Ghost Dancers Past and Present


“Big Foot, leader of the Sioux, captured at the battle of Wounded Knee, S.D.” Here he lies frozen on the snow-covered battlefield where he died, 1890. Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S).

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. My reaction is not 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 resist power. Sometimes they fight 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 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 supported, to some extent, 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 that 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 the 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 pipe-lined 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 toironman 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. This is the most tedious and least dispensable part of the ritual. Here the contradictions at play achieve an almost seamless merger.

A version of this essay appears on the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.

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