Ghost Dancing at Tent City


GD-6The tent city referred to by some of its inhabitants as ‘OPP-Tent City’, and what i will refer to interchangable as a ghost dance camp, is situated in the peripheral of the Vancouver downtown eastside ghetto. A rupture from the same old tent city which has long been a political tactic by activists of vancouver starting from the 30’s, the site brings into being something new and unannounced. Having gone down there once or a few times a week since it went up months ago, and having spent time there over the last year; i will relay my limited insights by contrasting and finding affinities between this event and the ghost dances of the 1880’s. (Ghost Dance Religion: Mooney, 1896. And some say the ghost dance actually originated amongst the Sinixt indians of ‘BC’, The Prophet dance of the Northwest: Spier, 1979)

Like the ghost dance over a hundred years ago, the tent city began as a more polite performance by a few indians trying to reclaim space from the state. Similarly this action was immediately to be hijacked by more unruly indians, – or incorporated into the general economy of the ‘hang-around-the-fort-indian’. The political message in both cases ‘degenerated’ into the frenzy of the body and became expressible only by the intensity of life. Neither dance led their dancers to jump the reserve, or – in the case of tent city- the ghetto, but rather were an exodus to its peripheries. It was here, far from the centralized surveillance of the indian agents that the dance commenced. The tent city is surrounded by a newly remodeled ghetto of sophisticated interventions, a new form of regulating poverty by the direct regulating of life. This biopolitical experiment has provided supportive housing for the thousands of ‘junkies’ that prior to the 2010 olympics lived and died in the streets. The primary function of this mass-housing is to direct the flow of bodies and to administer a pharmacological solution to the mental-health-and-addictions-crisis, as declared by the police and state (VPD, 2013). These spaces where the state of emergency have become normalised into everyday life, have been referred to as ‘camps’, evoking the legacy of internment camps which has long been the norm of the oppressed (Agamben, 1995).

The fact that many of the 200 or so tents belong to peoples who have supportive rooms in these care facilities underlies the rejection of these places, or the need to escape them, if only while the weather is good. The ghost dances carried out by the indians back in the day were also performed outside of the government provided housing upon the reserve. By not leaving the reservation, but by setting up on their very limits, the collective-dances referred to as ghost dance camps, were conducted outside of control while still inside dominion.  Similarly the tent city is situated outside the camp, but within the larger apparatus of the ghetto, and as a mass revocation should be considered intimate with the previous ghost dance camp.

Although protest encampments have become a recent phenomenon spanning empire, the ghost dance tent city shares almost nothing with these actions. One sketchy guy who i recognized from the Occupy that took place a couple years ago downtown at the Art Gallery, explained the most obvious reason the two are nothing alike, “like duh, cause this is down here!”. A quick perusal of the folks and the surroundings assure you that this is going down on the other side of the world. Nor has this much to do with the more recent Idle No More movement. Even if the tent-city is by far indians, there is practically no discourse emanating from the sea of shanty tents. The closest i heard of any native specific or pan-indian politics was, that “this protest is by the Six Nations in support of the Squamish people”. Interestingly the drunk guy who told me this, did so as i was giving him a photo of himself taken from a film i was helping with almost a year ago. In the picture he is sitting exactly where the main tent, with the ceremonial fire are. In the picture he is holding an invisible AK-47 and mimicking a firefight he claims to have been in at Oka in 1990. Prefigurative this image announces the Warrior Society flag that now waves at that exact spot now. The claim of having been at Oka is one i have heard from abucha indians (and is similar to the claim of having been a soldier in vietnam that many homeless men make: Bourgois, 2009). Although most times imaginary this claim is truly mythological and states more than the specific time and place – that they were in the war, and are a warrior. This guy though, covered in jailhouse tattoos, has a neck tattoo that spells Oka out over a dagger; he calls it his native necklace.

To find anything like a discourse, you gotta search the symbolic, like the shared mythologies and the shared rituals of everyday life. The most ritualized operation of the everyday life, both in tent city and the park as it was before it- is drinking. Rubbing alcohol being the cheapest is in much use amongst the most hard core drunks, welfare week being an exception. Several times as a gift i would make in exchange for hanging out, i was asked to get rubbing alcohol instead of beer or coolers, as natives would not be sold the rubby bottles whereas i could, being white. The carrying, mixing, sharing, and drinking of rubby are all moments of total ceremony, so that the drunken state that instantly follows takes on the appearance of an ancient rite or dance. In fact many of the commentators of the ghost dance tried to belittle it by claiming its dancers were under hypnotism and acting drunk. It is in the drunken trance that one is closest to visions.

At first the tent cities founders claimed that the site was drug and alcohol free, this proclamation repeated the first state of emergency declared in BC (1858), that no alcohol was allowed to indians. That law is long forgotten- and now the banner signs of prohibition make for walls in a shany pressed up against the baseball diamonds fence. A crew of younger drunks invite me into a cluster of tents sealed over by layers of tarps to make a brutally hot incubator that because of the sun through the blue plastic looks under the sea. They are very conscious of the long running divide between sober and drunk indians, “sober indians want us dead”, the one guy tells me with tears. In previous research at archives i had read the messages sent by indian chiefs to indian agents to ban the whiskey feast that had usurped the aristocratic potlatch (also; Alcohol and the Northwest Indians: Lemert, 1954). But making fun of the different divisions between indians these guy have scripted a series of poems or lyrics that play in jest off a youtube song called ‘How to know your a rez indian’; of course now changed to how to know your an urban indian, like the more tent-city specific: “when you wake up and the first thing you see- is a cop and a tree- you’re a tent-city indian’. The use of ritual, trance and song were the main functions of the ghost dance camp, and remain the same here. Whereas supportive housing banished any comradery in drinking, by some hipster administering medical alcohol throughout the day, in the park and the tent-city it is a party, like the outlawed whiskey feasts, a place “to drink with my brothers and sister”.

Contrary to the regimented tent-cities of the past, and the activist moderated encampments- the ghost dance tent city is of course- crazy, and can get pretty fuckin scary. Violence is normal, as is theft. Weapons are openly brandished and crack and meth-heads are constantly losing their shit. One guy who speaks much more truthfully then the Man, told me over the dimm of sorting out cans in his shopping cart, “no wonder the government doesn’t let them in anywhere, they’re all crazy … if i were in charge, i would kill them all; i would be terror.”

Recently front page headlines have announced a new kind of hysterics; replacing the moral outcry of homelessness is the panic that these new supportive housing buildings are out of control (Province, 11/8/13). It seems no matter what you do with these junkies there is no controlling them! Although the media, activists and politicians complain that there’s noone to talk to, they are the quickest to make demands on tent-citys behalf. Repeating ad nauseum the ramblings of a couple clowns who will perform for the cameras, the humanitarian discourse of social housing is put into operation. This is not to say folks don’t want ‘housing’, most of them are currently interned in supportive housing. The significance, or the non-signifying, is the lack of political discourse.

The absence of a political pronouncement is filled by the categorical demand of the junkie, who wants everything now. As a inversion of the Occupy slogan of ‘demand nothing, occupy everything’, the junkie demands everything, and who by the intensity of their non-being occupies nothing; a nowhere of the camp, and outside society. In this way we stand on the cliff of the abyss between reconciliation and rectification. If the primary operation of society is to reconcile social antagonisms into a pure functionality, then the negating force of rectification is to undo, and set right. This is the fundamental expression of the ghost dance, and though not necessarily believing in a messiah, the tent-city. Both echo the belief in the coming return to the old ways – which calls for the destruction of this world. No-one at the ghost dance camps and few from the tent city could imagine a freedom not free from white people, a return to indian life while the whites lived. The ghost dance camps and tent-city are situated much closer to the land of the dead then to the empire of the future. The dancers circulate in and out of death, they bring back the songs of their dead, and dance them back into the world of the living. In the tent city death is the closest to politics, a refusal of the biopolitical operations and the social psychosis that insists on life no matter what. By abolishing the threshold between life and death a new space for a new form of life is opened outside of the state.


The spirit host is advancing, they say,

The spirit host is advancing, they say.

They are coming with the buffalo, they say,

They are coming with the buffalo, they say.

They are coming with the new earth, they say,

They are coming with the new earth, they say.

— Ghost Dance song


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