In the Footsteps of Tocqueville

How does America look to foreign eyes? This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Alexis de Tocqueville, our keenest interpreter. We asked another Frenchman to travel deep into America and report on what he found

Since Sioux Falls, I've been in South Dakota. The prairies. The motorcyclists. Bands of bikers headed out of Rapid City with their leather jackets, high boots, metal insignia on their backs, bandannas over their hair, aviator sunglasses. Mitchell and its Corn Palace. Chamberlain and its St. Joseph Indian School, where for a long time Indian children were "re-educated." The prairies again. The desert. Long, well-defined clouds. At the end of the day, after ten hours on the road, descent into the Lower Brule Reservation: sagebrush, shrubs, bumpy road, old cars, signs posting the number of fatal accidents due to the hairpin turns, bony animals inside ramshackle pens, herds of cows in the distance, drunkards lying by the side of the road, little lakes. And then finally Lower Brule—Lower Brule proper. I was expecting a village, but I find scattered houses, mobile homes; one final pond, infested with mosquitoes; a shabby casino, the Golden Buffalo—nothing like the glittering temples I hear Indian tribes have such a monopoly on, just grimy slot machines in an old-saloon décor, a handful of woozy, sad little white men weaving in and out at the tables, clutching their chips. And then a little farther on, in the middle of a field, a circle marked out as if for a rodeo, tents, plastic chairs and wooden stands beneath the tents. This is where the powwow will take place, the sacred dance at which, as a signal honor, two groups of white people will be in attendance: my companions and I, and the senator from South Dakota, Tom Daschle, in a tough re-election bid, and his family.

Conversation with John Yellowbird Steele, then the president of the Tribal Agency, a small, portly, healthy-looking man, baseball hat and jacket, Ray-Bans, whom I ask why the American Indians haven't thought of creating a memorial, as the Jews have done. "Our memories are here," he replies, hitting his chest. "Here, inside of us. A memorial would only make things harder; it would point a finger at the whites and irritate them. It's much wiser to exploit the suffering of the Indians. Yes, I did say 'exploit.' Wait for the senator—you'll see what I mean."

Reply of Linda Vargas, a social worker in Lower Brule, dancer's waist, sexy, pretty gray bun beneath a cowboy hat, a lot like Bardot in Viva Maria, who hears the end of the conversation and explodes: "Corrupt traitor! The people who peddle Indian suffering like that are horrible. There is a reason to reject your idea for a memorial, but it has nothing to do with what that sellout tells you. You make a memorial to signify that the war is over, but this war isn't over—just look at the expropriations that are continuing, the broken treaties, the genocide that's still going on. The war isn't over, so a memorial has no reason to exist."

Meantime, the stands and the plastic chairs are beginning to fill with people: too-thin, sly-looking children; women prematurely aged; men in jeans and leather jackets, with only their tied-back hair—and, alas, their broken faces, devastated by alcohol and poverty—distinguishing them from average American farmers. The entire local Bureau of Indian Affairs is here, along with employees from Wells Fargo and from the Lower Brule Farm Corporation (the nation's largest producer of popcorn), people from the Indian Health Services and from the casino, and the unemployed, the tramps. In Lower Brule there are 1,362 Indians registered, of whom at least a third are needy. It looks like all of them are here.

And then, finally, the crowd perks up: Senator Daschle has arrived, hair neatly arranged, clean-cut, beige trousers a little too short, red-checked shirt with no jacket, accompanied by his wife, his daughter, his son. Photos, autographs, a light touch on the shoulders of the disabled, handshakes with Yellowbird, kisses for the young Indian girls in yellow polo shirts, not particularly Indian-looking, who are holding placards that say tom daschle: a strong voice for indian country, and the masquerade can begin.

When I say "masquerade," I am not thinking of the dance itself, which is very beautiful, very moving, with its hundred or so women covered in jewelry, its warriors with painted faces and looks of bliss, its medicine men wearing large angel wings on their backs, its elders at the head of the procession rhythmically striking the ground with their spears, its feathered flutes and its drums, its smooth, modulated chants suddenly rising in pitch: "'I am a Lakota, I suffer for my people'—that's Crazy Horse's song," my neighbor whispers to me, moved to tears.

No. I'm thinking of the Daschle family leading the dance. I'm thinking of the image of Linda, the senator's wife, sweater tied over her shoulders as if she were going to Newport for the weekend, dancing to the wrong beat. I'm thinking of his awkward son, his mind elsewhere, stiff, softly tapping his foot, without bothering to follow the rhythm. I'm thinking of his daughter, all smiles, gracefully waving her hand between two Indian women in a trance. And I'm thinking of Daschle himself, angling his way, for the photo op, between the lead dancers. A strange ballet, a little macabre, but one that without him would have been beautiful: one Lakota warrior brandishing the American flag, and another carrying a Lakota banner—long sliding steps, genuflections, modulated cries, then heads thrown up to the sky as a sign of ecstasy or despair.

How can we forget what these dances signified, and what, perhaps, they still signify? How can we not recognize that these are the same ghost dances that a century ago aroused such keen terror in Daschle's ancestors that they forbade them under penalty of death? How can we not recall Wounded Knee and the end of Sitting Bull? How can we not keep in mind those thousands of Indians massacred because they devoted themselves to these same dances that Tom Daschle and his family are aping? When I say "masquerade," I'm also thinking of the Indians who consent to this aping. I'm thinking of the chief who, afterward, standing next to the senator, declaims that the Lakota people took the flag from Custer's hands, and now the flag belongs to them. I'm thinking of the soup being passed out by the senator's majorettes, in T-shirts and orange caps, at the end of the ceremony.

I think of Tocqueville's disappointment when he arrived in Buffalo and, instead of those "savages on whose face nature had left a trace of some of those high virtues the spirit of freedom engenders," met men "of small stature," their "ignoble and mischievous faces" marked by the "vices" and "depravations" of both their civilization and our own. And the melancholy of Chateaubriand, then of Fenimore Cooper, faced with the "last of the Mohicans." What would they have said, any of them, about this sacred ceremony in Lower Brule?

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Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a writer and philosopher who lives in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Barbarism With a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and War, Evil, and the End of History. This is the first of several articles.

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