Christ and the Ghost Dance: Part 2, Christianity and the Old Spirits

From the very start, Christianity has always interacted in creative ways with pagan culture.

For example, Christianity has been indelibly marked by its interaction with Greek philosophy. It has also been argued that Jewish thought was greatly influenced by its encounter with Zoroastrianism during the exile and intertestamental period which later impacted the New Testament. 

As another example, in Hunting Magic Eels I describe how Celtic Christianity was a unique blend of Christianity with the paganism of the Celts in Ireland.

Lastly, we've also seen how Catholicism has blended with indigenous spiritualities in places like Africa and Latin America. 

The Ghost Dance religion was a similar fusion, blending Christianity with traditional Native American spiritualities. As Louis Warren writes in God's Red Son, "Christ was everywhere in Ghost Dance visions as Christian teachings became embedded in or engulfed by the new religion." Many Native Americans even reserved the Ghost Dances for Sunday as a form of Christian worship. As mentioned in the last post, many Ghost Dancers connected Wovoka's prophecies of a coming Messiah, as did Wovoka himself, with Jesus. As Warren observes, "most Ghost Dancers believed that they were seeing the same spirit presence evoked in the New Testament." 

Thus, the Ghost Dance "was effectively a new religion that incorporated a Messiah figure--for some, Christ himself--alongside older spirit powers." Warren summarizes the fusion and the desire to create a uniquely textured faith:

By 1890, missionaries counted nearly 5,000 Lakotas as Christian; thus, they were taken aback that growing church attendance in an "Indian country dotted over with chapels and schools" was followed by a surge in Ghost Dancers. Their only explanation was that many of their Christian converts had not yet understood Christian teachings. But the simultaneous enthusiasm of church attendance and the Ghost Dance was a paradox only if believers had to choose one or the other--Christianity or the old spirits. The Ghost Dance expressed not only the belief that the two religions could be combined but also their longings to do just that...

...[The Ghost Dance] elevated Eagle, Buffalo, and Bear to the same plane as Christ and made him a "friend" to Indians, like one of the guardian spirits of old...The Ghost Dance combined old spirits and a new redeemer...To believers, it was exhilarating...To authorities and most missionaries, it was terrifying.

That terror, we know, led to the massacre at Wounded Knee. But some observers, even some missionaries, were able to look upon the Ghost Dance with a more generous cultural perspective, as an attempt to fit Christianity into Native American culture. True, this process was messy and uneven. Not every Ghost Dancer was Christian. And theologians would be rightly worried if Christ became, for Ghost Dancers, just one among many spirit guides and guardians. If it hadn't been violently suppressed by the US government on the reservations, how the Ghost Dance would have evolved as it interacted with Christianity remains a tantalizing mystery. Regardless, what the Ghost Dance clearly showed was a desire for a uniquely Native American expression of Christianity, something that the Christian missionaries just were not providing. 

In short, a part of the tragedy of Wounded Knee was a failure of missiological imagination. Christianity for far too many reservation missionaries was culturally European in both content and practice. The goal was to get Native Americans to sit in wooden pews in a church building to pray from a pulpit and sing hymns out of a hymnal. Christianity most definitely wasn't a traditional Native American circle dance. 

But at Wounded Knee it was.

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