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Book Review: Miyelo by Viggo Mortensen

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When they came to your land you gave them what they needed. Soon they began to take without asking, and then they took what was yours. You fought, but they were too many and they had better weapons.  Some of you they forced to move when they wanted your land. Some of you they killed, or they took all of the game, so you could no longer live. They took all your land and pushed you on to small islands of reservations where you slowly starved to death and went mad.

It was amongst the people of the plains, from the Paiute, in the late 1800s that a man rose up named Wovoka. Wovoka said that if the people at the end of every six weeks danced this dance, "The Ghost Dance", the Europeans would go away, the buffalo would come back, and all those who had been killed would be returned. The people were desperate, they were hungry, they were dispossessed, and so they danced. All the plains peoples; The Crow, The Cheyenne, The Arapaho, The Shoshone, Lakota, Ogala, Dakota, and others – they all danced.

In 1890, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, beside Wounded Knee Creek, a group of families had gathered at Chief Big Foot's Camp to dance the Ghost Dance. The remnants of the 7th army were sent to oversee, and put down. It became a massacre. Eyewitnesses who came upon the scene two days later found bodies thrown hundreds of yards from the camp – only cannon fire could have done that.

The American government at the time proclaimed it a heroic victory over renegade Indians. It was recorded so in the history books, and for many years the killing of unarmed men, women, and children was believe to be a great military victory. It wasn't until the 1970s that the truth was finally printed in books like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and the lie was exposed.

Thirty years on, in 2002, film makers gathered to recreate the massacre for the movie Hidalgo. Twice in the shooting of the movie they recreated the "Ghost Dance" – once just before the massacre, and once later in the film when the character played by Viggo Mortensen is close to death in the desserts.

Miyelo is Viggo Mortensen's recounting of both the past and the present versions of the Ghost Dance. During the filming of both the recreated camp by Wounded Knee Creek and in the California desert, where the dance was shot a second time, he used his camera to record the events.  Shooting mainly in black and white, his pictures of extras and the re-created camp feel like a record that has stepped out of time. Modern shots and technology have been dropped through a time machine to bring us back images of what it was like so many years ago.

Even those shot with colour, specifically the series entitled "Hindsight", appear to be looking backwards from a great distance. Whether the focus of the camera is set off to a far horizon, or he has developed the photos so that only a tight circle of image remains, these images live up to their series title. We are only able to see the past through our own lens of opinion and thought.

In the California desert, where Mortensen has shot the dancer involved in the hallucinatory Ghost Dance from the end of the movie, he has used colour film, but maintained the illusive contact with them that his character in the film enjoyed. The dancers do not exist here anymore, they have long gone on to another world where maybe they are hunting buffalo and they have been reunited with the spirits of the their grandparents.

Mr. Mortensen's images capture the intangible quality of their figures, causing them to flit in and out of reality on the static page of a book. Now you think you seen a glimpse of a figure through the mists of time, but you can't be sure. Other time they gather in a watery circle, so it looks like you are seeing them reflected in a puddle; a puddle that somehow shows both ends of a tunnel between times.

While Viggo Mortensen's images are the dominant focus of the book, he has included some very important texts as support reading. There is the first-hand account of the discovery of the bodies at Wounded Knee Creek; an account of the work of James Mooney, who worked for the Smithsonian Institute during the period of the Ghost Dance, written by Mike Davis; an extract from the work of James Mooney about his travels among the people during this time; and an article written by Clement "Sonny" Richards, a contemporary Lakota medicine man.

Don’t be looking for any words of good cheer, because you won't find it. They serve to drive home the horror of the events that took place during those times, as well to place the Ghost Dance within its context.

Someone once wrote that the truth shall set you free, but I offer this codicil… if you are willing and strong enough to face up to the truth. Miyelo is the truth of the history of North America; may you have the courage to observe it and absorb it.

Miyelo is currently available through Perceval Press in both hard cover and soft cover editions.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!