Dancing for the Kinetograph
The Lakota Ghost Dance and the Silence of Early Cinema
ON APRIL 14, 1894, Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope made its commercial debut at a storefront on Broadway in midtown Manhattan. An illustration of this space published in the following year shows ten of Edison’s machines arranged in the center of the room and overseen by two attendants (Figure 5.1). A customer would pay twenty-five cents to see five films or fifty cents for all ten and then peer into a kinetoscope’s peephole and watch for about twenty seconds as fifty feet of film sped by on a continuous spool. For the earliest viewers of motion pictures, this must have been a thrilling twenty seconds, and in the illustration, we find a sense of visual excitement everywhere: in the woman at left who leans over to read a title on one of the machines prior to viewing, in the watchful presence of the two incandescent dragon lamps on the walls, and in the play of glances among the patrons, as a fashionable woman on the right exits the parlor while turning to catch the eye of the dapper man on the far left. Next to the departing woman a bust of the wizard himself looks out at us and, our own visual curiosity having been aroused by this scene, invites us to wed that desire to his magical box. The visual entertainments awaiting the viewer during the parlor’s first months ranged from the risqué to the ridiculous: the strongman Eugen Sandow in a loincloth flexing biceps and buttocks, the billowing skirts of the Spanish dancer Carmencita, the anatomy-defying movements of the female contortionist Ena Bertoldi, or the antics of trained bears and boxing cats. Such vaudeville and circus acts proved highly popular, and by the end of the year, they were being seen in kinetoscope parlors across the country, from Boston to San Francisco.
New subjects were needed to satisfy demand, and throughout 1894 and early 1895, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, the head of the Edison Manufacturing Company’s kinetograph department, was occupied with the task of filming them at Edison’s Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey. It was fortunate for Dickson, then, that a month after the opening of the parlor at 1155 Broadway, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World set up camp in Ambrose Park in Brooklyn, where people packed the grandstands to see William F. Cody’s multiethnic band of performers engage in feats of horsemanship and sharpshooting, act out historical sketches of the Wild West, and display the dances, warfare, and hunting customs of American Indians. Dickson produced a total of eight films based on the Wild West show in 1894, four of them on a single day, September 24, when Cody and a group of sixteen Oglala and Brule Lakota men and boys took the train to West Orange and put on an exhibition of highlights from the show. Edison and his wife Stella looked on as Dickson directed and his assistant, William Heise, manned the kinetograph, the camera that shot the film for the kinetoscope. The event was widely covered in the press the next day in articles such as “Dancing for the Kinetograph” (The New York Sun), which named all the participants and identified the four subjects that were filmed: Buffalo Bill in a display of rapid firing, an “Indian War Council” that involved much handshaking and the passing around of the peace pipe, the buffalo dance, and the Omaha war dance.
The fact that two of the four films made that day were dances from the Wild West show suggests that, three hundred years after Theodor de Bry published the first volumes of his America, the subject of Native American dance remained a powerful one for audiences eager to satisfy their curiosity about strange peoples and customs through lifelike images. The significance of this subject for the new medium of film is declared on the title page of the first history of the kinetograph and kinetoscope, written by Dickson and his sister, Antonia, and published in 1895 to celebrate and publicize the new invention (Plate 15). Twenty-two somewhat embellished sketches of early Edison films surround the title, with pride of place given to two large views at top and bottom. One of them is a resonant subject we have already encountered, Niagara Falls (waterfalls, including an 1897 film of Kaaterskill Falls, were particularly popular subjects in Edison catalogs of the 1890s). The other is a group of dancing Indians brandishing shields, war clubs, and tomahawks.
The film of the buffalo dance lasts sixteen seconds and features five performers who dance before the black curtains that served as the backdrop for all the films made in the Black Maria. Two drummers, Strong Talker and Pine, sit cross-legged on the floor and maintain the rhythm that guides the movements of the three chiefs—Last Horse, Parts His Hair, and Hair Coat—who circle the stage counterclockwise. While Last Horse, who wears a buffalo tail, seems to imitate the movements of the animal, the tomahawk he carries and the confrontational overtures of the dancers also lend warlike overtones to the dance. According to a reporter for the New York Press, the dancers “had been told that the strange thing pointed at them would show them to the world until after the sun had slept his last sleep,” and in both the buffalo dance and the Omaha war dance, they seem to vie for the camera’s attention. At one point toward the end of the film, Hair Coat looks pointedly into the camera and defiantly holds up what appears to be a knife or short pipe stem before the viewer (Figure 5.2).
The war dance, which includes a partially obscured placard in the lower right corner that reads “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West S[how],” is a slightly longer film, at eighteen seconds, and features a larger cast of eleven dancers, including two boys who stand front and center at the beginning of the film. Although the dancers’ feet do not yet move, their bodies sway slightly, while at the upper left corner, a mallet belonging to a drummer whose body is cut off by the frame begins to beat a hide drum, first with two slow beats and then more rapidly. Staring directly at the spectator, the boy on the left then opens his mouth wide in a silent shout, and the dancing begins as the man on the right in a full headdress whirls into the center of the picture (Figure 5.3). The dancers are thus set into motion through instrumental and verbal cues, and the drum continues to beat throughout the film, its rhythm echoed by stomping feet. The light levels in the war dance are significantly lower than in the buffalo dance, and the action is cramped due to the small stage necessary for fitting all the dancers within the lens of the kinetograph, but the brightness of the dancers’ bone breastplates, the white feathers on their heads, and the white beadwork on their moccasins help us to track them as they circle in clockwise fashion. The action of both films, which is directly addressed to the spectator, exemplifies the exhibitionist approach of early filmmaking that the film historian Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attraction.” Rather than seeking to absorb the spectator in cinematic narrative, the cinema of attraction boldly advertises its own visibility in a manner that is self-consciously theatrical and, in the case of these warlike dances, even confrontational.
But what sort of confrontation was it that took place between a group of Lakota dancers and the camera lens on a September morning in 1894 in West Orange, New Jersey? One reporter who was present at the filming seemed quite sure of the answer to that question. The next morning a headline in the New York Herald announced:
RED MEN AGAIN CONQUERED.
Easily Subdued Before the Rapid Fire of the Kinetoscope at Edison’s Laboratory.
MORE EFFECTIVE THAN GUNPOWDER.
The kinetoscope was a new kind of war machine, one that demonstrated “to the red men the power and supremacy of the white man,” for at the Black Maria, “savagery and the most advanced science stood face to face, and there was an absolute triumph for one without the spilling of a single drop of blood.” Like Aby Warburg’s prideful “Uncle Sam in a stovepipe hat,” who strolls down a San Francisco street beneath the telegraph wire, knowing that “in this copper serpent of Edison’s he has wrested lightning from nature” (see Figure 3.12 in chapter 3), the Herald reporter displays a supreme confidence in Edison’s technological mastery and its power to subdue savagery in the face of civilization. The savage, in contrast, is unable to comprehend the white man’s harnessing of nature, a point the Herald article makes through the figure of Holy Bear, one of the Lakota visitors to Edison’s studio. Curious about the source of the kinetoscope’s magic, Holy Bear receives a terrible shock when he picks up a large cable that carries power to the studio: “Howls and shrieks rent the air as the luckless Indian’s hands were firmly glued to the cable.” The kinetograph accomplishes painlessly what Holy Bear’s mishap achieves with howls and shrieks. Subdued before the rapid fire of the camera’s stop-motion action, the Lakota dancers become captives to a box in which white men and women can watch a primitive dance and their own technological superiority unfold before their eyes.
Ralph and Natasha Friar, in a frequently cited passage, argue that the dances filmed at the Black Maria mark the beginnings of “the filmic cultural genocide of the Native American,” a process by which Edison’s commercialization of Wild West–show stereotypes leads to the persistence of the “Hollywood Indian” in twentieth-century cinema. It is an argument that grants but reverses the terms of the confrontation staged in the Herald article. In this revisionist interpretation, a confrontation does indeed occur in Edison’s studio, but it is one in which the forces of cultural exploitation, not civilization, triumph over the Indian. One must be careful, however, to distinguish between the cultural uses to which film is put and the inherent characteristics of the technology itself. Certainly, from an early period, the medium is put to work within American cinema in a way that shapes and perpetuates pernicious myths; but as recent Native American filmmaking clearly demonstrates, there is nothing about film as a medium that requires this to be the case. And in 1894, the year of its commercial debut, film was hardly ready to conquer the world. Edison himself was not at all clear about the meaning of his new invention and said of the kinetoscope: “I do not see where there is anything to be made out of it. I have been largely influenced by sentiment in the prosecution of this design.” Most importantly, as we will see, Edison was acutely aware of what the kinetoscope could not capture: synchronized sound. My concern in this chapter will be to explore the significance of this limitation. What kinds of meanings, and indeed what potentials, inhabit this silence?
From the moment of the making of the films, one event above all echoes behind their silence: Wounded Knee. When the reporter from the Herald wrote about the Wild West–show Indians facing off in battle with the kinetograph, he noted that it “was indeed a memorable engagement, no less so than the battle of Wounded Knee, still fresh in the minds of the warriors.” It was also still fresh in the minds of an American public that, less than four years earlier, had been the target of intensive and sensationalist press coverage about the troubles developing at Pine Ridge, the Ghost Dancing on the reservation and the government’s efforts to contain it, and the resulting “battle” at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. Aware of the resonance of the films with these events, the Edison Company’s production team decided to release at least one of them as Sioux Ghost Dance, a title that became a staple of kinetoscope catalogs through the 1890s. It remains unclear, however, which of the two films circulated under this name. In their History of the Kinetograph, the Dicksons label the film of the buffalo dance as Sioux Indian Ghost Dance, but it is also entirely possible that both were sold under that single title in different film catalogs. In any case, it is likely that, in 1894, white audiences would have been inclined to associate the dances in both films with the widely publicized events surrounding Wounded Knee. It is important, therefore, to consider what those events could have meant for the viewers who paid their nickel to watch Edison’s dancing Indians.
The Ghost Dance was the central ritual of the Ghost Dance religion, whose messiah, the Paiute prophet Wovoka, preached that by dancing, being always good, and not fighting, Indians would bring about a time of reunification with their ancestors on a regenerated earth, when all would live in happiness, free from death and disease. Combining elements of traditional Native American religions with Christianity, the Ghost Dance spread rapidly throughout the American west during 1889–90. A painting on deerskin from 1891 by Yellow Nose, a Ute captive among the Cheyenne, shows Cheyenne and Arapaho men and women performing the dance (Figure 5.4). Participants would clasp hands and shuffle slowly in a circle in clockwise fashion, looking up all the time and singing Ghost Dance songs, until individuals began falling into trances in which they experienced visions of the messiah and their dead relatives. In Yellow Nose’s painting, a medicine man on the far right helps a dancer to achieve a trance, while already entranced figures lie inside the circle with their arms outstretched. As the Ghost Dance was adopted by different tribal groups, each integrated the dance with its own religious traditions and introduced variations in its performance. For the Lakota, this included the wearing of Ghost Shirts that rendered dancers invulnerable and the placement of a pole or tree at the center of the circle, symbolic of a people now dormant but about to bloom.
Ghost Dancing began at Pine Ridge in the summer of 1890 and soon spread to the Rosebud, Standing Rock, and Cheyenne River reservations. For the Lakota, this was a difficult time. Their traditional hunting culture had rapidly come to an end due to the loss of the buffalo, and a government policy of assimilation had confined them to reservations where they were expected to become self-supporting through farming. At the same time, the vast reduction of reservation lands and the introduction of the allotment system with the Dawes Act put further pressure on Lakota society and turned their condition into one of dependency on the government. By 1890, failed crops and government reduction of rations had turned dependency into famine. All of this context is essential for understanding the condition of the Lakota prior to Wounded Knee, although it is equally important to recognize that the Ghost Dance was more than a surface-level response to these external stresses. On the contrary, it was an authentic expression of Lakota religion and, indeed, an alternative to the ideology of competition and progress being imposed on them. The Lakota were seeking to take control of their own destiny, peacefully, through ritual dancing and prayer that would cause the dead to return, the white man to disappear, and the buffalo to be released again from the earth.
The Ghost Dance was entirely misunderstood by the U.S. government. Indian agents and military officials could see it only as a symptom of social and political unrest and, despite its nonviolence, as preparation for armed uprising. In November 1890, U.S. Army troops arrived at Pine Ridge and Rosebud to suppress the dancing and prevent an “outbreak” on the reservations. At this point, several hundred Ghost Dancers fled to a stronghold in the Badlands, and tensions grew worse when the influential medicine man Sitting Bull, whose camp had become the center of the Ghost Dance religion on Standing Rock Reservation, was shot and killed by the Indian police during an attempt to arrest him. By late December, however, many of the Ghost Dancers had returned from the Badlands to Pine Ridge Agency to negotiate peace. This was also the destination of a group from the Cheyenne River reservation under Chief Big Foot, when it was intercepted on December 28 by the Seventh Cavalry and escorted to Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians set up camp. When they awoke the next morning, they found themselves surrounded by about 500 soldiers aiming rapid-fire Hotchkiss cannons directly at them. As the soldiers conducted a search for arms, a shot was discharged (probably inadvertently), to which the army responded with indiscriminate firing on the camp, killing between 150 and 250 Lakota men, women, and children. The dancers in Dickson’s films would have been at Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations that winter and were painfully familiar with these events. One of them, in fact, had been present at the massacre itself: Johnny Burke No Neck, an orphan of Wounded Knee who, according to the program of the Wild West show, was “found on the Battle Field” (Figure 5.5). In the film of the war dance, he is the young boy in front who looks into the camera and opens his mouth as the dance begins.
Any viewer who has a basic familiarity with the Ghost Dance can easily see that this is not the dance we witness in either of the Edison films. The dancers do not hold hands; one of them, Last Horse, carries a tomahawk in both films (no weapons were allowed to be carried during the Ghost Dance); none of the dancers wear Ghost Shirts; the motion in both dances is quick rather than a slow shuffle; and while the Ghost Dance had no instrumental accompaniment, the dancers in Dickson’s films follow the beat of a drum. The typical viewer in the kinetoscope parlor of the 1890s, however, would not have had detailed knowledge of the Ghost Dance, but only the title on the machine and vague notions of the warlike nature of the dance that had circulated in the media. Edison film catalogs describe it as “a dance by genuine Sioux Indians in war paint and costume,” language that echoes the descriptions that circulated in the press coverage immediately after the filming. According to the account in the Newark Daily Advertiser, for example, the Indians at the Black Maria performed a “war dance, in which the entire band, in their warpaint and feathers, to the music of the native drums, danced a howling war dance, brandishing their tomahawks and scalping knives.” The New York Press noted that, although the buffalo dance gave the performers more space than the war dance, “if anything the antics were more furious and wild. Pity the camera could not reproduce those yelps!”
Such descriptions, in turn, echo the way the Ghost Dance had typically been portrayed by the reporters who had followed government troops to Pine Ridge and turned the conflict on the reservation into an international media event. On November 22, 1890, a New York Times article reported on “insanely religious” Ghost Dances in which Indians danced in war paint “with their guns strapped to their backs.” A visual parallel to such reports can be found in a centerfold wood engraving of “The Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians in North America” from the January 3, 1891, issue of the Illustrated London News, in which the artist, Amédée Forestier, focuses our attention on a dancer in the central foreground who raises in his right hand a rather large and menacing knife, while another dancer to the far left thrusts a rifle above his head (Figure 5.6). Forestier’s bellicose Ghost Dance, however, has little to do with the actual ceremony. As Short Bull, one of the leaders of the dance at Pine Ridge, asked: “How could we have held weapons? For thus we danced, in a circle, hand in hand, each man’s fingers linked in those of his neighbor. Who would have thought that dancing could make such trouble? For the message that I brought was peace.”
Nevertheless, in popular culture, the Ghost Dance remained a symbol of the untamed and hostile savage, an image that was in part sustained by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. During its 1891–92 tour of Britain, the show’s cast included twenty-three Lakota Ghost Dancers who had been incarcerated by the U.S. Army at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, but then released into the custody of Cody with the expectation that a stint in his show would keep them off the reservation and lead to their improvement by showing them “the extent, power and numbers of the white race.” This group included Short Bull and Kicking Bear, both of them prominent Ghost Dancers who had traveled to Nevada to meet the messiah and later led the flight into the South Dakota Badlands after the arrival of government troops. The presence of these infamous “hostiles” was a draw for audiences eager to see actual participants in the events of the previous year that had been sensationalized in the press. The Wild West show also played up Cody’s own role as a tamer of the savage. As he displayed in Dickson’s film Indian War Council, Cody cultivated the role of a peacemaker who could bring the Indian around to reason, and the events of 1890 became a focal point for demonstrating his skills as intermediary between the hostile Indians and the white race. Not only was he doing a service to the government and to the Lakota by improving the prisoners from Fort Sheridan, but he had himself attempted to intercede in the growing tensions on the South Dakota reservations in November 1890, when he traveled to Pine Ridge in a thwarted attempt to meet and come to terms with Sitting Bull, a former member of the Wild West show. He remained at Pine Ridge through early 1891, and a publicity poster for his show from about three years later plays up his peacemaking role after Wounded Knee, as Cody, astride his white horse, leads a military party into an Indian camp to talk down frenzied Ghost Dancers who kick up dust as they prepare for the warpath (Plate 16). Here is the Moses of the Wild West who will bring the wild circular dance of the heathens to an end.
It would seem that Edison and Cody, by tapping into the widespread perception of the hostility of the Ghost Dance and related anxieties about indigenous resistance to U.S. sovereignty, knew how to give their audiences what they expected. But here lies the problem, because what audiences expected is not entirely clear in the case of the Ghost Dance. While it is true that alarming headlines tended to dominate press coverage of events surrounding Wounded Knee, at other times, yellow journalism took a back seat to more measured portrayals of the Ghost Dance as an understandable expression of discontent with difficult circumstances and unjust treatment. In an article in Harper’s Weekly from December 6, 1890, Lieutenant Marion P. Maus clearly shows sympathy with the dancers:
For years [the Indian] has been confined to military reservations, and has chafed under the restraint thus put upon him. Little wonder he looks for a change, and longs for his once free life, and gladly grasps the new belief in the red Saviour, which is rapidly spreading to every Western tribe, and which the great chief Red Cloud “says will spread over all the earth.”
Though Maus’s article on the “New Indian Messiah” considers the dance a perversion of the Christianity taught to the Indians by missionaries, it differs from many—though by no means all—contemporary reports by attempting to understand the dance as being motivated by sincere religious belief rather than desire for armed conflict. Maus had witnessed the ceremony when he visited a Pine Ridge dance camp in the company of the artist Frederic Remington, whose illustration of the Ghost Dance appears in the same issue of Harper’s (Figure 5.7). Like Maus, Remington avoids sensationalizing his subject. Although his composition clearly served as the source for the later engraving in the Illustrated London News, Remington, unlike Forestier, does not portray the Ghost Dance as a ritual of militaristic frenzy. His more subdued approach is perhaps better compared to the deerskin painting by Yellow Nose, insofar as both artists are primarily interested in costume and in suggesting the slow and regular movement of dancers, none of whom hold weapons.
Was the Ghost Dance hostile or peaceful? Should it incite fear or sympathy among whites? Was Wounded Knee a triumph for the U.S. Army or a blunder? The answers to these questions were not clear or consistent in the popular press, and this ambivalence found its way into the Wild West show as well. Cody himself referred to Wounded Knee as “an unlooked-for accident.” Programs for the show gave sensational histories of the Wild West that included the Ghost Dance as a significant element, yet they did not pronounce on its meaning. Audiences were instead invited to make up their own minds. The 1894 program, for example, describes the Ghost Dance as “a warlike demonstration,” but only after saying it had become so due to “wrongs suffered at the hands of the whites.” Other similar remarks and an illustration of the Lakota dead scattered across the frozen field at Wounded Knee can hardly be taken as an unequivocal endorsement of government actions (Figure 5.8). Much of the material about the Ghost Dance that makes it into the Wild West show programs after Wounded Knee (material ranging from an account of the dance’s origin and development to the reproduction of Ghost Dance songs in staff notation) was taken from the magazine The Illustrated American. At the end of this material in the 1893 program, the manager of the Wild West show, John Burke, provides an interesting coda: “The compiler gives it without comment, as the whole matter has yet to be investigated to get at bottom facts.” Could there be clearer evidence of the unsettled meaning of this event? During the show itself, moreover, the actual Ghost Dance was never performed, even if an uninformed public tended to conflate it with the dances that were part of the show. It is also clear that Wounded Knee was never reenacted, even though Cody did stage famous battles in the West like the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The choice not to reenact Wounded Knee speaks to how raw the events were for the Lakota performers, to Cody’s own awareness of this fact, and to the fact that many people in his audiences may not have approved of the government’s actions.
Despite the absence of the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee from the arena, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West did help to sustain the question of their meaning at a time when the government was doing its best to erase them from history. From the viewpoint of proponents of the government’s Indian policy, which called for the suppression of the Ghost Dance and sought complete assimilation of Indians to white society through allotment and education, Wild West shows like Cody’s jeopardized reform by perpetuating a “savage” past. There was reason for them to be concerned. The Lakota participants in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West were in important respects able to maintain an unassimilated existence where the memory of the Ghost Dance was kept alive among performers and audiences, however undecided its meaning may have been.
Any effort to contextualize the two Edison films that probably both circulated under the title Sioux Ghost Dance must take into account the volatility of the dance’s meaning in 1894, as well as the volatility of the new medium of film. On the one hand, the capturing of Lakota dancers in the sights of the kinetograph was a way of deciding the dance’s meaning. In both films, the Ghost Dance (or rather, what viewers took to be the Ghost Dance) manifests a primitive hostility over which the white race must triumph. Just as the battles enacted in the Wild West show would without fail, despite shows of prowess by Indians, end in the defeat of the savage, who must give way before the progress of civilization, so the recording of the Ghost Dance on Edison’s new cinematic invention served as a symbolic rehearsal of the social and technological superiority of white culture. As the reporter from the Herald made clear, here is a venue in which Wounded Knee was indeed reenacted, but “without the spilling of a single drop of blood.”
On the other hand, the interest of these filmed performances lies precisely in the way they exceed the meaning the Herald reporter attributed to them. The viewing conditions of the kinetoscope stand in contrast to those of the Wild West show, where spectators in the grandstands, viewing in real time and from a distance, could never have felt as directly confronted by the dancers as does the viewer of the film. As we observe the facial expressions of the dancers and the details of their costume, they challenge us to decipher the meaning of their performance, a meaning made all the more unstable by the fact that the films are not framed by the narratives of civilization and racial progress developed in the Wild West show and announced in its programs. This detachment of the dance from the original conditions of its viewing is enhanced by the mobility of the films, by the fact that they traveled from city to city in multiple copies and could be watched repeatedly in kinetoscope parlors. Philippe-Alain Michaud, in a discussion of these uniquely cinematic effects, argues that the film of the war dance enacts the cinematic operation itself. Beginning in stasis and then breaking into movement, the dancers perform for the camera the coming-into-being of living bodies. And these cinematic bodies do this not for the sake of W. K. L. Dickson, Thomas Edison, newspaper reporters, or the other observers present in the Black Maria studio on September 24, 1894; they dance for their own sakes. The bare set and black background enhance this self-sufficiency of the dancers; it is as if they have materialized before our eyes from nowhere. Dickson noted that the “horribly impressive” black curtains in the studio gave his films a “supernatural effect.”
This optical magic of cinema, its capacity to reproduce the experience of human vision liberated from its original spatial and temporal constraints, is crucial to any account of the powerful hold this medium can have over viewers, particularly those encountering it for the first time. There is, however, one important element of the Wild West show performances filmed at the Black Maria that viewers are not able to experience. We see the dancers move; we see Johnny Burke No Neck’s shout that begins the motion of the dance, we see drums being beaten as dancers strike their feet against the floor of the studio; we see all of this movement that conjures sound and auditory rhythms, but we do not hear it. In the present digital age, we are not even forced to listen to the whirring and clacking of the kinetoscope. But even with that mechanical noise in their ears, along with the background sounds of the nickel-in-the-slot phonographs that were typically found in kinetoscope parlors, the earliest viewers of Sioux Ghost Dance would have experienced a disconnection of the optical from the auditory, as they saw bodies in motion but did not hear them. In short, the sound of Sioux Ghost Dance was precisely what eluded the magic of the kinetscope in 1894.
Edison himself felt this to be a problem. From the moment he began working on the kinetoscope in 1888 after encountering Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoöpraxiscope, a device that projected moving images from spinning glass disks, Edison’s aim was to combine moving images with his earlier invention, the phonograph. He had still not reached a solution by the time the kinetoscope was finally introduced in 1894, but as reports in the popular press reminded readers time and again, synchrony between dramatic action and sound remained Edison’s objective. In History of the Kinetograph, the Dicksons write as if this goal had been achieved:
The inconceivable swiftness of the photographic successions and the exquisite synchronism of the phonographic attachment have removed the last trace of automatic action, and the illusion is complete. . . . The rich tones of a tenor or soprano are heard, set in their appropriate dramatic action; the blacksmith is seen swinging his ponderous hammer exactly as in life, and the clang of the anvil keeps pace with his symmetrical movements; along with the rhythmical measures of the dancer go her soft-sounding footfalls.
The Dicksons are given to overstatement, and there is certainly a degree of wishful thinking here, but W. K. L. Dickson does seem to have had moderate success in synchronizing sound within the laboratory conditions of the Black Maria. An artifact of these experiments is a film made not long after the visit from Cody’s Wild West show. As Heise operated the kinetograph, two studio assistants danced while Dickson played his violin in front of the recording horn of the Edison phonograph (Figure 5.9). With the violin melody preserved on a wax cylinder, synchronization of image and sound could be achieved by maintaining exact correspondence during playback between two different devices: the phonograph and kinetoscope. The challenge, however, was to reproduce this synchrony within a commercial setting. In the spring of 1895, the Edison Company introduced a device that, it was claimed, could achieve this: the kinetophone, a kinetoscope with a phonograph inside that played recorded sounds one listened to through eartubes (Figure 5.10). According to an 1895 film catalog, while the kinetoscope showed figures “acting in pantomime only,” the kinetophone offered “both the sounds and motions of the subject in a life-like manner.” In reality, however, the kinetophone included only nonsynchronized accompaniment to the film, in the form of dance or band records, and was not a commercial success: only forty-five machines were made and sold, compared to over one thousand kinetoscopes. There is no evidence that a phonograph recording was ever made to accompany Sioux Ghost Dance on the kinetophone.
At stake in this attempt to fuse sound and image was not just the merging of two different reproductive technologies, but as Gunning has shown, the reconstruction of a human sensorium that those very technologies had helped to deconstruct. What the public found so uncanny about the phonograph was the way it divorced the human voice from the body, a phenomenon that is perhaps most memorably acknowledged in François Barraud’s painting His Master’s Voice, which was registered by Emile Berliner in 1900 as the trademark for his gramophone company and later became the famous label for RCA Victor (Figure 5.11). The dog “Nipper” recognizes the voice coming from the machine but stares in confusion at the object that sits before him in the place of his master’s absent body. This disembodiment of sound by the phonograph finds its parallel in the disembodiment of vision in the nineteenth century that has been traced by Jonathan Crary, a process by which vision was abstracted from the individual observer, rationalized, and instrumentalized. The various optical and auditory technologies of the nineteenth century contributed to a new understanding of the individual as a bundle of discrete and disconnected perceptual faculties, each of them ready to lend its own particular expertise toward a subjective construction of the world. Under this perceptual model, reality was not some stable world to be found “out there,” but rather was constantly being produced by senses that were themselves something like machines, in much the same way that the gramophone is the voice of Nipper’s master. Edison was an important contributor to this process of sensory fragmentation: in his own words, the development of the motion picture was the result of his efforts “to devise an instrument which should do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.”
There is a triumphant tone to Edison’s statement, but that note of triumph is bound up with a certain anxiety that accompanies this breaking-up of the sensorium, an anxiety seen in Nipper’s puzzled stare into the gramophone’s horn. For, one desires, of course, to repair this fragmentation, to put the body and its perceptual faculties back together. Nobody desired this more adamantly than Edison himself. After expressing his intention to do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, Edison continues: “By a combination of the two all motion and sound could be recorded and reproduced simultaneously.” Film, in other words, implied the phonograph, and vice versa: each supplements the other; each promises to provide what the other has lost; all toward the dream of reconstructing the fullness of sensory experience. Edison liked to express this dream through the total art form of the opera. He imagined that, in the coming years, new technological advances would allow for the full scale reproduction of an opera “at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York without any material change from the original, and with artists and musicians long since dead.” The same dream finds an expression of another kind in the photograph of the man leaning over the kinetophone. Between the fingers of his right hand, which make contact with both the cabinet and the eartubes, and the fingers of his left hand, which reach from the other side and hold the eyepiece as he peers in, he holds Edison’s device in a sensory embrace that seeks to draw together all these forms of perception—hearing, sight, even touch—into a single experience. The kinetoscope, however, could not offer this total experience, and thus, when viewers looked into its peephole in 1894 and found moving images of singers, blacksmiths, and dancers, but heard no rich voices, clanging hammers, or soft-sounding footfalls, they experienced the loss of something else.
How, then, do we account for the loss registered in the silence of Sioux Ghost Dance? What are we permitted to read into it? We could, perhaps, explain it as a symptom of a modern, technologized, and fragmented self, a symptom for which treatments were quickly found. Edison’s short-lived kinetoscope was, after all, just one brief phase in the commercial history of film, and new forms of projection accompanied by nonsynchronous and, eventually, synchronous sound soon helped viewers to forget the kinetoscope’s evident deficiencies. As Crary argues, Edison is less important as an inventor of individual devices, such as the kinetoscope, in which he saw no intrinsic significance, than he is as a manager of consumption and circulation who “saw the marketplace in terms of how images, sounds, energy, or information could be reshaped into measurable and distributable commodities.” Edison’s images and sounds, in other words, were soon shepherded into their appropriate places within the emerging film industry; meaning was harnessed to the market. But such an accounting for the silence of Sioux Ghost Dance still begs the question of whether the uncertainties surrounding the meaning and purpose of the kinetoscope at the moment of its commercial debut opened possibilities that are too easily lost in future-oriented narratives that absorb this unstable moment into a coherent history of American cinema. Can we enter into the silence of Sioux Ghost Dance without filling it prematurely with the authoritative voice of the historian that declares it to signify, for example, the birth of the “Hollywood Indian”? The Ghost Dance itself offers one route into this question. Although Dickson’s films of Lakota dancers were sold to kinetoscope parlors as the last war cries of a defeated and vanishing race, their very silence speaks less to endings than to potential meanings that the developers and marketers of the new technology did not grasp and could hardly have contained.
James Mooney and the Sound of the Ghost Dance
In order to gesture toward the kind of encounter with the Ghost Dance that was made available, if not realized, in the new reproductive technologies of the late nineteenth century, it is important to consider the work of James Mooney, author of what remains the definitive ethnological study of the Ghost Dance: The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, a work of over eleven hundred pages that was published in 1896 in the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology. Mooney began his field research on the Ghost Dance in December 1890 after receiving permission from his employers at the Smithsonian to investigate the religious movement that was at that time receiving extensive but mostly superficial attention in the press, as the papers reported on wild Indians in the West following the doctrine of an obscure prophet and preparing for armed uprising. Leaving Washington on his first trip only days before the massacre at Wounded Knee, Mooney spent a total of twenty-two months in the field gathering information about the religion and its central ritual, interviewing countless individuals, including the prophet Wovoka himself, taking many photographs of the dance, recording its songs, and even participating in the Ghost Dance. Mooney’s ethnology, like Jean de Léry’s, is fueled by a desire to recover the sounds of the dance he had experienced so intimately. His efforts to body forth those sounds in his text through the aid of the phonograph may help us to reflect more deeply on the silence of Dickson’s films.
In July and August 1894, as customers at 1155 Broadway marveled at the kinetoscope and audiences in Brooklyn thrilled at the performances of Buffalo Bill and his Rough Riders of the World, Mooney was completing his manuscript, a task that involved the recording and arrangement of the Ghost Dance songs whose description constitutes a significant portion of his book. Mooney had requested sound recording equipment the previous summer while conducting research among the Kiowa in Oklahoma, writing to the director of the Bureau of Ethnology, John Wesley Powell:
In view of the fact that Indian music is rapidly perishing, and that it is impossible to learn more than a very few of the tunes of the hundreds of Ghost Dance, Mescal and Gambling songs, I would respectfully request that I might be allowed the use of a phonograph in my work in this connection, as its value for this purpose has now been sufficiently demonstrated. By the same means also it is made possible to record myths and in the everyday language of the narrator, instead of in the bald skeleton form obtained by ordinary dictation.
In response to his request, Mooney was sent a graphophone (an improved version of the phonograph), two batteries, 360 wax cylinders for recording, and recommendations from a physicist in the U.S. Patent Office on steps he could take to “aid in the interpretation of your graphophone records on your return next autumn.” After returning to Washington with his cylinders, Mooney employed Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone, to record fourteen Arapaho, Caddo, Kiowa, and Comanche Ghost Dance songs on the more durable zinc discs used by Berliner’s recording machine. Since there was no method available in 1894 for copying a cylinder directly to a gramophone disc, it is likely that a native singer returned with Mooney for the purpose of rerecording the songs.
In the early 1890s, the phonograph was beginning to be recognized as a useful tool at the Bureau of Ethnology, where Powell directed affairs under the banner of Lewis Henry Morgan’s stage theory of cultural evolution. All humankind, according to Morgan’s schema, must pass through states of savagery, barbarism, and civilization, and Powell saw it as the task of the Bureau of Ethnology to salvage the remnants of a savage and barbarous human past before they disappeared forever in the wake of the progress of white civilization. The documentation of Native American languages was a focus in these efforts, but it also presented special challenges. In an 1889 article entitled “On Alternating Sounds,” the anthropologist Frans Boas introduced the problem of cultural relativism into ethnographic research. Speakers of different languages, he argued, hear differently, and thus, when an ethnographer like Boas listened to Inuit speech and thought he was hearing inconsistent or “alternating” pronunciations, this was because he was hearing in the way his own language conditioned him to hear. In the work of Mooney, Jesse Walter Fewkes, and others at the Bureau of Ethnology, the phonograph entered as a corrective to this condition that Boas called “sound-blindness.” In contrast to “ordinary dictation,” the phonograph was capable of hearing without cultural bias, and could thus serve as a useful tool in the project of salvage ethnography. It could produce what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have termed “mechanical objectivity,” an epistemic virtue that relied on forms of mechanical reproduction to create knowledge that, because neutral machines were doing the interpreting, was superior to knowledge derived directly from the perceptions of the human eye or ear. The phonograph may not have offered every sonic detail with crystalline perfection—far from it: early listeners were well aware of the challenges of deciphering recorded sounds—but its professional value for ethnographers was that it served as a tool of self-restraint.
As a check on subjective interpretation, the phonograph played a part in the professionalization of anthropology, which was just emerging as an academic discipline in the 1890s and seeking to distance itself from popular interest in the romantic Indian who belonged to the world of entertainment and appealed to sentiment rather than science. The important but often hazy line between science and spectacle is perhaps best exemplified by the situation in which Mooney found himself in 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He had been placed in charge of the Smithsonian exhibit on the Kiowa, which was housed in a structure whose name, the “Anthropological Building,” introduced the American public to the new academic term for the science of humankind. Mooney’s exhibit, insisting on accuracy in all matters, modeled the precision on which this discipline would be based. According to a feature on Mooney published during the exposition in a Chicago newspaper, when a member of the fair’s Board of Lady Managers suggested a change to the wardrobe of one of the life-sized models in the exhibit, Mooney objected: “‘No, madame,’ said the young ethnologist. ‘The hands and arms of that figure never belonged to the tribe that wore this blanket. The exhibit is to educate, not mislead the people.’” Yet, even as Mooney took every pain to educate visitors in the Anthropology Building, just outside the fairgrounds Buffalo Bill was putting on his Wild West extravaganza, its presence a sign of just how close anthropology and entertainment remained in 1893. Smithsonian ethnologists, after all, had brought indigenous peoples from across the world to live on the fair’s midway and model their primitive cultures for the public, while Cody was at the same time celebrating the realism of his portrayals of Indian life, and indeed, his program of events for 1893 included a demonstration of the “Life Customs of the Indians.” Moving from the Wild West show to the anthropologists’ “living exhibits,” many fair-goers would not have noticed a difference at all.
The phonograph was a tool for insisting on this difference. If the spectacle of Wild West shows played fast and loose with Native American customs and history, and if Edison’s film catalogs appealed to audience expectations with inaccurate titles like Sioux Ghost Dance, the phonograph could help remove from ethnographic practice all those subjective and sentimental elements that showmen played on. It hardly needs pointing out, however, that the best of professional intentions could not dictate how listeners would make use of phonographs and gramophones, which were no less a part of 1890s entertainment culture than the kinetoscope. Mooney may have made his recordings for scientific purposes, but Berliner clearly saw a market for them, as evidenced in a broadsheet of Berliner discs from January 1895 that advertises three discs of Ghost Dance songs, sandwiched between a piano march of “Jolly Minstrels” and the sounds of “Morning on the Farm” (Figure 5.12). Surely there was overlap between the audiences who would have purchased these discs and those who would have visited kinetoscope parlors to watch Sioux Ghost Dance.
But what role do Mooney’s recordings play in his study of the Ghost Dance religion? Throughout the book, Mooney is conscious of the difficulties of transmitting information accurately across cultures and distance, and the use of the phonograph for recording Ghost Dance songs is just one of the tools he adopts to overcome them. His chief documentary medium is the printed word itself. Mooney spent months collecting manuscripts and printed documents in Washington archives, and in his book, he reproduces many passages from them, as well as from his own extensive correspondence. In contrast to what Mooney calls the “imperfect medium” of Indian sign language, which was used to disseminate Ghost Dance doctrine across the linguistic barriers that separate the western tribes, print could deliver that doctrine to readers with minimal loss. Visual documentation was important to Mooney as well, and with the “kodak and a tripod camera” he carried during his travels, he took the first photographs of Wovoka, as well as numerous photographs of the Ghost Dance and its trances that served as the basis for the illustrations by Mary Irvin Wright reproduced in his book. With the phonograph, Mooney documented the Ghost Dance songs that are the focus of the second part of his study and are presented there in their original language (in phonetic spelling), in English translation, and in the case of the fourteen songs recorded by Berliner, in musical staff notation, having been arranged for Mooney by John Phillip Sousa and Berliner’s assistant, Fred Gaisberg. All of these documentary strategies contribute to the reputation of The Ghost-Dance Religion as a landmark of rich and detailed ethnographic research.
It is a remarkable feature of Mooney’s study, however, that he pursues this ethnographic rigor within a highly speculative intellectual framework that positions the Ghost Dance in a long tradition of messianic movements in native North American cultures going back to the Pueblo revolt of 1680 and spanning across cultures and periods, from the Hebrew prophets to the “Kentucky Revival” of 1800. In Mooney’s view, the Ghost Dance religion was not a distinctly primitive feature of a society soon to vanish; instead, it reflected a recurrent historical pattern found in many societies as they seek to revitalize their cultures in times of profound stress. “The lost paradise is the world’s dreamland of youth,” writes Mooney:
What tribe or people has not had its golden age, before Pandora’s box was loosed, when women were nymphs and dryads and men were gods and heroes. And when the race lies crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke, how natural is the dream of a redeemer, an Arthur, who shall return from exile or awake from some long sleep to drive out the usurper and win back for his people what they have lost.
This comparative model was a challenge to the accepted developmental models at the Bureau of Ethnology, and even though Powell was well enough aware of the importance of Mooney’s study to have it published in the bureau’s annual reports, he warns in his introduction that “caution should be exercised in comparing or contrasting religious movements among civilized peoples with such fantasies as that described in this memoir; for while interesting and suggestive analogies may be found, the essential features of the movements are not homologous.”
Mooney may not have exercised the interpretive caution Powell would have preferred, but he is still cautious enough to maintain the perspective of the objective scientist as he looks out across the landscape of human culture from his anthropological perch and identifies the patterns that have given shape to it. He shows little interest in the perspective of the insider for whom the messianic movement could be a means of resistance and of shaping one’s own future. Nevertheless, Mooney’s insistence upon the objective recording and presenting of the evidence of the Ghost Dance opens possibilities that are by no means fully determined by his scientific framework. This is especially true of the second section of The Ghost-Dance Religion, where Mooney’s focus shifts from telling the history of the religion to synchronic overviews of seven different tribes and their Ghost Dance songs. In some cases, he offers extensive commentary on the songs, particularly those that address religious traditions like the use of the sacred pipe among the Arapaho, or age-old practices like jerking meat for pemmican among the Sioux. The Ghost Dance songs reproduced in the text, however, are not simply retrospective longings for the old ways. For example, the Sioux song Michinkshi’yi tewa’quila che (“I love my children”), which Mooney reproduces without commentary, imagines a transformed future:
I love my children—Ye’ye’!
I love my children—Ye’ye’!
You shall grow to be a nation—Ye’ye’!
You shall grow to be a nation—Ye’ye’!
Says the father, says the father.
Haye’ye’ Eyayo’yo’! Haye’ye’ Eyayo’yo’!
As Michael Elliott points out, the song raises “the possibility that the Lakotas would soon assert a nationalism independent of United States jurisdiction.”
The final song in Mooney’s book, one that was recorded for the gramophone and therefore includes a musical arrangement in the text, is the Caddo song Wi’tŭ’ Ha’sini’ (“Come on, Caddo”) (Figure 5.13). Mooney gives it the briefest of treatments and concludes his discussion of the song, and of his book, by noting that it “encourages the dancers in the hope of a speedy reunion of the whole Caddo nation, living and dead, in the ‘great village’ of their father above, and needs no further explanation.” This comment, of course, leaves us to wonder what really has, in fact, been explained in the lyrics, and whether perhaps, in this “swinging tune,” as Mooney describes it, we hear more than a longing for heavenly union, but anticipation of a revitalized earth.
The lesson we can take from Mooney is a simple one: in his use of the phonograph to prepare a text that puts the basic developmental narratives of late-nineteenth-century anthropology into question, he is no more prepared to contain the possibilities opened by this new technology than is the emergent film industry prepared to master the meaning of its films. Having done everything in his power to make us hear the songs of the Ghost Dance on their own terms, Mooney makes it difficult for readers simply to consign those songs to the lost “golden age” of a vanishing race. Indeed, there is much in Mooney’s text to suggest the Ghost Dance religion had a future that would offer an alternative to the white man’s doctrine of “progress,” for even though dancing had ceased at Pine Ridge after Wounded Knee, The Ghost Dance Religion documents its continuation elsewhere despite government suppression. Mooney states explicitly (and somewhat surprisingly for a study funded and published by the U.S. government) that, when he visited the Wind River reservation in Wyoming in June 1892, the Arapaho were still dancing, unbeknownst to the government agent, and that Mooney himself had taken part in dances when he was among the Arapaho and Cheyenne. The Ghost Dance religion continued to be practiced in various forms by native communities in North America into the twentieth century and as late as the 1960s.
The Ghost Dance songs recorded by Mooney resonate in the voices of the Lakota members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: in the voice of Short Bull, for example, the Brule medicine man who was released to Cody for the show’s 1891–1892 tour and whose dictated narratives remain the most important sources on the Lakota interpretation of the Ghost Dance; and in the voices of the Oglala men who danced before Edison’s kinetograph in 1894, traces of which can be found in the archives. An 1893 Congressional statement objecting to proposed bills demanding payments to whites for “Indian depredations” that occurred on Pine Ridge Reservation during the height of the Ghost Dance is undersigned by several of the men who dance and drum in Dickson’s films, including Holy Bear, Strong Talker, and Chief Last Horse.
The point, however, is not to attach specific voices to the silence of these films, as if we could anchor the dancers’ movements to a singular source. On the contrary, it is precisely in the sensory limitations of this new technology, introduced to the public in 1894 but lacking a direction or purpose, that the possibilities behind the imitative magic of cinema become apparent. Sounding out this potential can be difficult, so shaped has it been by the subsequent history of cinema and Hollywood stereotypes. It becomes more available, perhaps, at a distance, and especially when it enters unexpected contexts, such as the installation that allowed these Lakota dancers to return to Brooklyn over one hundred years after performing there in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, but this time in the American art galleries of the Brooklyn Museum, where their dances were rehearsed in continuous loops on video monitors from 2001 until 2016. What did twenty-first century museum visitors imagine when confronted by the silent motion of these dancers who, knowing their images would be shown “to the world until after the sun had slept his last sleep,” boldly declare their persistence before the camera?
There is a magic at work in these Edisonian descendants of Franklin’s electrified pictures, a magic that has the potential to leave us shocked, with nothing to say except to repeat, in astonishment, what has just been experienced. In Frank Norris’s novel McTeague (1899), the eponymous protagonist is left in just this condition when he encounters a kinetoscope for the first time at a San Francisco theatre: “McTeague was awe-struck. ‘Look at that horse move his head,’ he cried excitedly, quite carried away. ‘Look at that cable-car coming—and the man going across the street. See, here comes a truck. Well, I never in all my life!” One may imagine a viewer—in 1894 or in the present—reacting similarly to Sioux Ghost Dance: “Look at them dance!”; a response of wonder that signals a meaning behind these animated shadows that is yet to be grasped.