Before Wounded Knee, Native tribes following an apocalyptic prophet created a new dance that would, they hoped, rid the world of white people.
Photographs by Michael Beach Nichols
In the late nineteenth century, American Indian tribes across the Plains and the West endured near-apocalyptic losses. The eradication of bison, the passage of the Homestead Act, the invasion of homesteaders and gold rushers that pushed Eastern tribes west, the nixed treaties, the shrinking reservations, the alcoholism, the diseases, the military campaigns against tribes that resisted—all these came essentially at once and spelled a brutal end to Indian life in anything like the forms that previously existed in the region. Though tribal armies won battles against whites (Custer at Little Bighorn), they lost the war. The only real hope for redress or restoration would be supernatural.
Far from the Plains, where so many of the crucial Plains stories begin—in this case, in the western Nevada desert—the Paiute tribe had neighbored more or less amiably with white ranchers through the 1880s. There, David Wilson, a farmer, adopted an orphan Paiute boy, Wovoka, and rechristened him Jack. Like Joseph Smith’s, Jack Wilson’s plain-Jane name belied a destiny for celestial prophecy. The Wilsons were Christians, and Jack picked up just enough of their faith to shape something new with it. The meek shall inherit the earth; the last shall be first and the first shall be last. God assures Isaiah of a socialistic leveling off: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” By 1890, Wovoka/Jack’s prophecies would spread through a dozen Great Plains tribes like a wall of flame and would come to their most magical and tragic climax in South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Around the end of 1888, the teenaged Jack came down with a severe feverish illness. I imagine him sweating through a grass-filled tick mattress in the Wilsons’ frontier cabin, thrashing and hearing paranormal sounds. Who knows what wilderness medicine they gave him. On New Year’s Day, 1889, during his long febrile bed rest, Nevada also witnessed a solar eclipse, the kind that turns the world’s colors inside out and sends people into a panic. According to legend, Jack/Wovoka visited the spirit world, where God instructed him to bring a new religion to his people. God deputized him and entrusted him with Western affairs, leaving the East to President-elect Benjamin Harrison and retaining spirit world duties Himself. Jack’s spirit world resembled a Christian heaven—everlasting youth, happiness, and abundant game—and the new religion alchemized Paiute beliefs with Christianity and strains of a religious revival that had appeared in some West Coast tribes fifteen or twenty years earlier: Live in peace, including with whites, without lying or stealing, and soon all friends and relatives living and dead would unite in the spirit world. Following his vision, Jack taught the Paiutes a dance, the Ghost Dance, to hasten the millennium.
The times were rife with prophetic sects: Swedenborgians, Shakers, Mormons. (Mormonism was the only Judeo-Christian faith to explain the existence of Indians at all, as a lost tribe of Israel, previously “white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome” but marked, for their sins against the believers, with a “skin of blackness.”) Among Indian peoples, semi-Christian revitalization movements had appeared after epidemics and wars for centuries.
Predictably, the Ghost Dance religion swept through several tribes, and to Wovoka’s prophecy was added—if he had not intended it to begin with—the promise that whites would vanish from the land and that the bison and elk would return with all of the dead from the spirit world. One Arapaho Ghost Dance song declared, “I′yehe′! my children—Uhi′yeye′heye′!/ I′yehe′! we have rendered them desolate—Eye′ae′yuhe′yu!/ The whites are crazy—Ahe′yuhe′yu!”
Ghost Dance devotees generally sought peace with whites while they waited the anticipated two or so years until the apocalypse, which would come in one of a number of forms. The Indians would ascend high mountains before a great flood washed whites from the land. Indians would fall into a deep sleep before a typhoon, and their dance feathers would loft them, still unconscious, to the new world. A new earth would slide from the west over the old one as the right hand slides over the left.
In 1890, the Ghost Dance spread almost overnight through the Sioux tribes of the brand new states of North Dakota and South Dakota after a party of Sioux pilgrimaged to see Wovoka in Mason Valley, Nevada. (Despite his deific deputy position over the West, he never left home). Not surprisingly after the Sioux’s recent wars with white invaders, their versions of the Ghost Dance religion acquired an aspect of Armageddon. The ancestors, they believed, would ride in driving a stampede of bison like four million horsemen of the apocalypse and would conquer the whites in battle, aided by a landslide, a flood, and/or a wall of fire to smother, drown, and/or drive the enemies back across the ocean to their proper homeland.
Sioux Ghost Dancers also added a Ghost Shirt to the ritual of the dance, a white cloth vestment supposed to be bulletproof—possibly an adaptation of Mormon temple garments. Many Mormons accepted the Ghost Dance prophecy as valid, since they themselves expected an 1890 apocalypse in which the un-cursed Israelites frozen in Canadian tundra would rejoin their cursed cousins.
“The people,” said Oglala Sioux Chief Red Cloud, “snatched at the hope. They screamed like crazy men to Him”—the Son of God, Wovoka—“for mercy.” Over several months in 1890, government agents and military leaders at Sioux reservation agencies moved from disdain for “such absurd nonsense” to terror.
“Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” an Indian Service agent wrote in a frantic telegram to Washington. (Each culture used crazy to describe the other; Red Cloud used it to describe his own.) The Ghost Dancers danced to exhaustion, fainting, and visions. They were emboldened to stand up to reservation police, they stopped shopping at the trading posts, children stopped attending school.
They were perhaps less inclined to actually rise up than they had been before Wovoka’s prophecies; they were confident that the whites would disappear and their ancestors would return with the green grass the next spring. But the prophecy certainly shook white power on the reservations. The irony was that this was nativized Christianity, which whites had been pushing on Indians for decades. (One federal agent thought the Ghost Dance no more harmful than Seventh-Day Adventism.) Now it seemed to have the revolutionary potential that had resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans.
On December 15, 1890, Indian police killed Sitting Bull, one of the greatest Sioux chiefs still living, in a botched attempt to arrest him at his home a couple of hundred miles north of Pine Ridge. The government wrongly suspected him of being the rabble-rouser behind the Ghost Dance, and his death only heightened tensions. Two weeks later, a band of Minneconjou Sioux Ghost Dancers led by Spotted Elk (known to whites as Big Foot) began heading from a fugitive camp in the Badlands moonscape back toward Pine Ridge to surrender. Spotted Elk was the next targeted “fomenter of disturbances” to be hauled in, but he was immobilized by pneumonia, pulled in a wagon by his followers.
The northern Plains at that time of year are wan—the blanched short-grass matted and dusted with dry snow that won’t stay in place, the wind whipping and always threatening a blizzard. Trudging across it must have been like treading water across the Arctic Ocean, Spotted Elk prostrate and coughing blood in a dory. When the Sioux espied some cavalry, it might have been half reassuring, like spotting a large armored ship on the open ocean. The Indians raised a white flag. The Ghost Dancers, around 120 men and 230 women and children, went willingly to a camp on Wounded Knee Creek, arriving just at dark.
In the morning, the cavalry posted firing lines and four Hotchkiss revolving cannons around the camp, as if surrounding the captives with galleons in frigid seas. The Ghost Dancers placed their guns in a large pile, but the troops weren’t satisfied. They ransacked the tents where the Indians had slept, looking for more weapons—knives, clubs, pistols. Yellow Bird, a medicine man, began urging the Indians to resist, telling them they were bulletproof, and one young man held his Winchester high and spun around as if he’d been the only one to hear Yellow Bird, though he was in fact deaf. I can only imagine that time slowed for a moment—everyone sunken underwater, even the bitter wind pulling back—as a gunshot popped from somewhere and Yellow Bird enigmatically picked up a handful of earth and tossed it into the air, where it dispersed.
Within minutes scores of Indians were dead. The Hotchkiss cannons, like early bazookas with a mile range, felled fleeing survivors. About 250 of the Ghost Dancers died. One survivor, Louise Weasel Bear, later said, “We tried to run, but they shot us like we were buffalo. I know there are some good white people, but the soldiers must be mean to shoot children and women.”
That night, before any of the dead could be buried, a blizzard indeed came on. The most famous photos from the event show Spotted Elk after the storm with snow blown into all the crevices of his clothes. He is propped up on his elbows, his hands and forearms frozen in the air as if he is finally lifting himself from his sick bed.
The massacre was the coup de grâce in the Indian wars. There would be no more substantial Sioux military campaigns or uprisings, at least until the 1970s when the American Indian Movement staged an armed standoff at the very same spot. The buffalo were long gone. South Dakota now had the beginnings of a state capital in Pierre, my sometime hometown. Homesteaders were uprooting the prairies— former Indian land—that the federal government had given them free. It is no wonder that the Sioux were enchanted by Wovoka’s Ghost Dance religion, known to the frightened settlers and Indian agents, perhaps in the same terms Rome used for Christianity, as the “Messiah Craze.”
Looking back, the Ghost Dance religion was the purest version of the fancies that console those of us bereft by the continual displacement in a landscape of motion. The Sioux tribes had in fact lived primarily on the Plains only since the eighteenth century, when European-introduced horses made their way north through Indian trade routes. (The dominant Indian tribes on the Plains in the hunting-bison-on-horseback era—the Sioux, Comanche, and Blackfeet—all came from elsewhere when the horse opened more opportunities for a reliable existence there.)
Yet the destruction of this relatively recent way of life was in essence the end of the world. James Mooney, the first anthropologist to study the Ghost Dance (beginning just before the Wounded Knee massacre), found in its prophecy our universal longing for the “dreamland of youth.”
“As with men,” he wrote, “so it is with nations.”
Every civilization looks back on a “golden age, before Pandora’s box was loosed, when women were nymphs and dryads and men were gods and heroes.”
Impossible as it is, each secretly wishes for that imagined past to return somehow, as easily as one hand sliding over the other.
My earliest memory is of a silver paper punch swinging from a piece of jute twine behind the counter of Prairie Dog Records on Main Street in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Records against one wall, the long counter facing them. A dusty glare comes through the front window, and everything is an early-Eighties shade of brown, like the stained plywood shelves or the way things must have looked through the big amber-tinted glasses people wore then.
There was something hopeful in that tone, a world the colors of burlap and carob. But in retrospect it looks doomed, and foolhardy. My parents, the owners of Prairie Dog, look like pioneers of a land that wouldn’t yield, thinking rain would follow the plow. Mom tried to stock “women’s music,” feminist folk anthems like “We Are a Gentle Angry People,” and Dad loved the Dead, Dylan, and the Stones, and progressive country. What sold best was REO Speedwagon’s Hi-Infidelity. More profitably than records, Prairie Dog also sold bongs, pipes, and rolling papers. It was the only head shop between Sioux Falls and Fargo, between Minneapolis and Rapid City. Kids came from as far as 200 miles away to load up on glassware. Once I learned to crawl, they had to watch that I wouldn’t beat the stoners to the paraphernalia.
“You were a nuisance,” Dad later told me. I pulled records off the bottom shelf and perhaps batted at the paper punch with my paws.
At two months, I made my first political pilgrimage, 300 miles west to the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, the largest protest in South Dakota history. Twelve thousand people camped out on a ranch near Ellsworth Air Force Base east of Rapid City to oppose uranium mining, military buildup, and continued treaty violations against Indian tribes. Russell Means, the most charismatic of the AIM leaders from the Wounded Knee occupation and other actions around the country, declared there, to my uncomprehending pink ears, among others, “The natural order will win out, and the offenders will die out, the way deer die when they offend the harmony by overpopulating a given region. It’s only a matter of time until what Europeans call ‘a major catastrophe of global proportions’ will occur. It is the role of American Indian peoples, the role of all natural beings, to survive. A part of our survival is to resist.”
It was a ghost dance religion for the Cold War, when the land all around us was pocked with Minuteman nuclear missiles entombed deep in the mesh of native grassland roots.
One morning there, after Mom nursed me, my parents set out up the parched July rangeland for some seminars on alternative energy. Before we made it up the hill from the campground, I spit up over her only shirt. “You just covered her with puke,” Dad said. They drove an hour into the Black Hills to find a laundromat, and missed an entire curriculum on photovoltaic cells or something. “It was an early indication of how having a child could change all of your plans,” he said. Mom had not accepted that idea. When people told her that her life would change as a mother, her response was “That’s old-fashioned thinking.” Not long after, she took me to the movie theater to see The Killing Fields, thinking I would sleep through it.
Prairie Dog Records epitomized their hopes, and they seeded traditions and values for me, the “prairie puppy,” as they worked to prove up on their progressive homestead:
“The birds will use it for their nests,” Mom would say as she let her hair out the window of our red Datsun named ’Mata (pronounced “may′-tuh” for a child’s pronunciation of tomato). I imagined lucky robin chicks growing with a golden braid of her hair coiled around them, that rich, dark blond mine would be if I grew it out.
She had the vision she would “raise a little feminist,” and had assumed I’d be born a girl. I wasn’t supposed to be born in the hospital; it was only that I was two weeks early, the midwife was from out of town, and she wasn’t able to fly to Aberdeen in time.
They planned to name me Niobrara, after the river they had canoed when they had lived on the Rosebud Sioux rez a few years earlier.
“Joshua Nathaniel Davis was born under sunny skies on the Dakota prairie… to Kathleen Garrett and Jeremiah Davis, our joy and our hope for the future.”
Mom’s last name would be hyphened on five years later.
Our gags and games had moral lessons. A major-key nursery rhyme for baritone, alto, and prairie puppy:
Oh, the peach pit said to the apple core,
“The color of your skin doesn’t matter anymore!
Yo-ho-ho, can’t you see?
The color of your skin doesn’t matter to me!”
Though I always understood this to be a joyful anti-racist ditty, it was much later that I recognized it as specifically appropriate to South Dakota, where racial tension was between peach whites and red Indians.
Mom and I used to play a sort of tickle torture where I sat on her lap, squealing and squirming in her embrace, yelling, “Missus! Missus! Missus! Missus!” When I couldn’t take any more, instead of “Uncle” I yelped, “Ms.!”
“Ronald Reagan is mean; he gives money to rich people.” This was the prairie puppy’s populist analysis of the president’s efforts to lower the top income tax rate from seventy percent to twenty-eight percent. I was not yet three.
T-shirts I was given over the years:
Prairie Dog Records: It’s a dog’s life
Only Elephants Should Wear Ivory
Thrash Not Trash (a skateboarder’s Earth Day message)
The one time I saw Janklow, the Governor of South Dakota, was in person was at a cracker-barrel Quonset hut political meeting. He was wearing an ordinary gray business suit like any politician, but my little chest tightened in my sweatshirt thinking of the rumors my parents had spread about him: supposedly, the bazooka he owned, the secretive “berm” he’d built around the state mansion, the fifteen-year-old Indian babysitter who had accused him of raping her and who had mysteriously died thereafter. I was glad there were so many farmers around as witnesses.
No G.I. Joes, camouflage clothes, He-Men, Star Wars (Reagan again), Autobots, or Decepticons, except with my own money, twenty-five cents per week. Even though we didn’t have a TV to watch the cartoons and ads, I would save for months to buy a single macho figurine, and I found a plastic Castle Greyskull at a rummage sale for two dollars. With motley militias I set up battles of good guys and bad guys.
Once, as I was dealing Dad a play-by-play history of my war, he interrupted and explained that he didn’t like war, didn’t believe in good guys and bad guys.
“Well, you’re in one.”
He wrote our conversation down in the brown leather binder with the horse on the cover—my baby book—alongside my earlier anti-Reagan stump. The good guys (and gal) in this case would have been Walter Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro, and our local Aberdeen Democrat, Tom Daschle; the bad guys were Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Governor Janklow.
“Before you go to sleep, say a little prayer,” one or the other would sing, rubbing my back. I lay stomach-down in the creaking twin bed Dad had used as a boy. I had my own room perched on the second floor of our aging box house. As I fell asleep at night, one of them would finish John Lennon’s lullaby exchanging my name for Sean’s: “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy. Darling, darling, darling, darling Josh.”
Another of their favorite lullabies was “The Baby Tree” from the Jefferson Starship album Blows Against the Empire, in which grownups visit an island of babies growing on trees. They “take only babies that smile.”
Dad read me the canon he’d grown up with: two old Horatio Alger rags-to-riches books, an 1871 British boys’ adventure called Out on the Pampas, the original Winnie-the-Pooh, the nineteenth-century Real Diary of a Real Boy, Johnny Tremain, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer. Mom’s tastes ran toward the New Age, toward singing Free to Be You and Me and Raffi songs together. She convinced me for many years, with the help of E. H. Shepard’s androgynous drawings, that Christopher Robin was both a boy and a girl, since s/he had a boy’s name, Christopher, and a girl’s, Robin.
Our own nest had a long garden parallel to the driveway, fertilized with a pickup load of sheep manure from my godparents’ farm outside of town. The garage had white plywood doors that swung open, barn-style. Inside the house were books and records stacked like cordwood: a whole wall of books on planks suspended between hexagonal terra cotta bricks; records in three long wooden crates that looked like cowboy coffins. We had a closed-in porch where I could be locked for timeout. (One time I shattered the front door window pounding on it in protest.) The porch roof had a low-tech “solar collector”: a large, flat box with a plexiglass top and a black bottom that built up hot air and blew it into the house in the sunny but frigid Dakota winters.
I realize now these facts made our home a model of aesthetic virtue in Dad’s eyes. Mom has since shown herself to have more upscale, contemporary-artsy tastes: strident wall colors, sculptural cupboard knobs, simple furniture. Dust and clutter make her claustrophobic, so Dad’s collections (beyond books and music there were buttons, postcards, steamer trunks, files, art he’d found as a college student cleaning dorms, and a whole cabinet of knickknacks) must have tormented her.
Baby book, about age three: “Knows all colors; knows letters and numbers to 10; writes JOSH; starting to dress himself (socks, shoes, coat); has had several imaginary friends: Ronald, Quick, Melissa, Chris and the pinching dinosaur; really likes church and Jesus; likes folk songs for children, Joan Baez and Tom Petty; enjoyed his all-natural Easter basket from the food coop; memorizes lengthy itineraries; believes Grannie has her own airplane to fly in; he knows we’re poor.”
Prairie Dog Records went belly-up when I was two. Dad got odd jobs selling radio ads and hail insurance to farmers, and Mom went back to school to get her master’s in counseling. One day the next year, some lawyer friends of my parents’ came over for a visit. When they knocked, I answered the door, “Come on in! Want to smoke a bowl?”
Bowl-smoking was thereafter confined to the basement.
The homesteaders of the previous century had to stick together to survive, and their values became moral and collectivist. By our time literal survival was not in doubt, and from the tax cuts and the end of usury laws on the “mean” end of the political spectrum to the bongs and Free to Be You and Me on our end, individualism reigned in the 1980s. After the family business failed—and the last chord of that rock and roll homestead rings forever in my ears as what might have been, the golden age, before Pandora’s box was loosed—both my parents progressed toward their individual interests. They were not moving in the same direction.
Dad got a job as the sole administrator, organizer, and lobbyist for United Family Farmers, a group of aging yeomen fighting to preserve the progressive farm society their forebears had tried to establish and resisting the consolidation and industrialization of agriculture. He went to Pierre and even to Washington to lobby against overambitious irrigation projects that would pollute local rivers and put farmers further in hock to the government and big agribusiness; U.F.F. promoted rural domestic-water pipelines instead. The man who at age twelve had knocked doors in Ithaca, New York, for Lyndon Johnson with a saucer-size button covering his chest was thrilled to be in the thick of politics, fighting for the earth and its salt. On specific issues—stopping a couple of big irrigation projects and promoting the domestic-water pipelines—U.F.F. was successful.
But as the farmers grew old, their children (those Dad’s age or so) declined to take over the farms, and corporations like ConAgra and Cargill gained ever more dominance over ever fewer farms. In terms of maintaining their family-farm culture U.F.F. was doing a ghost dance of its own; the farmers might as well have tried to halt the wind, trying to buck the boom and bust of the Plains’ landscape of motion.
Yet in many ways Dad was becoming one of the pioneers who stayed. Early on, he’d acquired a fold-up road map of South Dakota and begun highlighting in red every route he took. It had the pattern of a network of blood vessels gradually filling until he’d traveled every paved highway and every major gravel road, and been to every town with more than a hundred people. He also broke with his agnostic upbringing to become a Methodist, baptized the same day I was, and he attended church nearly every Sunday thereafter. He even opposed abortion, though he rarely got a chance to support a pro-life candidate who shared enough of his other pro-life values (health care, social welfare, environmentalism, abolishing the death penalty) to be worth voting for.
Mom got her master’s and started working as a counselor at a local mental health center. She joined a Methodist women’s group that took a feminist read on the Bible—she was staunchly pro-choice. I attended a small Montessori preschool and kindergarten, whose child-directed education leaned more toward her sensibility than toward Dad’s Johnny Tremain traditions. I learned some reading, writing, and arithmetic but mostly just stood at an easel painting all day.
In the end Mom couldn’t or wouldn’t, or in any case didn’t “stick.” According to the rules of the 1862 Homestead Act, settlers could pay a small filing fee and claim up to 160 acres of federal land for free provided they made “proof of settlement and cultivation,” improving the land by building a home and farming it for five years. At this point they could “prove up,” as it was informally called, and gain full title to the land. Mom met the letter of the (now extinct) law; she was a homeowner and had been a business owner. But like many members of the earlier generation of settlers she never proved up in a deeper way. She had drifted into South Dakota and she was liable to drift out at the first good opportunity. Back in the Seventies, she’d match the guys bottle for bottle, seeing it as a feminist triumph to keep up. But she could never claim the terrain; she was only finding a niche to survive there. She didn’t want to fight constantly against the society she lived in, a battle instinct homesteading seemed to require. She had also tired of fighting Dad all the time over little differences. In 1987, just after she divorced him, she wrote a letter to the future me: “I think I’ve learned a lot about happiness in the past few years. I read a lot of inspirational books and find I am continually searching for the meaning of life. Happiness seems to come from enjoying whatever you are doing. Life is not meant to be tolerated with an attitude of ‘I’ll just get through this.’” She wanted a place that was spiritual rather than religious, nurturing rather than combative. A softer world of self-help and New Age flourished on the West Coast. She also began to understand what being lesbian meant. None of these seemed to be options with Dad, and she wasn’t able or willing to just get through this to preserve the family.
So they divorced. Mom and I got an apartment in the neighborhood, and I slept on a pallet at the foot of her bed. The shuttling back and forth was at first minimal. Then Dad’s job with U.F.F. ended—its concrete raisons d’être were largely finished—and he decided go to law school five hours’ drive away at the University of South Dakota. He could find no one to buy our house (the 1980s farm crisis affected folks in town as well), so he gave it back to the bank. The eventual next owners tore off the solar collector, as Reagan did at the White House around the same time. My nomadic life began, slowly, and the first shoots of disillusionment invaded those ideals my parents cultivated the first several years. In our pulled-up stakes shone the first glints of my bird’s-eye view of South Dakota.
Excerpted from Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains. Forthcoming from Little, Brown and Company, August 21, 2012. © 2012 Josh Garrett-Davis.
Josh Garrett-Davis has written for High Country News, the Rumpus, Lapham’s Quarterly online, the Denver Post, and South Dakota History. He is a PhD student in U.S. history at Princeton, and lives in Philadelphia. Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains is his first book.