FARGO — The dance hall near the Porcupine River on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation stirred with activity as preparations were made for a ritual that the tribes had last celebrated on the evening after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
It was early in the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1918, a Saturday. The celebration had been postponed because the deadly influenza epidemic was still a public health concern.
But leaders at Standing Rock decided that afternoon was the right time to perform the Victory Dance to celebrate the end of World War I.
Men at Standing Rock, as at other reservations around the country, had enlisted to serve across the Atlantic Ocean in the Great War. Some sons never came home.
One of Standing Rock’s fallen soldiers was Albert Grass, the grandson of Chief John Grass. He and Joseph Jordan were the first from Standing Rock to enlist, volunteering with an infantry company in the North Dakota National Guard — and Grass would be the first son of Standing Rock to sacrifice his life for the war.
Grass' unit came under heavy German fire on the Soissons-Paris road in July 1918. Grass, who volunteered to try to fetch water for his fellow soldiers, was shot and killed. News of his death arrived during the Sioux County Indian Fair, where thousands gathered for the festival, and soon the mournful wails of women were heard.
His body would not come home until several years later, in May 1921, when thousands gathered for his funeral. The American Legion post at Fort Yates was named in his honor.
Although tinged with sadness, it was a happier occasion when people gathered for the Victory Dance, one group in the dance hall near the Porcupine River, another in the community of Cannon Ball, to mark the end of the bloody war.
As the years passed, accumulating into decades and now reaching back a century, the story of the Victory Dance appears to have largely faded from memory at Standing Rock.
“That was a long time ago,” said Scott Davis, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and North Dakota’s Indian affairs commissioner. “I’d say it’s been years since that came up,” he added, recalling that he once heard the dance spoken of back in the 1990s.
To prepare for the Victory Dance, men carried a tree that had been trimmed and peeled to the dance hall while chanting prayers in a low tone. Acting in the role of pallbearers, the men carried the tree, which represented a vanquished enemy, much like a casket.
Once the tree was placed into a hole in the ground, a dead wolf was hung from it, with a tress of horsetail hair attached to its left temple, as an emblem. A U.S. flag was hung above the wolf, lashed with rawhide at the top of the sacred tree.
Dancing began at noon, but the festivities did not include a sacred fire or ceremonial pipe. By custom, those elements could only be included when the warriors returned. Typically, a Sun Dance would be held after the warriors’ return, while each soldier who stayed at home would pay his Sun Dance vows with prayers for victory.
Almost 50 dancers were dressed in traditional Indian dress, while others were only partially clad in native garb. Nearly all wore at least something emblematic of their Indian identity.
Dancers carried tomahawks or hatchets and moved in a circle from right to left around a group of singers. Their movement was irregular, sometimes plunging outside the circle to suggest the “chaotic clash of battle,” all the while somehow maintaining an “easy conformity to time and rhythm and harmony” in the words of an observer.
At the Cannon Ball celebration, some dancers “counted coup” against the German kaiser, whom they mistakenly believed had been killed, creeping up to his effigy and shooting it until the figure fell over.
The first to count coup, a heroic battle feat involving touching or striking the enemy at close range, rode the horse Albert Grass had ridden when he went away to war. When this coup was counted, participants sang, “The horse came home without the rider.”
Thanks to a detailed eyewitness description of the Victory Dance, details of the performances a century ago were preserved in writing by Aaron McGaffey Beede.
Beede came to Standing Rock in 1899 and remained for more than two decades, first serving as a missionary Episcopalian priest and later as a lawyer and county judge.
Beede, who spoke the Dakota language, wrote voluminously of the native culture and customs at Standing Rock. His journals, manuscripts and other writings are held in the special collections at the University of North Dakota.
His description of the Victory Dance, which he witnessed near Fort Yates, was edited by his daughter for publication years later, in 1942, in the North Dakota Historical Quarterly.
Support for the war effort was strong on the homefront at Standing Rock. Some offerings were made at the dance, which raised money for the United War Work Campaign and the Red Cross. The Fort Yates Victory Dance raised $263.40 — the equivalent of $4,086.50 today — as well as two horses and a colt, which were to be sold. At Cannon Ball, the dance raised $216 — equal to $3,351.11 in today’s dollars — as well as six horses donated for sale.
Solemn speeches punctuated the dance, including one by Thomas Frosted, a respected elder, who spoke of Standing Rock’s contributions to the war, on the battlefield and at home.
“We have done this to defend both ourselves and the white men against the Kaiserites,” Frosted said, as quoted by Beede. “We have done it from a sense of patriotism and duty; and we hope the white men, the ruling class, will give us credit for it.”
Manaja Hill, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s veterans service officer, said he had not heard of the Victory Dance before he recently was made aware of Beede’s account. At first he was skeptical of its authenticity, but after reading the depiction, he believes it could offer some valuable insights.
“Some of the details in here are interesting,” said Hill, a Vietnam veteran whose grandfather, Ambrose Gabe, served as a code talker for the Army in World War I. “It makes a lot of sense.”
He notes parallels to other dances and rituals, including the Sun Dance, but wants to pass the description around to knowledgeable tribal members for their appraisal.
“I wouldn’t doubt it at all,” he said, referring to Beede’s efforts to faithfully record what he had witnessed. Typically, dances and songs celebrated individual achievement, not the experiences of others.
“It’s worth another look,” he said. It seems memories of the historic Victory Dance a century ago might just live on at Standing Rock.