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  • Among Ghost DancesSarah Winnemucca and the Production of Tribal Identity
  • Mark Rifkin (bio)

In the late 1860s and late 1880s, Ghost Dance movements emerged out of and extended across the Great Basin, into California and the Columbia Plateau, down to the Colorado River, and onto the Great Plains, emanating from visions of Native regeneration dreamed by Northern Paiute men (Wodziwob of the Walker River Reservation and Wovoka of the Yerington band).1 The most famous and well-documented of these prophet movements in the late nineteenth century—the Ghost Dances of 1870 and 1890, as they have come to be known—can be understood, though, less as solely the result of ideologies or principles that derive from a single prophet figure than as part and parcel of a broader set of sociospiritual dynamics that were prevalent throughout the region during the entire period and that were of a piece with a range of other prophet-led movements that preceded and were concurrent with those that came to be labeled as a "Ghost Dance." As Gregory Smoak suggests, "The Ghost Dances were an appeal to spiritual power to overturn a world that was not of their making" (199), and he continues, "The Ghost Dances were not two discrete movements but rather two periods of intense excitement in a continuing pattern of religious practice that stretched throughout the nineteenth century and survives to this day" (204). Yet in Sarah Winnemucca's Life among the Piutes (1883), she does not discuss these movements at all. Not only is this omission quite notable given that the text addresses Northern Paiute politics and history reaching from the 1840s to the 1880s, which includes the widespread response to Wodziwob's visions starting in 1869, but two of the central people in the text were known to be shamans and to have participated in prophet movements: Winnemucca's father and Oytes, both of whom appear as important leaders in the narrative. [End Page 170]

In the narrative and in her public presentations, Winnemucca consistently presents herself as speaking for the Paiutes, as representing them and their interests to white publics and government officials.2 Many scholars have noted that Winnemucca draws on forms of presentation that would be familiar to white readers in order to advocate for the Paiute people.3 What precisely, though, is the entity in whose name or in whose stead Winnemucca is said to speak?4 The sense of such a cohesive political entity might instead be understood as an effect of the kinds of strategies the narrative deploys, such as portraying the Paiutes as having a principal chief and occupying a clearly delineated land base for which one could advocate increased Paiute title and control. These rhetorical strategies draw on the terms of existing federal Indian policy, including as it had unevenly been applied in the Great Basin. In this way, Winnemucca's claims to representativity can be interpreted less as a relation of surrogation for or delegation from an already existing entity—call it the Paiute people, tribe, or nation—than as a relay within the circuits of policy and practice generated by settler governance.5 In contrast to Winnemucca's claims to speak for a unified Paiute polity or public, Ghost Dance movements highlight the ways forms of Indigenous peoplehood in the Great Basin in the late nineteenth century did not fit the terms of Indian policy, organized as it was around notions of clearly delineated tribes with discretely demarcated land bases, and tracing Winnemucca's evasion of the Ghost Dance underlines the intellectual labor at play in seeking to engage with non-Native popular and political discourses. Attending to Life's efforts to avoid and to speak around the sociopolitical implications of the Ghost Dance emphasizes the constructedness of the account of cohesive Paiute identity that the text offers.6

This way of approaching Winnemucca's narrative highlights the difficulties at play in reading the relation between Native texts' portrayals of peoplehood and extratextual sociopolitical formations. In The Common Pot, Lisa Brooks asks, "What happens to our view of American history when Native narratives are not just included but privileged? … What happens when we put Native space at...


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pp. 170-207
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