In the era of the reservation system and missionary schools designed to separate young Native Americans from their culture and language and heritage, the era when Chief Joseph had been caught and Geronimo had been killed, the era when Sitting Bull had become a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the Ghost Dance meant hope. Inspired by the teachings of a prophet named Jack Wilson (Wovoka), a man who advocated peaceful and spiritual resistance to encroaching white presences and pressures, and originating among Wilson’s Nevada Paiute tribe in the late 1880s, the religious movement known as the Ghost Dance spread among numerous Western tribes, becoming by the early 1890s a hugely cross-cultural force and influence. Each tribe made the Dance their own in crucial ways, connecting it to existing customs and beliefs and practices, but each continued to call it the Ghost Dance and to perform core elements of the ritual, illustrating its broadly communal potential as a rejuvenating force for Native Americans who—whatever their tribe—were trying to find a way to exist in a late 19th century America that seemed intent on destroying every element of their identities.
For the US government, as represented both by the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs—two entities who could in many ways be seen as having spent the prior few decades jointly working toward the destruction of Native American existence; that’s something of a reduction when it comes to the BIA, for which for example my first Hall of Inspiration nominee Ely Parker worked during the Grant Administration, but far too often the BIA did seem to work in direct opposition to Native rights and interests—, the Ghost Dance thus meant danger. When in 1890 the Dance came to the Lakota Sioux, a tribe whose lands the government had been attempting to wrest away for many years, it seemed to illustrate the tribe’s potential for resistance and even war; ironically and tragically, the principal step taken by the government to quell such potential, sending Native policemen to arrest the aging chief Sitting Bull, resulted instead in his death and in hugely and justifiably inflamed tensions on the reservation. All of these factors and many more led to the December 29, 1890 massacre of over 150 Lakota Sioux (many of them women and children) at Wounded Knee Creek, but the most telling single detail of that horrific and tragic event is that the Sioux were performing a Ghost Dance when the firing began.
For the Native American Renaissance, the literary and cultural resurgence (at least for a broad national audience) of Native voices and artists in the 1970s that coincided with the political and social activism of the American Indian Movement and marked the start of a very different (if still deeply conflicted) era in our national identity and community as connected to all these issues and histories, Wounded Knee meant a seminal point of origin. Dee Brown’s historical, autobiographical, activist and artistic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) was a national phenomenon, a bestseller in hardcover for over a year, a text that did not shy away from—indeed narrated in every chapter—the darkest and most brutal stories and histories of America’s treatment of and relationship with Native tribes and peoples and communities (including, in its culminating section, the massacre at Wounded Knee) but that connected with audiences in profound, broad, and lasting ways (the book remains in print 40 years later and has been translated into nearly 20 languages). Brown’s book did more than signal and help inaugurate the successes of writers such as N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor and Louise Erdrich, Paula Gunn Allen and Vine Deloria, Jr.; it also, along with the works of those and many other hugely talented Native American voices, offered and helped constitute a space in which we could begin, as a nation, to confront some of the ghosts that we had for far too long relegated to the darkest corners of our closets.
Each of these three topics—Brown’s book, Wounded Knee, and the Ghost Dance—deserves our continued attention, both on its own complex terms and because of all the stories and histories and identities and communities to which it can connect us. But in the best of all worlds, we would try to understand an America that is defined by the combination of all three and what they can illustrate about who we have been and are: defined by heritages and beliefs struggling to find significance and meaning in an evolving national community, by divisive and violent events that have resulted far too often from such struggles and given the lie to our most idealized versions of what we are, and by texts and voices that have forced us to confront those realities but also have exemplified the possibility of bringing all our American heritages into our present and future. More tomorrow, on the urban riots that succinctly illustrated many of the deep-seated tensions of the turbulent 60s—the 1860s, that is.
PS. Four links to start with:
1) A great site on the Ghost Dance: http://www.ghostdance.us/
2) A multimedia and very rich site on Wounded Knee: http://www.woundedkneemuseum.org/index.htm
3) Google book of the illustrated version of Brown’s book: http://books.google.com/books?id=JUkoA29CFRsC&pg=PR8&lpg=PR8&dq=bury+my+heart+at+wounded+knee&source=bl&ots=AtAwpitkwK&sig=pfEeZiXoYnhkIBs7NwsULWm7sBk&hl=en&ei=dd1FTfjbK4L6lweWnrQ-&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAjgK#v=onepage&q&f=false
4) OPEN: Any ghost stories to share?