A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country: Lakota Voices of the Ghost Dance

by Rani-Henrik Andersson

Cover of A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country against a white background with two small pine trees.

One of the things I loved about college and grad school was getting to take a wide variety of classes about things subjects with which I wasn’t very familiar.  One area where I’m sadly lacking is Native American history, so I started stocking up on books on the subject.  One of those was A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country, which is a fascinating book and a great resource.

To provide a very brief and basic overview, the Ghost Dance was a religious movement that moved through a number of American Indian nations across the Great Plains/Western U.S. during the 1880s and into the first year or two of the 1890s.  In 1889, members of the Lakota sent representatives to learn more about this movement and return to teach their communities about the Dance itself and the promises of a better future. 

The Ghost Dance allowed practitioners to fall into a state in which they could visit their dead relatives, who promised them that soon the dead would return, herds of buffalo (which had largely been wiped out by White Americans) would return to the Plains, and European-Americans would be pushed off the land. 

For the Lakota, suffering from famine as a result of numerous broken treaties (including a refusal to provide promised rations of beef and other food), forced removal to poor lands, and the disappearance of their usual sources of game, such a promise was powerful. The dance spread from one Lakota reservation to the next, alarming White settlers and U.S. Indian Agents in charge of controlling the reservations.  Unwilling or unable to understand, White newspapers and government dispatches stoked fears of “Indians on the warpath.” Soon, the U.S. government dispatched more troops to the area, further inflaming the situation. This culminated in the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, where U.S. soldiers gunned down over 250 Lakota men, women, and children.

Most of what we get in textbooks give a fairly flat view of the Ghost Dance (if it gets mentioned much at all) and most of that is from White sources.  In A Whirlwind Passed Through our Country, Andersson creates a multi-layer analysis of the Ghost Dance and how different groups of Lakota understood it, interacted with it, and modified it. And even more importantly, he does so using Lakota sources. 

Andersson’s previous book analyzed the Ghost Dance from multiple perspectives, of which the Lakota were one.  He learned to read the language and found multiple primary Lakota sources.  Not being able to use all of them in his first book, in A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country, he provides the full published texts of a variety of Lakota individuals who had direct connections with the Ghost Dance movement. 

The book is divided into four sections.  The first deals with Lakota who were full believers in the Ghost Dance.  The second focuses on Lakota caught in between.  Some believed but then fell away; some were interested, but never fully convinced; and some saw the potential, even if they had no interest in the religious aspect.  Part three presents sources from those who did not participate in the Ghost Dance but had front-row seats to its effects on the reservation.  This includes some of the Indian police responsible for the arrest and murder of Sitting Bull.  The book concludes with the words of Lakota who converted to Christianity and had no patience for the Ghost Dance movement. 

One thing to keep in mind is that the book is organized thematically, which means each part will go back in time and re-cover previous events from a different perspective.  Likewise, within each section, he provides all of the writings of an individual and then moves on to the next person. In my opinion, it’s an effective way to present this information.  However, it can take a little getting used to if you’re used to more chronological approaches.

Andersson is also very clear that this book is about the Ghost Dance and not specifically the Wounded Knee Massacre (about which he wrote a separate book).  While some of the sources do talk about the massacre, Andersson also notes that he has left out sources that speak only about the massacre and do not discuss the Ghost Dance.  So if you’re looking for more on that subject, it looks like you’ll need to check out his other book.

Overall, this is a wonderful source for getting first-hand accounts.  Andersson does a good job providing context at the beginning of each part, introducing the writer, and explaining language differences.  The chronology in the back also can help keep dates straight as you jump back and forth between parts. 

Having so many perspectives from so many Lakota voices is important.  Andersson helps remind us that there was no one unified “Indian” perspective. Additionally, the White binary of “progressive” vs. “unprogressive” Natives is not nearly complex enough.  This book will well-serve both historians and general readers alike.

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Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes

Book Pandora's Jar next to a red vase

While I’m mostly reading fiction at this point (a side effect of grad school), I sometimes venture back into non-fiction. This week’s book is one such example and I loved it: Natalie Haynes’ fantastic exploration of women of Greek mythology, Pandora’s Jar.  With each chapter focused on a different woman, such as Medusa, Penelope, and of course, the eponymous Pandora, Haynes provides an excellent analysis of ancient texts and modern takes of characters who are all too often pushed to the margins.

I read at least parts of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid back in high school (which has somehow become a long time ago), but I was never that interested in it.  Of course, the broad outlines of the stories seeped into my consciousness from an early age, as had much of the lore of Greek mythology.  (Though perhaps the first real introduction I had to Hercules was watching the abysmal Hercules Against the Moon Men as a hilarious episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.) I therefore had a passing familiarity with the women described, but a strong desire to learn more. 

Haynes delivers in spades.  Her analysis and use of sources (ancient texts, vases, poems, artwork, etc.) helps us see these women not as “villains, victims, wives and monsters,” but “people.” Pandora’s Jar does not just situate these women in their ancient context; Haynes also shows how popular culture – from Clash of the Titans to Troy, from operas to episodes of the original Star Trek, and more – also influence how we interpret, understand, and interact with these characters.  Even better, she brings a sharp sense of humor that makes it a joy to read. It also helps us remember that people wrote ancient texts, and they included their own innuendos, exaggerations, prejudices, personal interests, and more.  Their own times influenced them, as did the stories they knew, the sources they relied on.  As Haynes reminds us in the intro:

“Every myth contains multiple timelines within itself: the time in which it is set, the time it is first told, and every retelling afterwards.  Myths may be the home of the miraculous, but they are also mirrors of us.”

For a long time, our re-tellings of these myths have centered on men (both as the subjects and the ones doing the telling).  The women of these stories faded into the margins or became the reason for our suffering.  The title of the book already points us to the issue.  Nearly all of us, I’m sure, are familiar with Pandora’s Box.  Pandora has a box and told never to open it.  But her curiosity gets the better of her and finally she gives in and takes a peek.  As a result, she releases all sorts of evil into the world.  She is only able to close it in time to keep one thing – hope.  Much like the story of Eve, life was fine for humanity until a woman gave into temptation, becoming the source of all evil, pain, and suffering.  

So if we all know this, why is the book called Pandora’s Jar instead of Pandora’s Box?  Because, as Haynes lays out for us, it was never a box until relatively recently – the sixteenth century.  Ancient art and writings depicted Pandora with a jar.  And not just any jar – a very delicate, easily tippable jar.

In the earliest writings about her, Zeus creates Pandora to be a punishment to humanity in response to Prometheus’ gift of fire to us (and a trick on Zeus regarding sacrificial meat).  Zeus and the other gods create her directly, give her certain gifts to make her irresistible to men and then give her a jar that she brings to her husband, to whom she is directly delivered by Hermes.  So now, instead of just writing her off as the root of evil, we’re faced with the question of whether she even has any autonomy, the role of free will (especially in the face of very powerful and very touchy gods), and the nature of hope.

There’s a great deal more, but obviously, that’s what the book is for, not the review.  Each of the women discussed become much more complex, as does our relationship to these stories.  Regardless of your feelings about the classics (love, hate, or indifference), this is a fascinating book, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll likely enjoy doing so too!  Then go check out her book A Thousand Ships.

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Pandora’s Jar

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

Book cover: Madhouse at the End of the Earth against a white background with a white pine tree next to it.

Since I, like much of the United States, am currently baking in this oppressive heat and humidity, a book on being trapped in the frozen, unceasing night of an Antarctic winter seems delightful.  Madhouse at the End of the Earth paints a vivid picture of Antarctica’s dangerous beauty. By the end, I even started looking into trips to Antarctica.  (Seems unlikely to happen, but you never know.)

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is a non-fiction examination of the journey of The Belgica in 1897.  A young Belgian aristocrat, Adrien de Gerlache, wanted to do his family name proud by accomplishing something extraordinary.  Though tiny Belgium, newly independent, did not have much of a naval tradition to speak of, the sea enchanted young de Gerlache. He took every chance he could to sail, becoming a captain in his own right.

It seemed to him that in some ways, he was born too late and others had already made the important discoveries and captured the glory, particularly when it came to the Arctic.  Soon, however, his thoughts turned to the largely unexplored South Pole.  Perhaps there he could make a name for himself.  And so, de Gerlache decided he would lead a team to find the magnetic South Pole. 

The early part of the book focuses on de Gerlache’s life and his attempts to put together a crew.  It quickly becomes apparent that while de Gerlache might be a good sailor, he is not a great a leader.  Fearful of what the press might say if he did not crew his ship with mostly Belgians, he made very questionable staffing choices for a journey where having the right people in the right position was crucial. 

Eventually, The Belgica entered the waters surrounding Antarctica and the euphoria of reaching their destination and seeing sights very few humans ever had buoyed the crew. But soon, reality crept in. The men remembered how short the polar summer is and how unforgiving the ice will be.  A fateful decision by de Gerlache resulted in the ship becoming trapped in sea ice and the crew locked into enduring the harshest winter conditions on the planet. 

As light disappears, so does sanity and soon the question seems to be what will kill the men first? The environment, the lack of nutrition, or each other?

I can’t really explain why books/shows about early polar exploration are so enthralling to me, but it’s a category on my bookshelf.  (Small, to be sure, but there.) Of course, there’s Endurance by Alfred Lansing, the definitive book on the Shackleton expedition across the South Pole.  After watching The Terror on AMC, I also bought and read Paul Watson’s book Ice Ghosts, which chronicled the parallel stories of the doomed Franklin Expedition searching for the Northwest Passage and the modern expedition searching for the wrecks of those ships (of which the author was a part). 

But I think what really gets me is when I stand at the edge of one of the Great Lakes (or my rare chance to stand at the edge of the ocean) and look across, where there is nothing but sea and sky, there’s a tiny part of me that thrills at the thought of boarding a ship and seeing where the water will take me.  

However, this is likely the closest I will ever come to exploring either the Arctic or Antarctic. Standing about a foot away from shore on a frozen over Lake Erie during a polar vortex.

Even with the supposedly more advanced and technological knowledge of European explorers in the early 20th century, sailing the oceans was a huge gamble and the Arctic/Antarctic oceans even more so.  As Sancton makes clear in this book, it was the sailors and explorers who stopped and learned from the Inuit who had the best chances of surviving. 

A fortunate last-minute addition to the crew, the ship’s doctor an American named Frederick Cook was one such survivalist.  Cook previously served on an expedition to Greenland, where he took great interest in learning from and about the indigenous people (in typical “scientific” racist ways).  Many of those observations helped saved lives on The Belgica, such as how the Inuit avoided scurvy despite the distinct lack of citrus fruits in Greenland.  De Gerlache, however, continued to hold fast to accepted European wisdom of how to prevent scurvy, even as the disease continues to ravage the men following his prescriptions and disappears in those following Cook’s.

Overall, this is a well-researched and well-written look into an event about which I had no knowledge.  There are a few places where things get a little repetitive, but it’s not detrimental to book.  Sancton does a good job using primary sources to give us an insight into what these men were going through, while also being clear what is conjecture or an educated guess.  And he himself did visit Antarctica in the process of writing this book.  While obviously a different experience than being trapped in a wooden ship (or so I would hope), I think it really helped him describe what the men of The Belgica saw and experienced.  So if you’re looking for a way to trick your brain into thinking you’re cold and are interested in seafaring exploration, the Antarctic, and/or how people handle extreme situations, check out Madhouse at the End of the Earth.

One last reminder of winter to better enjoy summer

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