Ghost Dances

Proving Up on the Great Plains


By Josh Garrett-Davis

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Growing up in South Dakota, Josh Garrett-Davis knew he would leave. But as a young adult, he kept going back — in dreams and reality and by way of books. With this beautifully written narrative about a seemingly empty but actually rich and complex place, he has reclaimed his childhood, his unusual family, and the Great Plains.

Among the subjects and people that bring his Midwestern Plains to life are the destruction and resurgence of the American bison; Native American “Ghost Dancers,” who attempted to ward off destruction by supernatural means; the political allegory to be found in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; and current attempts by ecologists to “rewild” the Plains, complete with cheetahs.

Garrett-Davis infuses the narrative with stories of his family as well — including his great-great-grandparents’ twenty-year sojourn in Nebraska as homesteaders and his progressive Methodist cousin Ruth, a missionary in China ousted by Mao’s revolution. Ghost Dances is a fluid combination of memoir and history and reportage that reminds us our roots matter.


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Scotty Philip's bison fighting a bull in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, 1907.

(Photo courtesy of the State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society)


Superstition vs. Investigation


My dad and I were driving home, from Rapid City to Pierre, tunneling east 180 miles through the huge glass brick of Plains sky, which dulled the light on a June afternoon so that the edges around the horizon were a hypnotic white. Now that I'm long gone from South Dakota, I would describe the mixed-grass prairie out the windshield as golden and singularly majestic, an ocean of fiber and rich carbohydrate, a subtle ecological masterpiece; back then it looked like dead brown straw.

The emptiness of the Plains can strike a puny human either way: as profound, or profoundly tiresome.

I had had a lifetime of drives like this—OK, sixteen years, but my lifetime—and I found the trip punishingly boring, endless. The only solace was my rightful every-other-cassette on our little sage-colored Tercel's stereo to override three hours of tape hiss outside, waiting for the album, any album, to start. That's what the Great Plains sound like, whether you're standing still and the wind is whooshing ceaselessly through grass and the clouds are careering almost audibly in the big blast of sky, or you're driving fourscore-and-ten miles per hour and your tires are somersaulting and your windshield is plowing up its own wind: It's tape hiss, or that moment after you've dropped the needle on a record and it has yet to find its music. That sound, drawn out over hours, or years.

At the end of our drive this day, the tape would be eaten in the deck, the needle scratched roughly over the record.

Rapid City was our regional watering hole, home to a mall with more choices than J. C. Penney's and Kmart; to the airport from which I flew to Portland, Oregon, three times a year to visit my mom; and importantly to a punk rock scene and a real record store, Ernie November. I had accumulated a few dozen seven-inch records and cassettes and about eighty CDs, which I arranged and rearranged on a small wooden shelf, either alphabetically or by date of purchase, or even by the color of their spines. It had taken almost a decade to assemble this humble library, since I'd first heard Mötley Crüe at the hardcore age of seven.

We left the Black Hills and passed the pinkish moonscape of the Badlands, then turned off I-90 onto U.S. Highway 14. The first town there was Quinn, hardly a town at all, with a single-digit population. I remembered the two of us stopping there late one night six years earlier, when I was first moving in with Dad after that hard summer of my parents' custody fight over their only son. Dad's twenty-year-old bronze Dodge pickup had overheated hauling a load of our boxes, so we stopped at the Two Bit Saloon, a real false-front Western bar and the only business in Quinn. While we waited for the engine to cool, I sat on a vinyl stool and drank a plastic cup of orange juice, feeling alien being ten and in a cowboy bar.

The halfway point on our trip was Philip, named for Scotty Philip, one of the visionaries of the late nineteenth century who saved the American bison from extinction, preserving a remnant of this landscape's iconic species. But that's the thirty-year-old Plains scholar in New York City talking, not the bored-to-tears sixteen-year-old. Scotty Philip was a prosperous rancher, one of the first white men to live in western South Dakota—then the Great Sioux Reservation—by virtue of being a "squaw man," brother-in-law to Crazy Horse, no less. I'll get to his story here by and by.

The last real town on our route was Midland, a colorless Plains village with a Main Street, a rodeo ground and a football field, a few gray-green trees. Its distinguishing feature is the hot artesian well water trapped between two solid layers of rock underground; when tapped, it spews out under its own pressure like the steam from an overheated radiator. There is a latent fury in this monotonous landscape, ready to unleash a tornado or a shrill blizzard or a boiling, sulfury geyser if punctured. The place can turn nasty, can turn on you in a way that feels targeted and predatory but is actually enormously indifferent.

In seventh grade, I'd had a social studies teacher from Midland who told us that athletes there had to race each other to the showers to get the first water; anything after that was scalding. Ms. Hueber had a husky voice and a Billy Ray Cyrus haircut, which led us students to the snickering conclusion that she was a lesbian. I wondered if there was some code I could use to telegraph her that I was cool with it, that I knew lots of lesbians, including my own mother.

At last, in the middle of the afternoon, Dad and I descended the shale bluffs into the Missouri River valley and home into Pierre (pronounced "peer"). The state capital boasts a population of thirteen thousand, a natural gas "flaming fountain" beside the rotunda, and a single high school whose mascots are the Governors and Lady Govs (we've never elected a lady gov, in fact). Dad and I turned onto Pierce Street at the white skyscraper of the grain elevator and pulled up at our yellow stucco house, a century-old farmhouse surrounded by half-century-old GI Bill Levittown boxes, now fading and undesirable. Our house's stucco and foundation were cracked. Thin plastic shutters had replaced the old-fashioned kind beside our windows, and they, too, continually cracked and blew off in the wind.

Stiff and yawning from the drive, I walked to the side door to wait for Dad to unlock it. We locked the house only when we left town; the front key didn't even work. The door was already ajar. We hadn't shut it tight, and the damned wind had blown it open.

I climbed the stairs two at a time to my room. I reached toward the bulb to turn it on, then spotted the black shoelace that usually hung from the pull chain, fallen and coiled on the carpet. A half dozen Delta Airlines UNACCOMPANIED MINOR buttons were pinned along the spine of the lace.

My room was a fun house, with low walls and slanted ceilings that I had painted pumpkin orange with green trim. The carpet was a red-white-and-blue tin-soldier design the previous owners had installed for their boy in the 1970s. Built into the walls were a bureau and shelves I'd converted with paint from Old Glory to pumpkin patch. Being in the top corner of an old house, the room required plastic film over the windows in winter, and it was probably best I wasn't there for the oven summers—Dad didn't "believe in" air-conditioning. I slept on a mattress on the floor inside a kaleidoscope of clashing souvenirs I had vigilantly cataloged in my memory. Now some shapes were missing.

"Dad," I called loudly but calmly, "I think you better come up here." It was a surgical theft: my CD library, a few seven-inch records, and the portable CD player that had been plugged into my parents' old silver Sanyo stereo receiver. It must have been somebody who knew me, but it couldn't have been somebody I liked.

There was a perverse sort of vindication in being robbed. This was why I was going to leave South Dakota as soon as I got my diploma. This place was so hostile: the drives that clamped my skull in boredom (we had yet another drive to an airport coming up for me to fly to Portland); the wind that never, ever stopped pushing me back; the billboard that said, WE SOUTH DAKOTANS REJECT ANIMAL ACTIVISTS, and all the times at some Kozy Korner or other when I'd eaten potato salad and french fries because they were the only vegetarian items on the menu; the fact that I had never kissed a girl and the worry that people thought I was queer in one way or another—Lord knows what they would have said or done if they knew Mom actually was; and now the theft of the few valuable things I owned.

The next day I came down with a fever of 103 degrees. I had to leave soon for Mom's for the summer, but I was disoriented in my fun house, overheated in the 90-degree days of June. I wasn't getting to hang out with my friends in my last days at home, and I wouldn't be around to solve this crime. The fever and Tylenol gave me a strange sensation like I was hearing two people argue through a wall, barking unintelligibly at each other. I had bought a tinny, frantic punk CD called Destroy What Destroys You in Rapid City, and since it was all I had left, I sat on the lumpy antique couch and listened to it over and over on Dad's stereo, which was untouched in the burglary. The music was seemingly 78 rpm; it only echoed the barking. I could never stomach that album or Tylenol after that week.

I began to assemble a catalog of loss for the insurance company, and began to guard my memories of songs and liner notes and facts as belongings that couldn't be stolen. I was never sure I'd noted every single album because I'd keep thinking of one more to add to the list. From then on, when I bought used CDs, I left the price tags on the jewel cases (jewel cases!) to remind me of the times and places I acquired them, constructing a little fort of memory around each one. Partial list in hand, I flew west to Portland.

Artist Title Notes

Jane's Addiction

Ritual de lo Habitual

My third CD ever; censored cover (Tipper Gore era), with First Amendment cleverly replacing a nude painting; Dad bought used from Ernie November when he had a work trip to Rapid City; surprised me.

Nine Inch Nails

Pretty Hate Machine

Fourth CD ever; $7 at a pawn shop in Hot Springs, SD, circa 1992, sixth grade; impressed by the "Head Like a Hole" video and the "industrial" genre.


self-titled 7-inch ("Idle Hands," "Battering Ram," etc.)

$3; amazing show at tiny JJ's Rose Arcade in Box Elder, SD; guitarist Lint actually talked to us afterward, and I (wearing a yellow Jujyfruits T-shirt over a purple rugby shirt) told him I liked his leather Operation Ivy jacket.


40 oz. to Freedom

$5; bought because I liked the cover; realized I had heard it between bands at a ska-punk show; a couple of years later, singer OD'd and they got popular.

Magnified Plaid (MxPx)


Evangelical friend Peter sold to me for $5; he had a thorough Christian rock collection; he once asked about the rainbow ribbon pinned to my backpack, said his apostate bisexual sister in Denver had told him it was a symbol; "They can't own a rainbow."



Watershed CD, ostentatiously literary punk band whose guitarist and bassist were the writers Wells Tower and Al Burian; show happened to be going on when I was visiting Rapid City; October of ninth grade; I learned the word mantra from "Clocked Out."


Per my parents' custody agreement, I flew west toward Denver or Salt Lake City and on to Portland, or east toward Minneapolis to fly west to Portland, and then I flew back, east from Denver or Salt Lake, or west from Minneapolis, into South Dakota. I saw green-and-white Rocky Mountain peaks drop to seared August grasslands with spiderweb-thin fencerows and specks of black Angus and the smudge of dust behind a pickup truck on a gravel road. I saw, in January, square sections of Midwest farmland like white dominoes with farmhouse dots; as I flew west from Minnesota into South Dakota the land got drier, the farms got bigger, and the dominoes turned gradually from double-fours to double-ones; and finally around the hundredth meridian and the Missouri River, it got too dry for farming and the dominoes deliquesced into ranch land. We hunkered in that drab stripe of no-man's-land between the fertile Middle West and the spectacular Mountain West. With the distance travel brought, I also saw the dry, conservative culture I was growing up in as opposed to the culture in Portland, which seemed much closer to the left-wing values both of my parents taught me: antiracist, feminist, environmentalist, brightly artistic.

Those airplanes—and the frequent-flier miles and UNACCOMPANIED MINOR buttons accrued while jetting away from the dimpled, dun Plains and bumping back toward them in thirteen-seat prop planes and half-empty jets—refracted my perspective on the region in a way I've come to understand as essential. Through a tiny multipane oval, the Plains land spreads out to the horizon as a giant, flat disk—a record, say, Side B—and you can see something of the big picture of how water flows, where roads go, where are clustered what few inhabitants the place allows. Yet probably almost anybody who is reading this has flown over the Plains states and would agree that the bird's-eye view is limited—It's so barren and dull, and at night there are almost no lights! What is out there?

Even speeding across on I-70 through Kansas, I-80 through Nebraska, I-90 through South Dakota, or I-94 through North Dakota without leaving the truck stops and rest stops is not much better for seeing the Plains as a real place. At least, though, in a car you can glimpse the A Side of the record, that ever-changing winged sky that plays over the region. And then driving a bit slower on smaller roads, and walking around, and growing up in the culture the grassland created, the worm's-eye view: That's the rest of the A Side perspective, but one that's sometimes as limited as flying above it, whether you love the place wholeheartedly or resent it, as I often did.

It was common for punk rock bands to release split seven-inches, with a couple of songs by one band on Side A and by the other on Side B, potentially drastically different. It's impossible to listen to both at once. It's also impossible to see the Plains from the ground and from the air at the same time, but by leaving and returning you turn the record over and over, even after you've left seemingly for good.

So, taking off and landing. Homesteading and pulling up stakes. Paradoxical as it sounds, I've come to understand that coming and going are perhaps the only things native to the Great Plains.


That August I flew back to Pierre. My list won me a large check from the homeowner's insurance, something like $800, probably more than I'd paid for my collection. The police had not found any evidence. The night before junior year started, my own band, Stickman, opened for Hellbender at the red-carpeted Pierre Elks Lodge, where we'd begun hosting punk rock chautauquas the year before. There being a paucity of teenage amusements, we'd ordered up an anarchist subculture native to London or New York—or, at that time, Berkeley and Gainesville—and we assembled it ourselves as if it were a premade house ordered from the Sears catalog (at a younger age, I had yearned fruitlessly while scanning the pages of guitars and drum sets in the back of the J. C. Penney catalog). In fact, as I realized after coming east, our ragtag gatherings were truer to the punk ideals and blueprints than the scenes many of the bands we loved came from. It was impossible to be a poseur or a wannabe in Pierre, because there was no hierarchy or history or code to tell us what to pose as or want to be: If you showed up, you were.

In Stickman I played bass guitar and sang bouncy, earnest punk songs like "The Mighty Lobsters of Maine Revolt" and the quasi-communist "Potluck Society." Today I swell a bit with pride thinking about the latter one, as if a little brother had written it—how as a sixteen-year-old I couched my own leftist punk ethics (from each according to her ability…) in terms of a South Dakota church-basement dinner: And even assuming a few don't contribute / The wealth is abundant as long as we share / Plenty of shelter and plenty of food / In the absence of greed there is plenty to spare.

Before the show, I shot pool with Hellbender in a room beside the Elks Lodge bar. They were from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but lately lived in Portland. I'd miraculously hung out with the bassist and drummer there (I'd written the band letters, and they wrote back) for an afternoon when I first arrived at my mom's house in June. Portland had refreshingly calm days, towering trees, rock festivals, STRAIGHT BUT NOT NARROW buttons—crucially, a lack of fear about the secret of Mom's sexuality and an abatement of the loss that fact implied.

Al Burian (the bassist) and I had walked down a moss-trimmed sidewalk in a hip quarter of Southeast Portland, and I explained how harsh the climate was on the exposed, treeless Plains. From this distance, I could start to see that harshness as noble and romantic in a way that I couldn't back home. Life in South Dakota had a poetic heft. Al nodded knowingly. "So there's nothing to keep the elements at bay." I kept mulling over the sophistication of that phrase, at bay.

Over billiards at the Elks Lodge in Pierre, amid the awkwardness of a teenager conversing again with his twenty-five-year-old heroes, discussing record thefts and their tour, I asked, "So, do you guys have any extra copies of that first album that I could buy?"

They all laughed ruefully, and the guitarist, Wells Tower, said, "Those things are long gone."

I mail-ordered what I could. One band from Gainesville sent me a free split seven-inch with a note that said, "Sorry about your CDs."

A few weeks later, I went to Capital Pawn, a dingy stucco storefront on Main Street where a leathery proprietor sold hot VCRs and pairs of woofers boxed to fill a car's trunk. I clacked through his box of scuff-cased CDs, working to spend the insurance check. Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Dakotamart sold only major-label alt-rock garbage or at best some heavy metal. I was only half surprised to find four CDs that were unmistakably mine: a split album of the Rudiments with Jack Kevorkian and the Suicide Machines, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Urban Dance Squad, and the Vampire Lezbos. With the possible exception of the Bosstones, nobody else in Pierre could have owned these. I felt a nervous thrill in solving the crime and then anger that the cops hadn't already done so while I was gone. Who knew what had already been sold? Pretty quickly, though, the seller's code (17348-8), written to this day on the jewel cases' black bindings as a reminder of all this, led the Pierre police through a couple of intermediaries to the three young culprits and most of the missing discs. Maybe the wind had initially blown the door open, and they were stoned, drunk, or tweaking on meth and just walked in. Maybe I was wrong about the drugs and they just didn't like me.

Greg was a pudgy kid with glasses. He was about thirteen and lived three blocks away—also with a single father. I knew who he was only because his older brother had been in my General Music class in junior high and was best friends with my friend Seth. Greg's brother and I had played Nirvana songs together on school-issue classical guitars. The second thief, I had never met or heard of, though I guess he came to Stickman shows. He was also named Josh. I later heard he went to juvie for a meth offense.

The third kid was probably fourteen, a pale redhead named Aaron whom everyone called "Beater" after some fictional masturbation incident. When I was in ninth grade he was in seventh, and we had gym class at the same time. He was even less graceful and sporty than I was. Sometimes he sat on the benches because he hadn't brought athletic clothes. I cringe now at the meanness, wish I could say I never called him Beater. I wonder if he remembered me from that time, if that raced through his tweaking head when he was loading my record collection into a paper bag. Or maybe he knew me only as the singer and bass player of one of two local punk bands.

A couple of years later, Beater joined in an epidemic of suicides, a preternatural and horrific meteor shower that struck Pierre in the late 1990s. I don't remember whether he shot or hanged himself or what. My senior year, a New York Times reporter and photographer came out to our school in the "gullet of the Great Plains" to try to explain our slow calamity in an article titled "In Little City Safe From Violence, Rash of Suicides Leaves Scars." The only explanations seemed to be the abundance of guns (though a few were hangings), the anxious atmosphere of a one-industry (government) town headed by a rather authoritarian governor, and the fact of being "remarkably isolated, ringed by a vast, grassy moonscape and bracketed by the Bad River and whistles of water with names like No Heart Creek, Whisky Gulch and Tall Prairie Chicken Creek."1

We all found this description a bit overwrought, to say the least. If teen suicide is a fatally shortsighted act, a failure to recognize that this too shall pass, then the urban journalist's perspective was almost fatally farsighted, an airplane that never actually lands. Yet both the teens and the journalist were onto something: Life as an unattractive, poor teenager in a cruel town is truly unbearable, and conversely there was something poetic and almost supernatural in our humdrum lives, the artesian wells waiting to burst—Beater—that strangers could see better than we could.

How to reconcile these two perspectives, the cracked windshield of an old car cruising Euclid Avenue and the telephoto lens? Side A and Side B? Superstition and investigation?


"Superstition vs. Investigation," reprinted from the Red Cloud Chief of June 13, 1890, is a xeroxed printout the Catherland boosters give to tourists in Red Cloud, Nebraska. It is the text of Willa Cather's high school graduation speech.

Willa was one of three graduates, the only girl, and she indisputably fit the description punk rock, avant la lettre. I could scarcely have imagined a classmate or comrade who was so hardcore. She glowed with a ferocious genius and individual sensibility. She blazed around her little Plains town of five thousand, attaching herself to grown-ups who had wood to feed her mind's fire: French-German Jewish neighbors with a library of European art and books; the founder of Red Cloud, former Nebraska governor Silas Garber, and his elegant wife, Lyra; an old slacker British store clerk who shared with her his love of Latin and animal dissection; a host of less-educated European immigrants (Bohemians, Norwegians, and others) who lived and told great stories; the theater companies that, like touring punk bands with fur coats and lapdogs, came to play at the opera house.2

Everything I did as a sour, ambitious adolescent in Pierre in the 1990s, Willa outdid in Red Cloud in the 1880s. I, too, scouted for culture, though I wouldn't read her work until I went east to college. I was enchanted by my dad's Mennonite anarchist friend Michael Sprong, who stayed on a cot at our house when he came to Pierre to lobby the state legislature for the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center and who gave me dubbed cassettes of radical punk and hip-hop and old copies of a Christian anarchist zine, A Pinch of Salt. I went to the Rawlins Municipal Library after school to read Rolling Stone and discovered Harper's, which was oh so much smarter. I became pen pals with Al Burian from Hellbender—he of at bay—who put out a funny, cerebral slacker zine, Burn Collector.

I dressed like an old man, sporting polyester polo shirts from my mother's father in California and from Value Village. Willa dressed like an old man in 1880s Red Cloud—infinitely more badass. She cropped and shingled her dark brown hair and wore a starched shirt, suit, and tie with a bowler hat. She had a babyish face and gray-blue eyes and looked like an iconoclastic Oliver Twist.

Her graduation speech, which she delivered in the Red Cloud opera house as a sixteen-year-old, is high-flown and abstruse; it's also hard to make sense of without knowing her frictions with her town. Perhaps her mother convinced her to wear at least a skirt for the occasion, or maybe she just went up there in pants and anarchist hair and rocked it. The speech begins, as any adolescent pronouncement should, "All human history…," and grows from there. She disdains the superstition of the ancient Hebrews, who "delved into the mystical and metaphysical, leaving the more practical questions unanswered, and were subjected to the evils of tyranny and priestcraft." The Greeks, by contrast, "allowed no superstition, religious, political or social, to stand between them and the truth, and suffered exile, imprisonment and death for the right of opinion and investigation." Sadly, history sank into the Dark Ages, when the "Earth seemed to return to its original chaotic state, and there was no one to cry, 'Fiat lux.'… All the great minds were crushed." Superstition had conquered. But the philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon rekindled the lux of investigation by proposing scientific experimentation in the Novum Organum: "Thus we went painfully back to nature, weary and disgusted with our artificial knowledge, hungering for that which is meat, thirsting for that which is drink, longing for the things that are."

At sixteen! In the hinterland, the "parish," as she would later call it! Willa had a command of all Western civilization, of Latin and natural science. Here I thought I was courageous when I wrote a school research paper on the hypocrisies of American Protestant churches defending slavery before the Civil War and then condemning it, silencing women before suffrage and then ordaining them. I proposed implicitly in this essay that a similar shift might occur in the church's treatment of gays, but kept secret the fact that my mom fell afoul of the current doctrine, not to mention the mores and prejudices of South Dakota. Willa was likewise marshaling her grand argument toward an unspoken quibble with her fellow townsfolk. (That she, too, would later probably fit the category of lesbian was not yet an issue, despite her dressing in drag, since that category did not yet exist in Nebraska.3)


On Sale
Aug 21, 2012
Page Count
336 pages

Josh Garrett-Davis

About the Author

Josh Garrett-Davis has an MFA from Columbia and is currently a PhD student in American history at Princeton. Ghost Dances is his first book.

Learn more about this author