God's Red Son

The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America

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Louis S. Warren
  • New York, NY: 
    Basic Books
    , April
     476 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 has long stood as a central icon of Native American history, a symbol of Native spiritual yearning for survival and of US oppression of Native peoples. As recounted by many chroniclers, the massacre’s impetus was the Ghost Dance, an ecstatic, apocalyptic movement that failed to restore old indigenous ways, ended in tragedy, and led to the elegiac cliché, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Louis S. Warren, distinguished professor of Western US History, has written what he considers “a major reinterpretation” (6) of the Ghost Dance religion. To him it “was no romantic ‘last stand’ by Indians desperate to return to the past” (7); nor did it die at Wounded Knee. Rather, it was a “forward-looking, pragmatic religion that had a long life after the notorious atrocity in South Dakota” (7).

Warren shows that the original Ghost Dance, espoused by the Paiute prophet, Wovoka, was more accommodationist than millenarian, more modern than nostalgic, more peaceful than militant. The spiritual movement Wovoka fomented was influenced by Christian teachings and evangelical fervor; indeed, it might best be understood as a type of holiness or Pentecostal faith.

In 1890 Native Americans from across the West were caught up in the excitement of Wovoka’s “new gospel” (25). Many journeyed to his home in Nevada to hear his summons to dance, which would renew the earth, and to live as friends with Whites, which would make all peoples one. Each tribal group interpreted Wovoka’s message on its own cultural terms and in light of its own particular circumstances.

In the minds of Whites, especially those in positions of authority over the Native American population, the religion was a “‘messiah craze’” (37): irrational, dangerous, an expression of Indians’ “savage impulse” (47). It had to be stopped.

Wovoka was no savage. He lived in a milieu of mining and ranching; like his fellow Paiutes, he participated in a working-class wage economy. He was, however, a visionary whose trances provided him with cosmic experiences of God in heaven, and whose wonder works amazed onlookers. He seemed to possess especial power over the elements: clouds, rain, storms, and ice. In an environment of drought his prowess garnered increasing audiences and political influence.

Wovoka did not seek power by eschewing the realities of White economy. Rather, for him, “wage work was a holy commandment, an order from God” (122), which would lead to a “work-free afterlife” (124). His teachings were ethical: “Love one another, do not fight, do not steal, do not lie” (131). His Ghost Dance, an “increase rite” (132) in the shape of a Paiute Round Dance, “offered the hope of brotherhood and love and a world renewed to a fractious, demoralized people” (132).

Thus came the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Lakotas, and others, and Wovoka’s word went forth by apostles among the Native nations across the Plains: defeated, poor peoples who sought religious explanation and solutions to their dilemmas. Various forms of Christianity were at their disposal. Native Americans experimented with Christian aspects without necessarily rejecting their old religion, even as White autocrats and their Native lackeys persecuted practitioners of traditional rituals, such as the Sun Dance. The Ghost Dance provided a means to syncretize these many religious facets, “to bridge the looming abyss that had opened in the spiritual and communal lives of America’s Plains Indians” (176).

As the story is usually told, the Lakotas transformed the irenic Ghost Dance message into a hostile, nativistic cult; therefore, White authorities were forced to stamp it out. Warren’s breakthrough as an historian is to demonstrate—in my estimation, convincingly—that even among the Lakotas the Ghost Dance was still mainly adaptive and pacific. He reconsiders Short Bull—often considered a hot-head who militarized the movement—as a “mild-mannered, thoughtful man” (180), whose memoir (which Warren appraises as credible) avows Lakota fidelity to Wovoka’s nonviolence. Only in the face of US Army violence did Lakota Ghost Dancers take up a defensive stance. Their abiding message was of prayer, work, and peace, and the desire for good health, sufficient food, and heavenly reward.

So, why were White agents and soldiers so dead set against the Lakota Ghost Dance? For one, it evidenced the failure of US assimilative policies; its adherents included all types of Lakotas, supposed progressives as well as the recalcitrant (although only one out of three Lakotas, about 6,000, joined the dance). All the threats—reduced rations, constricted freedoms, bullying allotments—seem to have come to naught. The Lakotas were expressing their refusal to change by insisting on dancing. Hence, officials were intent upon crushing the religion and thereby “subduing and assimilating ‘the warlike Sioux’” (229).

Just as Warren chooses to believe the memoir of Short Bull, he judges the testimony of William Selwyn—an Episcopalian-trained Yankton Sioux who characterized the Lakota Ghost Dance as bent on violence against Whites—to be untrustworthy. Selwyn, Warren argues, was “markedly adept at telling white officials what they wanted to hear” (233). Others warning of Lakota “fanaticism” (234) merely recycled Selwyn’s misinformation, as have scholars over the past century.

Perhaps Warren’s judgments are too much on the side of the nonbelligerent Ghost Dancers and too much against their accusatory vilifiers. Perhaps his portrayal of the Native American Police as quislings is too condemnatory. Perhaps his insistence on the “placidity of both the religion and Lakota communities” (256) is somewhat overdrawn. Nonetheless, his overall evaluation of well-intentioned Ghost Dancers and their persecutors (both White and Indian) seems to me well justified by the evidence he has uncovered and marshalled, especially when we consider the events between November 15, 1890, when the Pine Ridge agent called for troops, December 15, when Sitting Bull was assassinated in a pre-dawn attack by the Police at Standing Rock, and December 29, when the US cavalries massacred the many dancers at Wounded Knee.

The cliché is not that a slaughter took place at Wounded Knee. It is that indigenous life, including the Ghost Dance, ended there and then. Warren argues effectively that the Ghost Dance continued for decades to come, in several guises, among diverse Native American peoples.

Enter James Mooney, whose monumental opus, The Ghost Dance Religion and Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (1896) Warren memorializes. Mooney could not get Lakota Ghost Dancers to talk to him; they were too cowed by White soldiery and bureaucracy. Nonetheless, he interviewed Wovoka in Nevada, Arapahos and other Natives in Indian Territory, and produced a tome sympathetic to Ghost Dancers, despite its shortcomings. Warren wishes that Mooney had less dramatized the religion’s nativism and militancy; he chides Mooney for suggesting the demise of the Ghost Dance movement. Nevertheless, in Warren’s view Mooney deserves praise for treating the religion as a spiritual enterprise comparable to other religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so forth—whose founders “disrupted social order and challenged authority” (354-55).

Through Mooney, and now again through Warren, we can see the Ghost Dance as an expression of ethnic consciousness seeking a spiritual path to survival and empowerment, a means to adjust and to persist as a people.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Vecsey is Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of the Humanities, Native American Studies, and Religion at Colgate University.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Louis S. Warren is the W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western US History at the University of California, Davis. The award-winning author of several books, Warren lives in Davis, California.


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