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date: 26 March 2023

Religion and Native American Assimilation, Resistance, and Survivalfree

Religion and Native American Assimilation, Resistance, and Survivalfree

  • Tammy HeiseTammy HeiseUniversity of Wyoming


Since the early 19th century, the expansion of American empire has constrained Native American autonomy and cultural expression. Native American history simply cannot be told apart from accounts of violent dispossession of land, languages, and lifeways. The pressures exerted on Native Americans by U.S. colonialism were intense and far-reaching: U.S. officials sought no less than the complete eradication of Native cultures through the assimilation policies they devised in the 19th century and beyond. Their efforts, however, never went uncontested. Despite significant asymmetries in political power and material resources, Native Americans developed a range of strategies to ensure the survival of their communities in the complicated colonial context created by American expansion. Their activism meant that U.S. colonialism operated as a dynamic process that facilitated various forms of cultural innovation. With survival as their goal, Native American responses to U.S. colonialism can be mapped on a continuum of resistance in which accommodation and militancy exist as related impulses. Native Americans selectively deployed various expressions of resistance according to the particular political circumstances they faced. This strategy allowed them to facilitate an array of cultural changes intended to preserve their own cultural integrity by mitigating the most damaging effects of white rule.

Because religion provided the language and logic of U.S. colonial expansion and Native American resistance, it functioned as a powerful medium for cross-cultural communication and exchange in the American colonial context. Religion facilitated engagement with white (mostly Protestant) Christian missionaries and allowed Native Americans to embrace some aspects of white American culture while rejecting others (even within the context of Native conversion to Christianity). It also allowed for flexible responses to U.S. consolidation policies intended to constrain Native autonomy still further by extending the reservation system, missionary oversight of indigenous communities, and land use in the late 19th century. Tribes that fought consolidation through the armed rebellions of the 1870s could find reasons to accept reservation life once continued military action became untenable. Once settled on reservations, these same tribes could deploy new strategies of resistance to make reservation life more tolerable. In this environment of religious innovation and resistance, new religious movements like the Ghost Dance and peyote religion arose to challenge the legitimacy of U.S. colonialism more directly through their revolutionary combinations of Native and Christian forms.


  • Indigenous Religions
  • Religion in America

Christian Missions and American Colonialism

U.S. Indian policy focused on removing Native American tribes from their homes east of the Mississippi River and resettling them on western lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase in the 1830s. Earlier generations of European and European American settlers had engaged in similar practices of dispossession; however, U.S. authorities intensified their effects when they adopted Indian removal as official policy during this period. The rapid emigration of white settlers to regions west of the Mississippi River in the mid- to late 19th century demonstrated the inadequacies of the existing Indian policy to U.S. officials. Determined to open new lands to white settlement, the U.S. government enacted new consolidation policies in the 1860s to force the removal of Native Americans yet again. These policies aimed not only to limit conflict between Native Americans and the white newcomers who had encroached on their lands, but also to eradicate Native cultures by forcing Native Americans to live on isolated reservations where land and resources would be shared among different tribes. U.S. officials expected such changes to break down existing tribal identities and undermine traditional customs over time. Eventually, they hoped that consolidation would result in the total assimilation of Native Americans to U.S. culture.

Christian missionaries acted as the U.S. government’s partners in this effort. Shared assumptions that Christianity and civilization were coextensive helped to forge strong alliances between (mostly Protestant) Christian missionaries and federal officials as they worked together to transform Native societies according to their own cultural standards. Protestant understandings of conversion as a spiritual transformation that manifested its reality through specific cultural practices aligned with the interests of American colonialism and helped to support its continued expansion. According to this logic, Native Americans would convert to Christianity and American civilization virtually simultaneously. Their inward embrace of Christian religion (understood by American Protestants as inherently individualistic and democratic) would result in a speedy transition from traditional to new customs. Christian missionaries taught that polygamous marriage, varying styles of dress and adornment, and gendered divisions of labor that put women in control of agriculture and village life and left men responsible for hunting must be abandoned. In their place, Native Americans were expected to adopt American-style monogamous family structures, clothing and hairstyles, and a new gendered division of labor in which men would farm individual homesteads while women would tend their homes. Only through such changes, Christian missionaries and U.S. officials insisted, could Native Americans be absorbed into the white settler population and contribute to the U.S. government’s purposeful expansion of its empire. Although nearly all Christian missionaries understood their efforts to transform Native cultures in terms of benevolent reform, their work as ministers, farmers, teachers, and (eventually) federal bureaucrats charged with administering U.S. Indian policy cannot be separated from the American colonial project to dominate Native peoples.

The advent of the Peace Policy made the fusion of religious and political goals in the execution of U.S. Indian policy explicit. In 1869, the U.S. government turned to Christian missionaries to administer the nation’s reservations. U.S. officials also placed responsibility for the formulation and oversight of federal Indian policy in the hands of a newly established Board of Indian Commissioners—comprising prominent Protestant laymen with close connections to their respective denominations—at the same time. These reforms aimed not only to root out corruption in the management of U.S. Indian policy, but also to hasten Native assimilation to white (Protestant) Christian civilization through expanded missionary activity and management of the reservation system. Supporters believed that missionary instruction in Christianity and civilization would provide the necessary conditions for Native Americans to assimilate fully into American society. Once Native Americans had been transformed through conversion to Christianity and their concomitant assimilation to white American culture, Peace Policy advocates believed U.S. territorial expansion into the American West would proceed in peace. The new policy—often interpreted as a humane and progressive reform for its time—maintained significant continuity with earlier strategies governing U.S. Indian affairs that it seemed to displace. The Peace Policy supported and even extended the U.S. colonial project by privileging U.S. interests over Native rights, coercing Native assimilation to white cultural norms through aggressive missionary tactics, and threatening forceful retaliation if Native peoples resisted U.S. authority.

The Peace Policy reflected the religious and political sentiments of many Americans in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Tired of fighting rebellious whites in the South and Native Americans in the West, they hoped to secure lasting peace through moral reform rather than military intervention. Ulysses S. Grant—the former Union general who waged a successful campaign for the U.S. presidency in 1868—promised as much through his campaign slogan: “Let us have peace.”1 Almost immediately after taking office in 1869, Grant undertook the task of reconstructing U.S. Indian affairs along the same lines as he intended to reconstruct the South. The new president turned to Ely S. Parker for assistance in a project that many Americans understood to be a radical restructuring of U.S. Indian affairs. Parker’s appointment as commissioner of Indian affairs in 1869 shocked many Americans and confirmed their belief that Grant fully intended to reconstruct existing U.S. Indian policy through benevolent reform. As a Seneca Indian and former military aide to the president, Parker embodied the ideals the Peace Policy attempted to realize. His role as the primary architect of Grant’s Peace Policy ensured that the program would operate with the total assimilation of Native peoples as its ultimate goal.

The Peace Policy’s initial aim was to end political patronage in the administration of Indian affairs. Convinced that corruption represented an impediment to Native assimilation, Parker requested that representatives at Quaker yearly meetings appoint Indian agents for the U.S. government in February 1869. The U.S. government charged Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers with the management of the Northern and Central Superintendencies, respectively.2 Grant then appointed army officers to oversee the remaining Indian agencies. Congress later barred military personnel from accepting civil appointments—a decision that opened reservations once under military control to religious oversight. The Peace Policy expanded to include a variety of other (mostly) Protestant denominations in 1870. These religious bodies appointed missionaries from their ranks to serve as U.S. Indian agents, teachers, farmers, and other employees on the reservations assigned to their management. These Christian missionaries-cum-Indian agents then established churches and schools on reservations; instructed their charges in English, agriculture, and various domestic skills deemed necessary for civilized life; and dispersed government funds and rations to ensure economy and to promote Native industry and, eventually, self-sufficiency. Supporters of the Peace Policy expected the transformation of U.S. Indian agencies from political to missionary outposts of American civilization to garner rapid results, and the U.S. government enforced existing consolidation policies aggressively during this period to force Native peoples onto reservations where they would receive missionary instruction to hasten their assimilation. In 1871, the U.S. government also abandoned the treaty system in a related move to solidify its dominance over Native Americans.

Those who expected the Peace Policy to effect the immediate conversion of Native Americans to Christian religion and American civilization found themselves disappointed. The religious organizations charged with overseeing U.S. Indian policy proved themselves no more effective in the management of Indian affairs than their civilian or military predecessors. Most importantly, the Peace Policy simply did not keep the peace its name promised. Violence surged in the American West throughout the 1870s, as many Native Americans forcefully resisted the federal government’s demands that they abandon their homes and customs for life on remote reservations. U.S. officials took an increasingly dim view of social reform and advocated violent military intervention as conflicts with the Modoc, Comanche, Sioux, and other tribes raged throughout the decade. Grant’s Peace Policy assumed an even more militaristic bent during the Great Sioux War when the United States sustained massive losses at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Shocked by the annihilation of Colonel George Custer and five companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry under his command, Congress appropriated funds for additional troops and forts to support more expansive efforts to police Native American resistance in the West.3 The military campaign to hunt down the Sioux and Cheyenne bands responsible for the U.S. defeat at Little Bighorn eventually exerted such significant pressure on these Native peoples that they were forced to accept government control over their lives on reservations.4

The U.S. government also sought to tighten its control over Native peoples through the implementation of new policies and procedures governing reservation life in the 1880s. Interior Secretary Henry Teller promulgated the Code of Indian Offenses in 1883, which identified Native customs he viewed as a “great hindrance” to the progress of civilization and outlined methods for their suppression. His attack focused squarely on Native religion. The code banned traditional dances and feasts, gift exchanges, funeral rites, and polygamy. It also sought to constrain the influence of medicine men by suppressing their healing rites and other rituals. Teller identified their influence as especially dangerous to the cause of progress: “The medicine men resort to various artifices and devices to keep the people under their influence, and are especially active in preventing the attendance of the children at the public schools, using their conjurers’ arts to prevent the people from abandoning their heathenish rites and customs.”5 Penalties for those who persisted in practicing Native customs ranged from imprisonment to loss of government rations. The Code of Indian Offenses was amended in 1933 as part of reforms initiated through the Indian New Deal.

The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 converted all communal tribal lands into individual property allotments. Under its terms, Native Americans who renounced their tribal affiliations and assimilated to white cultural norms would receive property allotments of up to 160 acres and full citizenship. This legislation reflected the emphasis American Protestants placed on individual conversion as the most effective means of reforming society. Senator Henry Dawes, the author of the Dawes Act, was among those American reformers who insisted that Native assimilation depended upon individualization. He advocated for a change in Indian policy that would “treat [the Indian] as an individual and not as an insoluble substance that the civilization of this country has been unable, hitherto, to digest.” Like other Protestant reformers, Dawes understood Protestant individualism within a constellation of related values including hard work, thrift, self-sufficiency, and respect for private property. He believed that a mandate to break up tribal lands into individual parcels would transform Native American hunters into yeomen farmers once and for all. Only when “the individual is separated from the mass, set up upon the soil, made a citizen,” Dawes insisted, could he be “a positive good, a contribution to the wealth and strength and power of the nation.”6

The Dawes Act had far-reaching effects for Native Americans. Not only did the act provide for the division of tribal lands among Native Americans who demonstrated their assimilation, it also declared all land not allotted to Native Americans “surplus” and opened it to white settlement. This change destabilized communal forms of social organization with Native tribes and dramatically reduced the land on which Native peoples could live and hunt. U.S. officials also reduced the rations provided to Native tribes through treaty agreements at the same time. This coercive measure aimed to force Native peoples to adopt farming to avoid starvation. This policy was reversed under the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, which allowed “surplus” lands to be returned to tribal ownership. Many tribes sought redress in the courts in the 20th and 21st centuries, arguing for the restoration of or compensation for lands lost under the Dawes Act.

Indian New Deal

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 profoundly altered U.S. Indian policy. Under the leadership of John Collier, commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, the U.S. government reversed many of its previous assimilationist policies. This act—regarded as the centerpiece of the Indian New Deal—attempted to halt allotment, established procedures for the creation of tribal governments and the recognition of tribal constitutions, and repealed prohibitions on the performance of traditional Native American customs. Around the same time, the U.S. government provided grants to create local school districts (in a partial reform of the existing boarding-school program), hospitals, and social-service agencies to assist Native Americans in sustaining and strengthening their own cultures.

The act’s implementation and results were mixed. It slowed—but did not stop—the practice of allotting tribal lands to individual tribal members. The act made no attempt to restore tribal lands already held by individuals to tribal groups. Because the act did not disturb existing allotments, it left reservations with a patchwork of privately owned and communal tribal lands—a situation that persists to this day. The act also facilitated the restoration of some lands to tribes through its provisions for land acquisition. Its authorization of limited Native self-rule and suspension of bans on Native customs provided relief from the oppressive assimilationist agenda of previous decades for many Native Americans; however, the imposition of new forms of social and political organization through the Indian New Deal had profound consequences for Native peoples in the 20th century and beyond.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Congress rejected much of the Indian New Deal by passing a series of laws intended to return to the assimilationist policies of the past, but to execute them with greater urgency and vigor. Several of these laws focused on termination—a new federal policy that called for the legal dissolution of Native American tribes. The U.S. government eventually terminated more than one hundred tribes by revoking their status as sovereign dependent nations and ending all forms of federal aid associated with that designation. Relocation functioned as a key component of the termination policy. U.S. officials encouraged Native Americans living on reservations to relocate to urban areas, offering job training and housing assistance for those who migrated to San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis, and other cities. More than thirty-three thousand Native Americans entered the relocation program between 1953 and 1960.7 U.S. officials envisioned termination and relocation as mechanisms to assimilate Native Americans into white American society. However, integration proved more complicated than they anticipated. The government’s domestic policies gave rise to the emergence of the American Indian Movement and other Red Power groups in the 1960s. The cultural dislocation caused by federally mandated assimilation policies of this era fueled Native religious and political dissent in the late 20th century and provided many Native Americans with the skills they would need to agitate for their own civil rights.

The U.S. government repudiated termination in the late 1960s and 1970s, changing federal policy yet again to favor Native self-determination rather than total assimilation. Some tribes fought termination in the courts and delayed its implementation long enough to avoid the dissolution of their tribal identities altogether. A few survived as the result of technical errors in processing their legal termination. Numerous others have regained their legal status as federally recognized sovereign states or are now seeking restoration of their tribal status.

Negotiating Strategies for Survival on the Continuum of Resistance

Native Americans remained determined to control their own destinies despite the pressures exerted on them to assimilate. Religion played a crucial role in the formulation and execution of various strategies intended to ensure the survival of Native communities. As a powerful medium for cultural innovation and communication, religion facilitated a range of responses to the challenges presented by U.S. colonialism. Native American resistance to total assimilation was dynamic, shifting along a continuum in which accommodation or militancy (or some combination of both) could be expressed to address the particular political circumstances faced at any given time. Even as the solidification of U.S. cultural dominance increasingly constrained the options available to Native Americans, this survival strategy continued to create spaces in which Native peoples and their cultures could endure.

Conversion to Christianity functioned in this way. Although historians have tended to interpret Native American engagement with and conversion to Christianity as evidence of complete (or, sometimes, as incomplete) assimilation, more recent studies have demonstrated that Native Americans who chose to identify as Christians did so on their own terms. Their reasons for accepting the religion of the Christian missionaries they encountered were complex and owed more to their own cultural understandings than those promoted by white Protestants and Catholics. Without question, Native Americans who investigated or accepted Christianity found resources to help them negotiate new relationships and identities in a world transformed by colonialism. Missionaries offered assistance many Native Americans wanted and needed to position themselves and their communities more favorably in a rapidly changing environment. English learned through Bible reading or catechism classes could be put to other uses—setting terms for trade, understanding (perhaps to avoid) government oversight, and communicating with distant tribes about shared concerns. Ojibwe hymn singing fits this pattern of conversion. Hymn societies flourished because they allowed Ojibwe singers to express “age-old values of reciprocity, subsistence, and the seasonal round” in the new context of reservation life. As these traditions developed in the late 19th century and into the 20th, “both Christian and non-Christian Ojibwe could consider such ritualized hymn singing . . . fully Christian [and] also fully Ojibwe.”8

Religion facilitated other forms of resistance as well. New religious movements like Ghost Dance religion and peyote religion arose in the 19th century to challenge the legitimacy of U.S. colonialism more directly through their revolutionary combinations of Native and Christian religious forms. The Christian theologies and practices they developed within a thoroughly Native context would prove profoundly unsettling for U.S. officials and Christian missionaries committed to the U.S. colonial project and its assimilationist goals.

Peyote Religion

Beginning in the 1870s, a new religion formed around the ritual consumption of peyote among Native Americans confined to reservations in western Indian Territory that would become one of the most significant Pan-Indian movements in American history. Peyote—a small, spineless cactus that produces visual and auditory hallucinations when ingested—had long been used in healing rituals performed by Native American tribes living near the Mexican border where the plant grew in the wild. Peyote religion, however, emerged as a distinct phenomenon as the U.S. government sought to consolidate its power through an aggressive campaign to assimilate Native peoples to white, (mostly Protestant) Christian cultural norms in the late 19th century. In this context, Native Americans who embraced peyote religion looked to the transformative power of the rituals they developed to facilitate cultural changes that would ensure the survival of their communities in a rapidly changing world.

No individual is more closely associated with the history of peyote religion than Quanah Parker. Although not the first or only peyote roadman to serve the Comanche people, Parker played an outsized role in the diffusion of the new religion within his own tribe and among other Native peoples. His biography—although extraordinary in many respects—is not incidental to the emergence of peyote religion and its rapid spread among numerous tribes. Parker was the son of a Comanche chief named Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, a European American woman kidnapped as a child and then assimilated to Comanche culture. (U.S. soldiers later recaptured Cynthia Ann Parker and returned her to American society—to which she adamantly refused to re-assimilate.) Parker became a powerful Comanche war leader as a young man and vigorously contested U.S. consolidation policies. He refused to honor the Treaty of Medicine Lodge of 1867, which stipulated that the Comanche people would accept reservation life, and sought spiritual power through innovative religious practices before leading a series of devastating raids into Texas. Working with a medicine man and prophet named Isa-tai, Parker participated in the first Sun Dance conducted among the Comanche and forged alliances with other disaffected Comanche and Cheyenne warriors through millennial prophecies that fueled their rebel against U.S. authority.9 He conceded to white rule only when militant resistance appeared futile and embraced integration with whites with intense interest once settled on the Kiowa-Comanche reservation in southwestern Indian Territory in 1875. Parker carefully negotiated his acceptance of white culture, adopting those practices that offered spiritual and material benefits to him and his people and rejecting others. This strategy allowed Parker to work closely with white Christian missionaries and businessmen in support of Western-style education and commerce for his people while rejecting the Protestant religion (especially its emphasis on monogamous marriage) that Christian missionaries viewed as necessary for assimilation.10

Parker’s desire to establish connections with his mother’s white relatives brought him into contact with peyote. Although accounts differ in some details, Quanah Parker seems to have embraced peyote religion while visiting his uncle John Parker in Mexico. He may have suffered from a stomach ailment or from blood poisoning after being gored by a bull. Whatever the exact circumstances, Parker consumed peyote as part of a healing ritual in the mid-1880s and attributed his cure to its power.11 He became an ardent advocate of peyote religion, aggressively missionizing peyote’s ritual consumption as a means to revitalize Native communities and working to protect the new religion from federal suppression. Parker’s activism proved instrumental in securing a privileged place for the Half Moon ceremony within peyote religion. Known as the “old way,” the Half Moon ceremony took its name from the shape of the altar on which the peyote rested during the ritual. This version of peyote religion emphasized the use of traditional Native mythology and tobacco in its prayers. Although Half Moon ceremonies may include Christian elements, this tradition’s blending of Native and Christian forms—such as prayers addressed to Jesus and the presence of a Bible—is less pronounced than that of the Cross Fire or other competing versions of the religion.12

When Christian missionaries and U.S. Indian agents realized that their Native American charges had adopted the use of peyote, they immediately sought to suppress the practice. The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a general ban on peyote consumption in 1890; however, this restriction did little to diminish the popularity of peyote religion or limit the availability of peyote among Native peoples. Indeed, the new religion grew more popular during this period. The very men expected to halt the progress of peyote religion often assisted in its dissemination. On the Comanche-Kiowa reservation, for example, peyotists—including Quanah Parker—dominated the Court of Indian Offenses and opted not to enforce restrictions on peyote use attached to the Code of Indian Offenses promulgated by the U.S. government.13 Christian missionaries and U.S. officials—frustrated in their attempts to suppress peyote consumption through U.S. Indian policy—sought to enact a federal statute criminalizing its transportation and use. Their activism resulted in congressional hearings on peyote use among Native Americans in 1918.

Ethnologist James Mooney led the defense of peyote religion when Congress attempted to take action against Native American peyotists. From 1891 to 1918, Mooney had conducted extensive fieldwork among the western Plains Indians and had participated in numerous peyote rituals while living among these tribes. He insisted that peyote religion was not the unhealthy, heathenish, uncivilized custom anti-peyotists claimed, but an expression of Native people’s “civilized” status.14 Mooney’s testimony helped to turn opinion within the U.S. House of Representatives in favor of the peyotists and allowed them to win a narrow victory over their opponents. Convinced more needed to be done to protect the new religion, Mooney traveled to Oklahoma to assist in chartering the Native American Church later in 1918. Sympathy for Native American causes—especially the ritual consumption of peyote—cost Mooney his job when the secretary of the interior issued a ban on his ethnographic research.

The incorporation of the Native American Church helped to prevent another national effort to ban peyote without ending the controversy surrounding its use. In many ways, the formation of the Native American Church laid bare the competing definitions of religion, religious freedom, and American national identity held by the majority of white American Protestants and Native American peyotists. The founders of the Native American Church had accepted much that Christian missionaries had offered to them from their Protestant traditions—including devotion to Christ and Christian morality defined by sobriety, industry, and honest living.15 However, their practice of peyote religion within this Christian context marked a clear difference between their Christianity and the missionaries’ version of Christianity. The peyotists had made Christianity their own in ways the missionaries could not (or would not) condone, and they claimed protection for their religious vision and for their rights as Americans by forming a church of their own. Although Native Americans would not win formal recognition as U.S. citizens until 1924, the incorporation of the Native American Church in 1918 represented an unequivocal demand for equal protect for peyote religion under the First Amendment.

Ghost Dance Religion

Multiple Ghost Dances emerged in the 19th century as Native Americans forcefully contested white rule in the American West and sought to shape new social identities for themselves within an increasingly restrictive colonial context. Ghost Dancers fused Christian and Native American traditions in their new religious movement to offer a potent message of hope for cultural renewal within their communities. Their teachings focused on expectations for the immanent return of dead friends and relatives on a restored earthly paradise and the disappearance of the white newcomers who had intruded on their lands. Ghost Dancers attempted to hasten the arrival of this promised millennial glory through their elaborate dance rituals. Their efforts would give rise to a diffuse, but powerful, restorationist movement that helped to organize an increasingly unified and coherent sense of Indian national identity capable of challenging white rule in the West.

Wodziwob, the principle prophet of the 1870 Ghost Dance, articulated a transformative message of Native renewal through his prophetic ministry in the Walker Lake region of western Nevada during the 1860s and early 1870s. His teachings subverted U.S. consolidation policies aimed at eradicating Native autonomy through claims that Native Americans could change their present circumstances by practicing ceremonial dances and other rituals that would allow them to access extraordinary powers. Wodziwob also prophesied the collapse of the existing social order, predicting that an earthquake soon would destroy white settlers or somehow create the necessary social conditions to end racial distinctions between whites and Indians. After the coming cataclysm, he promised that a new order would be established that would revitalize all aspects of Native American culture, bring dead ancestors back to life, and restore the earth itself to a paradise imagined to have existed before contact with whites.

As Ghost Dance prophecy spread, its focus on Native identity and opposition to U.S. authority served to sharpen existing racial distinctions between Native Americans and whites rather than to obliterate them. Weneyuga, a Ghost Dance evangelist who carried the new religion from Nevada into California and Oregon in the early 1870s, held a vision of the restored world promised through Ghost Dance prophecy that allowed no room for whites in the new millennium. He preached a strident message of racial difference, insisting that the return of the dead would be accompanied by the complete destruction of whites and mixed-race children. Weneyuga also sought to access and then to subvert the spiritual powers supporting U.S. colonialism by appropriating symbols of U.S. authority in Ghost Dance rituals. His expansive ceremonial repertoire included not only the days-long round dance rituals, trances, and visions for which the Ghost Dance has become famous, but also more mysterious rites that incorporated U.S. government buildings, military insignia, and other symbols of white rule to overthrow the existing world.16

Weneyuga’s apocalypticism resonated with members of the Modoc tribe in California in an especially powerful way. Already embroiled in a dispute with the U.S. government over efforts to contain their tribe on the Klamath reservation in Oregon, Modoc Ghost Dancers looked to their new religion to provide the spiritual and political resources needed to intensify their resistance. The Modoc War erupted in the fall of 1872 and frustrated U.S. attempts to contain the tribe for several months. After sustaining a series of significant defeats, the U.S. government appointed a peace commission to treat with the Modoc leaders to end the conflict. Some Modoc resistance fighters attacked the peace commissioners rather than accept a compromise that would limit their sovereignty in any way. Acting under the orders a powerful medicine man and Ghost Dance evangelist named Curly-haired Doctor, the Modoc warriors killed General Edward Canby and the Reverend Eleazer Thomas during the raid and injured the remaining peace commissioners and their staff.17

With peace no longer an option, U.S. forces pursued the Modoc rebels with renewed vigor. This onslaught strained Modoc resources to the breaking point. Military losses caused some Modoc warriors to doubt the Ghost Dance prophecy that had inspired their spirited resistance to U.S. rule. They now feared the “Christian bullets” once believed to have no power to harm them.18 The Modoc War ended with the capture of the Modoc rebels in June 1873. U.S. military officials executed the Modoc chief Kientpoos and three other resistance leaders on October 3, 1873. Last-minute reprieves saved the lives of two other condemned rebels, who were later sent to serve life sentences at Alcatraz Island. After the execution of their leaders, the remaining Modoc prisoners of war lived in exile at the Quapaw Agency in Indian Territory until 1909, when the U.S. government allowed Modoc tribal members to return to the Klamath Reservation they had once fought so hard to leave.

Ghost Dancing continued among the Modoc even after U.S. troops put down their rebellion. For the Modoc and other Native Ghost Dancers, the fusion of religious and social reality expressed in Ghost Dance prophecy provided the context to formulate various strategies to deal with the challenges posed by U.S. colonialism. Prophetic religion helped Ghost Dancers mediate political opposition to white rule that manifested as militancy or quietism at different times depending on the particular circumstances they faced.

As the Ghost Dance movement continued its rapid spread from California to Oklahoma in the late 1880s, it attracted the attention of U.S. officials who worried that the new religion might fuel an armed rebellion against their authority. Some Ghost Dancers—especially among the Bannock, Cheyenne, and Lakota—expressed a fervent (if still somewhat inchoate) Indian nationalism and a willingness to fight for self-government. The prophetic religion of the Ghost Dance mediated their resistance to white rule, facilitating new alliances and authorizing direct action to hasten the coming millennium. Ghost Dance religion remained profoundly subversive even in its most quietistic forms. Its emphasis on restoring Native communities to wholeness through healing and increase rites served as a potent political protest to U.S. colonialism, directly challenging its aims to break down Native identities and Native communities through assimilation.

Wovoka’s ministry heightened concerns among increasingly watchful U.S. officials. They saw a direct challenge to the union of religion and politics supporting their colonial authority in his blending of Native and Christian religious forms. Nothing scandalized them more than Wovoka’s embodiment of the claim that Christ identified with the suffering of Native peoples and had come back to earth to live among his chosen people. As the “Indian Christ,” Wovoka presented a serious theological challenge to white Protestants. Ghost Dance adherents understood themselves as Christians because they followed a living Indian Christ. Indeed, they interpreted their Christian faith as superior to the Christianity proclaimed by their opponents. Through this blending of Native and Christian religious forms, Ghost Dance partisans contested the authority of the United States to govern them at all.

Ghost Dance religion assumed its most militant expression among the Lakota peoples during this period. Their practice of the new religion contained powerful messages of religious dissent and political resistance, conveying the hope that Native autonomy would be reestablished in the American West and the expectation that Native peoples might play an active role in inaugurating the world to come. These Ghost Dance partisans expressed their resistance to white rule through evocative songs and symbolic actions. They repeatedly occupied dance circles for the performance of their rituals in defiance of colonial authority. Through their ritual actions, Lakota Ghost Dancers actively resisted the cultural decline U.S. officials sought to impose upon them. Ghost Dance religion created spaces for them to focus on their future growth and cultural renewal in a world that increasingly constrained their autonomy. The Lakota Ghost Dancers would have expected U.S. officials to intervene to suppress their religious ceremonies. The government’s ban on the Sun Dance in 1883 had made it clear that the expression of Native forms of spirituality would not be tolerated. The Lakota Ghost Dancers’ decision to remove their children from school also was deliberately provocative. White interference to stop Ghost Dancing served to heighten tensions, especially at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

In defying U.S. authority by continuing to dance, Lakota Ghost Dancers knew they risked the escalation of sanctions enacted against them and the application of more severe forms of government repression. They knew that U.S. officials might send soldiers to the reservations to end the Ghost Dance. However, few Lakota could have guessed that the United States would deploy thousands of troops to occupy their reservations in what would become the largest single military operation in the nation since the Civil War.19 Chaos reigned on the reservations after the soldiers arrived. Lakota Ghost Dancers fled to a remote location known as the “stronghold.” Sitting Bull’s murder during a botched attempt to arrest the Lakota holy man intensified Lakota fears that the soldiers would attack. Wild rumors added to the confusion and stoked fears on both sides of the conflict.

Big Foot—the leader of the Miniconjou band that had offered sanctuary to some of Sitting Bull’s followers after his death and an enthusiastic supporter of the Ghost Dance religion—decided to surrender to the soldiers at Pine Ridge. He hoped to restore order in the region by returning his people to the reservation. U.S. troops intercepted the mixed Miniconjou-Lakota band at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28, 1890. They found Big Foot severely ill with pneumonia and moved him to an army ambulance for the night. The other members of Big Foot’s party camped along the creek. Accounts vary about precisely what happened the next morning. According to some reports, a medicine man urged the Ghost Dancers to resist the soldiers, promising that no bullets could harm them and blowing dust in the air. Some observers reported that a deaf Lakota man refused to hand over his gun when a solider tried to disarm him, accidently discharging the weapon as the two men struggled. Others asserted that a soldier shot the medicine man when he blew dust in the air, fearing that his action was a signal for the warriors to attack the U.S. troops. Whatever the reason for the attack, the 7th Cavalry opened fire on the men, women, and children gathered at Wounded Knee. Some estimates claim as many as three hundred members of Big Foot’s band died in the massacre.20

Many observers believed that the Ghost Dance ended after the violence at Wounded Knee. They were mistaken. The movement survived well beyond the immediate aftermath of the massacre among a number of groups. Indeed, the Caddo and some other Native peoples continue to practice Ghost Dance religion to this day. Most famously, the American Indian Movement “restored” the Ghost Dance during its occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Through their embrace of Ghost Dance religion, AIM members found not only authorization for their political resistance to U.S. authority, but also the spiritual tools to construct a new social identity for themselves. Their “restoration” of the Ghost Dance (and other Native traditions) allowed urban Indians dislocated from reservation culture through termination and relocation programs to engage in new forms of religious innovation intended to ensure the continued survival of Native American cultures.

Review of the Literature

Although no comprehensive analysis of Native American assimilation, resistance, and survival exists, the literature concerning these related topics is vast. Nearly all histories on Native Americans and Native American cultures touch on these subjects in some way. This literature review will focus quite narrowly on studies that trace the development of U.S. Indian policy and its assimilationist agenda, peyote religion, and Ghost Dance religion. Francis Paul Prucha’s work on Native American–U.S. relations is essential reading for anyone studying the formulation and administration of U.S. Indian policy. In The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (1984), Prucha provides a detailed history of U.S. colonialism from the colonial era into the 1970s. American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865–1900, another volume written by Prucha and published in 1975, stands as a useful complement to The Great Father and examines the role Christian missionaries played in administering U.S. Indian policy in comprehensive fashion. Frederick E. Hoxie’s A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920 (2001) provides a thoughtful overview of this slightly later phase of U.S. Indian policy. The historiography of peyote religion is decidedly more limited. Omer C. Stewart’s Peyote Religion (1987) provides a truly comprehensive study of the movement. Thomas C. Maroukis builds upon and updates Stewart’s classic with The Peyote Road: Religious Freedom and the Native American Church (2010). Other volumes—including Paul Steinmetz’s Pipe, Bible, and Peyote among the Oglala Lakota (1990) and David F. Aberle’s The Peyote Religion among the Navaho (1991)—address local peyote traditions. Historical treatments of Ghost Dance religion—and especially the Wounded Knee massacre—constitute a considerable body of work. James Mooney’s massive ethnographic study of Ghost Dance religion, “The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890” (1896), remains the most comprehensive examination of the movement. Gregory Smoak’s The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization (2006) expands the historiography of the Ghost Dance considerably by focusing attention on its practice among the Bannock and Shoshone peoples of Idaho and describing how the religion functioned in the construction of new forms of ethnic identity. Similarly, Alice Beck Kehoe’s investigation of the persistence of Ghost Dance religion among the New Tidings Community in Canada into the 1960s in The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization (1989) represents a significant contribution to the field. Jeffery Ostler’s The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee (2004) also makes an important contribution to Ghost Dance historiography by offering a sustained examination of colonialism as a dynamic process of cultural contestation.

Further Reading

  • Bowden, Henry Warner. American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Conn, Steven. History’s Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Du Bois, Cora. The 1870 Ghost Dance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
  • Gill, Sam. Native American Religious Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
  • Hoxie, Frederick E. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
  • Hoxie, Frederick E. Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.
  • Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • Johnson, Troy R., Joane Nagel, and Duane Champagne. American Indian Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Josephy, Alvin M. Red Power: The American Indians’ Fight for Freedom. New York: American Heritage Press, 1971.
  • Kehoe, Alice Beck. The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2006.
  • Lewis, Bonnie Sue. Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.
  • Martin, Joel W. and Mark A. Nicholas. Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Medicine, Bea. “Native American Resistance to Integration: Contemporary Confrontations and Religious Revitalization.” Plains Anthropologist 26 (November 1981): 277–286.
  • Mooney, James. “The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890.” In Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, part 2. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1896.
  • Ostler, Jeffery. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Philip, Kenneth. Termination Revisited: American Indians on the Trail to Self-Determination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865–1900. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
  • Shreve, Bradley G. Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
  • Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.
  • Smoak, Gregory. Ghost Dances and Identities: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Spier, Leslie. Ghost Dance of 1870 among the Klamath of Oregon. Seatle: University of Press, 1927.
  • Spier, Leslie. The Prophet Dance of the Northwest and Its Derivatives: The Source of the Dance. Menasha, WI: George Banta, 1935.
  • Stewart, Omer C. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
  • Tinker, George. Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
  • Tinker, George. American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008.
  • Treat, James. Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Treat, James. Around the Sacred Fire: Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Ulrich, Roberta. American Indian Nations from Termination to Restoration, 1953–2006. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
  • Utley, Robert. The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963.
  • Weeks, Philip. “Farewell, My Nation”: American Indians and the United States in the Nineteenth Century. Malden, MA: John Wiley, 2016.
  • Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Wilkins, David, and K. Tsianina Lomawaima. Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
  • Williams, Robert. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.


  • 1. William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1987), 264–267.

  • 2. Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian 1865–1900 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 48–49.

  • 3. James Donovan, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—The Last Great Battle of the American West (Boston: Little, Brown, 2008), 322–323.

  • 4. Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian 1865–1900 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 93–94.

  • 5. Rules Governing the Court of Indian Offenses, Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Washington, DC: March 30, 1883.

  • 6. Fifteenth Annual Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners, 1883 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1884), 69–70.

  • 7. Francis Paul Prucha reported 33,466 participants during this period. See Prucha, Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 355.

  • 8. Michael D. McNally, “The Practices of Native American Christianities,” in American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity, eds. Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 68–69.

  • 9. Gaines Kincaid, “Isa-Tai,” in Handbook of Texas Online. Isa-Tai, a Comanche medicine man, won a significant following for his prophetic ministry during a brief period in the 1870s. He innovated with traditional religious rituals by conducting the first Sun Dance among the Comanche people and helped to inspire military rebellion through his millennial preaching. See also Olive King Dixon, The Life of Billy Dixon (Austin, TX: State House Press, 1927), 186.

  • 10. Omar Stewart, Peyote Religion: A History (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1987), 69–79.

  • 11. Stewart, Peyote Religion, 72.

  • 12. Stewart, Peyote Religion, 76–77.

  • 13. Stewart, Peyote Religion, 130.

  • 14. Stewart, Peyote Religion, 219.

  • 15. Articles of Incorporation of the Native American Church reproduced in Stewart, Peyote Religion, 224.

  • 16. Cora Du Bois, The 1870 Ghost Dance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 16.

  • 17. Jefferson C. Davis Riddle, The Indian History of the Modoc War and the Causes that Led to It (San Francisco: Marnell, 1914), 77–98.

  • 18. Alfred Meacham, Life of Alfred B. Meacham: Together with His Lecture, the Tragedy of the Lava Beds (Washington, DC: T.A. & M.C. Bland, 1883), 45.

  • 19. Jerry Green, ed., After Wounded Knee: Correspondence of Major and Surgeon John Vance Lauderdale while Serving with the Army Occupying the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, 1890–1891 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1996), 26.

  • 20. Richard E. Jensen, Voices of the American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 128; James Mooney, “The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,” in Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, part 2. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1896), 867–883; William Coleman, Voices of Wounded Knee (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 244–245, 289–314, 362–365; and Alvin Josephy Jr., Trudy Thomas, and Jeanne Eder, Wounded Knee: Lest We Forget (Cody, WY: Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 1993), 10–27.