Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 2007


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 203-04.


Copyright 2007 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln



The history and significance of the Ghost Dance received renewed scholarly attention in 2006, as these two fine but very different works attest. Sam A. Maddra's study adds new material to the significant literature about the bestknown incarnation of the Ghost Dance, which flourished among the Lakotas and gained infamy by association with 1890's tragedy at Wounded Knee. Gregory E. Smoak's book proceeds in a much different direction by examining Ghost Dances among the Shoshones and Bannocks, along with those groups' changing identities during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Together they not only enrich our understanding of Ghost Dance movements, but also contribute to our comprehension of tribal, Great Plains, and U.S. history.

Since Smoak's Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century focuses on people and events centered in Idaho and Wyoming, much of the work has limited application to the Great Plains. But given Wounded Knee's significance and the fact that Wovoka's Ghost Dance traveled through the region to reach Plains tribes, students of Great Plains history will find the book of value.

Smoak covers a remarkable sweep of time in his exquisitely researched, elegantly produced volume. He deepens our knowledge of the Shoshones and Bannocks by beginning his analysis before their ancestors met EuroAmericans and extending it well into the twentieth century. His wide-ranging introduction to the people includes a thorough discussion of pre-Ghost Dance religion, emphasizing shamanism and prophecy, elements critical to understanding cultural dynamics and the appearance of the Ghost Dances.

This detailed background proves critical to understanding the Ghost Dances and how Shoshones and Bannocks responded to the mo~ements as well as how the movements affected Shoshone and Bannock life. When the narrative gets to the 1870 and 1889 movements, it starts to sizzle, making welcome contributions to the field. For one, it treats the Ghost Dances as part of an ongoing, living spiritual world of ongoing, living people. For another, it connects the Ghost Dance movements as related periods of intense religious activity and thereby narrates a tale of historical continuity rather than one of anomaly. Yet another strength derives from Smoak's discussion of the context in which the non-Native population received the Ghost Dance movements. Too often historians write as if events happened in a religious vacuum. Euro-Americans and officials who crafted Indian policy and read about and responded to the Ghost Dances had religious values of their own, and Smoak does a fine job bringing this background into view. On a more important level, he provides a sophisticated interpretation of how Shoshones and Bannocks at once made the Ghost Dances their own through unique interpretations and, through the Ghost Dances, experienced the beginnings of a new pan-Indian identity.