December 26, 2016. “Dakota 38” is a film about a group horseback ride by the descendants of 38+2 who were hanged by Abraham Lincoln.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pX6FBSUyQI A free download as well as streaming. It happened in 2008. Some of the most eloquent young speakers are dead now.
I wept all the way through it, even though they were Sioux, Blackfeet rivals mostly because they are so similar. A matter of maintaining separation. It wasn’t any ideas in the movie that brought the tears, it was the felt meanings of horses on the snowy prairie, calm men with strong purposes, and the land, the land, the land. Pay no attention. Tears just happen. They’re not an entitlement.
There’s a lot of testifying in this film, much of it full of tears, but instead of reacting to that, listen to the music of the voices, the phrasing, the rhythm. When in my teaching years I asked for writing, I often got the lyrics of songs. Spoken, sung, shaped words because the kids were from an oral culture. Our young people feel it. Globally.
This ride is not a reenactment or actually a memorial in a normal sense. It is something forming that doesn’t depend on anything an anthropologist wrote. There’s no “theology,” no rubrics, just the felt meaning of “doin’ it” and the dream. It is a uniting ordeal. There would probably have been deaths except for the need to protect the horses. The best description is Tillich’s principle that the sacred arises from the midst of the people. You don’t think it up, it’s not a matter of effort, it’s just gradually there. A dream.
My attachment to these prairie people was created when I spent my young adult years, the years when one’s brain is making the final connections and forming the abstract abilities that I’ve used ever since. They are sense memories of laughter, smudging, old old objects of significance, light flooding across the prairie. The sound and smell of horses.
38 is this many: tttttttttt tttttttttt tttttttttt tttttttt There were so many that they were hung close enough together to reach out and join hands while they died. No, now that I’ve seen the act filmed, they had their hands tied behind their backs. The whites filmed it. Cold-blooded, almost proud, defiantly assuming they were right, and yet themselves recording a crime, a sin, an act of hubris. There’s a kind of blood lust that seizes people when they are scared and emboldened like fish or birds, taking their cues from the next guy over, so that thousands of normally law-abiding church-going people could stand there and feel good about people dying. Maybe some didn’t like it, but didn’t dare say so.
My Scots father was born on a homestead near Faulkton, South Dakota, which was part of the designated Brule Sioux lands for a while. His family came in to raise potatoes where the buffalo had been. They were humble, modest, educated Scots who had no consciousness at all of what was happening. Part of it was just not having the facts, part of it was a kind of denial that is a darkness in the brain. I mean, they were working for survival every day and their reading was often about New England. Only the youngest son saw military service in WWII. Because he was big, he was a pilot in the “B” for bombing and “C” for cargo airplanes and saw no combat. I’m just making a link. My cousins don’t want to think about it. His children do not communicate with the rest of us.
There’s an enormous amount of overlap between those who died long ago and today’s veterans, spiritually dead from PTSD, addiction, combat trauma and memory. Coming back from those chaos experiences is like thawing from frostbite, painful and damaging. I have my own sense memories from being out in blizzards, even on horseback, even on closed highways, but none are about atrocities. I’ve been shot at, but never been present when someone was shot. Just animals. Not very dramatic. But I would share the experiences with some of the ranchers and their wives.
When I go onto the rez and meet people I know, I get great big soft hugs from the women. The men are still a little shy, slipping back into their high school years. Kids just stare. They know nothing about me and are split between wary and defiant, just in case I might give them a reason for either. I’ve been the celebrant for Blackfeet funerals, but no marriages. I served the Blackfeet Methodist parish for a year.
When I talk to Valier people about the rez, or about NA history or books, I get a strange resistance to certain ideas. It’s not exactly racism, and not conscious resistance, but a kind of seeping cloud that sometimes bursts into the pinwheeling eyes of not-computing. I’ve felt that myself on the inside, but not usually in regard to Indians. I’m not sure exactly what the triggers are, but I know that it feels like fear as well as non-comprehension. Maybe I felt it sometimes in the U of Chicago years. Those highly educated important people are so sure, so powerful, so locked, so different. But they don’t know it.
The prairie tribes, among the last to be cleared and confined, understood horsemen riding in fast, on the attack. They knew how to do it. This was part of their world like the Janjaweed in Africa or the Mongols in Asia. So those Sioux knew how to die well, even put a Christian reincarnation spin on it. American soldiers have lost a bit of that, which makes the trauma much worse. But I was impressed that when it was time for a talking circle on this ride through blizzards, there were men who spoke openly about how they recovered from abuse, addiction, and violence. This is not a matter of theology but of felt redemption. The land spread a cold white blanket over them.
Unyiyee. (That’s all I have to say now.)