To follow Bruno Nettl’s overview of Native American musical cultures, and studies of Navajo ceremonies, here I explore the Ghost Dance religious movement of 1890 among the tribes of the western USA; and again I consider Chinese parallels.
Alongside the wealth of academic research, I remind myself of the background by re-reading the accessible
- Dee Brown, Bury my heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian history of the American West (1970).
The book was original for being based on the stories of tribal leaders, showing the agonising choices confronting them as their peoples were decimated. While citing their own accounts, often documented at treaty councils, Brown assesses the conditions in which they were recorded. 
If an eloquent Indian had a poor interpreter, his words might be transformed to flat prose, but a good interpreter could make a poor speaker sound poetic.
Even military leaders were often impressed by their demeanour, harking back to Columbus’s appraisal of the Tainos of San Salvador:
Their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.
Brown catalogues the betrayals and atrocities of the white invaders, as tribal land was progressively usurped amidst ethnic cleansing, massacres, disease, and famine. The settlers were bolstered by the overwhelming force of troops, and flimsy “treaties”. Long before the disasters of the 1960s, the destruction of the natural environment, along with its indigenous custodians, was routine.
Already the once sweet-watered streams, most of which bore Indian names, were clouded with silt and the wastes of man; the very earth was being ravaged and squandered. To the Indians it seemed that these Europeans hated everything in nature—the living forests and their birds and beasts, the grassy glades, the water, the soil, and the air itself.
The chapters—each prefaced by bulletins for the relevant years recalling the wider picture of the March of Progress—detail major flashpoints, such as the 1864 “Long Walk” of the Navajo; the Santee Sioux in Minnesota (cf. the Ojibwa), and Little Crow; the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and the Sand Creek massacre; Red Cloud, and the Fetterman massacre; the careers of Sitting Bull and General Custer, and the background to the notorious epithet “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”; the rise and fall of Donehogewa, Commissioner of Indian Affairs; Cochise and the Apache wars; the forced relocations of the Nez Piercés, Cheyenne, Poncas, and Utes; and Geronimo, the last Apache chief, who, demonised by the press for his raids, lived until 1909 in submission after his surrender.
The final two chapters cover the 1890 Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre. By this time major resistance had largely been crushed, for the descendants of those who survived to be subjected to other insidious forms of suppression.
The Ghost Dance
All the time that the tribes were under attack, the need to perform their own ceremonies to ward off danger was all the more urgent, attracting little outside attention.
But the Ghost Dance movement of 1890 was a Messianic Christian cult inspired by Wovoka (renamed Jack Wilson), “the Paiute Messiah” in Nevada, who preached a message of universal love. It was based on the circle dance and singing, with the goal of entering into trance.
The cult soon spread widely through the American West.
While many European Americans were alarmed by the Ghost Dance and saw it as a militant and warlike movement, it was quite the opposite—an emergence of a peaceful resistance movement based on Indian beliefs. It was also a movement of desperation .
Not all tribespeople were convinced by the Ghost Dance. Indeed, Sitting Bull (a recurring figure in Brown’s story) was sceptical—but he was considered a dangerous figurehead, and he was killed in a struggle as troops tried to arrest him. Brown suggests that it was the sustaining force of the Ghost Dance that discouraged his followers from retaliating.
Nor did it become popular among the Navajo: their leaders described it as “worthless words” in 1890, though a brief 1944 article gives a more nuanced interpretation.  The movement was thoroughly studied in the early 1890s by the anthropologist James Mooney in
- The Ghost-Dance religion and Wounded Knee (1896, 452 pp.!),
based on fieldwork over twenty-two months among some twenty tribes, as well as extensive archive material.
Here’s the documentary Like grass before the sickle:
In 1894 Mooney made recordings of the Ghost Dance songs of several tribes; click here for a fine introduction, with audio here. Though he sung them himself (!), solo, however flawed his renditions may have been (and I wonder what Native Americans made of them then, or now: cf. cautionary tales by Barre Toelken, n.5 here), one has to admire his attempt—even a century later so few ethnographers considered participant observation. Note also
- Natalie Curtis, The Indians’ book (1907).
The songs were later analysed by
- George Herzog, “Plains Ghost Dance and Great Basin music” (1935), augmented by
- Judith Vander, “The creative power and style of Ghost Dance songs”, in Tara Browner (ed.), Music of the First Nations: tradition and innovation in Native North America (2009).
Herzog found consistency in style, even among tribes whose songs were otherwise quite different.
After the Wounded Knee massacre the dance went underground. It is said to be still practised by the southeastern Caddo people. Most Native American have “martial” ceremonies (though the Ghost Dance wasn’t among them); but they have been subsumed into more general healing rituals, such as the Enemy Way of the Navajo. See also here.
The Ghost Dance movement was a helpless response to a particularly severe crisis at a point when the worst damage had already been done.
By then the Native Americans were already becoming branded as exotic “savages” for the smug entertainment of the colonisers, soon moving from travelling Wild West shows (Sitting Bull did a stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885) to film and TV.
As to intertribal ceremonies, the later Powwow dance was of a more secular nature.
* * *
The Ghost Dance movement has similarities and differences with the Boxer uprising of 1900 in north China (see e.g. Ritual groups of Langfang, Catholics of Gaoluo). Both were millenarian, seeking magical aid; and both rashly claimed invulnerability to swords and bullets. However, by contrast with the peaceful Ghost Dancers, the Boxer movement was one of armed resistance, at first to foreign incursions and then to the Qing state. As Joseph Esherick commented in The origins of the Boxer uprising (19):
The Ghost Dance is interesting to us because it entailed both trances and invulnerability rituals, and it clearly expressed a longing among the North American Indians for a world once again free of the much-hated white man. There is, accordingly, much of the movement that is quite reminiscent of the Boxer Uprising itself. It can serve to remind us that the peasants of north China were not the only ones who wished for a world free of Caucasian intrusion, and hoped that their invulnerability rituals would help bring that world about.
Indeed, such movements evoke the Taiping rebellion of 1850–64 and later Chinese millenarian unrest—and even, on a far smaller scale, the Nyemo uprising in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. For astute parallels over a broader area, see Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s 2014 LARB article.
In his 1901 Wild West Show, Buffalo Bill even celebrated the routing of the Boxers as yet another triumph of civilisation over savagery, in the tableau “The rescue at Pekin”, as discussed in the fascinating article
- John R. Haddad, The Wild West turns East: audience, ritual, and regeneration in Buffalo Bill’s Boxer uprising”, American studies 49.3/4 (2008).
The Sioux Indians already appearing in the show now doubled as Boxers, donning blue cotton uniforms and long braids—as one reporter observed, they were “used to dying” on stage.
The Boxers were becoming the new Indians—a bold yet unfortunate group that dared to use violence to resist the inexorable march of civilisation. […] Substantial evidence suggests that Americans understood the Boxers by ascribing to them the stereotypical traits once reserved for defiant Indians: cruelty, savagery, and blodd-thirstiness.
Jingoistic American audiences received the show with wild, bellicose acclaim.
* * *
The history of the Americas has been described as “framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery”. The whole painful process of the Native Americans’ subjugation still endures in their ancestral memory; Brown comments,
If the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation, they may find it possible to truly understand the reason why [cf. Grassy Narrows].
And it makes a disturbing background to the modern “values” of the conquerors, based on the great myths of the American West—as Brown comments,
an almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it.
Indeed, for those bent on denying it to others.
To outsiders—and one might say, to rational people—much of this will remain mystifying, such as gun culture (unpacked by Gary Younge, and in this review): recently, the surge in gun purchases during Coronavirus, and the armed occupation of the Michigan statehouse in protest against lockdown. And now, as Native Americans are among minorities suffering particularly from the virus, the Baby-in-Chief has used the sacred lands of the Sioux to divide people further.
 Here’s an instance of a common meme (cf. the scene in Bananas; there’s a closer analogy in another visit of Prince Sihanouk to China, which I’ll refrain from telling here). In 1883 Sitting Bull was chosen to deliver a speech to celebrate the opening of the transcontinental railroad, working with a young army officer who would translate it for the assembled white dignitaries:
He arose and began delivering his speech in Sioux. The young officer listened in dismay. Sitting Bull had changed the flowery text of welcome. “I hate all the white people,” he was saying. “You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts.” Knowing that only the Army officer could understand what he was saying, Sitting Bull paused occasionally for applause; he bowed, smiled, and then uttered a few more insults. At last he sat down, and the bewildered interpreter took his place. The officer had only a short translation written out, a few friendly phrases, but by adding several well-worn Indian metaphors, he brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation for Sitting Bull. The Hunkpapa chief was so popular that the railroad officials took him to St Paul for another ceremony.
 W.W. Hill, “The Navaho Indians and the Ghost Dance of 1890”, American anthropologist 46.4.
 See also the brief introduction in Worlds of music (6th edition), Chapter 2.