The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890. By Rani-Henrik Andersson.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8032-1073-8, $50. 462 pages.
Review by John T. “Jack” Becker, Texas Tech University
In The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890, Rani-Henrik Andersson takes the “Great Story” approach (as defined by Robert F. Berkhofer of the University of California, Santa Cruz) to write his history of the Lakota Ghost Dance. The Great Story calls for a multicultural approach using the “conflicting voices of gender, race, and class” (xiv). Andersson arranges the book into six chapters, each designed to tell the story of the Ghost Dance from a different group’s point of view; they include, in order, the Lakota, Indian agents, U.S. Army, missionaries, the press, and U.S. Congress. He seeks through this method to write a more realistic history providing a sound reconstruction of events. To a remarkable extent Andersson has achieved the goals he has set for himself.
The Great Story approach to history helps the reader understand the points of view of each group, the relationships between all the groups, and the ways misunderstandings occurred, interests collided, and points of view changed over time (xv).
In the first chapter, Andersson starts with a brief history of the Lakota. He explains how the Lakota ended up on a reservation on the northern plains of the United States as a poor and demoralized people. The psychological and economic condition of the Lakota set the stage for their eventual acceptance of the “new religion.” Andersson writes that the Lakota changed some aspects of the Ghost Dance to fit their specific needs or world view. As the Ghost Dance traveled east, from the west coast, it changed as it was passed on from one Indian group to another; so the Lakota were not the first people to change the Ghost Dance. The Lakota added new features and meanings to the dance, although, at first, the Lakota were slow to adopt it. By September 1890, however, Indian Agent Hugh D. Gallagher wrote that the dancing interfered with reservation life (48).
Andersson brings to light how the Indian agents were split about what to do concerning the Ghost Dance. Some agents, obviously scared and or inexperienced, wanted military assistance almost from the start of the troubles, but more experienced agents did not. The agents were also split as to the cause of the dancing. Only a few realized correctly that the Lakota’s sense of desperation created a climate for the Ghost Dance to flourish. James McLaughlin, Agent at Standing Rock Reservation, realized that if the military came, it would effectively end the agents’ control over the reservations. Events proved McLaughlin correct, as the military was called, and Indian Agents lost control of the reservations.
The Lakota saw the military with a mixture of hate and respect caused by years of warfare between the two groups. Although summoned to protect settlers, some military leaders knew the Indians had good reasons for Ghost Dancing. In a very insightful letter dated November 28, 1890, General Nelson Miles listed the reasons for the problems on the Lakota Reservations. He stated that reduction in the size of their reservation, crop failures, reduction of beef rations, delays in dispersion of rations, and starvation created wide-spread and deep-seated problems. All these problems, and more, lead to increased tensions on the reservations. His letter demonstrates, in some ways, that the military had a deeper understanding of the problems confronting the Lakota than did Indian Agents.
It is hard to comprehend, now, the extent of the control the Government and missionaries had on the reservation. The Lakota had little personal freedom, needing permission to move or visit relatives on other reservations and little freedom to practice their ancient religious rites and customs, much less the “new” Ghost Dance. Many Lakota religious practices, old or new, were actively discouraged or even suppressed by missionaries. In order to stamp out Lakota religion, Christian missionaries sought out Lakota children and taught them Christian stories and songs, which upset many Lakota parents.
According to Andersson, newspapers did little more than trade in rumors, publish alarmist headlines, knowingly print wrong or misleading statements, and in some cases spread outright lies. Many reporters came to the Dakotas to report on another “uprising” and most all of the large eastern newspapers had reporters on the scene. The reporting is described by Andersson as “up to date but wrong” (220-22). Reporters gathered every night, during the crisis, to compare notes and telegraph their stories to their respective newspapers. The tones of stories and editorials changed almost simultaneously, proving to Andersson, collusion between newspapers and reporters (225).
Congress took no notice of the Lakota Ghost Dance until December 3, 1890 and even then, thought the problems manageable and the reports of starvation exaggerated. When Congress finally acted they took the side, quite naturally, of the white settlers, Senator Daniel W. Voorhees being about the only Congressmen who took the Lakota’s side. He warned that the troubles steamed from the Indians’ poor standard of living, not the Ghost Dance. Senator Henry L. Dawes, believed by many to be the “Indian expert” in Congress, believed otherwise and stated that Congress had every right to reduce the Lakota’s annual appropriations.
Andersson believed Senator Voorhees had the correct interpretation of the problems on the reservations. He states tensions were created by the division of the Reservation, recent crop failures, and the fact that few full-bloods were farming (and thus becoming “civilized”). But Congress continued to blame Indian leaders, especially Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Indian officials, and rank-and-file Indians themselves for their plight.
Andersson claims that the Congressional debates of December 1890 show a Congress out of touch with reality and a body depending on too few “experts.” As a body, Congress viewed the Ghost Dance with suspicion, uncertainty, and downright fear. Andersson makes the reasonable claim that the Ghost Dance fighting started December 15, 1890 with the attempted arrest of Sitting Bull, which directly lead to his death (as well as the death of several other Indians). This fact is often left out of other Western History books.
The book is aided by the inclusion of five appendices, one of which is a timeline of events. Although Andersson used numerous secondary sources, their use does not harm the final product. His analysis of events is forthright and his writing clear, although, in a few cases, redundant. But make no mistake, this is a fine work, and Andersson brings much new knowledge to this well-known historical event. Andersson’s use of Berkhofer’s “Great Story” approach to writing history is challenging but rewarding to the reader. Using a wide variety of voices and covering a wide area of time and space can make it difficult for a historian to write a coherent and interesting history. But Andersson has successfully risen to the challenge and written a well-researched and interesting history in The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890.