On 29 December 1890 there was a massacre at a place called Wounded Knee in South Dakota. It was the result of a long-standing clash of the officialdom that administrated the reservations in the Plains and the Native Americans who lived on them. The Indians were determined to maintain their old ways in the face of pressure on the part of these agents. Reservation Indians were being encouraged to adapt themselves to working as wage labor or taking up farming, getting an education in government schools, and accommodating their spiritual life to a new movement amongst the Native Tribes of the Southwest. They were frequently participants in a movement called the Ghost Dance.
In the interest of modernity, Indians had been forced to drop certain practices that were part of their traditional Sun Dance. That included piercing the chest and back muscles with skewers and then dancing until they fell into a trance-like state. Helped along by the use of peyote. The reservation officials had had various objections to the Sun Dance when it was popular. But as it became less popular on the reservations, as the more mind-altering, Ghost Dance swept through the Indian communities on the Plains.
This was also a time of revivalism in the Evangelical religious movements in white America. Ghost Dancers and Evangelical Christians were spiritual opponents in many ways, Louis Warren argues. For one thing they both claimed a Christ-like redeemer. But there could only be one redeemer in this monotheistic world and one means of acquiring redemption.
There had long been many critics but also proponents of the reservation system. It enabled confinement and surveillance, both alien to Indian ways and to American religious movements. Moreover, the federal government provided Indians with food, medicinal supplies, etc.
Eastern newspapers were frightening the country with stories about the Ghost Dance. It was part of an end-time when destruction would rain down on the white people. South and North Dakota were joining the Union (1889), and politicians worried about the spread of the Ghost Dance amongst the Dakota Indians would frighten white settlers from the new states.
The agencies also thought it important to reduce the number of firearms available to the Indians. The massacre at Wounded Knee involved a performance of the Ghost Dance. And, Warren suggests, that got linked together in the minds of newspaper readers. The effort to disarm these Lakota Indians resulted in the US Army intervening and shooting up the encampment.150 women and children were killed and 51 wounded.
Wounded Knee also undermined the long tradition of an assimilationist policy. These days we are proud of the success of our assimilationist policy in terms of Europeans and their comfortable settlement in the New World. We have been less successful in accommodating freed slaves and Native Americans. European immigrants quickly settled into a job-oriented life. That was not so true of either of freed slaves or Native Americans. “Working for the white man” seemed natural to the European immigrant, but not so for the Native American.
Meanwhile their sacred sites in the American West remain largely undisturbed and magnificent.
With exception of those who were forced into reservations in Oklahoma, Native Americans had lived in various environments west of the Mississippi and adapted themselves to each new environment. Only to watch as their lands became “zones of resource extraction.” (Warren) It was, however, possible to move further west. Though that would soon change.
The Ghost Dance eventually became a “weekend activity.” The National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington seeks to help us understand the cultures of the plains Indians and supports the continuance of that culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native American life. And perhaps in some unknown corner of the western plains the Ghost Dance is still being performed.