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Sacred Native American Ceremony Revived to Fight 21st Century Threats

  • Jim Kent

On a warm, summer night in South Dakota, a traditional Native American rite was re-born. More than a century after it was banned by the U.S. government, dozens of members of the Great Sioux Nation took part in a new Ghost Dance. The aim of the original ceremony was to stop the U.S. government and white settlers from destroying the tribes' traditional way of life. The Ghost Dance revival is an effort to stop more modern threats.

Drums echoed across the Rosebud Sioux Reservation's rolling plains as dozens of Sioux tribal members danced beneath a full moon in memory of their ancestors, and in hopes of a better future. Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka began the Ghost Dance in the late 1880s, to bring back the buffalo and the traditional ways of Native Americans who were being forced onto reservations by the U.S. government. To white settlers, the impassioned rite looked like an uprisi, and the U.S. cavalry was sent in to forcibly end the Ghost Dance.

Rosebud tribal member Ed Charging Elk spent several years researching the Ghost Dance before organizing the revived ceremony. Dancers prayed for cross-cultural understanding, as well a return to traditional ways, and the conquest of alcohol, drugs, political corruption and unemployment. "We're looking at it from the standpoint of being spiritual, asking for our relatives and our friends that have gone on to the Spirit World to help us pray for a better way of life," he explains, adding that that aspect made this Ghost Dance truer to the teachings of Wovoka than the original movement. "It's not a matter of physically getting rid of white society and white government, it's a matter of educating them to a point that they fully understand what we are all about."

Ed Charging Elk says some of the original goals of the Ghost Dance have been realized. Buffalo herds now graze on the lands of more than 3 dozen tribes. The movement didn't stop white settlement and the sacred shirts intended to protect the original Ghost Dancers didn't ward off gunfire, but Mr. Charging Elk says the fact that Native Americans remain in this country shows they did survive the cavalry's bullets and the loss of their land as a race. But their traditional way of life remains a memory, and re-claiming the spirituality of their ancestors is something those attending the Ghost Dance hope to encourage.

For Lakota elder Orville Mestis, "it's going to be a start for reviving some of the younger people's spirituality, and that's good. Because a lot of our Lakota people are spiritually bankrupt." He points to the decades-long government policy of sending Native children to Christian boarding schools where they were not allowed to practice their spirituality, as the primary culprit in that bankruptcy. "You know, we were a very spiritual people," he says. "We had a spiritual way of life. We didn't have a religion, we had a spiritual way of life. And walked the good way. That's mostly gone." But the revival of the Ghost Dance gives him hope for the future. "I have faith. We retain and keep alive the spirituality by people doing things like this. And I'm really thankful to be a part of this. I know there aren't that many people here, but that ain't the point. It's what's in your heart and what you feel for your people, and how you go about that."

More than 100 Native Americans representing the 7 bands of the Great Sioux Nation took part in the Ghost Dan, far below the number Ed Charging Elk had hoped for. He says part of the reluctance to participate is the older generation's fear of repercussions for practicing Native American spirituality. Yankton Sioux Leonard Hare suggests that another factor may be a fear of the unknown. "This is not here to cause any controversy. It's here to help people find themselves, to be at peace here, enjoy some friendship, and pray and do something. We're not trying to convert the world or anybody else. We're just here to...to do this ourselves, you know. We just want to help ourselves and maybe help somebody else. So, I think their controversy is they're afraid...cause it hasn't happened in 100 years, so they're scared."

A good part of that fear is grounded in the respect Native Americans have for the power of their spirituality. Traditional Native Americans believe that the Ghost Dance can actually put dancers in touch with the ghosts of their ancestors, and that causes many to think very carefully before entering the Ghost Dance circle.

While the prayers of the new Ghost Dancers centered on the problems of alcohol, drugs and unemployment on the reservations that are home to most Native Americans, Ed Charging Elk says non-Natives can lend their support through their own prayers. "If we pray [for one purpose], in all aspects, whether we're Catholic, traditional spiritual people, Episcopal, we need to all pray in the direction, we need to unite, and we need have our focus (on) our generations now and our generations to come for a better way of life."

Twelve hours after the ceremony began, strong winds continued to blow across Pawnee Butte, and the scorching noontime sun beat down on the remaining dancers as they took one final turn around what will now be a sacred mound. Ed Charging Elk, Orville Mestis and the dozens of other Sioux dancers hope that word of their Ghost Dance will spread across the Plains, and the country. They plan to invite other tribes to unite in an annual ceremony that prays for a better future for all Native Americans.

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