Christ and the Ghost Dance: Part 3, A Unity Movement

In the last post, I described the massacre at Wounded Knee as a failure of missiological imagination. 

To be sure, there were aspects about the Ghost Dance that were worrisome to federal authorities. The Ghost Dance did promise liberation from white oppression. And when tied to the recent depravations and the taking of Lakota land in South Dakota, the Ghost Dance did have have a political aspect to it, giving voice to growing resentments. To that issue we'll turn in the next post. But the ethic of the Ghost Dance, as preached by Wovoka, was to live at peace with the whites. Any expected liberation would come from the Messiah, not a bloody uprising. But such theological distinctions were lost on federal authorities.

But before turning to the emancipatory aspects of the Ghost Dance, I wanted to note another failure of missiological imagination in white attitudes toward the circle.

Specifically, intra-tribal tensions had always been a part of the Native American experience. And life upon reservations had exacerbated those. Native Americas were constantly fighting amongst themselves about how best to respond to the crisis of white colonial expansion. Should they capitulate, move to the reservations, take up farming and send their children to white schools? Or should they go to war like Geronimo? Such choices had to be made over and over and over again. And with each crisis tribal leaders found themselves upset and angry with each other given their different choices.

Into those tensions came the Ghost Dance. One of the allures of the Ghost Dance was that it healed these tribal conflicts. The Ghost Dance was a pan-Indian movement, expressing shared laments and dreams. As Louis Warren describes it, the Ghost Dance was "a unity dance."

And it is here where the Christianity of the Ghost Dance was more Christian than the Christianity of the missionaries. Specifically, as missionaries from Christian denominations arrived on the reservations they brought with them their sectarian squabbles. Catholics fighting with Protestants, and Protestant denominations fighting with each other, each claiming to be the "true" faith. 

Pushed and pulled by this fractious sectarianism, forced to choose among the Christian churches, the Ghost Dance united all the Native American Christians on the reservations. The circle included every Native American, no matter their denominational affiliation or belief. All were welcomed in the circle, both believers and non-believers, converts to Christianity and those who espoused traditional beliefs. Even whites were welcomed. As Warren summarizes,

The attraction of the Ghost Dance may have been that it allowed [Native Americans] to heal sectarian divisions that emerged in the wake of the church missions...By the 1880s, and probably before, Christian pluralism had become key to Lakota understanding of Christian religion and American politics...

...[The Ghost Dance embodied] a pervasive Lakota desire to be at peace with other Lakotas over religious matters and avoid "that strife": the denominational disputes that so divided White Robes and Black Robes, Protestants from one another and from Catholics, and all Christians from followers of the old Lakota religion...[The Ghost Dance was involved in] minimizing the potential for internal religious conflict.

Which makes what happened at Wounded Knee even more tragic, for if Jesus was, for many, encountered in the Ghost Dance, the Christianity of the circle was more Christian than the Christianity found in the sectarian Christian churches. 

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply