The Ghost Dance, a ritual of what Ian Frazier calls “the first American religion,” is only one of many causes which led to the massacre at Wounded Knee, but for people of faith it merits a closer look.
There was no dancing here on the night before the massacre, December 28, 1890, but for almost a year “the Messiah craze” had spread throughout the newly sectioned reservations, as unstoppable as a prairie fire. A committee of Sioux holy men had returned from Nevada, where they’d met Wovoka, the Paiute who’d seen the original vision. They returned as disciples of a new religion.
Wovoka designed the ritual from his own visions. Erect a sapling in the middle of an open area, like the one in front of us now—the tree, a familiar symbol from rituals like the Sun Dance, then banned by reservation agents. Purge yourselves—enter sweat lodges, prostrate yourself before Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious. Show your humility—often warriors would cut out pieces of their own flesh and lay them at the base of that sapling to bear witness of their selflessness.
Then dance—women and men together, something rare in Sioux religious tradition. Dance around that sapling totem, dance and dance and dance and don’t stop until you fall from physical exhaustion and spiritual plenitude. Dance until the mind numbs and the spirit emerges. Dance into frenzy. Dance into ecstacy.
Now look back down into the valley, and imagine three hundred men and women being slain by the spirit, most of them writhing in fine dust. Such mass frenzy made wasicu of every denomination or political persuasion shudder. To them, it seemed madness on a cosmic scale—hence, “the Messiah craze.”
The exultation of the Ghost Dance was the vision given to those who fell in frenzy. When they would recover their senses, each of them would reveal what he or she had seen, a collective vision: life would be good, rich, abundant, everything the coming of the wasicu had ended. Jesus Christ, rejected by his own, had heard the voice of the people’s suffering and would bring them joy.
“The great underlying principle of the Ghost dance doctrine,” says James Mooney in his rich study written already in 1896, “is that the whole Indian race, living and dead, will be reunited upon a regenerated earth, to live a life of aboriginal happiness, forever free from death, disease, and misery.” It was that simple and that compelling, a vision of heaven.
For me as a white man, a Christian, it is not pleasant to admit that in the summer of 1890, the sheer desperation of Native people, fueled by poverty, malnutrition, and the near death of their culture, created a tragically false religion that played a significant role in what we’ve come to call, simply, Wounded Knee.
Throughout the West, the whole First Nation danced. What was peculiar to the Sioux, however, was this solitary tenet: those who wore the ghost shirt or ghost dress—the prescribed apparel of the faith—could assume themselves impervious to bluecoat bullets. Dancers could not die. They were holy.
It would be dead wrong to assume that that belief or any other created by the Messiah craze was the single cause for the horror that happened here in December, 1890. Others are far more prominent: the disappearance of the buffalo, the unceasing trek of white settlers onto traditional Lakota land, a long history of broken treaties, distrust on every side, the searing memory of “Custer’s Last Stand,” and, perhaps most of all, the inability of two peoples to understand each other. When you look down on the shallow valley of the Wounded Knee, bear in mind that what happened here is the confluence of many motives, some of them even well-meaning, but all of them, finally, tragic.
Tomorrow: What it looked like, here at Wounded Knee