Toward the end of the Pleistocene (Ice Age), the primeval northern conifer forest of the North American continent was gradually being replaced by deciduous forest. Between 8,000 and 6,000 BCE, this forest was again replaced by perennial grasses, thus forming the Great North American Plains covering threequarter of a million square miles west of the Missouri River. By the time Europeans began their explorations westward, approximately fifty million bison roamed these plains. Hundreds of generations before their arrival, PaleoIndians hunted bison, as well as other game, and gathered seeds, tubers, nuts, and berries. By c.250 BCE to 1000 AD, plains people learned to plant maize. They used hoes made of bison scapulae to work the rich alluvial soil of the Missouri and its tributaries. They made earthenware pottery and erected sacred mounds in the shapes of animals.
In the central and western plains, which were more prone to drought, bison eventually became the main source of food. Long before the horse, Plains Indians hunted bison or buffalo on foot. The horse evolved 40 million years ago in the Americas, but became extinct by the end of the Pleistocene. Horses that had traveled westward to Eurasia via the Bering Land Bridge (now the Bering Straight) and across Siberia survived, and in 1493, Christopher Columbus reintroduced them to America on his second voyage. However, the absence of the horse did not stop PaleoIndians from hunting buffalo on foot with spears or bows and arrows. Because this method was impractical and dangerous, they devised a better system called the buffalo fall whereby a herd could be driven over a cliff and collected after they were incapacitated or dead.
In preparation for the buffalo fall, the Blackfeet built two rock walls on a high bluff. The walls were laid in the shape of a “V” with the narrow end opening at the precipice. At the bottom of the cliff, they built a stone wall corral called a pis’kun (deep blood kettle), wherein the animals that survived the fall could be quickly dispatched. (
The Native Americans
, Thomas 95). It was a brutal affair for the buffalo, but necessary for the tribe’s survival and it appears to have been conducted with a good deal of reverence for their prey. The Blackfeet legend (below) is a story of resurrection that shows the renewal and rebirth of a major food source, the buffalo. It also suggests a kind of absolution for killing them. The buffalo dance in the story was reenacted in prehunt rituals, along with the singing of sacred songs and the incantation of charms. This sacred dance to make the buffalo come again would be revisited about a thousand years later by an Indian prophet whose followers would unwittingly provoke the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee in the late eighteen hundreds.
Reading & Discussion
While students are wrapping up their work from the last lesson, they will be given a homework assignment to record what they have eaten for dinner over a oneweek period. This lesson will begin with a discussion of their menu logs: what foods they liked best/least and how the food arrived at their tables. Students will then share in an oral reading of “Life on the Great Plains” and “Hunting Buffalo Afoot” (
The Native Americans, an Illustrated History
by David Hurst Thomas, et al, pp. 9095) to gain understanding about how some of the earliest inhabitants of our country put food on their tables. Afterward, we will discuss some of the differences in food acquisition and consumption between PaleoIndians and modern Americans.
Students will be asked to imagine that they are buffalo and told that the Blackfeet have constructed a buffalo fall to capture them. The hunters need their flesh and organs to eat and will use their hide for clothing and shelter. It has been this way for a long as they can remember. They are then told to describe what happens: Do they escape the fall or sacrifice their lives for the Blackfeet?
A Legend of the Buffalo from the Blackfeet
The Blackfeet legend of the buffalo fall, as retold by Joseph Campbell in
The Power of Myth
(pp. 9698) begins with the Blackfeet tribe, frustrated because they are unable to get the buffalo to go over a cliff. One of the tribesmen’s daughters spies the buffalo standing at the edge of the cliff and entices them to come over to her with the promise that if they do, she will marry one of them. All the buffalo fall to their deaths except for their leader, who approaches the girl and expects her to make good on her promise. Surprised and outraged, she protests, but the leader asks her to look at all his dead relatives lying at the bottom of the cliff. When she does, she feels obliged to go with him.
The next day, her father tries to find her. He scouts for footprints and sees that she has gone off with a buffalo. He tracks her for quite some time. Eventually, he becomes too tired to go any further and so he sits down to rest near a wallow. Just as he does, a magpie visits him. He asks the magpie if it has seen his daughter and the bird tells him that his daughter is not far away; she is sleeping with the buffalo. He asks the magpie to fly over to his daughter and tell her that her father is here, which the bird does. The buffalo are asleep and the girl is horrified by the news since she knows that her father is in great danger. Her husband wakes up, takes off one of his horns and tells her to go to the wallow and get him a drink. She quickly goes to fetch the water and to warn her father. When she returns, her husband is suspicious. He bellows to wake the other buffalo. They wake up and dance with their tails in the air, then continue to dance over to the wallow where they trample her father to death. The girl is beset with grief by the brutal murder of her father and cries uncontrollably. Her husband tries to make her see that he has sacrificed far more than she has -- children, wives, parents -- but his bride is inconsolable. He then agrees that if she can bring her father back to life, he will let her go.
The young buffalo bride tells the magpie to find a piece of her father. The bird scouts around, picks up a small bone, and brings it to her. She takes the bone, puts it on the ground, and lies her blanket over it. She begins to sing a sacred song and as she sings, the bone regenerates a skeleton, organs, muscle, and flesh. She pulls away the blanket to reveal her father’s body lying there. She continues her song and the music breathes life into the body of her father and he stands up.
When the buffalo husband sees what she has done, he asks her to do the same for the buffalo. “We’ll teach you our buffalo dance, and when you will have killed our families, you do this dance and sing this song, and we will all come back to live again.” (Campbell 98)
Reading & Discussion
Students will read “The First Storytellers,” chapter three from of
The Power of Myth
by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers (pp. 86112), which discusses the Lascaux caves when Campbell first visited them and hunter/gatherer peoples and their reverence for the animals they killed and consumed. In this chapter, Campbell suggests that prehistoric painted caves were sacred places where initiation rites took place and he also retells the Blackfeet legend of the buffalo fall.
Students will discuss why
Lascaux might be considered a sacred place and why it would have been important to early hunter/gatherers to show reverence to the animals that they killed. We will talk about the kind of reverence we have -- or don’t have -- for our food sources today as well as how attuned to nature we are -- or are not -- and what has happened as a result with respect to world ecology. Lastly, we will discuss the significance of the legend of the buffalo fall with respect to ideas of resurrection and renewal.
LESSON FOUR: Legend Writing
Legends are based on historical fact; most often very loosely so. Students will be instructed to imagine themselves as one of the animal characters in this story, i.e., the buffalo or the magpie, and to retell the story of the father’s resurrection and the teaching of the buffalo dance from that character’s point of view. They are advised to review the historical information that we have covered about the buffalo fall and to keep in mind the writing pedagogy that we have covered with regard to plot and personification. Students’ final work will be shared in a class reading.
Dances With Wolves
In the movie,
Dances With Wolves
, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) yearns for the American frontier. As a decorated Union soldier who fought in the Civil War, his request to be reassigned to the West is granted and he takes command of an abandoned fort on the Great Plains. Initially, his only company are his extraordinarily loyal horse and a wolf with white paws that he befriends at the fort and names TwoSocks. (Dunbar is later named “DancesWithWolves” by the Sioux because of his affection for TwoSocks.)
While roaming the plains, Dunbar meets a young woman who has intentionally cut her hand. Pain and grief over the loss of her husband have brought her to the point of exhaustion and she collapses. Dunbar puts her on his horse and rides into the Sioux camp. There he meets a most indignant young warrior, Wind in His Hair, who grabs the woman off Dunbar’s horse and drags her away. Seeing that he has not been greeted by the welcoming committee, Dunbar leaves the camp and returns to the fort. The next day, Kicking Bird, the tribe’s holy man (Graham Green), Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), and a couple of other Sioux come to the fort. Dunbar makes them coffee, which is a new experience for them, and tries to communicate through pantomime. He is mostly interested in finding out about the buffalo.
When Dunbar next visits the Sioux camp, he is introduced to the woman he rescued. Her name is StandsWithAFist (Mary McDonnell) and she is the adopted daughter of Kicking Bird. As a young girl, rival Indians had attacked her family. She had been able to hide from the attackers and was later rescued by the Sioux. Although she has very little memory of speaking English, she is able to act as a rudimentary translator between Dunbar and Kicking Bird.
Dunbar becomes fascinated with the Sioux -- their customs, their camaraderie, and their reverence for life. He accompanies the tribe on a buffalo hunt and saves one of their young boys from being trampled by a buffalo. He marries StandsWithAFist and becomes a member of the Sioux family. Eventually, knowing what the U.S. government has in store for the Indians, he reveals the cache of weapons that he had hidden when he first arrived at the fort.
Viewing & Discussion
Students will view a video of
Dances With Wolves
(181 minutes; approximately three classes) and will be instructed to take notes in preparation for a film critique (below). We may also stop the video as questions or points of interest arise. The key focus of our
discussion following the film will be to compare the unthinking slaughter of the buffalo by fur traders with the buffalo hunt by the Sioux. It will also address John Dunbar’s dilemma in knowing that U.S. Calvary soldiers are on their way to push the Sioux, whom he has befriended, off their lands.
LESSON FIVE: Film Critique
Students will write a critique of the film,
Dances With Wolves
, which will include: Title, screenwriter, director, and producer, release date; biographical information on Kevin Costner, star, director and producer; two paragraphs of summary; Costner’s purpose in making the movie; quality of various actors’ performances; effectiveness of the film; recommendation.
The Ghost Dance
After fur traders had hunted the buffalo to near extinction and as the West was won by corralling Indians onto reservations and their children into Christian boarding schools, politics and greed stood ready to oppress the Indian nations even further. As with the buffalo fall, they were driven to the precipice of ethnocide and pushed over the cliff into a pis’kun of confined space and limited civil rights. Treaty violations, prohibition of native religious and cultural practices, and the advance of the Union Pacific Railway filled that “deep blood kettle” to the brim with more and more disenfranchised Indians and boiled the contents to vapors. For the Plains Indians, not only were the buffalo disappearing, so were they.
In 1889, during a solar eclipse, Wovoka, a Paiute shaman, claimed that he saw the Second Coming of Christ, and that the messiah had warned him of the evils of the white man. Word of Wovoka’s vision spread throughout Indian camps and he became known as the Indian Messiah and the reincarnation of Jesus. Using the prehunt dance intended to bring the buffalo back to the plains, a hybrid religion that blended the Christian doctrine of Armageddon with Indian ritual was born, known as the Ghost Dance. Not only did the Ghost Dance promise that the buffalo would return, but it also claimed that an apocalypse would destroy the Earth; that the world would be recreated and Indians would rise from the dead to rule over it. This New World would be free of violence, starvation, and disease. Indians would be saved when they purged themselves of the evil ways of the white man that they had adopted; in particular, the imbibing of alcohol. (“The Wounded Knee Massacre, Ghost Dance Religion, www.bgsu.edu)
To participate in the Ghost Dance, people first sat in a sweat lodge as a purification process. Afterward, they dressed in sacramental white muslin shirts painted with red pigment depicting symbols the participants had envisioned while in the sweat lodge. Their shirts were embellished with feathers and each displayed the figure of an eagle. After donning their costumes, they joined hands to make a circle, in the center of which was a sacred tree (or symbol of a tree) decorated with religious offerings. Dancers looked toward the sun and shuffled counterclockwise as they chanted and sang songs of resurrection. The Ghost Dance could continue for days with participants falling to the ground as they saw visions of the messiah leading them to the Promised Land. Overall, the objective of the dance was to put its participants into a trance. Onlookers were forbidden to attend these rituals, which in turn made them more mysterious, even portentous to whites, who panicked, thinking that an Indian rebellion was beginning.
With complaints from homesteaders, reservation agents became alarmed and felt that military action was warranted. Ironically, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who intended to convert the Indians to Christianity, didn’t understand that what Wovoka was teaching had a great deal to do with Christian values. Wovoka had converted many to monotheism. He encouraged followers to begin farming and send their children to school. Even so, the Bureau outlawed the Ghost Dance. (“The Wounded Knee Massacre, Ghost Dance Religion, www.bgsu.edu)
Toward the end of 1890 Seventh Calvary troops rounded up a band of Hunkpapa Sioux who were preparing for a Ghost Dance -- two thirds of them, women and children -- at Pine Ridge Reservation, along Wounded Knee Creek. Five hundred soldiers, with four Hotchkiss guns, surrounded the band of Indians. Two days before the end of the year, all the Sioux men were called out and disarmed. A weapon was discharged and the Hotchkiss guns opened fire killing most of the men in five minutes. As the Indian crowd tried to escape, the guns continued to fire. In the end, twentynine soldiers and approximately 200 Indians were dead. Those who were able to escape, were either found and shot, or froze to death in the hills. (
The Native Americans
, Thomas 36566)
Reading & Discussion
So far students have learned about early hunter/gatherer peoples whose reverence for the animals they killed and ate was clearly depicted in their magnificent cave paintings. In contrast, we have read “The Most Dangerous Game,” Richard Connell’s short story that challenges the sanctity of life. We have learned of the buffalo fall and have read a legend that tells of the balance between humans and animals with respect to sacrifice; that the viability of our food sources depends on our reverence for their survival and a sincere appreciation for the life force they give us. Viewing
Dances With Wolves
, students became aware of a clash of cultures between the imperialism of the U.S. government bent on the acquisition of Indian lands and a group of indigenous people who had lived in harmony with the land throughout their existence. In this next reading, “The Wounded Knee Massacre, Ghost Dance Religion” ( knee/Wkghost.html), students will revisit the buffalo dance as told in the Blackfeet legend and will see how it evolved into the hybrid religion of the Ghost Dance, which inadvertently led to the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Our discussion will address the irony of how the buffalo dance, which was initially intended to replenish the food supply by paying tribute to the sacrifice of the buffalo, created fear in white settlers and eventually served to annihilate a band of Sioux at Wounded Knee.
Students will be given the following instruction for their next journal entry: Native Americans practiced the Ghost Dance in the hope that life as they had known it would be restored. They had lost much of their land, their way of life as hunter/gatherers, their children to Christian boarding schools, and were forbidden to practice their religious rituals. According to the Declaration of Independence, we, as American citizens, are endowed with certain unalienable rights -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, for many Americans, this endowment has come late or not at all. Our country, as well as our world, suffers from religious bigotry, prejudice, hunger, pollution, and poverty. If we were to perform a Ghost Dance today, what things would you want to see resurrected from the past? Describe what it is and how it would feel to have it back.
LESSON SIX: Ghost Dance Poetry Reading
Students will be asked to find poems about animals and plants. They may search the Internet or use one of the books that will be made available to them:
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red, Sleeping on the Wing and
Making Your Own Day
by Kenneth Koch.
The Edible Alphabet Book
by Vicki Ragan.
Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon
by Pablo Neruda
The Native Americans, An Illustrated History
We will discuss each poem selection for the following:
Rhythm -- beats/syllables per line
Rhymes and echoes -- alliteration, assonance, end rhyme, internal rhyme
Metaphor and simile -- What comparisons are made and what do they tell us?
Form -- Does the work fit a poetic form, such as: sonnet, list, limerick, ode, etc.?
Theme -- What is the poet telling us?
Evocation -- How does the poem make us feel?
Students will then brainstorm ideas to write their own poems, which may also address animals and plants, or more global ideas about what our world needs to survive as they wrote about in their last journal entry. These poems will take the forms of elegies, epitaths, and odes, all of which are intended to show reverence to their subjects. We will review and critique students’ original poems in the same way that we did their selected poems, and they will revise as necessary.
Students will then collaborate on a chant that addresses the ideas of reverence and sacrifice that we have discussed so far in the unit. Rhythm and repetition will be the poetic devices focused on here.
In preparation for our
Ghost Dance Poetry Reading
, we will make a mobile of our sacred tree using twigs and branches strung together with florist wire. Each student will attach a metaphor taken from his or her original poem along with a picture (drawn, cut from a magazine, or retrieved from the Internet). Printouts of the metaphors and pictures will be mounted on construction paper, holepunched, and attached to the “tree” with florist wire. Our sacred tree will then be hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room.
Students will rehearse their poems. They will be asked to invite friends, family members, and teachers to the reading. On the day of the event, tables/desks will be pushed to the perimeter of the room and chairs will be arranged in a circle. Students will read their poems and the audience will be asked to discuss ideas they may have about them. The reading will end with the collaborative chant, copies of which will be supplied to audience members so that they may join in. If it is agreeable to the class, we may also choreograph a group dance in the style of the Ghost Dance, which could be performed along with the chant.