Warren Reinterprets Ghost Dance Religion

By Michael Haggerty – The Ghost Dance religion has long been associated with the decline and destruction of Native American populations. But as Louis S. Warren argued on April 12, 2017—in a lecture based on his new book “God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America”—that interpretation may need updating.

In his book, Warren (Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History at UC Davis) traces the rise of the Ghost Dance, a Native American religious movement that swept across U.S. Indian Reservations in the late nineteenth century. Often interpreted as a failed effort to restore the political and cultural prowess of native people, the Ghost Dance religion has become part of a declension narrative that culminates in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. During his presentation, Warren noted that this narrative was popularized by Dee Brown’s 1970 classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.

For decades, writers and historians have portrayed the Ghost Dance as part of a grand, last-stand narrative that assumes the destruction of a benighted, native people. In contrast, Warren offered a new perspective on this religious movement, reinterpreting the Ghost Dance as a forward looking, pragmatic set of beliefs that continued to thrive within Indian communities long after the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Maintaining the peace

At the heart of the Ghost Dance religion was a belief that the Messiah would one day return and transport faithful practitioners to a renewed earth. Native people believed that carrying out the Ghost Dance and living life in an appropriate manner would hasten the Messiah’s arrival. In the late nineteenth century, the prophet of the Ghost Dance religion—a Northern Paiute man named Wovoka—emphasized the responsibility of Ghost Dancers to maintain peace with Americans, to always be honest in their relationships, and to “work for the white man” so that they may be successful participants in the American economy.

Warren noted that this final teaching has often been overlooked by scholars. By the late nineteenth century, Indian communities had been largely uprooted, stripped of their land, and consigned to reservations. As a result, many native people were forced into wage work as industrial development expanded into the American West, eradicating animal and plant populations that once provided crucial sustenance for their communities. 

Native nationalism

By pushing back against previous interpretations that emphasize the Ghost Dance as a rejection of modernity, Warren highlighted the perseverance of native people. In response to industrialization, the Ghost Dance religion grew across the American West. According to Warren, as native people traveled on railroads across deserts and plains, the Ghost Dance fomented a new form of Native American nationalism.

This nationalism brought diverse, native communities together in an effort to survive during the reservation era. In this way, the Ghost Dance no longer serves as an endpoint in the story of native people. Warren’s interpretation reminds us that Native People and their religious beliefs remain an ever-present part of modern life in North America.

Learn more about Louis S. Warren.