"Ponca War Dancers": Creating a Pan-Indian Circle

Robert M. Nelson

First published in the journal River Styx, "Ponca War Dancers" is also the title poem of Carter Revard's book of poems published by Point Riders Press in 1980. Like much of Revard's other work, "Ponca War Dancers" is a narrative poem featuring an informally exuberant and seemingly inexhaustible storytelling voice, weaving back and forth through time and space, coating its backbone of story with a rich accretion of family anecdote and diversional wordplay -- qualities which appear at their most flamboyant in stanza 3.

The title refers to the members of the Helushka Society, a Ponca warrior society roughly analogous to the legendary Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. In his 1989 essay "Songs of the Ponca: Helushka," Jim Charles, himself a Helushka dancer, notes that "Helushka is an ancient word, and its literal meaning is unknown to [present-day] Poncas" (3). Charles tells us that early anthropologists "erroneously" translated helushka as "war dance" but that "most members of the Helushka were warriors and war heroes" (3). Reflecting the history of many American Indian traditions, the Helushka was disbanded around 1920, during the terrible latter years of the period of coercive assimilation, but revived in 1958; today, according to Charles, "the term refers to the synthesis of songs and dance, beliefs and way of life of the Helushka Society" (3). In this synthesis, the Ponca war dance is just the visible part of helushka, the kinetic expression of whatever personal vision or accomplishment is being commemorated in the form of dance. The songs, and the stories behind those [99] songs, are equally part of helushka, each one just a part of "the long story of the People."1

Stanza 1: Uncle Gus

Our first glimpse of the poem's protagonist, Uncle Gus, emphasizes his traditionalism, as well as the depth and breadth of the estrangement of his traditional Ponca ways from the lifeway of many a young adult Indian in the latter part of the twentieth century. Raised to the norms of conventional mainstream civility, his new niece-in-law violates traditional "Ponca ways" by speaking directly to him instead of properly either avoiding conversation with an in-law of the opposite sex altogether or addressing him only indirectly through conversation with others (both behaviors modeled by Uncle Gus, to no avail, in this stanza). Ethical estrangement becomes physical and geographical when "he quietly / left Kansas City" (1980: 53), presumably both to preserve what is left of traditional Ponca social behavior and at the same time to protect his new kinswoman's good name from the consequences of her inadvertent overfamiliarity.

Stanza 2: Circles of Vision

This disjunction between Uncle Gus and his urban Indian in-law is repeated in the narrator's own perspective as it informs the opening movements of the second stanza, allowing us to view Uncle Gus through the lens of the narrator's own ambivalence.

The very first line of the second stanza links Uncle Gus's quiet traditionalism, established in the first stanza, to his status as "the greatest of Ponca dancers" (53); the suggestion here is that knowing and living the traditions is a prerequisite to dancing well in the traditional way. Ponca dancers are widely acknowledged in Indian Country to be the best traditional dancers, typically taking top prizes in this category of dance at intertribal powwows, so being "the greatest of Ponca dancers" establishes Uncle Gus as a paragon of traditionalism. And Uncle Gus succeeds in making traditionalism visible even to the narrator, who until this moment never dreamed that this "heavy-bellied / quick-talking man / that kids swarmed around" (53) was capable of such motion. Formally, [100] this image of Uncle Gus, in his role as a Ponca war dancer articulating "the Spirit's dance," (54) functions as the central point or hub of stanza 2, around which both emic and etic perspectives gather in much the same way Uncle Gus's motion with respect to the drum generates "Wakondah's circle" (54).2 Farthest from the center on one side of this formal structure, in the early lines of stanza 2, are the uninitiated eyes of the narrator who sees Uncle Gus going "off to drink" with "some of my white uncles" and who "never understood" this kinsman until "when he was sixty-something / I saw him dance for the first time" (53); on the other side of this stanza, in its closing lines, we are given a glimpse of the peripheral, etic circle of "bleachers and tourists," those "white eyes watching" which see only "an old Indian slowing down / and between dances going / to have another slug of / hell, maybe Old Crow or even / Canadian Club, / good enough for the champion" (54).3 Located between Uncle Gus and the etic circle of tourists is the circle of "grave, merry faces" of the emic audience: "Osage and Ponca" but also "Otoe and Delaware, / Quapaw and Omaha, Pawnee Comanche and Kaw," in short a pan-Indian circle of vision whose identity with Uncle Gus and the dance is confirmed by their shared ability to "[see] what he was doing / and how he did it well" (54). This circle of emic vision is mirrored formally on the other side of this stanza by the emic members of the audience, located between the narrator's uninitiated eyes and the image of Uncle Gus dancing, who "got quiet / except to whisper / 'the champion.'" Along with the narrator, they see Gus, "potbellied but quick-footed," caught up "light as a leaf in a whirlwind" (54), his motion articulating the otherwise invisible motion called Wahkondah in Ponca.4 [101] What they are seeing, as well, is the renewed and renewing identity that Gus creates between himself and the drum, the fusion of the motion of his spirit vision and the motion of sound in the motion of his dance.

Uncle Gus's own vision -- the one he acquired "in a strange land where / he had gone and fasted" and which informs his performance in this stanza -- is a traditional power vision, one that authorizes him to function as a role model and "to lead his people" (54). It is important to recognize here that Gus's vision also anticipates the need to resolve the distance separating emic from etic space: as the narrator puts it, there was "nowhere to lead them except / into white ways" (54). In a sense, then, we are invited to see Uncle Gus as modeling a positive strategy for coming to terms with the forces of cultural assimilation -- the strategy of clearing a space in the white world for Native traditionalism, a space created by traditional vision and buffered from outside forces by a protective circle of knowing, appreciative audience. This circle of witness, in turn, functions in the role of traditional warriors -- those who, like the Ponca Helushka society members, the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, and the Kiowa Kaitsenko, commit their lives to preserving elders like Uncle Gus and the ways these elders embody.

Stanza 3: AIM and Wounded Knee

Several references to the American Indian Movement or "AIM," and especially to the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee, work to establish the role of that event and its participants in the coalescence of an emerging pan-Indian identity. The stanza opens by locating the narrative as taking place "a year after Wounded Knee" (55) rather than in the more familiar (to an etic audience) "year 1974," suggesting that the events of Wounded Knee mark a watershed, transformative moment in Indian history, a temporal site in terms of which history may be meaningfully located as "before" or "after" that event. Indeed, one of the first signifying attributes of the narrator's comrades in stanza 3 is that they are "all strong in AIM" (in the text this phrase is set off formally on its own separate line) but "none of them underground yet / from Wounded Knee" (55). In many ways analogous to the Black Panther movement on the West Coast, AIM originated as an ad-hoc urban Indian movement in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota) committed to community uplift work as well as to the defense of the community against local police violence and other forms of civil rights violation. By 1974, the time of [102] the poem, the AIM movement had attracted national attention through a series of increasingly more coordinated and more militant activities, beginning with its involvement in the 1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island and running through its part in the 1972 "Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan," a transcontinental march on Washington, D.C., which culminated in the trashing of the BIA building, to the highly publicized occupation of Wounded Knee, a crossroads village on the Pine Ridge (Oglala Sioux) reservation, in the early months of 1973. 5 The Forty-Nine song the car's occupants are singing, which begins "Let's all go up to Porcupine," also identies them as familiar with the Pine Ridge reservation, Porcupine being a village to the north of Wounded Knee where some of the activities most important to the traditional members of the Pine Ridge population take place. In this song, the town of Porcupine gures metonymically as the place where this new generation of Indians gathers to "dance the Forty-Nine" (56).6

Roughly speaking, the schism between "traditionals" and "progressives" on the Pine Ridge reservation (as elsewhere in Indian country at [103] this time7) was, until Wounded Knee, a generation gap as well. Traditionals also tended to be elders, born and raised on the reservation and thus to some degree geographically inoculated against many of the forces of cultural assimilation. The progressives, including then-tribal council chairman Dick Wilson and his "goons" (self-proclaimed "Guardians of the Oglala Nation"), were by and large of a younger age, raised in the post-WWII era after two generations of coercive assimilation8 had succeeded in creating the illusion, among the US white majority as well as throughout Indian Country, that "traditional Indian" and "twentieth century American" were mutually exclusive categories, with members of the former category either vanishing or vanished. Against this cultural backdrop, AIM represents an emerging new identity option, one especially inviting to the more than 50 per cent of culturally disadvantaged Native Americans who by 1960 had been born and raised in urban rather than reservation settings. At Wounded Knee, young AIM members from all over the country allied themselves with Oglala traditional elders and their families against their progressive coevals, turning the generation gap into a new variety of cultural gap: not progressive Oglalas vs. traditional Oglalas but rather Indian anti-traditionalists vs. Indians -- of whatever tribe, and including Indians with no clear tribal community to be part of -- working as a pan-Indian force to preserve and propagate a distinctive Indianness. What emerges is a new, third variety of Indian community, not reserved to any one tribe or geographically fixed setting, in which relatively young warriors function to defend and preserve their elders and children and in which the elders reciprocally teach the younger members of the community the intra-communal knowledge and beliefs which shape the collective identity. What unites them is the warrior spirit manifested in the social and political activism [104] that networks these people together in the common project of preserving traditional Indian vision and values.

Stanza 3: The New Warriors

When read within this context, and recalling the structure of stanza 2, Stanza 3 becomes a portrait of the latest generation of Ponca warriors and also of the pan-Indian circle composed of these Ponca warriors and their non-Ponca allies. Compared to the image of Uncle Gus at the center of stanza 2, they are indeed a motley crew. Crammed into the narrator's old Dodge Dart, on the way to the Ponca City auditorium to attend the funeral feast for Uncle Gus, are at least ten young adults.9 The rst group, "Carter and Craig and Dwain [later called Buck] and Serena," consists of the narrator's (and also the author's) cousins, "sons and daughters of [Uncle Gus'] sister Jewell" (55), that is, all Poncas on their mother's side.10 Following the pattern established in stanza 2, this quartet of young Ponca warriors is augmented by a second, but this time pan-Indian, group: "Stephanie from Third Mesa" (Hopi), "Mickey / from [105] Pine Ridge" (Sioux), "Geronimo" (Apache), "Big Jim Jump" (Osage), and "Mary Ann / teaching us Cherokee" (56).

The exuberance of the Indians in the car characterizes the formal structure of this part of the poem as well. Just as the narrator is having trouble singing and driving straight at the same time, the formal structure seems to wander peripatetically between the margins of the page, some lines even appearing to bump up against them and then, like a car sideswiping a guard rail, bouncing back into the poem's narrative space. Enhancing this sense of almost unbridled motion, the first sentence of the stanza runs for 63 lines, or a little over two pages, of text; like the rather difficult feat of packing ten not-so-little Indians into a Dodge Dart, the narrator crams images and information enough to cover some three decades of family history as well as provide a thumbnail history of the American Indian Movement and the subsequent anti-Indian bias of state and federal law enforcement agencies.

The controlled chaos of the first three-quarters of stanza 3 changes pitch, however, when the crew arrives at the auditorium and the motion of the poem comes under the control of "the Osage drum / [brought] out of mourning to honor Uncle Gus" (57). In stanza 2, Ponca Uncle Gus is shown performing "at the Osage dances" (53); here in stanza 3, we see the honor being reciprocated by "the Osage War Dancers / [who] had come to dance for him" (57) in the Ponca City auditorium. These intimations of bicultural identity are reinforced when the narrator tells us that "all the Ponca and Osage women / had fixed the frybread" (57) for the funeral feast. This particular pairing of nations reflects Revard's own upbringing, born Osage on his father's side and raised in a Ponca kinsman's household.12 This pairing is further reinforced by the similarity in [106] name of the Ponca and Osage dance societies called "war dancers."13 At this time in history, the suggestion is, to be a model Ponca is to share a degree of identity with the Osage way, and vice-versa: the story of one speaks to, and with, the story of the other. Such a sharing is the seed crystal for the broader pan-Indian identity enacted and celebrated in the powwow gatherings (and in the post-powwow Forty-Nines) taking place all over Indian country by the '70s.

Pan-Indian or not, every powwow has its head male dancer. A few lines later, "toward the end of the dancing," the narrator nds himself out on the margin of the activity, behind the bleachers, watching the war-dancers in the company of "an old cowboy" (58). We are not told whether this figure is Indian or not, and perhaps the ambiguity is intentional, designed to test a reader's ability to see cowboy and Indian, rather than cowboy or Indian. But either way, the gure draws the narrator's attention and ours back to the head male dancer of this poem when he says, "offhand / 'They're good / but they won't ever be as good / as Gus McDonald'" (58). With this statement, the narrative quickly calms down and sobers up as Carter,14 in four sentences within the space of four lines, speaks the words that identify him as the latest in a long line of Ponca warriors: "Mike, they'll nail me some time or other / for Wounded Knee. I know it, I'm prepared long since. / But I'm back with my people now" (58). Here, the mantle of the Ponca helushka spirit transfers from uncle to nephew as the image of Carter Camp, backlit by the evocation of Uncle Gus, emerges as the latest model of Ponca historical identity, evading for awhile (as every member of every generation of Poncas has evaded, for awhile) the threat of cultural termination and relocation. As though rehearsing the story of his father, Uncle Woody, hiding out from "the marshals in V-8 Fords" a generation earlier, Carter is on the run from "the helicopters [that will be] sweeping / the Okie hills once more" (55) in pursuit of AIM veterans of Wounded Knee and destined to be "nailed" and removed, not to a reservation but to a [107] federal penitentiary.15 The formal mission of any penitentiary, of course, is to coerce inmates into repenting and repudiating their former, illegal ways; by this point in the poem, however, we understand that Carter, like his more famous forebears Standing Bear and White Eagle, will not lose his Ponca vision and spirit while in captivity. The dance goes 'round, but a Ponca war dancer is always coming home, always becoming "back with my people now."

Stanza 4: Winter-count

This point is made forcefully in the fourth and final stanza of the poem, where at last Gus McDonald's purely Ponca identity, Shongeh-Ska,16 becomes the sign both literally and metonymically of the spirit of "the people / who shall not perish from the earth / not even if they have to use / such European words as these / to keep the Ponca ways together" (59). His niece Serena posts that sign on her "Indian Crafts shop" for all to see, exposing to public view what was always there to be seen but not before posted under its Ponca name. This is the same life force that informs the motion, or "dance," of all of the action of the poem -- including the writing of it. Some "war dancers," be they Ponca Helushka or Osage Il lonsha, convert a brave deed into a dance or its accompanying song; some, like Uncle Gus before and now the narrator of the poem, convert a vision, specically a vision of how the people must learn to move with the historical space they occupy, into the motion of a dance and the words of a song/poem. In stanza 4, "not being much of a warrior [him]self" (59), the narrator offers his word-dance, his contribution to the long story of the people, in the form of the poem he is writing. Something new is happening to the Helushka traditions when the narrator reinvents the enemy's language, "use[s] / such European words as these / to keep the Ponca ways together," using phonetic lettering to do [108] the cultural work of the older, more traditional hand-drawn "wintercount" (59)17 image of an important moment in the history of the people.

Stanza 4 closes with a reprise of the Forty-Nine song being sung by the young veterans of the Wounded Knee occupation on the drive to Uncle Gus' funeral in stanza 2. The tune is the same, but the words are changed: Porcupine, the Pine Ridge reservation village that is the setting for the dance in the Forty-Nine song, is here replaced by White Eagle, the Ponca traditional dance grounds named after the head chief of the Poncas at the time of their forced removal to Oklahoma in 1877. 18 While the pan-Indian neotraditionalists express in dance and song the warrior spirit in places like Porcupine, South Dakota, the Ponca war dancers do likewise in White Eagle, Oklahoma; sometimes, as in the episode commemorated in this poem ("a kind / of memorial song" [59]), there is no boundary between the two but only a fusion, made visible in the concentric circles of motion (the dancer) and memory (his witnesses). The winter-count image for "the year after Wounded Knee," then, is the image of Gus McDonald transforming into Shongeh-Ska, "dancing still" as an inspiration to the new generation of warrior dancers but also returned to the world of the ancestors, "back with his people now" (59).


1The quoted phrase is Leslie Silko's: see "I Always Called Her Aunt Susie" in Storyteller (1981: 7).

     2Readers familiar with the Native American novel tradition may recall the emic/etic fluctuation of perspective that Archilde Leon, the protagonist of D'Arcy McNickle's 1936 The Surrounded, experiences while watching the blind old man Modeste perform traditional dance in chapter 24. In Revard's presentation, however, there is no fluctuation, but rather a steady "pan" of visual field that remains clearly centered on the image of "the greatest of Ponca war dancers."

     3There is wry irony in Revard's choice of names of whiskeys, "Old Crow" suggesting Indianness and "Canadian Club" suggesting the ethnicity of "that 'Gatsby' bunch" (Kennedys) that appears in the next stanza. The irony is further heightened by a grammatical ambiguity accentuated by the pause of the line break: the whiskey is a "slug of / hell" regardless of brand name, a far cry from that other "Spirit" ("Wahkondah") that enables Uncle Gus to dance as well as he does.

     4Charles' spelling is "Wakonda"; for an extended denition of the term (quoting from Fletcher and La Flesche's 1905 The Omaha Tribe), see "Songs of the Ponca" (1989: 12).

     5Most readers will also recognize Wounded Knee as the name of the site where, in 1890, Big Foot's band of 350 Miniconjou Sioux refugees was massacred by the U.S. 7th Cavalry, an event which most students of frontier history take to be the last battle of the "Indian wars." For a comprehensive history of the AIM movement, see Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Warrior, Like a Hurricane (1996); for a credible account of the AIM's involvement in the events of Wounded Knee and the virtual civil war taking place at that time on the Pine Ridge reservation, see Peter Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1980: 58-83); see also Lakota Woman (1990), a book co-authored by Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes, which presents itself as an autobiographical account of the 1973 events as witnessed by an insider and which is the basis for a 1994 movie bearing the same title. Revard's cousin Carter Camp, the "Carter" who appears in the poem, was the person in charge of security during the siege; Russell Means and Dennis Banks were the main spokesmen for the AIM participants.

     6For those unfamiliar with 20th century American Indian pop cultural phenomena, a "Forty-Nine" can be thought of as an ad-hoc, more or less clandestine gathering of members of the younger generation that takes place in the midnight hours, often following an "official" powwow. Several different (and sometimes hotly contested) accounts of the genesis of both the name and event exist; for one of the earliest, see Edward Curtis (1930: 215-6). Part songfest, part dance, and all party, the Forty-Nine is also a serious celebration of collective Indian identity: in the "Author's Note" to his play 49, Hanay Geiogamah states that "[w]hile taking part in a 49, young Indians are in an extremely heightened state of awareness of their 'Indianness'" and that "[t]hey achieve, with amazing rapidity and with a minimum of friction, a group conviviality that is intertribal" (1980: 86).

     7This schism was far from restricted to the inhabitants of the Pine Ridge reservation: practically every reservation community has gone through a similar collective identity crisis at some time or another. Most of them have stopped short, however, of the virtual civil war that was in progress on the Pine Ridge reservation at the time of this poem. Two earlier well-known examples are the 1906 "Hopi Split," which was more or less resolved when Hopi progressives abandoned Old Oraibi and established the new communities at New Oraibi (also known as Kykotsmovi, where the Hopi Tribal Council offices are today) and Moenkopi, and a similar late-nineteenth century fallout at Laguna Pueblo, which resolved when conservatives relocated themselves and their ceremonies in 1881 to neighboring Isleta Pueblo.

     8The term is Edward Spicer's: see The American Indians, (1980: 183).

     9That the automobile is a Dodge Dart is ironic on a number of registers. For one, the Dart was one of the first American compact cars, so that cramming ten bodies into one would be somewhat analogous to seeing how many college kids could be stuffed into a phone booth, a sport that enjoyed a brief rage in the late 1950s; thus, the image of the packed Dart suggests youthful exuberance, not to mention a degree of frivolity, to anyone old enough to be an AIM veteran in 1973. For another, the make of the car, "Dart," is particularly apt given the militancy of at least some of the car's occupants, about a close as one could come in the early '70s to an "arrow" or "tomahawk," two easy icons of Indian warfare. Finally, it is probably no coincidence that the Dart was the particular object of Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), the popular book that spearheaded his famous campaign against the negligence of the U.S. auto industry. The double irony, for an emic audience at any rate, is the play on the stereotype of the "rezmobile," as often an old truck as an old car, and the allusion to the notoriously high rate on reservations of deaths associated with auto "accidents." There is, too, the slightly less obvious irony attendant on the number of the Dart's occupants -- a perhaps intentional play on the once-popular nursery song "Ten Little Indians."

     10The final page of the 1980 Point Riders edition of Ponca War Dancers contains a photograph titled "Buck Creek, 1934"; included among the thirteen kinspeople in the photo are Carter Camp, Dwain Camp, Woodrow Camp (who appears as the bootlegger "Uncle Woody" in the poem), Jewell McDonald Camp ("Aunt Jewell"), and Carter Revard and his twin sister Maxine. In the photo, Aunt Jewell's hands rest on the shoulders of young Carter Revard, who is standing in front of her.

     11Such bias of course predates the AIM activity of the late '60s and early '70s; during this period, however, and given his association with AIM, however peripheral, the narrator would have been perfectly justified in being "scared shitless wondering / if we'd get shot / by [Oklahoma state] troopers or by [federal] FBI / or maybe by some 'skins that had been lied to or bought or blackmailed" (Revard 1980: 56). The third source of concern refers to "black ops" Cointel operations designed to foment distrust and uncertainty within the ranks of AIM and other militant and/or anti-war movements in the U.S.; for more on the Cointel project, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The Cointelpro Papers (1990).

     12The female head of this household was Jewell McDonald Camp, the "Aunt Jewell" of the poem who was also in fact the sister of Gus McDonald.

     13The name of the homologous Osage society is Il Lonsha; Charles records the various ethnographic spellings of both terms in an endnote to his essay "Songs of the Ponca: Helushka" (1989: 15 n 2).

     14Here and throughout "Ponca War Dancers," "Carter" refers to Carter Camp; in the poem as in fact, Revard is called "Mike" by his Ponca relations, possibly to differentiate him from his older cousin Carter Camp.

     15Some would say there isn't much difference. During occupation of Alcatraz Island during 1969-71, Indians from an assortment of tribes were quick to note the historical serendipity of being in a position finally to turn a federally-run prison back into an Indian-run reservation: see the "Proclamation: To the Great White Father and All His People" issued by the "Indians of All Tribes" (Matthiessen 1980: 37-38).

     16The approximate English translation of the name is White Horse; the -ska means "white, shining" and is part of most names in the McDonald family (Revard 6 March 2005: E-mail to author).

     17Tanis Thorne provides a very good definition (with illustrations) of the term "winter count" at http://eee.uci.edu/clients/tcthorne/wintercount/.

     18The 1980 Point Riders Press edition of Ponca War Dancers bears a photograph of White Eagle on its cover. A copy of White Eagle's account of the removal, recorded by Susette La Flesche in 1879, is available at the American Native Press Archives website, http://www.anpa.ualr.edu/digitallibrary/Ponca%20Account.htm.