by Rani-Henrik Andersson
One of the things I loved about college and grad school was getting to take a wide variety of classes about things subjects with which I wasn’t very familiar. One area where I’m sadly lacking is Native American history, so I started stocking up on books on the subject. One of those was A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country, which is a fascinating book and a great resource.
To provide a very brief and basic overview, the Ghost Dance was a religious movement that moved through a number of American Indian nations across the Great Plains/Western U.S. during the 1880s and into the first year or two of the 1890s. In 1889, members of the Lakota sent representatives to learn more about this movement and return to teach their communities about the Dance itself and the promises of a better future.
The Ghost Dance allowed practitioners to fall into a state in which they could visit their dead relatives, who promised them that soon the dead would return, herds of buffalo (which had largely been wiped out by White Americans) would return to the Plains, and European-Americans would be pushed off the land.
For the Lakota, suffering from famine as a result of numerous broken treaties (including a refusal to provide promised rations of beef and other food), forced removal to poor lands, and the disappearance of their usual sources of game, such a promise was powerful. The dance spread from one Lakota reservation to the next, alarming White settlers and U.S. Indian Agents in charge of controlling the reservations. Unwilling or unable to understand, White newspapers and government dispatches stoked fears of “Indians on the warpath.” Soon, the U.S. government dispatched more troops to the area, further inflaming the situation. This culminated in the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, where U.S. soldiers gunned down over 250 Lakota men, women, and children.
Most of what we get in textbooks give a fairly flat view of the Ghost Dance (if it gets mentioned much at all) and most of that is from White sources. In A Whirlwind Passed Through our Country, Andersson creates a multi-layer analysis of the Ghost Dance and how different groups of Lakota understood it, interacted with it, and modified it. And even more importantly, he does so using Lakota sources.
Andersson’s previous book analyzed the Ghost Dance from multiple perspectives, of which the Lakota were one. He learned to read the language and found multiple primary Lakota sources. Not being able to use all of them in his first book, in A Whirlwind Passed Through Our Country, he provides the full published texts of a variety of Lakota individuals who had direct connections with the Ghost Dance movement.
The book is divided into four sections. The first deals with Lakota who were full believers in the Ghost Dance. The second focuses on Lakota caught in between. Some believed but then fell away; some were interested, but never fully convinced; and some saw the potential, even if they had no interest in the religious aspect. Part three presents sources from those who did not participate in the Ghost Dance but had front-row seats to its effects on the reservation. This includes some of the Indian police responsible for the arrest and murder of Sitting Bull. The book concludes with the words of Lakota who converted to Christianity and had no patience for the Ghost Dance movement.
One thing to keep in mind is that the book is organized thematically, which means each part will go back in time and re-cover previous events from a different perspective. Likewise, within each section, he provides all of the writings of an individual and then moves on to the next person. In my opinion, it’s an effective way to present this information. However, it can take a little getting used to if you’re used to more chronological approaches.
Andersson is also very clear that this book is about the Ghost Dance and not specifically the Wounded Knee Massacre (about which he wrote a separate book). While some of the sources do talk about the massacre, Andersson also notes that he has left out sources that speak only about the massacre and do not discuss the Ghost Dance. So if you’re looking for more on that subject, it looks like you’ll need to check out his other book.
Overall, this is a wonderful source for getting first-hand accounts. Andersson does a good job providing context at the beginning of each part, introducing the writer, and explaining language differences. The chronology in the back also can help keep dates straight as you jump back and forth between parts.
Having so many perspectives from so many Lakota voices is important. Andersson helps remind us that there was no one unified “Indian” perspective. Additionally, the White binary of “progressive” vs. “unprogressive” Natives is not nearly complex enough. This book will well-serve both historians and general readers alike.