Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century

Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century

Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century

Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century

Synopsis

This innovative cultural history examines wide-ranging issues of religion, politics, and identity through an analysis of the American Indian Ghost Dance movement and its significance for two little-studied tribes: the Shoshones and Bannocks. The Ghost Dance has become a metaphor for the death of American Indian culture, but as Gregory Smoak argues, it was not the desperate fantasy of a dying people but a powerful expression of a racialized "Indianness." While the Ghost Dance did appeal to supernatural forces to restore power to native peoples, on another level it became a vehicle for the expression of meaningful social identities that crossed ethnic, tribal, and historical boundaries. Looking closely at the Ghost Dances of 1870 and 1890, Smoak constructs a far-reaching, new argument about the formation of ethnic and racial identity among American Indians. He examines the origins of Shoshone and Bannock ethnicity, follows these peoples through a period of declining autonomy vis-a-vis the United States government, and finally puts their experience and the Ghost Dances within the larger context of identity formation and emerging nationalism which marked United States history in the nineteenth century.

Excerpt

Your people have seen with their own eyes what we are doing
out here in the west. We still have all our old customs…. We
understand that in your country all the old Indian games and
customs are abolished. We fail to see the humanity and justice
in abolishing all our time immemorial pastimes and forms of
worship.

James Ballard and Joe Wheeler (Shoshone-Bannock)
to the “Sioux Chiefs,” 1894

Just after 9:30 on the morning of 29 December 1890, the shooting began. The previous afternoon, soldiers of the United States Seventh Cavalry had intercepted Bigfoot’s Minneconjou Lakotas and forced them to camp along Wounded Knee Creek in the new state of South Dakota. Like many other Lakotas, Bigfoot’s people had adopted a religion that had emerged from the Walker River Reservation, in western Nevada, nearly two years earlier. There, the Northern Paiute prophet Wovoka told the faithful that, if they practiced the prescribed rituals and led honest, peaceful lives, they would soon be reunited with their deceased friends and loved ones on a reborn earth. Contemporary white observers labeled it the Ghost Dance religion, or, more commonly, they derisively referred to the faith simply as the “Messiah Craze.” Among the Lakotas the dance had become a religion of resistance. Many dancers wore “ghost shirts,” which they believed rendered them bulletproof. The religious excitement frightened local whites and drew the attention of the military. At Standing Rock—a Lakota reservation that straddles the border between North and South Dakota west of the Missouri River—the agent James McLaughlin used the unrest as a pretext to remove his great political foe, Sitting Bull, from the reservation. News of the renowned Lakota leader’s assassination during the attempted arrest spread like wildfire across the Dakota prairie.

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