However, Smohalla also considered farming harmful to nature, and it's possible that they type of farming the white men practiced was harmful--many farming practices used today are still harmful to the land. When confronted by government agents about the logic behind his teachings Smohalla replied, "You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? Then when I die, she will not take me to her bosom to rest." To the Wanapum, the earth was their mother, just as the Canyon de Chelly was mother to the Navajo.
The United States Government continued to provoke the situation by breaking treaties and promises, reducing land holdings--not a few hundred acres, but millions of acres previously approved by Congress--food allotments, promised clothing and supplies. According to the Story of the Great American West, the years 1889 and 1890 were the most painful yet for all of the various tribes now living on small reservations that were stricken with drought. The lack of food supplements from the government led to starvation and disease, particularly among the children. It was a time of great despair among people desperate for hope.
Wovoka Revives The Ghost Dance
In 1889, the Paiute Shaman Wovoka also had a vision, a dream that his people would regain their former strength and power, but his dream would prove to be apocalyptic. As discussed before, Wovoka assured his followers that if they followed his instructions, wore the protective clothing and danced The Ghost Dance the buffalo would fill the plains, dead tribal members would return to their families, and the Native American Indians would live a blissful life free of the white men.
Wovoka's timing was impeccable, and his revival of The Ghost Dance became a cult that moved across the West like a rogue wave. By 1890 it had reached the Sioux in South Dakota. They were desperate with drought and starvation and embraced the symbolism of The Ghost Dance, dancing to the point of exhaustion. They wore their shirts with magical symbols painted on them with the belief that the shirts were blessed and would repel any bullets shot at them, which naturally intimidated outside observers.
The adults left their chores, the children left the schools, and they all danced with a frenzy that caused great panic among many of the white people, including Indian Agent James McLaughlin who sent a desperate message to the military, stating: "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy...We need protection and we need it now." The government responded, sending troops.
According to Lakota Birgell Kills Straight on The Real West, "Dancing was a way of life. Even the wind in the trees--everything seemed to dance. There's songs all over. Everything begins with a song and a dance. It's a ritual."
"This is why The Ghost Dance was readily acceptable," he continues. "It wasn't an elaborate ceremony. People linked hands and danced a very simple step to the left. And that's basically all it was."
According to author Joseph Marshall, III: "They tried to dance themselves into a trance so they could communicate with their ancestors." Day and night, round and round they danced until they collapsed from exhaustion, then they would rest, rise, and dance again.
The Ghost Dance: Harmful or Harmless?
There were some who viewed The Ghost Dance as harmless, as a dance of hope among a people filled with despair, seeking hope. Indian Agent Valentine McGillycuddy (love that name) sent his own dispatch to the U.S. Government recommending that the government refrain from interfering. "I should let the dance continue," he said.
"The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians," he continued. "If the Seventh Day Adventists prepare their ascension roves for the second coming of the Savior the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege?"
Why indeed? The West was flooding with people of every religion you could possibly imagine, so why stop the Native American Indians from worshiping as they pleased? Because they were Indians.
- "The Final Clash at Wounded Knee." Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.
- "The Ghost Dance." Native American Encyclopedia. Accessed October 9, 2013.
- The Spirit World. Time Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia: 1992.