God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America”

“God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America”
Purchase in the Truthdig Bazaar

A book by Louis S. Warren

Louis S. Warren’s “God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America is that rare historical account that reads like a novel—a sweeping, emotionally gripping book that instantly transports the reader to an America at the turn of the 19th century, when fake news, land grabs and institutionalized racism were growing roots. Although over a century stretches between us and the events described in “God’s Red Son,” the immediacy of Warren’s language and the extensive detail he provides places us directly at the center of what is happening and implicates the reader in a palpable, intimate way. One cannot help but see through the eyes of a Lakota Indian on the plains of South Dakota or an Arapaho at Standing Rock Reservation.

Before you stop reading because I’ve used the word “Indian,” I should note that Warren uses the term exclusively in “God’s Red Son,” and never uses the terms Native, Native American or First Nations. He doesn’t provide an explanation for this in his “Author’s Note on Terminology,” oddly using the opportunity to address his use of the term “American” instead. Perhaps it’s a historical writer thing I’m not familiar with, but I wish he had provided a reason behind his word choice. At the time of the events described in the book, America used only the term “Indians” and because he quotes a great deal of historical documents in “God’s Red Son,” perhaps Warren did not want the dissonance of old and modern words to distract the reader. Also, as he exhaustively provides the names of each character he encounters, as well as their specific tribe throughout the book, the spirit of “God’s Red Son” is abundantly evident. Warren should be forgiven his word choice and to keep things simple, I’m sticking with it for the purposes of this review. I hope I am forgiven as well.

Most of us are more familiar with the massacre at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890—127 years ago this week—than the events that led up to that slaughter in South Dakota, and this is the largest wrong Warren seeks to address. Historians prefer the tidy and pitiable story of the massacre at Wounded Knee Reservation, in which 146 Indian men, women and children were slaughtered. That one moment in time has, over the years, become shorthand for the essential end of the Wild West and the complete submission of the Indians in America. Warren notes that the abhorrent violence of that single event has “proved so useful to writers and filmmakers seeking a poetic ending to an era that it has come to stand for the entire history of the Ghost Dance. In doing so, these storytellers have inadvertently closed off a great deal of inquiry into the meaning of the religion, its appeal for Indians, and its larger place in American history.” In turning the murders of Wounded Knee inside out and exhaustively expanding its beginning and end, Warren exposes its nuances and contradictions and “shows that the Ghost Dance was no romantic ‘last stand’ by Indians desperate to return to the past, and that it did not die at Wounded Knee. It was, rather, a forward-looking, pragmatic religion that had a long life after the notorious atrocity in South Dakota.” Along the way, we learn that, like all moments in history, its story began long before its climax and continues to reverberate to this day.

Click here to read long excerpts from “God’s Red Son” at Google Books.

In his mission to rewrite the history of the Ghost Dance, Warren beats the writers and filmmakers he admonishes at their own game. With the patient pacing and detailed character studies of a Paul Thomas Anderson, Warren is a master in his own right at building an increasingly compelling dramatic narrative. A master storyteller, Warren’s first story is about a man named Porcupine, a Cheyenne from Montana who, in November 1889, travels outside his reservation without an official pass. With two other men, he heads toward Wyoming, boards a train to Utah, and winds up in Idaho. Porcupine and his friends meet a few other Indians at the Bannock and Shoshone Reservation. When the Indian agent there discovers that Porcupine is traveling without proper papers, he inexplicably gives “passes to the Cheyenne and his companions and then provided more for some of their new Shoshone and Bannock friends.”

Warren plants the first seed of mystery and Porcupine’s larger group continues its voyage, most likely toward Utah, along the way communing and meeting others in various Indian towns and white settlements. They finally arrive in Nevada, where the Paiutes lived, and here, “in a desolate and harsh terrain seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Porcupine’s journey grew truly strange.” The Paiutes seemed to expect Porcupine’s entourage, and provided his party with wagons and horses. They led them further south, where they boarded a train and were told that more Indians wanted to meet them. Porcupine did not know how the Paiutes knew he was coming, but “during much of the journey from Fort Hall to the place of the prophet, ‘all the Indians . . . danced this [Ghost] dance.” As Porcupine recounts his voyage to a white lieutenant and his fellow Cheyenne, he reveals that he “knew nothing about this dance before going. I happened to run across it, that is all.”

You can almost hear the silence as the listeners look at each other and lean in. I imagine a slow zoom toward Porcupine’s face as he says, “I will tell you about it. … There is no harm in what I am about to say to anyone. It is a wonder you people never heard this before. And patiently, like the teacher he had become, he explained the new gospel.”

Warren’s mastery of the slow burn isn’t simply about weaving a good tale—it’s about providing the context normally ignored and deepening the impact of what’s to come. If history is a jigsaw puzzle, Warren meticulously adds pieces you never knew were missing and you discover that the complete picture is larger than you could’ve imagined. In order to fully appreciate the massive upheaval the Indians experienced as they were ushered into reservations, Warren provides a yearlong summary of how the Paiutes along Nevada’s Walker River traditionally lived with the land. It began with trout fishing in January and roasting ground squirrels in February. As it warmed up during March, “men and boys hunted waterfowl along the shore, collected eggs from nests and netted ducks and mudhens, while the women and other children gathered up desert candle and the carved-seed plants from the land, that, having soaked up the snowmelt and winter rain, was now turning a bright evanescent shade of green.” In June, women gathered various seeds. They “diverted streams into meadows to enhance plant growth” and by summer, women were collecting berries while the men and boys “hunted the robins and cottontails that fluttered and rustled in the brush.” Fall “drew Paiutes upriver to the mountains (and) the whole community started moving slowly up the mountain slopes to gather cones when the pine nuts were ready . . . and sometimes roasted them and ground them to a buttery paste.” A rabbit run would then occur in November and as the “first snow fell, the people returned to the lowlands . . . (and) with rabbit-skin blankets pulled over their shoulders, they savored pine nuts and smoked rabbit meat and told stories of the making of First Man and First Woman and the creator-destroyer Coyote.” The extended passage is heartbreakingly beautiful, especially because we know what is to come.

We may be aware of the fact that Indians lived in North America for thousands of years before the first settlers encountered them, but to be shown that fact in vivid detail brings it home in quite a different way. When Warren then breaks down how Indians are later subjected to the reservation life that dramatically altered their existence, we are more ready to understand why the Ghost Dance spread the way it did. In the detailed, at times overwhelmingly dense pages, Warren reveals the true gospel of the Ghost Dance as shared by its apostles and originally by its creator, a charismatic Paiute named Jack Wilson, and explains why and how the reservation Indians began to embrace it in increasing numbers. Contrary to the false rhetoric that American newspapers and scheming Indian reservation postmasters would eventually peddle, the Ghost Dance was not a philosophy bent on preparing Indians for a violent rebellion. Jack Wilson, known to his followers as Wovoka, preached a gospel of peace. While he encouraged Indians to dance in the same way they did before reservations, he also urged them to attend the reservation schools, go to church, start farming and even take up the wage work that had come to replace hunting and gathering:

We must not quarrel or scold each other. We must not hate each other. We must love all the world . . .We must work, if the white man asks us to work we must say yes and not no. We must not quarrel with the whites or kill them. We must dance.

The dance itself was not particularly different from Indian dances of the past, but key differences made it stand out. Women and children were allowed to participate and like the Christian Shakers and Quakers, it involved followers going into ecstatic, trance-like states. Like all millennialist religions, it also hinted at a paradise soon to come, akin to the Christian promise of a second coming. Wovoka spoke of a time when the buffaloes would return, along with loved ones that had already left this earth. Wovoka promised a paradise in the future, but the Ghost Dance found its way from Nevada to Oklahoma because it was the religion Indians needed in the present. The Ghost Dance was a cultural and practical response to their drastically changing world. The land that Indians once felt they would inhabit forever had been taken, diminished or otherwise destroyed. When a few decades before, many Indians occupied and moved freely within certain geographies and hunted, fished and gathered depending on the season, now they were contained on reservations year-round and forced to rely on government rations. With their way of life eradicated in a matter of a few short decades, Indians were faced with this cultural dilemma: What did it mean to be an Indian on a reservation? What did it mean to be an Indian at all? Although the Ghost Dance manifested differently between the Lakotas and the Kiowa, and the Northern Arapahos and their Southern brethren, by and large the Ghost Dance represented a way to hold on to their very Indianness in the midst of this seismic cultural shift. It “taught believers how to take up key activities demanded by assimilationists (schooling, farming, and church attendance) while continuing to dance and remaining Indian, thereby rejecting assimilation. The religion thus served as a bridge straddling one of the greatest paradoxes facing Indians: the contradiction between their preindustrial, stateless, autonomous past and their increasingly industrial, state-supervised, dependent present.”

So where did it all go wrong (or even more wrong)? As the dances and meetings grew in size and the faith advanced, the backlash began: “By the fall (of 1890) officials and the press were trafficking in stories of ‘Indian trouble’—a dark power looming on the border of the settlements involving a fanatic, a conspiracy, and a bloodletting to come, either in the next season or at the next moon.” Politically, Indian agents and officials felt increasingly threatened by non-progressive Indians and a report circulated that the dancers were “exclusively non-progressives ‘who refused to sign the late Sioux Bill and have in the past fought every measure that tended towards the civilization of the Indians.” But in actuality, the Ghost Dance appealed to many different kinds of Indians, and that proved to be even more frightening. In truth, the Ghost Dance “was terrifying to officials . . . precisely because it confounded labels that had become an important tool for administering reservations and simplifying (its) complex politics . . . and when they became frustrated enough, these officials would turn to the army to enforce their will.” In a sense, the Ghost Dance had arrived too late, and the American government, already in the midst of land disputes at the Lakota Sioux Reservations in Pine Ridge and Rosebud, would use the Ghost Dance against the Indians, leading to the tragic events at Wounded Knee.

Warren doesn’t seem to leave an angle unexplored as he pursues the complex, interconnected story of the Ghost Dance and American history: We read about the great census of 1890, immigrant laborers, debilitating diseases and pestilential droughts, cattle drives that decimated grasslands and government boarding schools. We enter the lives of characters named Kicking Bear, Big Road, Heap of Crows and Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse. We encounter the self-serving Indian postmaster William Selwyn, a traitor who “fed inflammatory rumors about the Ghost Dance to officials” and would meet a poetically violent end years later when Dakota riders “roped him around the middle and tied his hands behind his back [and] galloped away, dragging Selwyn across the prairie, flaying him alive on thorn bushes, rocky outcrops and finally against a long length of barbed-wire fence.” We also meet James Mooney, who would go on to research and write “The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,” a work that, while a product of its time, also manages to give birth to modern ethnology as we know it. I at first found it suspect that Warren delves into as much detail in Mooney’s biography as he had Wovoka’s. But Warren exposes a crucial link, a common humanity and shared experience that illuminated Mooney’s work, and by shedding an empathetic light, Warren rewrites Mooney’s history as well and forgives him for the faults of his groundbreaking work.

Warren’s subtitle, “The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America,” struck me at first as focused on religion: how the Ghost Dance, built on great Indian dances of the past and as a way of survival, folded in the Christianity that was creeping into the reservations; how the Ghost Dance’s catatonic trances and feverish millennialism was tempered with earthly advice on how to cope in the new world thrust upon the Indians. In many ways, the Ghost Dance can be seen as America’s first multicultural modern religion. However, as Warren’s story unfolded, it began to dawn on me that I was wrong; Warren’s subtitle goes far beyond religion. With the rise of the Ghost Dance, an America fresh from the wounds of the Civil War had a chance to listen to the yearnings of a displaced people. It had an opportunity to honor the many commitments it made to the Indians, despite the violence wreaked on them to agree to those commitments in the first place. America held the possibility of seeing an Indian Nation flourish, to whatever point that was actually possible. With the Ghost Dance, America was given the opportunity to renew itself, in a renewal similar to the one Wovoka promised his believers. Instead, America grew into a 20th century behemoth where fear and greed overwhelmed empathy. With a mix of false reporting, fear mongering and outright political fraud, modern America sharpened institutional racism into a weapon during its response to the Ghost Dance and would wield it upon every shade of colored people for over a century and counting.

Warren’s “God’s Red Son” powerfully expands the singular event at Wounded Knee and reminds us to revisit our shared and painful history with a critical eye. Although the toll of America’s carnage on Indians is incalculable, much of it is forgotten. Unjust land cessions and disregard for the environment and Native American land continues to this day: at Standing Rock just a few months ago and now possibly at Bears Ears National Monument. Both Indians and Americans knew that the Ghost Dance was not simply just a dance, in the same way that Bears Ears is not just about undeveloped land. In the debate about whether Bears Ears should be a national monument, Utah’s San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams told NPR that while it was “important to look out for the rights of Natives, the white ‘people who came to the area in the late 1800s’ need to survive, too. And for them, that means raising livestock, but also extracting oil, gas, copper and uranium. ‘Why should one group of people be given consideration over the rest of us?”

That is an excellent question, Commissioner Adams.

Now, over 120 years after Wounded Knee, America is being asked the question again. What will our answer be this time?

Wait, before you go…

If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.

Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.

Support Truthdig