Popular accounts often narrate the history of the Native people in the nineteenth-century American West as one of inevitable tragedy, cultures out of time, run down by ecological collapse, violence, and modern life. In this story, the Ghost Dance—a pan-Indian religious movement supposedly longing to return to a pre-conquest world—is a valiant yet hopeless quest, a last gasp of Native resistance. It appears at the end of the Indian Wars chapter in our textbooks, dying along with the 146 Lakota people slaughtered by the Army at Wounded Knee. Historian Louis Warren tells a different story.
In his new book, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, Warren rescues the Ghost Dance from this narrative of tragedy. He explores the religion’s origins in the Great Basin and its survival into the twentieth century. What’s more, he enriches our understanding of the teachings of Ghost Dance evangelists, who were not longing for the past but instead mapping a future for Indian people to live within industrial capitalism and impoverished landscapes while retaining their Indianness.
When we spoke on the phone on August 16, Warren recounted the power and persistence of this innovative religion and contemplated the eerie echoes of Wounded Knee resounding in our world today.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Leah Webb-Halpern: You’re offering a major reinterpretation of the Ghost Dance movement. Could you sketch out for us how it has traditionally been presented by historians and in American popular culture?
Louis Warren: It’s been presented as a backward-looking movement, one that tries to restore a vanished past. It’s inevitably a sad moment in U.S. history books. In Dee Brown’s popular book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the visions of the prophecy are described as a futile attempt to escape from history, an effort that is bound to fail. In that way, when Indians take up the Ghost Dance, they’re stepping not just into a dance circle but into a tragedy. Part of the reason I wrote the book is that I’m uncomfortable with that interpretation of this religion.
LWH: You were trained in part as an environmental historian. How does this help you see this familiar story in a new way?
LW: The Ghost Dance story always has an environmental link because the visions of many of the dancers and the evangelists involved a fully restored earth—the idea that the buffalo would return, in particular. So there’s a strong environmental content to the religion, but there’s also strong environmental context. The Ghost Dance comes along a decade or more after more of its participants have had to give up hunting and gathering for most of their livelihood.
There is growing interest in connecting environmental history to the history of religion. But it’s a hard thing to do. You can never say with certainty that a change in religious belief among any group of people was caused by a change in material circumstances. To claim, for instance, that the changing relationship between ancient peoples and the Roman world that set in motion key material shifts that led to the spread of Christianity is extremely difficult to prove. And it tends to be reductionist.
But it was useful for me to think about how Native people invested the landscapes around them with spiritual meaning and then watch how the religious leanings of people changed as the landscape is bankrupted of wild animals and wild food. This is certainly the case among the people who originate what we recognize as the Ghost Dance—the Northern Paiute people of Nevada, where there were dramatic changes caused by overgrazing and overcutting. The mining revolution following the Comstock Lode, this magnificently rich silver strike, has a gigantic impact on people who were living there before settlement. The arrival of waves of white settlers and their livestock, and their demand for water, wood, and food, dramatically changed the arid landscape.
LWH: These changes to landscapes and livelihoods are happening so rapidly. You argue that the Ghost Dance religion is innovative, helping Native people adapt. How did it do that?
LW: The way history books tell it, the Ghost Dance prophecy says a messiah would restore the earth, Indians would inherit, and white people would disappear—and, in order to make that happen, Indian people had to do a dance. All that is true, but there are other teachings put forward by the prophet of the Ghost Dance, Wovoka, a Northern Pauite man also known as Jack Wilson. His teachings are all over the historical record but have been ignored by historians. He says God told him to tell the people they must keep the peace and love one another, tell no lies, and work. They must “work all the time and not lie down in idleness.” At another moment he says they must work for white men. He meant by that, I think, that they must work for dollars.
Jack Wilson was a highly regarded ranch hand in Nevada, and records from Mason Valley include lots of stories of him as a hard-working man. The name “Wovoka” is typically translated as “cutter,” referring allegedly to his wood-cutting prowess. Wood was how modern Nevada took shape. By burning wood, cooking and industrial power was gained. There was no coal. So Wovoka was part of this industrial revolution that was sweeping Nevada in the 1870s.
The prophecy to go to work was critical for Indian people who have to give up their old ways of living. There aren’t enough Lahontan cutthroat trout left in the Walker River to keep the people alive. There’s tremendous overcutting of piñon forests by ranchers and miners to keep the people alive. People have to go to work for money to buy food from the store. What he’s telling people is that it is OK to do this work. You can hear in the sources this constant discussion among Native people asking: if we go to work for white people and we’re no longer fishing for trout or gathering pine nuts or hunting buffalo, are we still Indian? What Wovoka is saying is yes, yes you are. The only way you’re going to stay alive is to work for other people and get some money, and that means that when you do those activities, that becomes Indian work. And I think that allows people a lot of room to begin to do the things they have to do but never give up on being Indian.
The others ways the religion is innovative are Wovoka’s other teachings, which told followers to send their children to school, take up farming, and cooperate with the government. He’s telling people that in order to invent a new future for themselves in this reservation era, there are certain things that are just going to have to happen. But getting an education, for example, won’t mean that you’re turning white. You can get an education and be as Indian as ever, and you can help your people by doing it.
LWH: One move you make when you’re outlining the modernism of the Ghost Dance is calling upon us to question the claims of white western farmers to modernity and secularism. Tell us more about what you call “American magic.”
LW: When we tell stories of Native people in religious ecstasy—Ghost Dancers often fell into trances and had spectacular visions—it’s easy to say those are people who are in touch with the spirit world but really don’t understand science, which is what Americans are about. But the reality is different.
An Edison film recording of Sioux people performing a Ghost Dance at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, September 24, 1894. Video from the Library of Congress.
Wovoka was renowned as a weather-maker, as someone who could make it rain or snow, make the wind blow or make it stop, make the fog come or make it lift. Native people testified to this in great numbers. Settlers say very similar things, except the settlers would be careful to say they could predict the weather, not make it (which they see as superstition). But then you ask white people at that time what does make it rain, and they have no idea. They will say God makes it rain, and that they pray for rain. So they are just as religious in that way as Native people.
It gets a little wilder than that. The vast majority of the American West gets less than 20 inches of rain per year, which means you can’t have rain-fed agriculture. You have to have irrigation, which was hard to pull off in a large-scale way before the invention of the diesel pump in the late-19th century. Consequently, settlers are really dependent on rain, and droughts—like the terrible one Nevada gets in the 1880s—are a huge crisis. There are white Americans who will sell their services as rainmakers, charging $0.10 per cultivated acre. They dress it up as science, setting up bizarre equipment and then burning something—a trade secret—to create a vapor. And they sometimes wore white coats. Some people were always laughing at them, but lots of white settlers bought their services. Railroad companies did, too, to persuade settlers it was safe to come west. This is not science. This is magic dressed up as science. White people saw it as scientific enough to be modern, and it distinguished them from Indian magic. But these practices are very similar. And we can see Wovoka as a modern figure when he offered to sell his rainmaking services to Americans, and there are some pretty good accounts suggesting some ranchers paid him for rain.
LWH: We usually associate the Ghost Dance with the Dakotas, with Wounded Knee. How does the it spread from the Great Basic to the Plains?
LW: It’s such a great story. It’s one of the things that befuddled federal officials at the time. In late 1889 they get word that something strange is happening in Indian country. And out on the Great Plains, Native people are saying they got it from the West. Officials are beside themselves with anxiety because they can’t figure out how Plains Indians would have this set of teachings that was also being spread in Nevada. They thought it astonishing that all these Indians seemed to be doing the same rituals and expecting the same result. The explanation they came up with, of course, was that it’s some designing white man behind the whole thing. That’s an old American trope. They blame Mormons, among others.
In reality, how the religion spread was right in front of their faces. The evangelists were saying they heard a rumor about a prophet in the West, so they got on the train and went to investigate. So we discover there are Indian networks of communication all along the railroad. There’s a lot of traveling among Indian people in the 1880s and 1890s.
It’s a religion partly made of steam and steel.
Another way that it spreads is that there is a younger generation of Indians at this point who can read and write English. They go to Nevada and listen to the prophet or they encounter people who have, and then they send accounts to their fellow graduates of Carlisle Indian School or Haskell or one of the others, and there’s a network of literate Indians. It’s clear the modern U.S. Postal Service was a primary means of communicating the teachings of this religion. So this religion is not only modern in its teachings, it is transmitted on the railroad and in the mail. I have not seen telegrams, but there are moments in the story that make no sense unless Indians are sending telegrams back and forth to each other. It’s a religion partly made of steam and steel.
LWH: Let’s talk about Wounded Knee. There’s a tendency to explain the outbreak of violence there with the militancy of the Lakota leaders and their adaptation of the Ghost Dance. You disagree. If militancy doesn’t explain the devolution into violence, what does?
LW: That’s a really good question. What gets me about Wounded Knee is how it is narrated so often as happening because Native peoples did something wrong. We describe the Ghost Dance as an effort to get back to the past, but we as historians know that wasn’t possible. So therefore they were, at best, naïve. And then the Army comes and slaughters them. Usually we as historians denounce that violence, which is good, but there’s almost a way we end up blaming Indian people for it. One of the classic ways of doing that was invented as the events were unfolding. That was to say, well, the religion was peaceful, but then these Sioux guys—these guys who killed Custer—got hold of it and they turned it into this militant movement and they got a bunch of people killed. The first person to make that argument, General Nelson Miles, made it before Wounded Knee. He was bound and determine to put the Sioux reservations under military rule, for reasons of his own ambition. Allegedly, he was thinking of running for the presidency.
But here’s the thing: when you look at what these evangelists were telling their followers, it becomes very difficult to say that they were ever anything but true to their teachings about going to work and keeping the peace. What pushes events to violence at Pine Ridge—where Wounded Knee is—is not Native people; it’s the Army. The Army is sent in in the fall of 1890 to put down this religion. When people refused to stop doing the dance, because they know the messiah will come if they keep doing it, the Army puts more and more pressure on them.
When the government tries to arrest Sitting Bull at Standing Rock—in a mission that, when you read the correspondence, is hard to conclude was anything but an assassination—suddenly Native people are being killed by the U.S. Army. Again. And that’s when the bloodshed begins. It goes from there to Wounded Knee, where Bigfoot and his people try to surrender and are slaughtered.
What causes the violence at Wounded Knee is colonialism. When you send military forces in to deprive people of religious liberty, this is the kind of thing that happens. I don’t know if it’s possible to suppress a religion without violence.
There are other issues at Pine Ridge. The rations had been badly cut by the U.S. Congress. A million pounds of beef had been removed at Pine Ridge and two million at Rosebud. People were on the verge of starvation and demanded those rations be restored, as per treaty agreement. Most of the demands they make at this tense time weren’t about the religion; they were about land and food. Taking Indian land, denying food, sending in the Army—that’s what colonialism does. And it is destroying people, literally. That’s what causes the violence.
When we look at Americans in this moment, do we ask what caused the Americans to be violent—after all, weren’t they Christian? Did they twist their Christianity into a warrior creed? We don’t ask those questions. We tend to ask what made the Indians violent. And I think it was just getting killed.
LWH: What you describe is a really toxic narrative—one that concludes with Wounded Knee, supposedly closing the chapter on Indian autonomy and Indian resistance. Today, the Badlands National Park describes the Stronghold Table, within Pine Ridge Reservation, as “the site of the last Ghost Dance.” You call the idea that the Ghost Dance ended at Wounded Knee a “convenient falsehood.” In what ways is it false, and why is it convenient?
LW: It’s convenient because it makes such a good story. A narrative arc need a climax and a denouement. When historical events seem to fit those, it makes the story more powerful and easier to tell and to remember—and easier to sell books. It’s very convenient. It’s just that it’s not true.
The Ghost Dance movement, if it survived at Pine Ridge and Rosemont, went underground. But it certainly reappears among Lakotas in the 1890s. Outside of the Lakota reservations, too, the religion had a life. It was practiced among Northern Paiute people, of course, but it also spread to other places, in the Rocky Mountains and on the Plains. It was particularly popular among Southern Arapaho believers in Oklahoma, and among southern Cheyennes, as well. And it continued to survive among Southern Arapaho, and Kiowa, and Caddo people for a long time—into the 1910s and 1920s. The Ghost Dance itself does seem to disappear from public view after that. But other Ghost Dance traditions become part of rituals and ceremonies in new ways. And some dancers become evangelical Christians, and they will equate these ways of believing. One man tells an anthropologist in the 1920s, “The government’s been really hard on the Ghost Dance, but I think it’s coming back through the holy rollers.”
There are real dangers of saying it ends at Wounded Knee, because that suggests the U.S. government can kill a religion when it wants to. You simply go out and massacre people, and you get it done.
LWH: Last fall at Standing Rock—where Sitting Bull was assassinated—we saw another clash between indigenous people—and their allies—and state forces. How did this project shape your thinking about Standing Rock and contemporary Native politics?
LW: I was inspired. There were moments during that showdown that were eerily similar to what unfolded in 1890. In particular, there was a moment of what I would call “high colonialism,” when the governor of North Dakota announced that it was getting really cold and that there was great concern in his office for the health and well-being of demonstrators at Standing Rock, who they said really needed to stop demonstrating and go back inside. Unless they did so right away, he was going to send in the National Guard and the sheriff’s office to force them to stop. It’s the old line: we have to destroy the village to save it. At the same time, they were spraying demonstrators with water in the middle of the night.
We are always perilously close to the next Wounded Knee…
That line—this demonstrating could get someone killed and it has to be stopped—actually echoed officials in 1890 who said it’s going to get really cold and those Ghost Dancers could freeze to death, so we just need to stop them from dancing right away in order to save their lives. And there were allegations that people die from the excitement of Ghost Dancing.
All of these moments that authorities say they are going to use force to save people from themselves—those are moments when we, as historians or as a society, really need to put on the breaks and say hold on, these people have the right to demonstrate, they have the right to dance, and they know how to take care of themselves. It’s chilling that we would use the same rationale today as was used in 1890 to deprive people of their Constitutionally guaranteed rights.
I think we are always perilously close to the next Wounded Knee in a society where race and war still go hand in hand.
Featured image: A sign at Wounded Knee has been modified to describe the violence as a massacre instead of a battle but repeats the falsehood that “Ghost Dancing ended with this encounter.” Photo by Adam Singer, June 2014.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Louis Warren is W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of U.S. Western History at the University of California, Davis. He has published four books: The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America (Yale University Press, 1997), American Environmental History (Blackwell, 2003), Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (Knopf, 2005), and, most recently, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America (Basic Books, 2017). He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Award, the Caughey Western History Prize, and—twice—the prize for the best article published in the Western History Quarterly. Website. Contact.
Leah Webb-Halpern is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She studies the politics of public memory of colonial violence and is writing a dissertation on popular and scholarly treatments of the Acoma uprising and massacre, the Pueblo Revolt, and the reconquest of New Mexico. Contact.