U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ghost Dancers Past and Present

Having consulted the assigned materials, my students in the second half of the US History survey have no trouble supplying the basic information about the Ghost Dance. Introduced by a Paiute holy man named Wovoka and performed by groups of western plains Indians, the Ghost Dance was “a ritual,” “a ceremony,” “a belief,” “a superstitious behavior.” The dead warriors would come back, the game would return, the whites would be buried underground, and all that was lost would be restored. Some of the dancers wore “sacred garments,” “decorated with special symbols.” Some believed that when performing the ritual, bullets would not penetrate these garments.

Students go on being students. Most report dutifully and await for the next instruction. The Ghost Dance doesn’t seem to knock them in the head the way it does me. Of all the horrors that populate US History since 1865, few seem to me as unrelentingly sad. If one was ever tempted to see religious belief as an escape from reality, borne of the sheer desperation that comes from looking extinction in the face, what better evidence than the Ghost Dance might one find?

Therefore, it’s hard for me to check the Ghost Dance off the items-to-cover list and leave it at that. I don’t want to leave the ghost dancers in the pathetic place that history seems to assign them. I don’t think my reaction is all that unusual. Let’s not depict certain classes of folk as victims all the time, it’s sometimes argued; let’s point out instances of defiance, of collective and individual agency. The losers of history aren’t always losers. Sometimes they defy power. Sometimes they fight back just as nobly as the winners do.

In the case of the Ghost Dance, I’d like to try a different tack. I don’t want to think in terms of oppressors and victims, of winners and losers, but more generally of human beings and the kinds of things they do. The western Indians had tried everything. They tried resisting, and they tried assimilating. They tried signing treaties, and they tried giving up and asking for protection. If the Ghost Dance is where a people arrive when they’ve tried everything and nothing worked, they haven’t for a moment stopped being human. The Ghost Dance is the kind of thing human beings do.

And what kind of thing is that? It’s a ritual, a repeated act of patterned behavior, manifested and justified by a set of ideas. As such, it’s a form of expressive culture and not different in kind from many other forms of expressive culture. Expressive culture can be a way to process the most difficult and painful of contradictions. You are not who you thought you were. What you trusted has proven untrustworthy. Expressive culture creates space where incommensurable truths can stand side by side, where the logic of dreams is accommodated, and the living and the dead can converse. At this level of abstraction, the distinction between escaping reality and accepting reality begins to blur, along with the distinction between the winners and losers.

Now I can see the Ghost Dance as something not so singular in its time. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, for instance, was also a piece of expressive culture, a ritual behavior, a choreography played out again and again. It, too, was built on a set of beliefs and involved the wearing of costumes and the inculcation of performers and audiences in a shared fantasy or dream.

Sitting Bull, incidentally, had his suspicions about both the Ghost Dance and the Wild West Show, and yet played along with both. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee includes a passage about Sitting Bull on his tour with the traveling show. His job was to display himself to the crowds. As a living relic, his presence added authority to the Custer’s Last Stand re-enactment that was the show’s major set piece. “He drew tremendous crowds,” Dee Brown writes.

Boos and catcalls sometimes sounded for the “Killer of Custer,” but after each show these same people pressed coins upon him for copies of his signed photograph. Sitting Bull gave most of the money away to the band of ragged, hungry boys who seemed to surround him wherever he went. He once told Annie Oakley, another one of the Wild West Shows stars, that he could not understand how white men could be so unmindful of their own poor. “The white man knows how to make everything,” he said, “but he does not know how to distribute it.”

What an interesting novel this could make, along the lines of The General in his Labyrinth: Sitting Bull reflects on the society and lifeways that have been lost while simultaneously getting a close-up view of the society and lifeways which have come to replace them. His thoughts follow this trajectory: The Ghost Dance may be a dance of defeat and a blatant denial of reality, but the dance of the Wild West Show denies realities, too. It denies the moral compromises, the betrayal of first principles, and all the ignoble acts of violence and painful contradictions which victory in the contest required. The Wild West Show is the fantasy spun by the winners in order to live with themselves.

Now that the victors and the victims are connected by the same pattern, we might connect ourselves to this pattern, too. The nineteenth century has no monopoly on escapist fantasies and denial. Coal continues to be extracted from the ground of Wyoming, Montana, and other western states. Oil continues to be pumped and pipelined across the Great Plains. For over two centuries we’ve been burning fossil fuels at an increasing rate, in exchange for the miracles of space travel, smartphones, and single-use plastics. What rituals aid us in living with ourselves?

As the threats of climate change have loomed larger, superhero movies have come to rule at the box office, it seems. Ironman dons his suit. Bullets can’t penetrate that garment–that garment of technological genius that is going to save us from all threats. We know the cinematic ritual. The dance ends the same way every time. The fate of the world has come down to a single bout between Ironman and his adversary. Throughout this protracted battle—all the getting knocked down and the getting back up again–all manner of infrastructure is laid to waste. Roads and bridges, buildings, innumerable cars. Here the contradictions at play achieve an almost seamless merger.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. “If one was ever tempted to see religious belief as an escape from reality, borne of the sheer desperation that comes from looking extinction in the face, what better evidence than the Ghost Dance might one find?” This articulates how it’s always seemed to me, too – so powerfully, it felt a punch to the gut. As it should. Thank you for exploring this concept in terms of the contemporary world. I spend much of my time thinking about how to help people appreciate the importance of understanding history, how it helps us understand our world, how it helps us understanding it’s all the same world. You demonstrate these notions so eloquently. Your students are lucky to have you.

  2. Anthony,
    Thanks for the thoughtful and provocative post.

    I want to speak to a few facets of this story that may be worthy of address and further examination. Wovoka, it seems, was a messianic (or messianic-like) figure (with some apocalyptic beliefs).This speaks to the fact that Indian worldviews and traditions, following contact with the “white world” were no longer, so to speak, “hermetic,” as they began (and by way of one example), here and there, to borrow elements of Christianity, even while seeing and portraying themselves as endeavoring to preserve their traditional ways of life. Jonathan Lear, in his remarkable book on Plenty Coups and the Crow Nation, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006), reminds us of a constitutive “danger for all forms of messianic religions: a wish can easily be mistaken for reality,” and thus, to that extent, the Ghost Dance, at least in part, was indeed an (understandable) escape from a virtually unbearable reality.

    According to Lear, “There is no evidence that Sitting Bull actually participated in the Ghost Dance, but he did support it:”

    “And when officers came to arrest Kicking Bear, who was introducing the dance, Sitting Bull promised that Kicking Bear would go back to his reservation, but the Ghost Dance would continue. They had received a message from the spirit world that they must do so. [….] As is well documented, U.S. authorities were greatly disturbed by the Ghost Dance—they were concerned it might lead to an uprising or, at least, the breakdown of civil order—and they sought to suppress it. On December 15, 1890, as tribal police tried to arrest Sitting Bull on orders of the Indian agent, he was killed by police in the midst of an outbreak of violence.”

    Lear explains why Plenty Coups, the “last great Chief of the Crow Nation,” believed Sitting Bull “deployed religious imagination in the wrong sort of way.” From Plenty Coups’ perspective, “Sitting Bull used a dream-vision to short-circuit reality rather than to engage with it,” he both “misinterpreted and misapplied” this messianic dream-vision. Lear elaborates:
    “In a sense, Plenty Coups and Sitting Bull had the same vision, but they interpreted it in opposite ways. Both saw the ghosts of buffalo, but for Plenty Coups the vision signified they were going away forever, for Sitting Bull and his Sioux followers, it signified that they were coming back. [….] Plenty Coups was outspoken in his opposition to the messianic peyote religion that was sweeping across the Indian tribes. And his opposition brings to light a significant philosophical issue: there will always be a question, and thus a possibility for debate, around what counts as traditional. Sitting Bull was trying to preserve the traditional Sioux way of life. But to that end, he adopted a ritual that was entirely new—and that itself had arisen in response to painful defeat.”

    Lear’s book eloquently and persuasively communicates the power of Plenty Coup’s more “realistic” dream-vision for the Crow, one that advocated for a “new way of life” while “drawing upon the past in vibrant ways.” His conclusion: “… I think a case can be made that Plenty Coup offered the Crow a traditional way of going forward.” (Perhaps it is necessary to share these words as well from Lear: ‘Both these leaders [i.e. Sitting Bull and Plenty Coups] command our respect; and our aim is not to sit in judgment of either of them.’)

    • Patrick, thank you for filling out the story with so much important detail, for the clarifications and necessary reminders, and for making me aware of Jonathan Lear’s book. Its title suggests that it deals with exactly the issue I’m grappling with.

  3. Anthony, when this post went live in the early hours of February 14, you had to know it spoke truth, but you couldn’t have known how wrenchingly true it would read by the end of the day.

    We have rituals now for mass shootings, a public liturgy — rituals of news coverage, rituals of political commentary, rituals of public shock and mourning. That’s how common they are, these slaughters perpetrated with a sick regularity by mostly male mostly young mostly white men, slaughters that happen in churches and schools and concerts and nightclubs — the places where people gather to pray or to study, to celebrate, to enjoy each other’s friendship.

    These are assemblies of peace, and over and over and over someone wreaks disaster upon them in this sick compulsory ritualized re-enactment of constant atrocity. As if re-enacting the butcherous slaughters at Wounded Knee or Sand Creek would somehow “restore” whatever the killers feel they have lost, or supply what they lack, or rid them of the burden of having to make room for others. Some of these killings have been genocidal by design; all of them are man-made disasters.

    After this latest re-enactment of the ritual of angry men shedding blood because they can do at least that if they can do nothing else in life, we are seeing some of the known liturgies rehearsed. There is the familiar and comforting liturgy of the candlelight vigil among those in the immediate community affected, who are deeply grieved and who gather and weep together. And others around the country join in that grief, and they pray with the survivors from afar, and they weep with those who weep. And sometimes that liturgy — work of the people — leads to the work for social transformation.

    And then there is the familiar and disgusting liturgy of Thoughts and Prayers from People Who Pretend They Can Offer No Other Practical Help.

    But could something new be afoot? A new spirit, a new start? For we saw another liturgy too. The children who were trapped and terrified wrote their own prayers in real time in messages to their parents, and in tweets, and in snapchat posts, and in interviews, and in righteous rebukes of the morally flaccid politicians who take millions and millions and millions of dollars from the High Priests of Moloch and bow their heads in a show of sorrow as other people’s children are fed to the flames.

    It feels futile to fight against the deathcult of the gun lobby — are we any more likely to see a wholesale change in our culture than the Ghost Dancers were likely to see the buffalo rise up from the ground and run strong and plentiful again and with the wind at their backs drive the white settlers into the sea?

    Perhaps not.

    But if we do ever see that change, it will come with liturgy — a work of the people — and a little child shall lead them.

    • sadly at times such as this we also see the liturgy of politicians saying that now is not the time for discussion of guns, that feelings need to subside, so that we can discuss the problem calmly and soberly. and blah blah blah, blah.

  4. i have long thought of the acid dancers at the early ballroom acid dances such as Tribute to Dr. Strange, Tribute to Sparkle Plenty, and Tribute to Ming the Merciless, etc. – were the ghost dancers of a modern technological supernation.

  5. Andrew, I like that phrase “modern technological supernation.” That’s what Ironman represents, the modern technoligical superindividual. Of course, to pick up the connections L.D. made, it is not only in movies that individuals are encouraged to weaponize themselves, to enhance themselves as weapons, to industrialize their capacity to kill. The Wild West Show celebrated the sacrifice Custer made in bringing civilization to the west. Its choreography hides or denies the industrial super-nature of that civilization.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.