The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

Synopsis

Responding to the rapid spread of the Ghost Dance among tribes of the western United States in the early 1890s, James Mooney set out to describe and understand the phenomenon. He visited Wovoka, the Ghost Dance prophet, at his home in Nevada and traced the progress of the Ghost Dance from place to place, describing the ritual and recording the distinctive song lyrics of seven separate tribes.

Excerpt

The uniqueness and the strength of Native American cultures is rooted in their religions, and it has been through religious movements that American Indians, since their first contacts with the invaders from Europe, have dealt with the catastrophic changes consequently introduced to their world. The names of native prophets who preached religious means to resolve the problems caused by the appropriation of the New World by Europeans have survived through the five centuries of the history of Indian-white relations: Popé among the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest in 1680; Handsome Lake, whose vision in 1799 revitalized Iroquois culture; Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee prophet, in 1805; and Wodziwob, the Paiute prophet who launched the Ghost Dance movement of 1870, which spread among the tribes west of the Rockies, particularly in California. Among them, none is more famous than the most recent of native prophets, the Paiute religious leader Wovoka, whose millenarian visions only a century ago sparked the Ghost Dance, which spread rapidly to many tribes throughout two- thirds of the United States. If it were true in fact, as Mooney asserts in his classic The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, that "the remote in time or distance is always strange" while "the familiar present is always natural and a matter of course" (p. 928), then of all the native religious movements that punctuated the centuries since Columbus, the Ghost Dance should be the most familiar to us. Yet, even though Wovoka lived until 1932 (outliving Mooney by more than a decade), the religion he preached remains as vaguely understood as any from centuries before.

If any nonbeliever understood the Ghost Dance, it was Mooney himself. His study of this religious movement is a monumental exemplar of nineteenth-century American anthropology, an admirable blend of theory, historical data and direct studies among many tribes. Mooney read in the newspapers of the excitement caused by the spread of the Ghost Dance, and as an employee of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology, he asked to be allowed to investigate it. Granted permission by the director, Major John Wesley Powell . . .

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