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Prophets And The Ghost Dances

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



A spirit-journey and a revelation is the sanction which creates an Indian prophet. Shaman and medicine-man alike claim this power of spiritual vision, and the records of investigators sufficiently show that the Indian possesses in full degree this form of mystic experience. Behind nearly every important movement of the Indian peoples lies some trance of seer or prophet, to whom the tribes look for guidance. Underneath the "conspiracy of Pontiac" were the visions and teachings of a Delaware prophet, who had visited the Master of Life and received from him a message demanding the redemption of the Indian's lands and life from white pollution; the trances of Tenskwatawa were the inspiration of his brother, the great chief Tecumseh, in the most formidable opposition ever organized by Indians against the whites; Kanakuk, the prophet of the Kickapoo, talked with the Great Spirit, and brought back to his tribe a message of sobriety and industry, peace and piety.

Of the later prophets the most notable have been men of the far West. Smohalla, chief of a small Shahaptian tribe of Washington, who was called by his people "The Shouting Mountain" because they believed that his revelation came from a living hill which spoke to him as he lay entranced, founded a sect of Dreamers, whose main tenet was hostility to the ways of the white man and insistence that the land of the Indian should be Indians' land: "My young men shall never work," he said; "men who work cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams." This was the doctrine which inspired Chief Joseph and his Nez Percé in the wonderful exploit which marked the exodus of his tribe in 1877 — "the Earth is our Mother; she shall not be torn by plow nor hoe; neither shall she be sold, nor given from the hand of her children."

Very similar is the teaching of the Paiute prophet, Wovoka, the Indian "messiah," whose promises of a regeneration of the life of the Red Man, with the foreigner destroyed or driven from his ancient holdings, spread throughout all the tribes of the Plains and Mountains, and eventuated in the Sioux uprising of 1890 and the tragedy of Wounded Knee. Wovoka is the son of a prophet; his home a strip of valley prairie surrounded by the dark walls of volcanic sierras. Here, when he was about thirty-three, in the year "when the sun died" (probably the eclipse of January 1,, 1889), he declared that he went up to heaven, and saw God, and received a message to all Indians that they must love one another, that they must not fight, nor steal, nor lie, and he received also a dance which he was to bring to them as pledge and promise of their early redemption from the rule of the whites. The dead are all alive again, the prophet taught; already they have reached the boundaries of earth, led by the spirit captain in the form of a cloud. When they arrive, the earth will shake, the sick be healed, the old made young, and the free life of the Indian again restored. Among many of the tribes the dance which they were to continue until the day of the advent assumed the form of ecstasy and trance, in which visionary souls would perceive the advancing hosts of the spirit Indians, the buffalo once more filling the prairies, and the Powers of the Indian's universe returning to their ancient rule. Better than aught else the Ghost-Dance songs, collected by Mooney from the various tribes among whom the religion spread, give the true spirit of the creed, and at the same time afford an insight into the religious feeling which goes far deeper in the Indian's experience than story-made myth (See James Mooney, "The Ghost-Dance Religion," in 14 ARBE, Part 2, pp. 953-1103).

A curious and lovely feature of these Indian hymns of the Ghost-Dance is their intense visualization of Nature. The words are elemental and realistic, but no song is without its inner significance, either as symbolic of indwelling Powers or as vocables of individual experiences too full for complete expression.



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