The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

Since I mentioned the Ghost Dance in the last posting, I thought I’d post this about the classic work on the subject.

Raw Feed (1995): The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, James Mooney, 1896, 1991. 

I liked this ethnography from 1896. Mooney does a good job tracing Indian messianic movements from 1762 to the Ghost Dance of the late 1880s and the eventual Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. The 1991 introduction says some of Mooney’s statements about Ghost Dance prophet and messiah Wovoka being the son of the Paiute Ghost Dance prophet of 1870 are untrue but that his suspicions of a long, direct line of Indian messianic religious revivals were correct. 

I was fascinated to learn that most of these religions postulated not only a revival of the old life (particularly the return of the buffalo, the tribe’s old means of support) – often forsaking white man tech along the way, the resurrection of the dead and also a moral rededication with calls for marital fidelity, sobriety, and intratribal harmony. 

I was interested to see the cultural influences on the Ghost Dance (the use of Jesus’ name, Catholic type gestures, Mormon sacred garments becoming the Ghost Dance shirts) and predecessors like the Indian Shakers (not related to the Christian denomination of the same name) of the Northwest. 

I was also surprised to learn that it was only among the Sioux that the Ghost Dance turned violent because of their many justifiable grievances over U.S. treaty violations. Social conservatives like Sitting Bull fought – literally – with the progressive elements who thought the Sioux should try to adapt to the changing order rather than fight it. Sitting Bull’s death was the result of resistance offered by one of his followers when tribal police tried to arrest him. 

The songs of the Ghost Dance (and the Ghost Dance was modified by each tribe that adopted it and most had songs for it in their own language) were plaintive and surprisingly simple. I was surprised how many mentioned old Indian games fondly as if what the Indians particularly missed was their old pastimes from the days before the white man arrived. These included songs composed by women in their trance state since women, unlike in traditional Indian religious rites, could participate in the Ghost Dance, 

My impression of the Battle of Wounded Knee, an unfounded impression based on ignorance, was that the army simply rounded up a bunch of Indians and shot them (after all, it’s usually called the Wounded Knee Massacre). Mooney portrays a series of incidents in December 1890 which resulted in bloodshed on both sides. Admirable restraint and cunning by certain Army officers – aided by courageous Indian police – convinced the rebellious Indians to surrender their arms. That surrender was proceeding when certain Indians impulsively decided to resist and opened fire on the Army. The ensuing battle, with casualties on both sides, was something neither side planned on. The killing of male Indian combatants was justified. However, the later hunting down and murder of Indian women and children was unjustified and wrong.

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