35. Ghost Dance
Written & performed by Bill Miller
From the CD Promised Land (Welk Music Group, 2000 USA)
Listen & view a live performance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vdg2sVB0XU8&feature=related



I wanna go where the blind can see
I wanna go where the lame will walk
I wanna see the sick ones clean
Where the deaf can hear and the silent talk
Where are you going, to a ghostdance in the snow?
Where are all your warriors, I see they’re finally
Coming home
I wanna go where the dead are raised
Where the mountain lion lays down with the lamb
I wanna stand where god is praised
I wanna ride across the plains
To the Promised Land
Where I’m going don’t need to raise your voice
No starvation we’ll have plenty to eat
No guns no wars, no hateful noise
Just a victory dance, we’ll never taste defeat
Where there’s nothin’ done or said
That can’t be forgiven
Where every step you take
Is on sacred ground
Walk away from death
Into the land of the living
Where all the lost tribes
Are finally found


One. A vanishing act, one of many…

The 19th century was a time of protracted trauma for Native Americans, characterised by the violent legal and physical process by which they were removed from their homelands by the U.S government in its efforts to own the entire continent. The Indian Removal Act (1830) enshrined this process in American law: by 1840 over 70,000 Native Americans had been divested of their territories.

If one wish cohered the U.S government’s theft of Indian land, it was that the Native Americans would simply disappear from the face of the earth: Francis Parkman, one of the United States’ first major historians wrote, in his 1851 treatise The Conspiracy of Pontiac, that Native Americans were ‘destined to melt and vanish before the advancing waves of Anglo-American power, which now rolled westward unchecked and unopposed.

In 1860 the U.S Congress passed the Pre Emption Bill, which provided Native American land to white settlers free of charge. In 1887 the U.S government passed the General Allotment Act under which Native Americans lost millions of acres of their land. In 1894 the federal government banned just about every form of Native American religious practice and tribal custom under penalty of starvation, fines, imprisonment and death. To explain why, here is Laurence Armand French, author of Native American Justice: ‘It was apparent to political and Christian leaders of the United States that the political and religious forms of tribal life were so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. It was apparent that tribal political resistance to the theft of Indian lands was premised not on a concept of ownership of lands, but rather on a profound spiritual obligation, as stewards of the land, to protect it. It was apparent to U.S leaders that, in order to successfully suppress political tribal resistance, it was imperative that tribal religious activities be suppressed as well.

Whites had been attempting to impose Christianity on Native Americans since the 1700s. The Christian imposition accelerated in the 19th century as a means of assimilating Native Americans, whom the whites viewed as savages, into Anglo American life, dissolving their relationship with their land, their history and their culture, even as they stole their land from beneath them and forced them to live on tiny fragmented reservations: Native Americans were granted citizenship of America in 1924.

Native American religion was decriminalised in 1935. We imagine the majority of Indians greeted the lifting of the ban with at least a measure of relief, and if Jack Wilson had been alive at the time he may have shared this sense that a period of religious persecution had come to an end of sorts. Then again maybe he would have had mixed feelings about it – there’s no way of knowing, since Jack Wilson died in 1932.


Two. Being Jack Wilson

Jack Wilson died in obscurity. Forty years earlier he had been hailed by most of the Native American nation as a messiah. Some believed he was Jesus Christ. He was in fact the founder of the Ghost Dance movement, a messianic religion that reflected Wilson’s shamanic and Christian upbringing and made him the tragic catalyst for the U.S government’s suppression of Native American religion.

Wilson was born around 1856. He was a Native American from the Paiute nation of Nevada. His birth name was Wovoka and he came from a long line of shamen. When Wovoka was 14 his father died and he was adopted by the family of rancher David Wilson, who baptised him Jack and raised him as a Christian.

Being Jack Wilson seems not to have been an entirely comfortable experience for Wovoka and he appeared sufficiently disenchanted with life in white society as an assimilated Christian to leave the Wilson ranch at the first available opportunity. Wovoka worked his way through the tribes in California, Oregon, and Washington, where he first encountered the Shaker religion, and witnessed Native Americans immersed in the religion’s long, drawn out rituals and trance states.

In 1889 Wovoka had a vision, but please allow us a momentary digression into Paiute history, since the content of Wovoka’s vision bore a marked resemblance to a vision experienced twenty years earlier by another Paiute shamen, Hawthorne Wodziwob.

Wodziwob described a journey to the land of the dead and the promises made to him by the souls of the recently departed. They promised to return to their loved ones within a period of three to four years. Wodziwob’s revelation was followed a year later by the prophecy of a Paiute Indian named Tävibo – who some sources say was Wovoka’s father, and who had worked with Wodziwob. Tavibo prophesied that the earth would swallow up the invading whites. Dead Paiute Indians and all other Indians would rise and join the living, free in a land of material wealth, spiritual renewal, and immortal life.

Wodziwob and Tavibo’s experiences came in the wake of a typhoid epidemic in 1867 that killed a tenth of the Paiute tribe. The Paiute had also been engaged in an ongoing war with the gold-mining and settler communities whose spread across their territory was sanctioned by the U.S government and was buttressed by the relentless swindling by the government of Native American lands. After ten years of fighting, the Paiute’s resources and spirits were depleted.

By 1883 things had grown worse for America’s indigenous people. In November that year the U.S Supreme Court had ruled that a Native American was an alien and a dependent by birth, and as such would have even less recourse to American law than their forebears. In 1886 Geronimo, the last of the Apache leaders, had been arrested; in 1889 the former Indian territories of Oklahoma, Washington, North and South Dakota were made states of the Union. And, to crown it all, in 1890 the U.S government, having driven the Sioux out of Nebraska in 1878, finally managed to con the Sioux out of their Great Reservation, some 14,000 square miles of land, in a move that signalled the final destruction of the Sioux homelands (Source: Brown, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee). This is the backdrop of events against which Wovoka had his visionary experience, and it is against this landscape of death, disease, connivance and dislocation, that Wovoka’s new religion, the Ghost Dance, spread like wildfire across the western lands.

In his book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown writes that news of the Ghost Dance came to the attention of Sitting Bull in the autumn of 1890 by way of Kicking Bear ‘a Minneconjou from the Cheyenne River agency’ and his brother in law Short Bull: they reported that hundreds of Indians from many reservations had seen the man everyone was calling the Christ, and he had instructed them; ‘I have sent for you and am glad to see you,’ he said ‘I am going to talk to you after a while about your relatives who are dead and gone […] I will teach you how to dance a dance, and I want you to dance it. Get ready for your dance, and when the dance is over, I will talk to you.’ Then he commenced to dance, everybody joining in, the Christ singing while they danced. They danced the Dance of the Ghosts until late at night, when the Messiah told them they had danced enough.’ This was what Kicking Bear told Sitting Bull. He also recounted to Sitting Bull a conversation with the Christ; ‘In the beginning, he said, God created the earth, and then sent the Christ to earth to teach the people, but white men had treated him badly, leaving scars on his body, and so he had gone back to heaven. Now he had returned to earth as an Indian, and he was to renew everything as it used to be and make it better. In the next springtime, when the grass was knee high, the earth would be covered with new soil which would bury all the white men, and the new land would be covered with sweet grass and running water and trees. Great herds of Buffalo and wild horses would come back. The Indians who danced the Ghost Dance would be taken up in the air and suspended there while a wave of new earth was passing, and then they would be set down among the ghosts of their ancestors on the new earth, where only Indians would live.’

Brown reports that Sitting Bull, quite reasonably, thought it impossible that dead men could live again, but took the Ghost Dance seriously because he saw that his people had taken the religion on in fear of being made to vanish when the new world began. Sitting Bull’s concern that soldiers might come and break up the Ghost Dance as they had started doing on other reservations were allayed when Kicking Bull told him of a bullet proof Ghost Shirt, as worn by Wovoka, which would protect the Ghost Dancers from the soldier’s guns.

Attempts by the authorities to stop the dancing came to nothing. The fervour for the religion and the Christ’s prophecy of the impending end of the white man’s world grew with every calamity the government dealt the Indians. Tribes were making up songs to accompany the dances, which added to the soldier’s distress. The Lakota Sioux had a song called The Buffalo Are Coming:

The whole world is coming
A nation is coming, a nation is coming,
The eagle has brought the message to the tribe.
The Father says so, the Father says so.
Over the whole earth they are coming,
The buffalo are coming, the buffalo are coming,
The crow has brought the message to the tribe,
The Father says so, the Father says so.

James Mooney of the Bureau of American Ethnology was sent to investigate the Ghost Dance movement in 1891, and he was given a copy of Wovoka’s message to the tribes, part of which read – ‘In the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before. Grandfather (a universal title of reverence among Indians and here meaning the messiah) says, when your friends die you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again. Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes (at the coming of the new world) do not be afraid.’


Three. Wounded Knee

The earth didn’t shake and Christ never showed, but, credit where it’s due, the rain came and so did the snow. But for all the Ghost Dancing and singing, the thing that didn’t come was the new world. Nothing promised by Wovoka arrived, beside the rain and the snow.

Brown tells us that by November 1890 the Ghost dance had taken such effect on the Sioux that every other aspect of life on the reservation ground to a halt – the schools were empty, the shops were closed, and the Sioux were dancing in the snow. They were, wrote an agent from the Indian Bureau in a telegraph to Washington, ‘wild and crazy.’ And they were frightening: ‘We need protection and we need it now.’ Washington identified Sitting Bull, who had been pretty sceptical about the whole thing, as the ringleader of the religion; they also targeted Big Foot, leader of the Lakota Sioux: going by Brown’s text, Wovoka doesn’t seem to have figured in the army’s concerns. Sitting Bull was shot in the head on December 15. On the night of December 28 the army descended on the Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, and the following day massacred an estimated 300 Lakota Sioux, the majority of whom were women and children. Big Foot was slain in the carnage. His body was found frozen in the snow.

One piece of kit that served the army especially well in the slaughter was the Hotchkiss gun, a five barrel revolving cannon capable of firing eighty rounds of explosive shells per minute. Here’s an eyewitness account given to Mooney by American Horse of the role of these guns in the slaughter: ‘They turned their guns, Hotchkiss Guns, upon the women who were in the lodges standing there under a flag of truce, and of course as soon as they were fired upon they fled…There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce [which flew over the Lakota camp], and the women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed…After most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there…’ The Wounded Knee massacre marked the triumph of the Anglo Americans over America’s indigenous people and the end of Wovoka’s new religion. ‘Worthless words,’ the Navajo called them.

Here’s how Dee Brown summed up the effect of Wovoka’s vision; ‘Had it not been for the sustaining force of the Ghost Dance religion, the Sioux in their grief and anger over the assassination of Sitting Bull might have risen up against the guns of the soldiers. So prevalent was their belief that the white men would disappear and that with the next greening of the grass their dead relatives would return, they made no retaliations.’

After Wounded Knee Wovoka appears to have abandoned the visionary life and resumed and retained his Christian identity of Jack Wilson until his death in 1932.


Four. The Book of Isaiahs

At some point during the late 1990s, Wilson’s grandchildren saw Bill Miller performing in Nevada. After the gig they took him to the spot in the Nevada desert where their grandfather had his vision. A few months earlier Miller had visited a photo exhibition in Winnipeg of the atrocities committed at Wounded Knee. A few years earlier his father, an alcoholic, committed suicide. Miller had also been dropped by his record label.

At a performance for the American Indian Movement in 2007, Miller, a Christian and a Mohican, told an audience that these events led to his writing Ghost Dance, although it wasn’t the song he thought he was going to write: ‘You would think that after seeing those photos and going to Wounded Knee since I was nine years old after supporting the American Indian Movement write the most pissed off song you could imagine, and I was ready to do that.

But you know what? I wrote this song, and as I started to write about these people I started to hear their voices as they were being shot for dancing for God, for dancing for the messiah, they were shot down […] I dedicate this song to their spirits and as I saw their spirits, I saw them healed, and while I’m seeing these people being healed and dancing in God’s creation I not only saw them heal, their wounds and dancing and they’re beautiful people, those babies are alive somewhere, I saw my own father, who took his own life in 1993, I wrote this song in 1999, I saw my own father sober again, I saw him dancing, I saw him dancing, I saw him waiting to take me trout fishing one day, I saw healing, I saw things I never thought I would, and this was a spirit song. […] It’s a song written out of prayer and being dumped by a record label […].’

We don’t know if Jack Wilson knew it, but his Ghost Dance religion’s literal interpretation of the coming of Jesus Christ was an early example of a radical change in how the Bible was read and perceived. The scholar Karen Armstrong cites examples of literalist readings of the text as far back as the 16th century, but writes in her Introduction to The Bible The Biography, that ‘[…] an exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life. For centuries Jews and Christians relished highly allegorical and inventive exegesis, insisting that a wholly literal reading of the Bible was neither possible or desirable.’

In the 20th century literal readings of the Bible as a unified text of divine authorship found opposition in a critical, historical approach whose roots were in 18th century Europe. Here’s Armstrong again, writing in ‘The Battle For God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam’: ‘Since the late eighteenth century, German scholars had applied the new techniques of literary analysis, archaeology, and comparative linguistics to the Bible, subjecting it to a scientific and empirical methodology. They argued that the first five books of the Bible, traditionally attributed to Moses, were in fact written much later and by a number of different authors; the book of Isaiah had at least two different sources, and King David had probably not written the Psalms. Most of the miracles in the Bible were simply literary tropes and could not be understood literally; many of the biblical events were almost certainly not historical. In Essays and Reviews, the British clerics argued that the Bible must not have special treatment, but should be subjected to the same critical rigor as any other text. The new ‘Higher Criticism’ represented the triumph of the rational discourse of logos over myth.

Armstrong approaches the Bible as a historically grounded work composed of often-unrelated texts written, edited, and amended, over hundreds of years. Staying for a minute with the subject of developments in ‘Higher Criticism’ of the Bible, we thought you might be interested in J Clinton McCann Jr.’s text, The book of Isaiah—Theses and Hypotheses – Critical Essay, published in the winter 2003 edition of the Biblical Theology Bulletin, in which McCann tells us that redactionist readings of the Bible had formed a consensus that there were three Isaiahs: ‘each of which derived from a different prophetic figure, as well as from a different historical, geographical, and socio-political situation – eighth-century First Isaiah of Jerusalem (chapters 1-39), sixth-century Isaiah of Babylon (chapters 40-55), and sixth – or fifth-century Isaiah of the Restoration (chapters 56-66). Furthermore, it was frequently concluded that each of these sections of the book of Isaiah constituted, in essence, its own separate ‘book,’ which could and even should be interpreted without reference to the others.’

We bring this up because there’s a fair bit of Isaiah in Bill Miller’s  Ghost Dance. Isaiah, Armstrong writes, was a prophet, ‘one of a number of prophets who wanted to make the people worship Yahweh [God] exclusively.’ We can’t say whether Miller evokes Isaiah because of a commonality with the old prophet’s desire, although as we’ve seen, it was certainly the aim of Isaiah’s textual heirs in the U.S government of the 19th century and the principle that organised their relationship with the Native Americans.

We can say with some certainty that it is to the 8th century of the first Isaiah, the Isaiah of Jerusalem, capital city of Judah, that Miller expresses a wish to visit because it is this Isaiah, of books 11 to 35, that the song references and in which Miller inscribes the Ghost Dance, transposing the absent miracles that made possible the Wounded Knee massacre from the snow covered landscape of 19th century Nevada to the deserts of 8th century Jerusalem when the impossible was, the book of Isaiah tells us, not uncommon. It’s a sentimental journey backwards into textual and geographical time. Miller’s line ‘I wanna go where the blind can see’ references Isaiah 35:5; ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.

The line ‘I wanna go where the lame will walk’ references Isaiah 35:6; ‘then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing; for in the wilderness shall waters break out.’ Miller’s line, ‘Where the deaf can hear and the silent talk’, references Isaiah 35:5 ‘…and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped’: ‘Where the mountain lion lays down with the lamb’ references Isaiah chapter 11:6; ‘the wolf shall dwell with lamb, and the leopard shall lay down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.’ In Ghost Dance, the text of the song functions as a time machine for journeys into textual space, a text machine through which textual and historical time coexist, in the line – between the lines – of the song, in the space in the line, a means of moving between the world of events and the world in the written word.

Armstrong locates Isaiah’s encounter with Yahweh in around 740, the time of the divided kingdom of Israel in the north and Judah in the south, a time of war. Yahweh gave Isaiah a message, a warning of an impending invasion by the Assyrians that would destroy the countryside and force the inhabitants of Judah to run for their lives – all of which could be avoided if they foreswore ritual worship and abandoned all Gods but him. Isaiah’s obeisance to Yahweh didn’t stop Judah from being conquered by Assyria, nor did it stop Assyria from invading and taking most of Israel, or the destruction of Jerusalem’s capital Samaria in 732.

In these dark years,’ Armstrong writes, ‘Isaiah was comforted by the imminent birth of a royal baby, a sign that God was still with the House of David: ‘A young woman is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom we shall call Immanu El (God-with-us)His birth would even be a beacon of hope ‘a great light,’ to the traumatized people of the north […] When the baby was born, he was in fact called Hezekiah: on his coronation day he would be called ‘Wonderful-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.’ Although the biblical historians revere Hezekiah as a devout king who tried to outlaw the worship of foreign gods, his foreign policy was a disaster. After an ill-advised rebellion against Assyria in 701, Jerusalem was destroyed, the countryside brutally laid waste and Judah reduced to a tiny rump state.’


Five. Ghost Dance in Galilee

In addition to its yearning for the days of Isaiah, Miller’s song also expresses a desire for the transposition of the Ghost Dance to the Gospel (and the time(s)) According to St. Matthew. Miller’s line ‘I wanna see the sick ones clean’ evokes the voice of Christ, as he appears in Matthew 10:8 – ‘heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils; freely ye have received, freely give’: that was Christ talking to his disciples after having given them the aforementioned super natural powers. And here is Christ again, in Mathew 11:5; ‘the blind received their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.

The preaching of the gospel aside, Sitting Bull was right about the unlikelihood of such events taking place and, by inference, of there being a place where such things happened, but Miller’s transposition is nonetheless a shift from historical time to textual space in search of such a place and time.

It’s a transposition that suggests a desire for an exchange of the time of the non appearance of Christ and his miracles at Wounded Knee for the time of the conquest of Palestine by the Romans (63BCE, according to Armstrong) in which Christ’s presence is figured and in which, the Matthew promises us, the dead are returned to life, Christ being the most notable example.

It’s also a transposition which suggests a wish for a leap, of faith or language, of faith by way of language, away from the space of the desert into the space evoked by writing, in which the world, evoked through writing, lives and breathes, a leap, a journey, at whose end awaits Jesus Christ, a figure of writing before all else: ‘Jesus,’ Armstrong writes, ‘remains an enigma. There have been interesting attempts to uncover the ‘historical’ Jesus, a project that has become something of a scholarly industry, But the fact remains that the only Jesus we know is the Jesus described in the New Testament.


Six. The Last Stand in Israel

I wanna ride across the plains to the Promised Land’; Miller’s wish for such a journey, figurative though it may or may not have been when he wrote the song, was realised in 2009, when the Israeli government-sponsored Israeli Kibbutz Orchestra invited him to tour his symphonic work, The Last Stand. Here’s something on the IKO and their work from their website kibbutz-orchestr.co.il:

The IKO is the only Israeli orchestra that has – for more than 15 years – provided concert series for both subscribers and the broad public in venues in outlying regions of the country: Nahariya (the Western Galilee), Dorot (near Shderot), Ein Hashofet (in the Menashe mountains), Kimron (Bet She’an), Ein Hachoresh (Hefer Valley), Givat Brenner (coastal plain), Ashkelon, as well as the Tel Aviv Art Museum and the Givatayim Theatre in the centre of Israel. In addition, the orchestra performs, within various frameworks at other places such as Sdeh Boker, Kiryat Gat, Afula, Be’er Sheva, Carmiel, Or Akiva, Kfar Blum, Kiryat Shemona, Tiberias and Kinneret. In doing so, it fulfils the ideal of its founders, namely bringing quality classical music to music lovers in peripheral settlements throughout the country, as well as to the frontline areas.

The musicians – who come from communities ranging from the Upper Galilee and the Lebanese border in the north, to the Negev and the border with the Gaza Strip in the south, as well as FSU immigrant communities in the centre of the country – help to serve as the Orchestra’s ambassadors to their home communities.’

Miller’s brief tour comprised six performances at Kibbutz Givat Brenner, the Tel Aviv Museum, Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, Ein Hashofet, Heichal Hatarbut in Petah Tikva, and Givatayim Theatre, none of which would have been possible without the assistance of the U.S Embassy. The U.S Ambassador James B. Cunningham introduced Miller’s show at the Tel Aviv Museum; we’ve transcribed his remarks from YouTube:‘[…] This is a very special evening. It’s the premiere performance in Israel by the Israel Kibbutz Orchestra of the Last Stand featuring native American guest artist Bill Miler and conductor maestro Amy Mills. As part of a cultural exchange between America and Israel my embassy tries to find and share the work of artists who reflect the rich diversity of our American culture. As a Native American, a Mohican, Bill Miller’s personal heritage reflects the early roots of the United States and the unique strength and tradition of the first Americans. He is widely recognised in the United States for his many achievements and is the winner of multiple awards from the American music industry. The Last Stand commemorates the Battle of Little Big Horn, which was a famous victory for the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians over the U.S 7th Cavalry and General George Custer, if you know the United States it’s the subject of many films and TV programmes and plays, and I’m sure that this evening’s performance will be memorable. I want to also want to complement the maestro [Yaron] Gottfried for having the inspiration to invite Bill Miller here to share this part of his heritage and this part of America’s heritage with the people of Israel.’

In an interview recorded shortly before the tour Miller told Jerusalem Post journalist Barry Davis ‘People have tried to drag me into politics – sort of the Indian boy who’s made it, sort of thing. But I see myself more like doing what Bob Marley did, when he brought rival Jamaican politicians together.

Miller was referring to Marley’s performance at the One Love Peace Concert at Kingston’s National Stadium in April 1978. Jamaica’s two political major parties were locked in a violent war, maintained, it would later emerge, by the input of the CIA: Marley had a personal stake in bringing the violence to an end, having been shot the previous year. The highlight of the concert was when Marley managed to get an uncomfortable looking Prime Minister Michael Manley to join hands with his opponent, a reluctant looking Edward Seaga.


Seven. Bill, Bob, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Ballad of the Hotchkiss Gun

Looking at Miller and the Israel Kibbutz Orchestra’s itinerary, we don’t get the impression that his tour did much to bring Israelis and Palestinian audiences together, much less Palestinian and Israeli leaders, although there is a connection between Miller and Marley. In 1980 Marley wrote a song about the African American members of the U.S Cavalry known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who are described on the website bufallosoldiers.com as follows: ‘These African Americans were charged with and responsible for escorting settlers, cattle herds, and railroad crews. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments also conducted campaigns against American Indian tribes on a western frontier that extended from Montana in the Northwest to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the Southwest. Throughout the era of the Indian Wars, approximately twenty percent of the U.S. Cavalry troopers were Black, and they fought over 177 engagements. Their combat prowess, bravery, tenaciousness, and looks on the battlefield, inspired the Indians to call them ‘Buffalo Soldiers’. Fans of Marley may recall that in his song, Buffalo Soldier, Marley celebrated the Buffalo Soldiers and identified himself as a Buffalo Soldier on the basis of the shared history of slavery.

The Buffalo Soldiers had their own songs. Remember the Hotchkiss Gun we mentioned a few paragraphs back? Well, here’s The Ballad Of The Hotchkiss Gun – In Honour of Wounded Knee, by Private W.H Prather, an African American member of I troop of the 9th Cavalry and resident regimental poet, which we have transcribed from operationmorningstar.org, and which, the website informs us, was written and sung by soldiers during the Wounded Knee campaign of 1890:

The Red Skins left their Agency, the Soldiers left their Post,
All on the strength of an Indian tale about the Messiah’s ghost
Got up by the savage chieftains to lead their tribes astray;
But Uncles Sam wouldn’t have it so, for he ain’t built that way.
They swore that this Messiah came to them in visions sleep,
And promised to restore their game and Buffalos a heap,
So they must start a big ghost dance, then all would join their band,
And may be so we lead the way into the great Bad Land.

They claimed the shirt Messiah gave, no bullet could go through,
But when the soldiers fired at them they saw this was not true.
The Medicine man supplied them with their great Messiah’s grace,
And he, too, pulled his freight and swore the 7th hard to face.

About their tents the Soldiers stood, awaiting one and all,
That they might hear the trumpet clear when sounding General call
Or Boots and Saddles in a rush, that each and every man
Might mount in haste, ride soon and fast to stop this devilish band
But Generals great like Miles and Brooke don’t do things up that way,
For they know an Indian like a book, and let him have his way
Until they think him far enough and then to John they’ll say,
‘You had better stop your fooling or we’ll bring our guns to play.’

They claimed the shirt, etc.

The 9th marched out with splendid cheer the Bad Lands to explo’e-
With Col. Henry at their head they never fear the foe;
So on they rode from Xmas eve ’till dawn of Xmas day;
The Red Skins heard the 9th was near and fled in great dismay;
The 7th is of courage bold both officers and men,
But bad luck seems to follow them and twice has took them in;
They came in contact with Big Foot’s warriors in their fierce might
This chief made sure he had a chance of vantage in the fight.

They claimed the shirt, etc.

A fight took place, ’twas hand to hand, unwarned by trumpet call,
While the Sioux were dropping man by man – the 7th killed them all,
And to that regiment be said ‘Ye noble braves, well, done,
Although you lost some gallant men a glorious fight you’ve won.’
The 8th was there, the sixth rode miles to swell that great command
And waited orders night and day to round up Short Bull’s band.
The Infantry marched up in mass to the Calvary’s support,
And while the latter rounded up, the former held the fort.

They claimed the shirt, etc.

E Battery of the 1st stood by and did their duty well,
For every time the Hotchkiss barked they say a hostile fell.
Some Indian soldiers chipped in too and helped to quell the fray,
And now the campaign’s ended and the soldiers marched away.
So all have done their share, you see, whether it was thick or thin
And all helped break the ghost dance up and drive the hostiles in.
The settlers in that region now can breathe with better grace;
They only ask and pray to God to make John hold his base.

For their efforts, the Buffalo Soldiers were awarded medals for their role in the Wounded Knee massacre.


Eight. ‘They understand our history.’

Back in the U.S after the tour, Miller was interviewed by lacrossetribune.com journalist Terry Rindfleisch about his time in Israel: ‘It was an incredible, deeply spiritual experience,’ Miller said. ‘The audiences there are different, but the connection and bridge were there because they understand our history.’ Miller said reporters in Israel wanted to engage him in comparisons between American Indians and Palestinians. ‘I let them know I represent my people in an artistic way and let my music speak for itself,’ he said. ‘I’m about rising above victim and the healing of an American culture.’



Native American Justice, by Laurence Armand French, Roman & Littlefield, 2003




Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee – An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Brown, 1970, reprinted by Vintage Books, 1991

The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 2 (1896), by James Mooney



The Battle For God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, by Karen Armstrong, Harper Perennial: 2000

The book of Isaiah—Theses and Hypotheses – Critical Essay, by J. Clinton McCann, Jr. Biblical Theology Bulletin, Fall, 2003

Holy Bible, King James Version, Harper Collins, 1957

The Bible – The Biography, by Karen Armstrong, Atlantic Books, 2007

Composing A Bridge, by Barry Davis, Jerusalem Post, 9 March 2009




Bill Miller pays homage to La Crosse with CD release, free concert, by Terry Rindfleisch trindfleisch@lacrossetribune.com, 8 April 2009



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