by Jim Paine
"In those days there will be no reservation, no messenger from the Great Father to say to the Indians: 'Come back here; stay on your reservation.' " Scarlet Woman (Walokpis band of Sioux), who was thought to have been chosen to give birth to the Native American Messiah, from her testimony in court, 1890 (taken from a November 15, 1890 Chillicothe Constitution (MO) article on this website)
By the 1880s, most Native Americans had been either exterminated in endless wars for land, decimated by plagues, chased into oblivion, or rounded up onto steadily shrinking reservationsand a few had been assimilated into the larger white culture.
The Ghost Dance originated two decades earlier. Tävibo, a Piute mystic, prophesied that the whites would soon be swallowed up by the earth and that all dead Indians would rise to enjoy a life free of their conquerors. This mystic is credited with initiating the first form of the Ghost Dance among tribes in Nevada, California and Oregon.
Then came another Piute, Wakova, raised by a white rancher and known also as Jack Wilson. By 1878 he was claiming to be the son of Tävibo and the promised Messiah, and was preaching an amalgam of Christianity and Indian spirituality, with his prophesying a return of the buffalo, a swallowing of the white intruders, and the rising of the Indian dead to a pristine land of immortality more of an apocalyptic vision than one of salvation. He counseled his Indian brethren to "not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone."
Wakova also laid out specific rules for the conduct of the Ghost Dance, and by 1888, the Dance was endemic among the Western tribes. It found particular acceptance among the Sioux, who added to the growing tradition trances, speaking with the dead, and a Ghost Shirt that would protect its wearer from Army bullets. Two Miniconjou Sioux mysticsKicking Bear and Short Bullwere instrumental in the rise of the Ghost Dance and its new Sioux beliefs; they counted Sitting Bull among their friends, though the great Chief was skeptical of the bullet-repellent powers of the Ghost Shirt.
When Sitting Bull was killed while in Army custody (entire shelves of books exist about this controversial event), great outrage and even greater fear rose among the Sioux. They fled to the camps of Kicking Bear and Big Foot. Later, the Army would round up these and other Sioux (who offered no resistance) and force them to set up camp near Wounded Knee Creek. The apparently accidental discharge of a weapon is credited with the bloody battle (or massacre, if you prefer) that ensued, wherein many of these believersthe majority of them women and childrenmany of them clad in their Ghost Shirts, were killed by the Army while "resisting arrest."
That's a very brief (and certainly contestable) accounting of the rise of the Ghost Dance and its tragic end. As historian Russell Thornton has said, "The history is bad enough. It doesn't need to be embellished."
Which brings us to Ward Churchill, a mystic of the new age, preaching an Indian paradise once the U.S. is off the planet. His goal, at least from his perspective, is noble: To return the land to the Indian and to vanquish the white intruder. He lies, fabricates, and exaggerates to achieve this goalnot particularly reprehensible strategies when amongst one's enemy.
All of Churchill's academic imbroglios aside, Churchill's problem is not that the paradise he preacheslike that of the original Ghost Dancerswill never come to pass. His problem is that the warriors he preaches his new brand of Ghost Dance to are not warriors at all. They are not even Indians; Native Americans, for the most part, are working hard to survive and even perhaps one day prosper among the whites (and yes, to achieve some form of justice from a government that has treated their ancestors terribly). Churchill's Ghost Dancers, on the other hand, are disaffected white youths (and misguided adults) who wear chicken-hats to show their (mostly fleeting) support. Most of these supporters will come to their senses as they mature, and the ones who don't will find their fellow whites frown on the petty vandalism in which they sometimes engage.
For while Churchill may be the Indian's new messiah, his followers are not fit to wear the Ghost Shirt. Callow, loutish, often stupid, those who dance his Ghost Dance make a poor comparison to the Sioux of the 1890s, who in desperation chose a spirituality that proved to be tragic in its practice. They died for that belief, but they believed it even as they died.
That's the tragic element to Churchill's new Ghost Dance, if only for Churchill. The white minions he encourages are for the most part cowards and dullards; their beliefs change with the latest pronouncement from the newest anti-culture icon. They have no stake in the white man leaving North America; they'd be among the first to have to leave. And while the young and the foolish are always eager for the iconoclast, their adoration ends where any struggle actually begins. One type of man may hold the struggle toward a hopeless goal close to his heart for all of his days, but those who wear the chicken-hat are made of another substance.
This does not make Churchill (assuming he is earnest in his goal) an heroic figure, but rather, a tragic one. When this thought occurs to Churchill, or worse, when its truth is brought forth in the inevitable outcome of one of his encouraged "actions," there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Churchill tent.
[ed. note: Readers can find many of the same themes and conclusions discussed with far more authority in Professor Thomas F. Brown's chapter The Prophetic Tradition in American Indian Politics in the forthcoming Nationalisms Across the Globe: An overview of the nationalisms of state-endowed and stateless nations, edited by Wojciech Burszta, Tomasz Kamusella and Sebastian Wojciechowski. Poznan, Poland: Wyzsza Szkola Nauk Humanistycznych i Dziennikarstwa, 2005.]