A Paiute shaman named Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) came down with a high fever in 1888. While he was delirious, he had a vision that would keep him front and center on the stage of American History for the next few years. His soul was transported to a higher plain, which was the spirit home of all the Indian ancestors of all the tribes that had been killed by the white man. The animals the tribes hunted were there too. The white men were conspicuously absent.
Early in 1899 he had a second revelation during a total
eclipse of the sun. All those dead ancestors and all the animals were coming back. The white man would be swallowed by the earth. God was angry because he had sent his son to bring blessings to the world and the white man had killed him. God planned to give the Indians a fresh start in a Euro-Free planet if Wovoka would teach all the tribes a variation of the traditional Paiute Round Dance. Video available here.
A Northern Paiute shaman, Wodziwob (Grey Hair) had made similar prophesies in the 1870’s, although he limited the Indian Renaissance to his tribe and didn’t include the Christian
crucifixion element. Unlike Wodziwob, Wovoka was well acquainted with Christian theology. The Golden Rule was an essential element of his prophesies. He urged his followers to live impeccable lives, refrain from drinking alcohol, and to make no trouble for the white man.
What is truly amazing is how quickly the Ghost Dance religion spread through so many tribes and across so much geography by word of mouth. Wovoka’s prophesy became a pan-Indian movement without him leaving Paiute lands even once.
Like most large scale religious movements, believers modified the details to suit their purposes. The Lakota added a militaristic element. They can hardly be blamed for that. Their messianic leader, Crazy Horse, had been bayonetted by a military guard while resisting arrest in 1877. They were forcibly held on reservations and were dependent on rations from the U.S. government that came irregularly when they came at all.
Hundreds of Lakota gathered on South Dakota Reservations to try and dance the white man away. They wore what appeared to be war paint, and “bullet proof” Ghost Shirts while they danced all night in circles. The white population including the local Indian Agent were certain there would be an uprising and asked the Army to suppress it.
The order went out to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation. He was killed in the attempt on
December 15, 1890.
When Chief Big Foot heard of Sitting Bull’s death, he tried to head off disaster by seeking protection at the Pine Ridge Reservation. The army intercepted his band on December 28 and brought them to the edge of the Wounded Knee to camp, where things quickly went wrong.
During the process of disarming the Lakota (according to one version of events), a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle. A scuffle escalated and a shot was fired which resulted in the
7th Cavalry’s opening fire indiscriminately from all sides. The Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking soldiers, who quickly suppressed their fire. The surviving Lakota fled, but U.S. cavalrymen hunted them down. When the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped, approximately 300 Sioux were dead.
The Southern Cheyenne continued Ghost Dances in Oklahoma until Wovoka himself sent word that they should stop. He told a delegation he was tired of so many visitors and they should return home and tell their people to stop dancing. Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) died in 1932 and was buried on Paiute land. People still leave flowers on his grave.
Mysticism is an important element of any story that deals with Native America, whether those stories happened a hundred years ago, or yesterday, or even a hundred years in the future. In my fiction that mysticism takes the form of Magic Realism. If you are interested in seeing my approach to Magic Realism, check out my free short story collection Southwest Gothic Tales, my Kindle single, “Messages”, and my first novel, Owl Dreams. My second novel, Magic Popsicle Sticks, is in the capable hands of Pen-L Publishing, and will be available later this year.