Friday, May 16, 2008

Lakota Sundance and the American Flag

One of the most captivating presentations at the recent EAAS conference in Oslo was Kay Koppedrayer's narration of the events at a Lakota sundance ceremony on the Pine Ridge reservation where American Flags were flown during the ceremony:

One year, four American flags flew over a Lakota sundance on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Raised on a column of lodge poles dug into the hillside above the eastern gateway of the sundance arbor, the flags were easily visible from every location on the sundance grounds, from where families camped, to where people parked and sat in their cars, to the shade circling the arbor, where the drums and singers sat, to inside the arbor where the sundancers prayed, to the fire and where the sweat lodges were located.

There were varying opinions among the participants concerning the meaning of the iconic flag in such a context. I was particularly struck by this comment cited by Kay:

As one of the Lakota sundancers put it, "that's our flag, too. We captured it. We won that flag, the one that’s flying up there." He was referring to the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which more than a few American flags were taken by the victors. One estimate is that some fifteen were later brought back to the Lakota and Cheyenne camps.

See for instance the account by Chief Rain-in-the-Face of his role in the battle of Little Big Horn which mentions a flag capture:

I had sung the war song, I had smelt power smoke, my heart was bad--I was like one who had no mind. I rushed in and took their flag; my pony fell dead as I took it. I cut the thong that bound me; I jumped up and brained the sword flag man with my war club, and ran back to our line with the flag. I was mad. I got a fresh pony and rushed back, shooting, cutting and slashing. This pony was shot and I got another. This time I saw Little Hair (Tom Custer)--I remembered my vow. I was crazy; I feared nothing. I knew nothing would hurt me, for I had my white weasel tail on. I don't know how many I killed trying to get at him. He knew me. I laughed at him and yelled at him. I saw his mouth move, but there was so much noise I couldn't hear his voice. He was afraid. When I got near enough I shot him with my revolver. My gun was gone, I didn't know where. I got back on my pony and rode off. I was satisfied and sick of fighting.

The pride in the American flag expressed by one Lakota sundancer in the above quote from Kay's presentation was supplemented by her further account of the respect several veterans of service in the US military expressed for the flag. Historically the US Government has made considerable efforts to establish the role of the flag and has used it as a means of integration of Natives serving in the military. Kay Koppedrayer again:

Veterans returning from the war were welcomed with victory songs, adaptations of earlier songs celebrating victory over other tribes or the US cavalry (Standing in the Light: A Lakota Way of Seeing, Young Bear and Theisz, 1996: 83-84), and flag songs, introduced to the reservations with the citizenship and recruitment campaigns. [...] Flags were flown at these [social] dances as at most other gatherings on the reservation as part of the Americanization process. Veterans, honoured with the flag songs and victory songs, were given the privilege of opening and policing the gatherings. As for the Lakota soldiers who didn’t come back, their deaths were honoured with the display of the flag. A description of a soldier’s burial at Rosebud describes his body being brought home: “Long before we reached the home we could also see Old Glory floating from a tall flagpole that had been set up since the news of his death had reached the reservation” (Department of Interior 1927: 3).

At the end of the sundance described in Kay's presentation the flags were taken down and in an impromptu ceremony presented to a young Marine representing all the veterans there. Kay quotes this young man's account of the event:

He said that when he stood there in front of the people, it was so still, so quiet, he felt as if the ancestors were there, all the veterans were there. He stood there for all the veterans and he can’t put into words how he felt, can’t express it, can’t explain it. He said the look on the faces of the family members who received the flags is something he can’t explain. He said that the experience took him to another place, "it was as if I was up on the hill [the hill surrounding the sundance grounds, but also an expression that is used when one goes fasting (= vision quest), the hill where the flag poles were, the hill where the men had earlier been fasting] watching. I could see myself and I could see everybody and I could see the pride. The pride I felt wasn’t my pride, but it came from the people, it came from them and I felt it through me."

Kay's narration of these events and feelings left us all quite stunned. The somewhat problematic connotations of Old Glory had been re-interpreted for us in a whole new context. I deem the actions of the participants in the Lakota sundance as a performance of an instance of unincorporated, non-hegemonic collaborative icon-work vis-a-vis the US flag...

For an alternative Native view see this document.

Here is a Whitecap Dakota/Sioux flag used in Canada: