Louis Warren says we’ve gotten the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee wrong

Historians in the News
tags: Wounded Knee, Louis Warren, Ghost Dance, Gods Red Son

Leah Webb-Halpern is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She studies the politics of public memory of colonial violence and is writing a dissertation on popular and scholarly treatments of the Acoma uprising and massacre, the Pueblo Revolt, and the reconquest of New MexicoContact.

Popular accounts often narrate the history of the Native people in the nineteenth-century American West as one of inevitable tragedy, cultures out of time, run down by ecological collapse, violence, and modern life. In this story, the Ghost Dance—a pan-Indian religious movement supposedly longing to return to a pre-conquest world—is a valiant yet hopeless quest, a last gasp of Native resistance. It appears at the end of the Indian Wars chapter in our textbooks, dying along with the 146 Lakota people slaughtered by the Army at Wounded Knee. Historian Louis Warren tells a different story.

In his new book, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, Warren rescues the Ghost Dance from this narrative of tragedy. He explores the religion’s origins in the Great Basin and its survival into the twentieth century. What’s more, he enriches our understanding of the teachings of Ghost Dance evangelists, who were not longing for the past but instead mapping a future for Indian people to live within industrial capitalism and impoverished landscapes while retaining their Indianness.

When we spoke on the phone on August 16, Warren recounted the power and persistence of this innovative religion and contemplated the eerie echoes of Wounded Knee resounding in our world today.

Leah Webb-Halpern: You’re offering a major reinterpretation of the Ghost Dance movement. Could you sketch out for us how it has traditionally been presented by historians and in American popular culture?

Louis Warren: It’s been presented as a backward-looking movement, one that tries to restore a vanished past. It’s inevitably a sad moment in U.S. history books. In Dee Brown’s popular book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the visions of the prophecy are described as a futile attempt to escape from history, an effort that is bound to fail. In that way, when Indians take up the Ghost Dance, they’re stepping not just into a dance circle but into a tragedy. Part of the reason I wrote the book is that I’m uncomfortable with that interpretation of this religion. ...

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