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Josh Garrett-Davis: Ghost Dances on the Great Plains

Josh Garrett-Davis: Ghost Dances on the Great Plains

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Garrett-Davis on spiritual appeals to eradicate the white man @ Guernica.

In the late nineteenth century, American Indian tribes across the Plains and the West endured near-apocalyptic losses. The eradication of bison, the passage of the Homestead Act, the invasion of homesteaders and gold rushers that pushed Eastern tribes west, the nixed treaties, the shrinking reservations, the alcoholism, the diseases, the military campaigns against tribes that resisted—all these came essentially at once and spelled a brutal end to Indian life in anything like the forms that previously existed in the region. Though tribal armies won battles against whites (Custer at Little Bighorn), they lost the war. The only real hope for redress or restoration would be supernatural.

Far from the Plains, where so many of the crucial Plains stories begin—in this case, in the western Nevada desert—the Paiute tribe had neighbored more or less amiably with white ranchers through the 1880s. There, David Wilson, a farmer, adopted an orphan Paiute boy, Wovoka, and rechristened him Jack. Like Joseph Smith’s, Jack Wilson’s plain-Jane name belied a destiny for celestial prophecy. The Wilsons were Christians, and Jack picked up just enough of their faith to shape something new with it. The meek shall inherit the earth; the last shall be first and the first shall be last. God assures Isaiah of a socialistic leveling off: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” By 1890, Wovoka/Jack’s prophecies would spread through a dozen Great Plains tribes like a wall of flame and would come to their most magical and tragic climax in South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Around the end of 1888, the teenaged Jack came down with a severe feverish illness. I imagine him sweating through a grass-filled tick mattress in the Wilsons’ frontier cabin, thrashing and hearing paranormal sounds. Who knows what wilderness medicine they gave him. On New Year’s Day, 1889, during his long febrile bed rest, Nevada also witnessed a solar eclipse, the kind that turns the world’s colors inside out and sends people into a panic. According to legend, Jack/Wovoka visited the spirit world, where God instructed him to bring a new religion to his people. God deputized him and entrusted him with Western affairs, leaving the East to President-elect Benjamin Harrison and retaining spirit world duties Himself. Jack’s spirit world resembled a Christian heaven—everlasting youth, happiness, and abundant game—and the new religion alchemized Paiute beliefs with Christianity and strains of a religious revival that had appeared in some West Coast tribes fifteen or twenty years earlier: Live in peace, including with whites, without lying or stealing, and soon all friends and relatives living and dead would unite in the spirit world. Following his vision, Jack taught the Paiutes a dance, the Ghost Dance, to hasten the millennium.


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