By Louis S. Warren, Basic Books, 496 pages
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