May 26 2009

The new ghost dance

Published by at 2:19 pm under Idaho

ghost dance

1890 ghost dance/from Wikipedia

In the early 1890s, military conflicts between the United States and the native populations were largely over, and settled. That doesn’t mean the Indians, mainly situated on reservations by then, were fully accepting of the situation. Around 1890, the teachings of a religious man (then Wovoka, later Jack Wilson) spread through the western tribes. One of its components was a variation on an ancient dance, which came to be known (externally) as the ghost dance. The idea was that if Indians undertook a number of practices and rituals including the dance, white settlement of the west would slow and cease and might reverse, and other good things would come to pass. It didn’t work out. The best-known incident related to the ghost dance activism was the massacre, of 153 Lakota Sioux, at Wounded Knee. Later, the revival effort faded.

This comes up now in metaphor, not involving Indians but rather some of those who displaced them: Significant numbers of western ranchers, whose way of life seems to be, for a variety of reasons, fading. The Idaho Statesman‘s Rocky Barker writes that it was used in a reference point to Idaho legislation this year on bighorn sheep. As a metaphor, the ghost dance seems a powerful image for what’s going on in much of the ranching community – notably the family ranching community, which is caught in ever-diminishing circles.

As Barker points out, all ranchers are not the same, and quite a few are adapting creatively and usefully to changing realities. (We know a few of those.) But they’re not the part of the community who are ghost dancing, and of those, we may see more in the next few years.

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