Saturday, April 29, 2017

Louis Warren, "God's Red Son"

In 1890, exciting news spread among the Indians of western North America. A prophet had appeared, a man of great spirit, and he had a new teaching. If all the Indians gave up fighting and danced in the way that he taught, the world would experience a great cataclysm. Afterward all the people who had died would be alive together, along with all the animals that had been slaughtered, and living and dead Indians would reside together in a native paradise. Indians in South Dakota and Oklahoma sent representatives to meet the prophet, a man named Wovoka or Jack Wilson who lived in northwestern Nevada, and they came away impressed. Across the plains thousands began to perform the Ghost Dance, chanting in a great, slowly rotating circle until some were overwhelmed with ecstasy and fell writhing to the ground, waking later with stories of the dead relatives and spirit beings they had met.

In most places the ghost dance was treated as a bit of barbaric Indian color, frowned upon by schoolteachers and missionaries but otherwise ignored. But in the Sioux reservations of the Dakotas the government and white settlers were frightened. They didn't like this talk of Indian renewal, which seemed to imply the complete disappearance of white people. As with Christians, Ghost Dancers disagreed about whether the paradise would come in this world and soon, or in some nebulous afterlife, but some affirmed that these things would happen in South Dakota any day now. The reservation agents tried to ban the Ghost Dance, and sent their Indian police to suppress the dances. At this same time the government was making another huge land grab of Indian land, and they also rearranged reservation boundaries in a way that forced hundreds of Indians to abandon their homes and move. Angry Indians protested, and rumors spread that a great uprising was being planned. Hysterical reports from reservation agents led the government to send in the army to keep order, led by Custer's old 7th Cavalry. At the height of this tension one of the agents decided to arrest the famous chief Sitting Bull and hold him hostage. When the Indian police arrived, one of Sitting Bull's followers fired at them, and in the resulting melee more than a dozen were killed. An explosion of violence followed, culminating in the horrible massacre at Wounded Knee.

That is the story of the Ghost Dance as it is usually told. But as Louis Warren shows in his wonderful God's Red Son: the Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America (2017), it is far from the whole story. Warren is one of the most eminent contemporary historians of the American west, and he poured his learning into this book. The essential argument is that while most textbooks treat the massacre at Wounded Knee as the end of Indian history, the Ghost Dance was really a key part of the transition from one kind of Indian life to another

To me, this is what scholarship should be like. It is longer and more detailed than some people will want (400 pages of text), but it is clearly written and packed with insight. It makes an argument but the argument does not get in the way of telling the story; in fact the argument is mostly contained in the way the story is told. It is full of weird details but is respectful to everyone, from Indian prophets to American army officers. It is both learned and enjoyable to read.

My favorite part was the story of the prophet himself. He usually called himself Jack Wilson, reserving his Indian name of Wovoka for ceremonial settings. He was born on a ranch in Nevada, among Paiute Indians who earned most of their living laboring for whites or selling to them. His boyhood coincided with the rapid rise and fall of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode, the most extraordinary silver strike in history. In 1870 Virginia City was the largest in the western US, bigger than St. Louis or San Francisco; by 1890 it had shrunk to less than a quarter of that size. So the Paiute first encountered capitalism in its craziest boom-and-bust mode. After twenty good years when they could easily make money as laborers or teamsters, or by selling firewood or food to city folk, they were plunged into a terrible depression. The depression coincided with a grim drought, and with the realization that their environment had been so degraded by clear-cutting forests and diverting water to white farms that their traditional ways were of little avail. It was in this environment that a young Indian ranch hand climbed into the high mountains and had the vision that became the Ghost Dance.

Wovoka's teaching was a mix of new and old. The basic rituals of the Ghost Dance were drawn from Indian tradition, and even the name had been used for an earlier movement in the 1870s. Wovoka revitalized the rite with his own personal charisma and a strong message about how Indians should live in their new world. He taught, first, that Indians should give up warfare and live at peace with whites and each other. This was always the first thing he said in explaining his teachings, and the first part of the many letters that circulated around the West describing the new vision. He said Indians should not drink, steal, or quarrel. He thought Indians should work in the new economy, as he and his family did –  "do not shun working for white men" was one of his most repeated sayings. As you can see in the portrait above, he dressed in European clothes and always wore a fine hat, which he made part of his religious performances. He wanted Indians to send their children to school, and he was sometimes quoted as saying they should go to church. But at the same time he preached about the coming crisis, the return of the dead, the restoration of the animals and plants on which Indians used to rely, and the power of visions given in the dance to take believers to that world now.

Although many whites saw this as Indian primitivism, the more astute contemporary observers realized that it was nothing of the kind. As Warren explains, nineteenth-century America had been convulsed by one ecstatic movement after another: first the Methodists and Baptists, then Shakers, Mormons, and finally Pentacostals, dubbed "Holy Rollers" by the skeptical press. Many observers saw the parallels; in fact a few thought the whole business must have been started by the Mormons or other white missionaries.
in their devotion to ecstatic spirit, clean living, hard work, and millennial deliverance, the Ghost Dance and evangelical Christianity had much in common.
In later years some Ghost Dance leaders became preachers in Pentacostal or Four Square Gospel churches.

To Warren, both the Ghost Dance and Evangelical Christianity were responses to the crazy world of nineteenth-century America, a society that may have been changing faster than any before in human history. These new religions gave spiritual grace and firm moral guidance to people whose feet had been cut out from under them. Surely no one's world had been more decisively upended than that of the Indians. The Ghost Dance contained traditional elements, as did all the new sorts of Christianity, but it was fundamentally a new gospel for a new age.
To appreciate the essential modernity of Ghost Dance teachings, it helps to keep in mind that a central appeal of any religion is how much it enables believers to resolve seemingly irresolvable contradictions. Seen in this light, the Ghost Dance taught believers how to take up key activities demanded assimilationists (schooling, farming, and church attendance) while continuing to dance and remaining Indian, thereby rejecting assimilation. The religion thus served as a bridge straddling one of the greatest paradoxes facing Indians: the contradiction between their pre-industrial, stateless, autonomous past and their increasingly industrial, state-supervised, dependent present.
It is thus that the Ghost Dance pointed the way to the Indian future. If Indians were to survive, they would have to adapt to the new political situation and the new economy: give up warfare and take up farming or wage labor. They could best hold onto their Indian identity through religion. In visions, they could still inhabit the world of their ancestors; in the dance, they could experience one key part of traditional Indian life.

That is only the briefest summary of a book full from cover to cover with intellectual riches, and I give it my highest recommendation.

Top image is a Ghost Dance Drum by George Beaver, 1890, now in the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY. If you are curious about the worldwide phenomenon of "Crisis Cults" that have appeared in so many civilization-wrenching situations, and about the psychology of religion in general, I also recommend Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion (1970)

No comments: