ghost dance: shaman on the plains

Millennial cults. America has always been ready in times of stress to look for prophets, especially those not immune to the temptations of an earthly paradise. Whether from Handsome Lake, the Maharishi Yoga, or the many Teachers of Righteousness of various shades. Ghost dancing and cargo cults…

The American Indian millenarian movement that won the most adherents in the nineteenth century was the Ghost Dance of the Plains indians. After the Civil War, as prairie schooners and railroads brought settlers to their traditional hunting lands, the Plains Indians suddenly encountered the full force of American manifest destiny. Bison, their food base, were systematically shot until very nearly extinct, in order to starve the tribes into submission. The Indians were rounded up and herded onto wasteland reservations. The American policy was the cultural, social, and possibly even biological extermination of the Plains Indians. The disease, alcoholism, malnutrition, and crowding might have been bearable had not their one possible hope- their traditional religions- been taken away from them.

At the very time when things appeared bleakest for the Plains Indians, they heard about a distant shaman, or medicine man, named Wovoka, a Paiute of Nevada. During an eclipse of the sun in 1889, when Wovoka lay ill with fever, he had a vision during which he was taken to the other world and given a message from God. He was told that the time was near when all Indians, living and dead, would be reunited on a revitalized earth, where they would live without misery and want.

Part of the ritual centered around the wearing of a “ghost shirt,” a white garment fancifully decorated with symbols of birds, the sun, stars, and arrows. And the return of the dead ancestors could be hastened by dancing. Wovoka also told his people that God said they must “love one another, have no quarreling, and live in peace with the whites; that they must work, and not lie or steal…”


(see link at end)….To earn this new reality, however, Indians had to live harmoniously and honestly and shun the ways of the whites, especially alcohol, the destroyer. Wovoka also discouraged the practice of mourning, because the dead would soon be resurrected, demanding instead the performance of prayers, meditation, chanting, and especially dancing through which one might briefly die and catch a glimpse of the paradise-to-come, replete with lush green prairie grass, large buffalo herds and Indian ancestors. Kicking Bear, a Miniconjou Teton Lakota, made a pilgrimage to Nevada to learn about this new “religion”.

Together with Short Bull, another Miniconjou mystic, they gave another interpretation, choosing to disregard Wovoka’s anti-violence and emphasizing the possible elimination of the whites. Special Ghost Dance Shirts, they claimed, would protect them against the white man’s bullets ….Read More:

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