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  • The Illustrated American and the Lakota Ghost Dance
  • Karen A. Bearor (bio)

The ceremonial dance contemporary reporters dubbed the ghost dance has inspired shelves of books and hundreds of articles, both popular and scholarly. Called the spirit dance by the Lakota, it was part of a revivalist and millennialist movement sweeping through Native American tribes in the West in the late 1880s and early 1890s. As such, it remains cemented in the country's collective consciousness by its association with the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890, that inglorious symbol for both the end of the Indian wars and the failure of governmental and reformist policies.

Exaggerated news accounts appearing in regional and national newspapers contributed to the hysteria resulting in the tragedy at Wounded Knee. Reporters variously described an "uprising," an "outbreak," and a "war." "It was none of these—except in the columns of the contemporary press," declared Elmo Watson, the first scholar to look more closely at the sensationalized coverage, with its lurid headlines, hyperbolic reporting, and sometimes invented "news." 1 Decades later, William S. E. Coleman, a Drake University professor of theatre arts, inserted excerpts from these news accounts into the running narrative of his Voices of Wounded Knee (2000). More recently, Rani-Henrik Andersson, a Finnish specialist in North American studies, chronicled coverage by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Harper's Weekly, the Omaha Daily Bee, and the Yankton Press and Dakotan in a chapter of his Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890 (2008). However, scholars have yet to examine the images accompanying these accounts with the same scrutiny. Apart from Frederic Remington's art for Harper's Weekly (see Figure 1), few of these illustrations have been discussed at all, and those only in isolation.

Lost, then, are the interpretive frames for these images. Today's readers, seeing the images divorced from their original layouts, lack a means to determine how individual newspapers defined or constructed the controversy across a series of issues or within a single number. Missing, too, are the correspondents' stated (or perhaps latent) agendas, which might inflect their readers' interpretations of the artwork. Out of context, the images lack indices of facticity—those means by [End Page 143] which newspapers sought to secure readers' confidence in the veracity of what they see. Sketches made "on-the-spot" were often more convincing than blurred or staged photographs, but accompanying captions and reporters' accounts supplied necessary perspective.

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Figure 1.

Frederic Remington, Ghost Dance by the Ogallala Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency, Dakota, from Harper's Weekly, December 6, 1890.

A chronicling of multiple images, akin to what Andersson did with news accounts, is beyond the scope of this paper. Three major illustrated weeklies—Harper's Weekly, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, and the Illustrated American—covered events while daily papers occasionally ran images as well. Reproductions in the Illustrated American, though, are worth examining in some detail. Less familiar than the reporting in either Harper's Weekly or Frank Leslie's, the Illustrated American's coverage of the messiah religion and the ghost dance movement was limited to a handful of illustrated articles in December 1890 and January 1891. Further, we know the anonymous "special correspondent" to be archeologist-anthropologist Warren King Moorehead. Thus, one can speculate about his point of view and how this might have affected the selection of images. As I will demonstrate, the program that publisher Lorillard Spencer and managing editor Maurice Meyer Minton established for the Illustrated American also combined to set a particular tone for the articles appearing in its pages. This tone differed substantially [End Page 144] from those of competing illustrated weeklies despite overlapping coverage and sentiments. Moorehead's academic writing style and Minton's disarming editorial comments contrasted sharply with the more inflammatory writing of the daily press, Harper's, and Frank Leslie's. As I argue here, this framing, along with Moorehead's reformist sympathies, allowed the images appearing with his articles to be interpreted less as a call to arms than as a call for greater cultural understanding of the Lakota, even if his ultimate goal was their assimilation...


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pp. 143-163
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