Ancestor Dreams

Even though the nights have been quieter, I have been dreaming more vividly. Across the self-isolated populace there are reports of widespread nightmares—stress, fear, change of routine cited as likely causes. Maybe the lack of planes and decreased traffic—already relatively scant in this part of central New York state—has been disturbing in its silence. The “natural” now seems “artificial”—a sure sign that a blithe return to old order must be resisted after Corona Time ticks down.

During the last two months my dreams have become increasingly intense, sometimes frightening. The night before last was the most vivid one that has yet visited me during the Lockdown.

I was on a slight rise standing on a vast plain without signs of human development: no roads, houses, planes. In the far distance there were low hills, a few mountains. People were spread across the grassy expanse rather like wild game, distant from one another but somehow close enough to be able to hear a man standing on a roughly-hewn wooden platform giving a speech. It was Ronald Reagan, hair black and cheeks ruddy. “Indians like to dress up!” he intoned in his scolding way, insistent yet tremulous. A murmur of disapproval troubled the uncannily dispersed yet coherent audience.

I realized I was wearing a Native American eagle feather headdress. I had dressed up. I filled my lungs with air, then bellowed: “Hear my voice!” I was astounded at how powerful it sounded, something utterly foreign emanating from deep within me. My words rang out over the grasslands. Reagan stopped his address. People turned towards me. I drew in a big breath began to emit a low guttural growl that shocked me even more. I gathered more air and the pitch of my cry rose, the volume, too, my heading tilting back. I continued upward to the top of my voice: long outbursts of a kind of originary song or prayer of protest—the force of nature.

My wife woke me. I had been moaning in my sleep. It was just before dawn. I lay there in the grip of that dream. After a while the cardinal began his song.

The dream spurred many immediate associations, and I thought about it often over the course of that day. The dream’s landscape vaguely reminded me of North Dakota, and the headdress seemed to go along with the setting. I’d spent a week there in the summer of 1989 for a family reunion coinciding with the celebrations for the centennial of North Dakota statehood. My great-grandfather, John Bang, was born there to newly arrived Norwegian immigrants, and had homesteaded in the western part of the state on a quarter section of land that had recently been taken from the Lakota. He was the first elected sheriff of Dunn County: John Bang a great name for a lawman. My father has the fine saddle with its tooled sheriff’s stars, along with John Bang’s Winchester rifle, which was presented to him at that family reunion. The gun had remained with my great-grandfather’s brother after my great-grandfather and grandparents and their children went west at the outset of World War II to work at the Pacific Naval Shipyard in Bremerton Washington. The homestead had been foreclosed on.

Why was Reagan in the dream? The man in office when I first voted in a presidential election? A dotty forerunner of Trump?

Reagan had been president when I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the implementation of federal policy on the Flathead Reservation in Montana during the so-called Indian New Deal ushered in by FDR and his head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the bespectacled idealist, John Collier. In extended periods of research at the Federal Records Center in Seattle and the National Archives in Washington, I’d discovered much about the reanimation of tribal self-government and communal land-holding, native dispossession, dams, political infighting, and violence on the Flathead Reservation: it was a story of the West, and therefore partly—even if not directly—my story, my family’s story. In the course of my research I’d come across many formal photographs of leaders of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreilles people on the Flathead Reservation wearing eagle feather head dresses. My dream seemed also to have had something of the landscape the Bitter Root Valley, ancestral home of the Salish.

Another scene came back to me as I lay in bed. A few years before I’d written that thesis, I’d driven across the country in a Datsun B210 with my best friend from Bainbridge Island, Washington to the east coast to go to college. In South Dakota we stopped for gas off I-90. Having grown up in the Puget Sound ringed by snow-capped mountains, we joked disparagingly about the “boring” scenery of the Great Plains. “Hey!” someone said. We hadn’t noticed a Native American teenager half-lying on some mattresses in the back of a pick-up at another pump. “Fuck you,” he concluded, and the truck drove off.

I now live in Ithaca, New York. Not far from here tensions continue between the Cayuga Nation and white residents over the native bid to establish a casino on their lands, an initiative ultimately made possible by the Indian Reorganization Act sponsored by John Collier back in 1934. Driving north along the eastern shore of Lake Cayuga, one encounters yard signs that read “No Sovereign Nation” put up by a group called Upstate Citizens for Equality. Classified as an anti-native hate group by many, the UCE disbanded a few years ago after its failed attempt to be heard by the Supreme Court. The lone dissenting opinion was from Clarence Thomas who feared that if every native nation could make claims to its communal lands there’d soon be no room for the rest of us.

In recent months some of my Cornell colleagues have added a paragraph that automatically attaches to their emails:

“I acknowledge that Cornell is located on Indigenous Lands of the Cayuga Nation and recognize the Indigenous peoples who have lived and continue to live here. In so doing, I acknowledge Cayuga Nation sovereignty and their long-standing presence on this land, which precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America.”

One increasingly sees such statements and hears them read off at the beginning of academic talks at universities and at conference hotels. Several were delivered at last fall’s annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Boston. It struck me as weirdly ironic that such declarations were being uttered just south of where Colonists dressed up as “Indians” threw boxes of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.

In the midst of an exchange of emails with one colleague about this, I couldn’t help but ask him in a postscript about his “acknowledgement.” After some reflections on European colonization of this continent and my own story (partly relayed in the present) I came to my question: “Does/should one have a disclaimer near the entry of one’s house, too?  The title searches required for purchase/mortgage are a self-serving sham, the search ending precisely at the point that the land one is about to buy was stolen. Yet I’m not about to give up my house on Cascadilla Park to the Cayuga Nation; nor my Cornell office. There is that problem of hypocrisy: so many dilemmas and moral compromises in this world of ours …”

My colleague responded: “I am always surprised by how often privilege and complacency prevent people from knowing these stories or worse, from attempting to understand them in relation to a power and economic order they often see as natural.”

That exchange must have contributed to the dream in some way, too.

I think Freud would have said that the headdress and the scenery were overdetermined. My dream’s eagle feathers carry an almost limitless number of associations, extending from boyhood dress-up to the appearance of such garb in the recent Korean film, Parasite.

My ancestors’ move west from North Dakota meant that I grew up on Bainbridge Island, where Chief Seattle died in 1866 and just across a strait of the Puget Sound from his people’s current reservation—and casino. The content—and even the location—of the celebrated, and oft-quoted speech he supposedly gave in the spring of 1854 in what would become the city named after him has been questioned. The earliest version survives in a “translation” into English made more than thirty years later for publication in a Seattle newspaper. The eloquence has the suspicious glow of Romanticism. It ends this way:

“At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not altogether powerless.”

In these eerily quiet times, spirits are on the move. Suddenly resurgent nature encourages them, even if they reside not out there but within those who dispossessed them, passing from one generation to the next.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at