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Native American
Revitalist Visions

Index

Introduction to Revitalist Visions
How Columbus Discovered America (Iroquois)

Arapaho Ghost Dance Songs
Sioux Ghost Dance Song
Paiute Ghost Dance Songs
Kiowa Ghost Dance Songs


 

Introduction:  Native American Revitalist Visions

by K. L. Nichols

Two remarkable examples of the Native American "revitalist" movement are the Iroquois teachings of the Great Spirit (Gaiwiio) based on the visions of Handsome Lake in the late eighteenth century and the ghost dance songs based on the visions of the Paiute shaman named Wovoka near the end of the nineteenth century. In both cases,  Native Americans were offered the hope for a return to the traditional Native American values destroyed by the invading European powers determined to colonize the newly discovered  (to them) lands of the "New World."

Because the Iroquois fought on the side of the British during the American Revolutionary War, their defeat resulted in the loss of their lands (in the New York regions) and their subsequent demoralization by alcohol.   However, Handsome Lake experienced four dream-visions revealing that the Iroquois must repent of the vices they had picked up from the invading whites and dedicate themselves to observing their tribe's two great annual festivals.  The moral code of  this new religion informs the bitter but brilliant satire of white values in Handsome Lake's tale which equates the "new world" journeys  of Columbus (and, by implication, of other whites) to a deceptive and destructive plot formed by the Christian devil.

A hundred years later,  the new religion of the Ghost Dance spread rapidly among Native Americans throughout the American West in response to the dire conditions they faced at that time.   Forcibly moved onto reservations by the U.S. military, the desperate tribes suffering from poverty, hunger, and disease embraced this last hope--the ghost-dancing rituals intended to hasten the arrival of an Indian messiah who would liberate them and usher in an all-Native future world.  Exactly what would happen to the white conquerors was not clear; evidently, they would simply disappear.

Tragically, the ghost dances were misinterpreted by nervous white settlers, government officials, and the U.S. military, all of whom feared that the dances would lead to a resumption of the dreaded Indian Wars, as they were called.  The result was the Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek  in 1890.  Near the South Dakota river by that name, the U. S. military surrounded a straggling band of 350 Indians and slaughtered nearly half of them, most of the victims being women and children.  This bloody event marked the end of a traditional way of life for Native Americans.

Like most Native American poetry, the Ghost Dance songs that were sung or chanted at the ritual dances focus less on their present conditions (hunger and misery, in this case), but more on images of their wished-for future--the coming of a new, re-vitalized world, as promised by their spiritual "father" through his messenger, the crow.  Whirlwinds, lightning, earth tremors, and the sounds of falling rocks will mark the transition from the old to the new world.  Spirit armies (the returning loved ones), the buffalo herds, and images of spring renewal (rutting antelope, growing cottonwood trees) will characterize the arrival of the utopian future.

As with other kinds of Native American songs/poems performed as part of a tribal ceremony, the frequent repetitions of whole lines within the Ghost Dance songs give a kind of hypnotic quality and added intensity to the pleas of the ghost-dancers for a better world.
 


 

How Columbus Discovered America and

Why the Gaiwiio Became a Necessity (Iroquois)

by Handsome Lake (related by So-Son-Do-Wa)

from Arthur C. Parker, The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet (1913)
 

Now this happened a long time ago and across the great salt sea . . . that stretches east. There is, so it seems, a world there and soil like ours. There in the great queen's country where swarmed many people--so many that they crowded upon one another and had no place for hunting--there lived a great queen. Among her servants was a young preacher of the queen's religion, so, it is said.

Now this happened. The great queen requested the preacher to clean some old volumes which she had concealed in a hidden chest. So he obeyed and when he had cleaned the last book, which was at the bottom of the chest, he opened it and looked about and listened, for truly he had no right to read the book and wanted no one to detect him. He read. It was a great book and told him many things which he never knew before. Therefore he was greatly worried. He read of a great man who had been a prophet and the son of the Great Ruler. He had been born on the earth and the white men to whom he preached killed him. Now moreover the prophet had promised to return and become the King. In three days he was to come and then in forty to start his kingdom. This did not happen as his followers had expected and so they despaired. Then said one chief follower, "Surely he will come again sometime, we must watch for him."

Then the young preacher became worried for he had discovered that his god was not on earth to see. He was angry moreover because his teachers had deceived him. So then he went to the chief of preachers and asked him how it was that he had deceived him. Then the chief preacher said, "Seek him out and you will find him for indeed we think he does live on earth." Even so, his heart was angry but he resolved to seek.

On the morning of the next day he looked out from the opening of his room and saw out in the river a beautiful island and he marveled that he had never seen it before. He continued to gaze and as he did he saw among the trees a castle of gold and he marveled that he had not seen the castle of gold before. Then he said, "So beautiful a castle on so beautiful an isle must indeed be the abode of him whom I seek." Immediately he put on his clothes and went to the men who had taught him and they wondered and said, "Indeed it must be as you say." So then together they went to the river and when they came to the shore they saw that it was spanned by a bridge of shining gold. Then one of the great preachers fell down and read from his book a long prayer and arising he turned his back upon the island and fled for he was afraid to meet the lord. Then with the young man the other crossed the bridge and he knelt on the grass and he cried loud and groaned his prayer but when he arose to his feet he too fled and would not look again at the house--the castle of gold.

Then was the young man disgusted, and boldly he strode toward the house to attend to the business which he had in mind. He did not cry or pray and neither did he fall to his knees for he was not afraid. He knocked at the door and a handsome smiling man welcomed him in and said, "Do not be afraid of me." Then the smiling man in the castle of gold said, "I have wanted a young man such as you for some time. You are wise and afraid of nobody. Those older men were fools and would not have listened to me (direct) though they might listen to some one whom I had instructed. Listen to me and most truly you shall be rich. Across the ocean that lies toward the sunset is another world and a great country and a people whom you have never seen. Those people are virtuous, they have no unnatural evil habits and they are honest. A great reward is yours if you will help me. Here are five things that men and women enjoy; take them to these people and make them as white men are. Then shall you be rich and powerful and you may become the chief of all great preachers here."

So then the young man took the bundle containing the five things and made the bargain. He left the island and looking back saw that the bridge had disappeared and before he had turned his head the castle had gone and then as he looked the island itself vanished.

Now then the young man wondered if indeed he had seen his lord for his mind had been so full of business that he had forgotten to ask. So he opened his bundle of five things and found a flask of rum, a pack of playing cards, a handful of coins, a violin and a decayed leg bone. Then he thought the things very strange and he wondered if indeed his lord would send such gifts to the people across the water of the salt lake; but he remembered his promise.

The young man looked about for a suitable man in whom to confide his secret and after some searching he found a man named Columbus and to him he confided the story. Then did Columbus secure some big canoes and raise up wings and he sailed away. He sailed many days and his warriors became angry and cried that the chief who led them was a deceiver. They planned to behead him but he heard of the plan and promised that on the next day he would discover the new country. The next morning came and then did Columbus discover America. Then the boats turned back and reported their find to the whole world. Then did great ships come, a good many. Then did they bring many bundles of the five things and spread the gifts to all the men of the great earth island.

Then did the invisible man of the river island laugh and then did he say, "These cards will make them gamble away their wealth and idle their time; this money wilt make them dishonest and covetous and they will forget their old laws; this fiddle will make them dance with their arms about their wives and bring about a time of tattling and idle gossip; this rum will turn their minds to foolishness and they will barter their country for baubles; then will this secret poison eat the life from their blood and crumble their bones." So said the invisible man and he was Hanīsse'ono, the evil one.

Now all this was done and when afterward he saw the havoc and the misery his work had done he said, "I think I have made an enormous mistake for I did not dream that these people would suffer so." Then did even the devil himself lament that his evil had been so great.

So after the swarms of white men came and misery was thrust upon the Ongwe-oweh the Creator was sorry for his own people whom he had molded from the soil of the earth of this Great Island, and he spoke to his four messengers and many times they tried to tell right men the revelations of the Creator but none would listen. Then they found our head man sick. Then they heard him speak to the sun and to the moon and they saw his sickness. Then they knew that he suffered because of the cunning evils that Hanīsse'ono had given the Ongwe-oweh. So then they knew that he was the one. He was the one who should bear and tell Gai'wiio`. But when Ganio`dai'io` spoke the evil being ceased his lament and sought to obstruct Gai'wiio`, for he claimed to be master.

 


Ghost Dance Songs

 Ghost Dance Songs of the Arapaho:

                    My children, when at first I liked the Whites,
            My children, when at first I liked the Whites,
            I gave them fruits,
            I gave them fruits.

            Father, have pity on me,
            Father, have pity on me;
            I am crying for thirst,
            I am crying for thirst;
            All is gone—I have nothing to eat,
            All is gone—I have nothing to eat.
 

Ghost Dance Song of the Sioux:

                    The whole world is coming,
            A nation is coming, a nation is coming,
            The Eagle has brought the message to the tribe.
            The father says so, the father says so.
            Over the whole earth they are coming.
            The buffalo are coming, the buffalo are coming,
            The Crow has brought the message to the tribe,
            The father says so, the father says so.
 

Ghost Dance Songs of the Paiute:

                    A slender antelope, a slender antelope,
            A slender antelope, a slender antelope,
            He is wallowing upon the ground,
            He is wallowing upon the ground,
            He is wallowing upon the ground,
            He is wallowing upon the ground.

            The black rock, the black rock,
            The black rock, the black rock,
            The rock is broken, the rock is broken,
            The rock is broken, the rock is broken.

            The wind stirs the willows,
            The wind stirs the willows,
            The wind stirs the willows,
            The wind stirs the grasses,
            The wind stirs the grasses,
            The wind stirs the grasses.

            Fog!  Fog!
            Lightning!  Lightning!
            Whirlwind!  Whirlwind!

            The whirlwind!  The whirlwind!
            The whirlwind!  The whirlwind!
            The snowy earth comes gliding, the snowy earth comes gliding;
            The snowy earth comes gliding, the snowy earth comes gliding.

            There is dust from the whirlwind,
            There is dust from the whirlwind,
            There is dust from the whirlwind.
            The whirlwind on the mountain,
            The whirlwind on the mountain,
            The whirlwind on the mountain.

            The rocks are ringing,
            The rocks are ringing,
            The rocks are ringing.
            They are ringing in the mountains,
            They are ringing in the mountains,
            They are ringing in the mountains.

            The cottonwoods are growing tall,
            The cottonwoods are growing tall,
            The cottonwoods are growing tall.
            They are growing tall and verdant.
            They are growing tall and verdant,
            They are growing tall and verdant.
 

Ghost Dance Songs of the Kiowa:

                    The Father will descend,
            The Father will descend.
            The earth will tremble.
            The earth will tremble.
            Everybody will arise,
            Everybody will arise.
            Stretch out your hands,
            Stretch out your hands.

            The spirit host is advancing, they say,
            The spirit host is advancing, they say.
            They are coming with the buffalo, they say,
            They are coming with the buffalo, they say.
            They are coming with the (new) earth, they say,
            They are coming with the (new) earth, they say
.

            That wind, that wind
            Shakes my tipi, shakes my tipi,
            And sings a song for me,
            And sings a song for me,

 

Source: James Mooney, "The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,"
Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1892-93,
Part 2. Washington: GPO, 1896. Pages 961-77; 1072; 1053-55; 1082-87.
 


 

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NOTE:  These pages are for educational use only.  The introductions were written by
K. L. Nichols and are not to be used by anyone else without the author's permission.


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Updated: 2-10-10
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