By Louis S. War­ren, Ba­sic Books, 496 pages

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The Ghost Dance was a Na­tive Amer­i­can re­li­gious re­vival that ended in a mass grave of nearly 150 Lakota In­di­ans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Most of what is known as the Ghost Dance move­ment hap­pened over 1889 and 1890. Across the West in Ne­vada, Cal­i­for­nia, Ok­la­homa, and the Dako­tas, Na­tive Amer­i­cans took up a pro­longed, nearly non­stop ec­static rit­ual of danc­ing, while spread­ing the mes­sage of a new prophecy that had come from the vi­sion of a Paiute holy man in Ne­vada. Known al­ter­nately as Jack Wilson or Wo­voka, the Na­tive Amer­i­can preacher be­gan spread­ing the re­li­gion beyond his reser­va­tion, as vis­it­ing Ban­nocks and Shoshones brought the dance and re­li­gion back to their homes in Idaho and Wy­oming. By the sum­mer of 1890, Ara­paho, Lakota, and Cheyenne tribes be­gan send­ing their holy men to Ne­vada to learn this new prophecy.

Many of the Ghost Dance’s new ad­her­ents pro­claimed the im­mi­nent ar­rival of an In­dian mes­siah. But in the press, Ghost Dancers were de­mo­nized as re­li­gious war­riors parad­ing their “bul­let­proof shirts.” They were be­sieged by the U.S. mil­i­tary, who came to view the re­li­gious dance as a thinly veiled call to arms.

In his new his­tory of the Ghost Dance move­ment, his­to­rian Louis S. War­ren ex­plains how this peace­ful prophecy, which also is­sued pan-In­dian calls for as­sim­i­la­tion — tak­ing wage la­bor jobs, ac­cept­ing reser­va­tion life, and adapt­ing to Amer­i­can rule — came to be so trag­i­cally mis­un­der­stood by the Amer­i­can pub­lic and its mil­i­tary lead­ers as a fren­zied pre­lude to war with whites.

The ap­pear­ance of the Ghost Dance, amidst wide­spread re­moval to reser­va­tions, deadly epi­demics, and many tribes’ in­creas­ing de­pen­dence on fed­eral ra­tions, wasn’t co­in­ci­den­tal. In 1890, fewer than a quar­ter-mil­lion Na­tive Amer­i­cans were left in the en­tire U.S. The ar­rival of the Ghost Dance, the coun­try’s first pan-In­dian move­ment, was a spir­i­tual as­ser­tion of Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ ex­is­tence at a time when most Amer­i­cans be­lieved the tribes would soon cease to ex­ist at all. “The Ghost Dance in­vited be­liev­ers,” ac­cord­ing to one Lakota, “to ‘be In­di­ans’ again.”

For most of 1889 and 1890, the Ghost Dance re­mained a cu­rios­ity to the press, the mil­i­tary, and the Amer­i­can pub­lic. But in Novem­ber 1890, fear­ful of los­ing a Repub­li­can Se­nate seat in South Dakota, Pres­i­dent Wil­liam Henry Har­ri­son or­dered the U.S. Army onto the Sioux reser­va­tion to quell per­ceived un­rest from the Ghost Dance. To carry out his or­ders, he ap­pointed a zealot gen­eral who was hell­bent on mak­ing this the coun­try’s fi­nal In­dian war. “With one-third of the en­tire U.S. Army de­scend­ing on some of the most re­mote and im­pov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties in the United States, the ‘Ghost Dance War’ quickly be­came the largest mil­i­tary cam­paign since Lee’s sur­ren­der at Ap­po­mat­tox,” War­ren writes.

The Army’s mis­steps were quick and calami­tous. Within a month of their ar­rival, Lakota holy man Sit­ting Bull would be killed. Custer’s old reg­i­ment, re­ac­ti­vated, took fire on Lakota vil­lages, los­ing 38 sol­diers to tribal war­riors who were mas­ter­ful at close-range fight­ing. The U.S. Army re­turned with a fusil­lade, cul­mi­nat­ing in the mas­sacre at Wounded Knee, where at least 146 Lakota tribal mem­bers — many of them el­derly — along with women and chil­dren, were cut down in a sin­gle day. The corpses that were not al­ready frozen to the ground were piled into wagons and buried in a mass grave.

War­ren’s com­mand of the in­nu­mer­able mis­steps that led to Wounded Knee is mas­ter­ful, but the book’s real ap­peal lies in its ex­e­ge­sis of the Ghost Dance re­li­gion it­self. The dance orig­i­nated in 1869 in eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed west­ern Ne­vada, where lo­cally bound Paiute tribal mem­bers found them­selves con­stantly mov­ing to find food and work. This new re­li­gion was not quite ac­cepted among older Paiutes, as it over­turned the deep au­thor­ity of tra­di­tional shamans.

With its apoc­a­lyp­tic tones and prom­ises to re­store the dead, the Ghost Dance bore a heavy re­sem­blance to the Chris­tian­ity that mis­sion­ar­ies preached on reser­va­tions. But in­stead of be­ing in­flu­enced by Chris­tian­ity, War­ren be­lieves the Ghost Dance’s pop­u­lar­ity, es­pe­cially among the Lakota, was also be­cause of its abil­ity to heal reser­va­tion rifts be­tween Na­tive Amer­i­cans who be­lieved in the tra­di­tional spir­its and those who had adopted the Gospels.

Ul­ti­mately, War­ren’s goal with this book is to rein­tro­duce the Ghost Dance re­li­gion not as the mil­len­nial cry of peo­ple pin­ing for a glo­ri­ous past, but as a faith that worked to se­cure its ad­her­ents a fu­ture place as In­di­ans in a coun­try that had tried to de­stroy them. “These were the vic­tims at Wounded Knee: peo­ple who sal­lied forth courageously into the fu­ture to do the things that white peo­ple de­manded with­out be­com­ing who they de­manded — that is, with­out be­com­ing white,” War­ren writes. “The peo­ple lost at Wounded Knee were not merely bod­ies to be counted, and they were not naïfs cling­ing to a van­ished past. They were peo­ple try­ing to leave a fa­mil­iar past and move to­ward a strange, hos­tile fu­ture.” — Casey Sanchez

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