The belief in the coming of a messiah, or deliverer, who shall restore his people to a condition of primitive simplicity and happiness, is probably as universal as the human race, and takes on special emphasis among peoples that have been long subjected to alien domination. In some cases the idea seems to have originated from a myth, but in general it play safely be assumed that it springs from a natural human longing.
— Handbook of American Indians (1906)
Few know there was a Ghost Dance movement among the Cherokees almost 80 years before the infamous epoch in the American west that culminated in the Indian massacre at Wounded Knee.
“In the troubled years 1811-1812 . . . a prophet named Charlie [i.e., Tsali, but not the individual involved in the Removal events of 1838] appeared among the Cherokee and described a dream or vision in which the Great Spirit spoke to him. [Some accounts speak of there being several prophets rather than just one.] The Great Spirit said he was angry with the Cherokees because they had departed from the customs and religious practices of their ancestors and were adopting the ways of the white man. To regain the favor of the Great Spirit and overcome their troubles, the Cherokees were told by their prophet to give up everything they had acquired from the whites (clothing, cattle, plows, spinning wheels, featherbeds, fiddles, cats, books) and return to the old ways: they must dance their old dances…. The prophet also said that those who did not heed this message would be punished and some would die. [`Now I have told you the will of the Great Spirit, and you must pass on it,’ he is reported to have said in one account, `But if you don’t believe my words, look up into the sky.’] Though Charlie met some opposition, he found many ready to accept his revelations, and he went on to say that it had been revealed to him that on a specific date, three months hence, a terrific wind and hailstorm would take place that would annihilate al the white men, all the cattle, and all the works of the white man. [Some accounts predicted a three-day eclipse rather than a hailstorm.] The hailstones would be ‘as large as hominy blocks’ and would crush all those who did not retreat to a special, charmed spot high in the Great Smoky Mountains where they would be safe. [The charmed spot was perhaps Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies, which the Cherokees know as Yonah.] After the storm, these true believers would be able to return to their towns where they would find all of the deer, elk, buffalo, and the other game that had disappeared. Then they would live again as their ancestors did in the golden era before the white man came.” (William G. McLoughlin in the book The Cherokee Ghost Dance: Essays on the Southeastern Indians, 1789-1861 (Mercer University Press, 1984).
There was no storm or eclipse. The Ghost Dance fervor withered and died without a return to a golden era. In the end, as was inevitable, superior numbers won out. Four thousand Cherokees died during the 1838 forced removal. But for a while the Cherokees danced and returned to the old ways in an attempt to stem the tide.
Cherokee Ghost Shirt
Sacred Armor for a Mystical Cult
Within months of the founding of the ghost dance religion by a Paiute mystic named Wevoka in 1889, most Plains tribes had seized upon its promise of an imminent, all-Indian millennium and were regularly performing the dance - said to bring on a trance in which this glorious future might be glimpsed. This movement had no more ardent followers than the Sioux; indeed, they probably introduced its sacred regalia, the "Ghost Shirt", which was worn by both men and women.
The ghost shirts seen here come from various tribes, but their basic design is the same. Made of buckskin, muslin or cotton sewn with sinew, each garment is decorated with symbols revealed to it's owner in visions. To the Sioux, however, the ghost shirt had a special - and ultimately disastrous - significance: they believed that it had the magical power to render the wearer invulnerable to the white man's bullets.
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