders the secrets of the Shamans. He could clearly remember his grandfather dancing The Ghost Dance in the firelight with his shadow enlarged and ethereal dancing also on the sloping walls of the teepee. His grandfather was weaving spells and magical patterns that would bring back the buffalo and melt away the white man.  But that was over fifty years ago and the white man had flourished and his grandfather had died, not in heroic battle, but in the alcoholic ward at the IndianHospital.

And now he was here in the far north of a country that was no longer his.  And here it was cold and unfriendly and his gazing at the whiteness every day caused the words inside his head to turn away from him. Curled into tight balls they sheltered from the unfriendly and treacherous whiteness and the all-consuming cold, and lying there inside of his head they set fast, became unrecognizable, froze through neglect.

In a few days he’d be back at the Cornplanter reservation in Pennsylvania with money in his pocket, money with which he would buy a canoe and skim over the rapids which formed in the forks of the Tunungwant or he’d walk like a tortoise with the canoe on his back until he found a sheltered clearing where the Allagheny forest looked out over the river and there he’d cook wild salmon on the open wood fire, washing it down with warm rye whiskey. But first he needed the words to come back… and for that he needed the Springtime.

Billy Wahnamee slept easily. He walked thirty miles a day every day and he pulled the sled with as many as twenty pelts and two carcasses on it through snow that was soft and which sucked against the runners and over ice which formed in steep waves sometimes five feet high. He slept with most of his clothing on and with a buffalo fur across him and his bunk was within three feet of the potbellied stove which still flickered with heat even when he awoke after eight hours.

On waking he fed the stove first and then, as it was close to his final day, he scraped back the snow which drifted deep by the log-pile until he found four eggs which had lain there for close to seven weeks.  It was less than minus eight degrees out there now.  Maybe as high as minus five.  He could hear in the distance the sound of ice cracking and faintly, ever so faintly so that he had to stand completely still to hear it, the sound of water moving sluggishly.  He returned to the cabin with the eggs held protectively in his pocket and with a thin, frost-worn smile on his face. He took them inside and placed them gently on to a mitten which he then laid close to the stove.  From a hook on the ceiling he removed a long-handled fry-pan and he sat that on top of the stove and added elk fat which set it to spluttering and spitting.

The eggs tasted good.  He mopped the tin plate with a chunk of sweet yellow maize bread and savoured the last of it as he gazed from the window. The Hessian sacking was tied back so that he could see the whiteness. The whiteness that had been with him for close to three months.  The whiteness which owed.

All that day Billy Wahnamee worked at securing and loading the two sledges.  He had more than the quota of beaver pelts but not so many more that the Trapping and Trading Officials would penalize him.  He knew from experience how far he could go.  He could pretend that he couldn’t count if he was ten or fifteen above quota but any more than that and the laughter of the Officials would give way to wrath and to curses, then the pelts would be unloaded and set aside until the levy was paid.  And the levy was high.  It could mean the difference between two crates of rye whiskey and the promised donation to the IndianHospital and in deference to the spirit of his grandfather he knew he’d forgo the whiskey. As the day ended he checked the hide straps that secured the load.  Yes.  It was just high enough to pass inspection.  He doubted that they’d ask him to unload.

He felt better but as usual he was tired through to the bones with his labours.  Before he prepared his meal and retired to his bunk however he allowed himself time to set the rocking chair on the narrow verandah with a thick upturned two foot log by its side and to place another log, which he set flat, close to the front of the chair.  As he fell into his slumbers he heard in the distance words forming and he awoke in the morning with a smile set firm on his nut brown face. Awoke before the skies had cleared away the darkness and he needed the light from the stove’s open door to prepare himself.

The skies were gray with slim yellow and red slivers of cloud that spread like the thickening hair of a girl becoming a woman as he set up the jug of rye whiskey and the enamel mug on the upended log.  He covered himself with the buffalo fur as he settled into the rocking chair and lifted his feet so that they rested on the log which lay on its side.  The sky was clearing now.  The light came in cold and steel gray and then turned from gray to silver and then on to a low cold whiteness that bounced off the snow which covered everything. And the sun itself stood low and sullen surveying the bleak and destructive desert with evident distaste.  When it lifted completely above the horizon Billy Wahnamee allowed a hand to slide from beneath the buffalo rug and he upturned the whiskey jug and half filled the mug with the amber liquid.  He drank deeply and then settled himself back once again beneath the warmth of the thick fur.

By the time the sun had climbed to a point where Billy Wahnamee estimated the time at about ten o’ clock the whiskey jug was only three quarters filled and the sounds of the anguished ice and the slushy moan of the waters came softly to him.  Out there the beast that created the ice and snow was writhing in its death throes and Spring was winning its struggle for the right to reign for a few brief months. A sharp crack caused him to sit upright and to peer into the distance and to strain his eyes and ears until, yes, there it was again, the roar and crack of ice shifting as the part of it which was closest to the earth turned back to water causing its back to break.  And it cried out in regret and remorse and there was pain-filled movement.  Billy Wahnamee screwed his eyes tight to shut out the glare from the snow and whiteness and clearly in the distance he saw a wave of ice crack at its base, scream and collapse upon its closest brother.  Billy Wahnamee was pleased.  He turned again to the jug and half filled his enamel mug with the liquid which warmed his belly and his heart.  He drank deeply.

At noon holes were appearing in the snow and the whiskey jug was only half full.  Here and there black earth lay damp and steaming and it spread its tentacles through the realms of winter and destroyed the whiteness with ruthless efficiency.  The ice had given up screaming now; its clear blood ran coldly beneath the snow and soaked into the brown earth which drank greedily and noisily. And then gradually, as the drip drip of its white shroud melted away, a small shoot emerged less than fifteen feet from where Billy Wahnamee sat slowly rocking back and forth, back and forth.  As the skeleton emerged stark and palely green the sun dipped over its crest and began to slide towards the end of the day, towards the new season which it had created.  Billy Wahnamee raised his tin mug and words emerged from his lips “Sá ah Naaghási Bik eh Hózhó”; ‘thought and then the word’.  He began to recall all that the whiteness had taken from him and the first word which came back to him was ‘mother’, and then, after a moment in contemplation of the slipping sun, ‘wife’, ‘child’, ‘friend’ and then came words too personal to be spoken aloud which he kept within his head and one word which was more important than all of the others which was spoken inside of him as if for the first time.

As the sun bore down towards the horizon he slipped the great buffalo robe from across his body and allowed it to fall to the ground.  Amidst the blackness of the newly released earth small slivers of red brown with pale green tips began to struggle into the diminishing light and when the sun touched the horizon with its outermost edge the greenery became greater than the brown and all that was left in his jug was a half measure of whiskey.  He poured the liquor into his mug and drank it in a single draught.

It was then that the word filled him and his body glowed with the heat of the alcohol and the fire from the word and he discarded his clothing and stepped out onto the earth which was beating and pulsating with new life.  He touched the green buds of a shrub which had emerged naked and skeletal only a few hours before and he stooped in wonder to inspect the finely veined pale goldness as a single, delicate flower sprang defiantly into new life.  Then Billy Wahnamee began to lift his limbs and to drop his feet forcefully on the mother that was earth.  One foot raised and then fell and his body crouched forward and his hands raised and then the other foot rose slowly and fell rhythmically until all of his body was moving gracefully and purposefully as the word became the dance and the dance was the dance of the ghosts of his ancestors, of those who had died at Wounded Knee, of the children massacred by the Golden Haired ones and as he danced the sun bowed out and scents of night-flowers invaded the air which now flowed warm upon his nakedness and tears intruded as he remembered his grandfather and the buffalo who were no more and they were tears of anguish and of anger falling from eyes which had witnessed a miracle and beside him in the gathering gloom emerged a wizened but powerful figure naked but for a buffalo head which rested like a crown upon him and he held fire in one hand and a long bow in the other and it was Wovoka the greatest of the Tribes’ Shamans and they spoke to each other of a word which became song and the song which became a part of the new Spring which was all around them reviving the word and bringing salve to their souls, souls which lived for ever and were one and had always been one and which would gather other souls unto them throughout the circles of the seasons and throughout the passage of all time and which the white man could not control for The Ghost Dance promised a return to a freedom like the space between the particles of the west wind, a time when buffalo thundered across the warm land that was theirs to walk upon, theirs to hunt upon and theirs to rest within when the body died, a time when the white man, who had no dance and words which spoke of nothing but theft and deceit, came to them only in bad dreams which were sour and unforgiving like the decaying desert whiteness.

* * * * *

Alan Corkish is a writer, editor, academic and book reviewer who also works as a psychotherapist in the NHS. Based in Liverpool UK from where he runs erbacce-press jointly with Dr. Andrew Taylor he ventures but rarely into the creative-fields of late preferring instead to concentrate on book editing and cover design. Once upon a time he was a street-fighting drunkard, now however he prefers to sip quality wine and to mourn the demise of perceptive short-story writing.

His other submissions to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be seen here.

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