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M A R K T. H O Y E R University of California, Davis Prophecy in aNewWest:MaryAustin and the GhostDance Religion i On New Year’sDay 1889, “the sun died.”During this total eclipse, a Northern Paiute named Wovoka, known to the whites asJack Wilson, fell into a trance in the Pine Nut Mountains ofwestern Nevadawhere he had been cutting wood. He reported upon reviving that he died and went to heaven, where he talked to God and saw “all the dead people,” Indian and white alike, all of whom were dancing and appeared to be young, well-nourished, and happy. God declared thatJack Wilson was to be, in effect, co-president with Benjamin Harrison, Wilson’sjurisdiction being the West and Harrison’s the East. To secure Wilson’s authority, God granted him power over the elements, specifically in the form of five songs for controlling the weather. He then instructed Wilson to command the Indians to cease all lying, stealing, and fighting, and to work peaceably with whites. He taught Wovoka a dance, a variation of the Paiute’s traditional Round Dance, which the Indians were to per­ form at regular intervals. It later became known to whites as the Ghost Dance, in reference to the dead that were to be reunited with the living. Believers in Wovoka’s “Great Revelation” were to be saved from an impending natural cataclysm that would cleanse the earth, their reward being rejuvenated youth in the next life, in a world of peace and plenty (Hittman 63-64).1 Within months, word ofWovoka’s revelation had spread to Indian tribes throughout the West, many of whom thought him to be “the Indian Messiah.”Although Wovoka’s message enjoined the Indians to get along with whites, the revelation changed in several ways as it traveled, due in part to the vagaries of translating between different 236 WesternAmerican Literature languages; in part to the fact that Wovoka could not write, and so never “recorded” the prophecy in a fixed form; and in part to the divergent needs of the various peoples to whom the prophecy spread. Thus both what the prophecy meant and how particular tribes reacted to it varied according to specific cultural contexts. Some Indian leaders received the message as foretelling the destruction of whites only, the land returning to its rightful inhabitants—a version of a prophecy that has a long history in Native American cultures (see, e.g., Trafzer). Although some believed that the Indians could help bring about the millennium by actively resisting or fighting the whites, what happened at Wounded Knee in December 1890 shows the extent to which white anxiety eclipsed the desire—or willingness—to accurately assess the threat posed by this militant minority. As Ghost Dance scholar L. G. Moses puts the situation, “Dancing, peaceful Indians awaiting their divine redemp­ tion did not sell newspapers, so journalists surfeited the country with stories about Indians dancing themselves into frenzies as they awaited reinforcements from the risen dead” (qtd. in Hittman 276). Acting under the orders of a government made uneasy by the supposition that a Ghost Dance ceremony wasa War Dance, the U. S. Cavalry opened fire on a band ofLakotawhich included women aswell as men, children and elders as well as warriors. The Indian dead numbered around two hundred fifty; some were found up to three miles away from the dance grounds. The Ghost Dance religion and Wovoka’s vision are thought by most to have died on thatwinter day in 1890, and, with the “final”defeat of Indian resistance to white military authority, any remaining hopes by Native Americans to retain their “traditional”way(s) of life along with it. This reading of the events at Wounded Knee has also been shared by most scholars, Indian and white alike. Most anthropologists, following Mooney, who worked east-to-west in gathering information and forming his conclusions about the Ghost Dance, focus on its manifestation among the Lakota and other Plains Indians, and thus foreground these tragic “final” events. Drawing cause-and-effect inferences between Wovoka’s doctrines and Wounded Knee, they assume directly, or indi­ rectly imply, or else state outright that Wovoka’s doctrine...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 235-255
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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