Historians and other writers often portray the Ghost Dance religious movement and massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 as endings, the final gasps of armed Native resistance and their older ways of life. This interpretation is backwards for several reasons, argues Dr. Louis Warren
, W. Turrentine Professor of U.S. Western History at U.C. Davis. In his Bancroft Prize winning new book, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America
(Basic Books, 2017), Warren dramatically reorients our understanding of what the Ghost Dance religion was all about. Rather than a backwards looking movement focused on returning to a pre-conquest past, the prophet Wovoka and his disciples attempted to teach and prepare Indigenous people for life on reservations within an industrializing, wage-based economic and social system. Nor did the Ghost Dance die with the bloodshed in South Dakota in 1890, but instead it carried on and continues to be practiced to this day. God’s Red Son
is a sweeping reinterpretation of a well-known era in American history, which emphasizes the importance of context to understanding the power of the religion, as well as the fear it caused among white American officials. Warren persuasively argues that the Ghost Dance was but one mark on the timeline of Native American history, rather than an end.
Stephen Hausmann is a doctoral candidate at Temple University and Visiting Instructor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently writing his dissertation, a history of race and the environment in the Black Hills and surrounding northern plains region of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.