Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ghost Dance

‘All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in next spring Great Spirit come… All dead Indians come back and live again. They all be strong just like young men, be young again. Old blind Indian see again and get young and have fine time. When Great Spirit comes this way, then all the Indians go to mountains, high up away from whites. Whites can't hurt Indians then. Then while Indians way up high, big flood comes like water and all white people die, get drowned. After that. water go way and then nobody but Indians everywhere and game all kinds thick. Then medicine man tell Indians to send word to all Indians to keep up dancing and the good time will come’ (Wovoka, the ‘Paiute Messiah’).

In the wake of military defeats and conquest, millenarian hopes of divine intervention spread among the desperate Native American survivors of the West in the 19th century. The most widespread movement was the Ghost Dance, at the heart of which was the hope that a better world could be brought into being through dance. In 1870, a prophet called Wodziwob amongst the Northern Paiute people (who lived on the California/Nevada border) told of a vision that the ancestors would return on a train, the whites would disappear and heaven would be created on earth. ‘These miracles were to be hastened by ceremonial dancing around a pole and by singing the songs that Wodziwob had learned during a vision’ (Farb). Although the movement faded away, it was revived twenty years later by Wovoka the prophet, son of an assistant of Wodziwob. In his vision he was told by God ‘about a dance that the people must perform to bring the dead Indians back to life again, for the dance generated energy that had the power to move the dead’ (Farb).

The dance spread quickly to the Cheyenne, the Sioux and many other tribes. Some wore ‘ghost shirts – dance shirts fancifully decorated with designs of arrows, stars, birds, and so forth’ believing that they could ward off bullets. In 1890 Kicking Bear and his brother Short Bull brought news of the movement to Sitting Bull of the Sioux. Kicking Bear told of a vision he had of Christ: ‘Kicking Bear had always thought that Christ was a white man like the missionaries, but this man looked· like an Indian. After a while he rose and spoke to the waiting crowd. ..”I will teach you how to dance a dance, and I want you to dance it. Get ready for your dance and when the dance is over I will talk to you”… They danced the Dance of the Ghosts until late at night, when the Messiah told them they had danced enough.’ (Brown)

“By mid-November Ghost Dancing was so prevalent on the Sioux re­servations that almost all other activities came to a halt. No pupils appeared at the schoolhouses. The trading stores were empty, no work was done on the little farms. At Pine Ridge the frightened agent tele­graphed Washington: 'Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy ... We need protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until tbe matter is quieted and this should be done at once’.'' (Brown)

Orders were given to arrest leaders of the movement, and on December 15 1890, Sitting Bull was killed during an attempted arrest. Two weeks later at Wounded Knee Creek a group of Ghost Dance believers – 120 men and 230 women and children – were surrounded by the US military. They opened fire indiscriminately, killing between 150 and 250 people. It was the last stand of the Ghost Dance.

Sources: Man’s Rise to Civilisation – Peter Farb (1969); Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown (1970). See also: Comanche Sun Dance.

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