Nativist Movements (American Indian Revival Movements)

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NATIVIST MOVEMENTS (AMERICAN INDIAN REVIVAL MOVEMENTS). Sent to study the Ghost Dance among the "hostile" Sioux in the 1890s, James Mooney, an Irish nationalist and an employee of the Bureau of American Ethnology, quickly realized parallels with anticolonial expressions in his own homeland against occupation by the British. He combed available literature, and his 1896 report provided a historical overview of prior attempts, successful or not, to revitalize overstressed and disillusioned communities. Later works by Leslie Spier, Cora Du Bois, June Helm, Jean-Guy Goulet, and Robin Ridington traced such prophet or

messianic movements across western North America in great detail. Scholars working in modern New Guinea called similar phenomena "cargo cults" for their emphasis on material possessions, while Vittorio Lanternari summarized this worldwide variety as expressing "religions of the oppressed."

Careful further study, however, has shown that such efforts rarely occur at the moment of greatest stress and despair. Indeed, such rallying only comes after the crisis has passed, as though mere survival took every ounce of time and effort. Reflection afterward leads to well-formulated revelation about how best to avert such disasters in the future, allowing an effective strategy to be proposed, implemented, and integrated into existing patterns by enthusiastic community participation. Every situation requires its own solution, however, so the varieties of nativistic response are endless and ongoing.

Nativistic movements, initially called prophet cults, then messianic reforms, are inherent in the worldview of Native Americans, though their pace and number quickened considerably after and because of the arrival of Europeans. The high value placed on the individual and his or her willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of the community is underlain by a core belief in revelation, the basis of such prophecy.

For most of the Americas, this insight is provided by the fasting and successful quest for an immortal partner, a supernatural ally to help self and others gain success in life. Often called the guardian spirit complex, based in personal revelation, some individuals, such as the famous Lakota holy man Black Elk, received a message that had bearing on the well-being of the whole community. Black Elk never implemented his call, but others have done so.

An important corollary belief is that humans occupy a pivotal (but never superior) position in the world, where they bear direct and oblique moral responsibility for its stability. Storms, earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters were likely triggers for prehistoric reforms, urged and proclaimed by prophets who came forward under divine sanction to institute better behavior. Recalled in mythic epics, such reformers included Payatamo for the Pueblos, Erect Horns for the Cheyennes, Dekanawidah for the Iroquois Confederacy, and a variety of Changers among the Coast Salishans.

From the moment of European impact, either via earlier pathogens or later face to face (blow for blow) contact, prophets arose to rally and redirect native survivors along healthful reforms. At the 1540 start of his brutal march through the Southeast, Hernando de Soto encountered a local leader in Florida whose dire threats and heaped curses have all the hallmarks of a call for nativistic resistance. Later explorers set off other reactions, and eventual settlements led to full-blown rebellions, such as those of the Powhatans in 1610, 1622, and 1644. Indeed, the advance of the frontier summoned a backfire of messianic efforts, highlighted by that of Popé, who led a rebellion in the Southwest in 1680, and the Delaware prophet Neolin ("Fourfold"), who inspired Pontiac in 1763.

Around 1800, the Seneca league prophet Handsome Lake successfully reformed Iroquois society to accord with European notions of the family and farming, at the same time safeguarding ancestral rituals and religion. The Shawnee Tenskwatawa, however, failed in his attempted anti-European stance, advocated by his brother Tekumtha (Tecumsah).

Throughout the Southeast, tribal communities reforged themselves after massive slaving raids and epidemics. Often they heeded the call of one of their native priests, sponsors of farming rituals throughout the year who felt compelled to turn to prophecy to provide direction and cohesion to these often fragile communities.

Across the Plains the depopulation from microbes and wholesale displacement as some tribes got guns before others was offset by the wondrous arrival of the horse, enhancing much needed mobility. Prophets arose to stabilize new tribal cohesions, often based in rituals such as the variety of expressions gathered under the term "sun dance." The Civil War caused a variety of reactions in Native communities. Among many similar unifying expressions in the Midwest was the 1864 effort of Baptiste Peoria to consolidate Kansas survivors of the Illinois and Miami Confederacies into what became the Peoria tribe of Oklahoma.

As Mormons and others entered the Great Basin, these highly practical and streamlined native societies became the cradle for important historic movements. The simplicity of their round dances and their inherent respect for nature carried compelling messages. In 1870, Wodziwob (Fish Lake Joe) moved to Walker River and tried to introduce his community's mourning rite, setting off the first Ghost Dance movement throughout the West. In 1890, Wovoka of Walker River, facilitated by transcontinental railroads, sparked the second and more famous Ghost Dance, whose bearers included the famous Lakota Sioux holy man Sitting Bull.

The spread of the horse into the Plateau led to huge mobile groups hunting bison in the northern Plains under the command of recently emerged heads of intertribal confederacies such as Weowich of the Yakamas and Split Sun (Eclipse) of the Interior Salishans. Prophets reacting to these sweeping changes, espousing a strict localization of tribal sentiments, included Smohalla along the mid–Columbia River and Skolaskin along the Sanpoil.

In 1881, near the capitol of Washington Territory, John Slocum, a man of chiefly family, died but soon was revived to found the Indian Shaker Church under the inspiration of his wife, Mary Thompson Slocum, who received the divine gift of "the shake," a Native religious manifestation akin to that of the original Quakers and

other ecstatic cults. Brilliantly combining outward forms of Catholicism, Protestant hymns, notions of personal salvation, and core Native beliefs, several thousand international Shakers from northern California to southern British Columbia survived into the twenty-first century.

Along the Canada-Alaska border, many prophets emerged in reaction to the fur trade, disease, disruption, and disillusionment. The most famous of these was Bini (Mind), a Carrier Athapascan, whose name became hereditary in his matriline and so passed to at least one woman who continued his message.

While women have been rare among prophets (as was Joan of Arc), they have had impact proportional to the intensity of their revelations. Before 1878, the Sioux Tailfeather Woman lost four of her sons in one battle with U.S. soldiers. Out of the depths of her grief came the Dream Dance Drum, an international peace based on the ceremonial transfer of large drums from one tribe to another that continued in the twenty-first century.

Among the most successful of such reforms for over a century is the Native American Church, based on the sacramental use of a spineless cactus button, peyote, that grows in northern Mexico and was featured in pre-Columbian rituals. Adapted to use on the Plains by the Caddo-Delaware John "Moonhead" Wilson (Nishkantu) and Kiowa-Comanche leaders like Quannah Parker, this religion spread across North America. Several court challenges to such "drug use" were upheld until issues of religious freedom successfully were raised. Peyotists oppose the recreational use of alcohol and drugs, countering that the public, communal, ritual use of peyote is above misguided if not racist laws.

In the decades before 2000, prophets appeared in western Canada, target for extractive exploitation. Using special flags and dance pavilions, the people among the Dogribs, Dene Thas, and Dunne-zas have small but loyal followings.

Not to be overlooked is the role of Natives in the spread of world religions, in particular Baha'i, in both the United States and Canada. Indeed, Black Elk himself turned from his own vision to serve as a catechist for the Roman Catholic Church for the rest of his long life.

Overall, based in notions of personal revelations from powerful immortal beings (spirits), nativistic reforms emerge from prophetic messages intended for a larger audience within or across communities. Ever expanding, these audiences are the familial, the community, and the international, each directed toward the welfare of the larger community of all interacting beings in time and space. What makes these movements stand out moreover is that they represent a moment when channels of communication are unclogged and renewed in the hope that better understanding will follow into the future.


Goulet, Jean-Guy A. Ways of Knowing: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Dene Tha. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Lanternari, Vittorio. The Religions of the Oppressed: A Study of Modern Messianic Cults. Translated from the Italian by Lisa Sergio. New York: Knopf, 1963.

Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. A reprint of the 1896 original.

Spier, Leslie. The Prophet Dance of the Northwest and Its Derivations: The Source of the Ghost Dance. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. "Revitalization Movements." American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 264–281.

Wallis, Wilson. Messiahs: Their Role in Civilization. Washington, D.C.: American Council of Public Affairs, 1943.


See alsoIndian Missions ; Indian Religious Life ; Indian Social Life ; andvol. 9:Letter from Wovoka .

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