The Ghost Dance

Wovoka’s vision of a world cleansed of white people and made safe once again for the Indians and the buffalo was prompted by a fevered illness in 1888, but it owed much to similar visions of his father, Tavibo. Both Tavibo and Wovoka predicted an apocalypse that would swallow up the whites but leave the true believers among the Indians unharmed. Wovoka preached the importance of avoiding the influence of the white people, particularly alcohol, and he stressed the importance of non-violence. The Indians were simply to dance, and the Great Spirit would take care of the rest. The movement spread quickly over the Rockies and across the Plains, and found an especially receptive audience among the Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes, newly confined to their reservations and desperate for hope of a better future. The pacifistic aspects of Wovoka’s message seem to have been lost somewhat on at least a few of the Lakotas, and they paid special attention to the eventual disappearance of the white race and the bullet-stopping power of the Ghost Dance Shirts. This latent militancy, coupled with the nervousness of Army garrisons outmanned (but certainly not outgunned) by thousands of dancing Indians, provoked overreactions to the situation by many agents and commanders. The word “overreaction” does not quite seem adequate in describing the tragedy on Wounded Knee Creek.[1]

It is surely easy for me, nearly a century and a quarter after Wounded Knee, to assume that I would have done a “better” job than the agents and soldiers at Rosebud, Standing Rock, and Pine Ridge. It has only been four decades or so since the combination of increased Native activism (Leonard Peltier, Russell Means) and better and more sympathetic scholarship has brought an increased awareness to ordinary Americans of the historical fate and modern plight of American Indians. I think that it is too easy for us modern, enlightened, and perhaps justifiably guilt-ridden Americans to over-simplify the issue, to unquestioningly reject the old stereotype of Amerindians as bloodthirsty savages and blindly accept “the enthusiastic revival of yet another equally ancient and dubious legend.”[2] Certainly the treatment the Native Americans received at the hands of white explorers and settlers in the four centuries between Columbus and Wounded Knee was shameful and tragic. But for me to assume that I could have or would have been more humane had I been an explorer, settler, agent, or soldier would be smugly arrogant.

If I had been an agent or soldier at one of the Lakota reservations, I hope I would have had some knowledge of the history of Euroamerican-Indian relations. I may have known about Popé’s militant religious revival, and how it had caused the deaths of hundreds of Spanish settlers in New Mexico and drove the Spanish out of Santa Fe for a decade. I probably would have known something about Pontiac’s Rebellion, and may have been aware that a Delaware prophet named Neolin had had some influence on that uprising. I am sure I would have known who Tecumseh was, and perhaps known that his brother’s spiritual revival had fueled the violence of the Shawnees with apocalyptic rhetoric and eager converts. Given the knowledge that every few decades a Native prophet had spawned some sort of violent uprising against the whites surrounding them, and even perhaps knowing that some of those holy men had never intended their movement to become hostile, why would I not have been nervous about the Ghost Dance? I would have been stationed at a remote outpost, thinly garrisoned and apparently forgotten by a Congress unwilling to appropriate the necessary funds to either fight the Indians or feed them. Militant elements of a once-proud but now defeated people had begun to come to the forefront of the movement, and I would never have met Wovoka, would never have gotten the chance to hear from him exactly what his vision was all about. All I probably would have cared about was not having my last name forever paired with the word “massacre,” as Bill Fetterman had been unfortunate enough to experience. So would I have ordered my men to open up with those Hotchkiss guns? Would I have followed such an order? I certainly would like to think not. But that is simply too easy to say now.

[1] Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009), 196-97, 230-31; Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador, 2007. First published 1971 by Holt, Rinehard and Winston), 431-35.

[2] Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 3.

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