Diane Glancy


Commentary on The Dance Partner

What is this but history that has been cut into and
jumbled beyond what could be straightened out? Like
Desoto’s car when he hit a ditch at a hundred miles an
hour. Some of these stories are stubs. Just stubs of
stories. Sometimes mostly that’s all we got.

The stories and fragments and introduction here are from a novel about the late 19th century Ghost Dance, the series of frantic dances and hypnotic-like trances in the northwest that resulted in the belief that the white man would disappear and the old ways would return. There are existing historical texts of the Ghost Dance, but there are questions that have not been answered. Were the messianic dances an example of hysteria by a people whose way of life was coming to an end? Was it an end time happening, a cataclysmic close to tribal life on a continent that involved a deus-ex-machina? Was it a combination of several factors that ended in despondency, disillusionment, and the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee? What exactly happened?

The Ghost Dance is full of versions. 1) It had been going on long before the white man came. It was a knowledge of loss and restoration that had nothing to do with Christianity. 2) It was a result of the coming of the white man and the desperation that ensued. 3) It was a contrivance by Mormons who lived nearby, especially the part about the appearance of Christ. 4) It was something. 5) It was nothing.

In these stories, I take the words of Native Americans such as Porcupine and Kicking Bear, along with the ethnologist, James Mooney, and add imagined voices. Native American writing sometimes takes what it known and posits it along side what could have been. In a culture where much has been erased, or lost, the fragments of what is known is woven with the possibilities of what could have been. It is a technique called ghosting, which also is used at some historical sites in re-creating forts. It presents the image of what could have been, according to what is know of early architecture, or with descriptions or clues of some sort, though what actually existed is not known. Ghosting in writing presents a blueprint of voices that might have been, along with the structure of those voices that are known to have been.

I also work with story as shape of Indian thinking. Fractured, fragmented, with invisible silences where further voices speak. Indian thinking is nonlinear, non-chronological. The past roams into the present. A present day story starts with the past. The past starts with the present. The spirits hitchhike along the interstate. History comes down the road in a variety of vehicles, out of order, a carnival truck with different rides, setting up the unreality of a fun-house mirror, distorting what appears in it. The supernatural also is present. In American Gypsy, a collection of my plays, I write about native theory, calling the happenings realized improbabilities or improbable realities.

There are stories within story, such as the Greek myth of Antiope under-shadowing the story, Auntie Opey, and the rewrite or over-write of the history of Richard Cardinal in A Green Rag-Braided Rug that gives him a life that could have been with the right foster parents and opportunity. Maybe sometimes it is something close to author intrusion but not quite. Time is referential and linear only in the sense of causal. The Ghost Dance was warped by what came before it, as it warped what came after it: the Sioux uprising, the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, the contemporary sections that hold the nine separate fragments of these related stories in a circle of unresolved resolutions.

Though the fragments of the 1870-1890 Ghost Dance are integral to the book, the novel would not stay centered in the Ghost Dance. It became a conglomerate of stories with a footing in nonfiction, mainly the excerpts from James Mooney’s The Ghost Dance Religion (most of which are not included here). The Dance Partner begins with a contemporary piece, then jumps back and further back and then forward and back again and forward again across 117 years of Plains Indian history. The novel depicts how history is not history but reaches its presence into the present until the future is the past transformed. The dances to restore ancestors and animals and land in the face of the encroachment of the white man are still being reenacted in contemporary lives as Indians attempt to regain life. In fact, these stories are a Ghost Dance. They circle in the face of what is in relationship to what was and will be with sharp fracture lines and disparities in story structure.

I wanted to conjure the jagged pieces of plains Indian history. How history (a slice of it anyway), an unknown but significant part of it, took place in the geography of American history, however uncertain, whether a moment of truth (there is a beyond), a lie (there is nothing but trance induced by endless dancing), a conspiracy, a manipulation, a trick, a close-out that had ongoing effects. The Ghost Dance didn’t end, but its apparition haunts subsequent years that seem different, but are related, the same actually, with transformation so complete the Ghost Dance no longer looks like the Ghost Dance. It is marked by its seeming absence. It carries the influence of the broken past to the broken present. There are trace elements of the dance in each story and elements of history are in each contemporary life.