Mooney, James

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Mooney, James



James Mooney (1861-1921), author of “The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890” (1896), The Aboriginal Population of America North of Mexico (1928), and other distinguished works on the American Indian, was born in a small town in Indiana of Irish immigrant parents. As a youth, he developed an intense interest in the Indian tribes of the Americas and early determined to be an ethnologist. After working briefly as a schoolteacher and newspaperman in Indiana, he went to Washington, D.C., where he met John Wesley Powell, the founder of the Bureau of American Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution. Powell hired him as an ethnologist in 1885, and from then until his death Mooney worked for the bureau.

Mooney undertook many field trips among North American tribes, becoming an expert particularly on the Cherokee and the Kiowa. He collected historical and linguistic data which contributed heavily not only to his own work but also to the collaborative effort which led to the publication of the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (the famous Bulletin 30 of the Bureau of American Ethnology). He published extensively on the Cherokee and other American Indian tribal groups, always basing his publications on substantial personal field work and historical research. The value of his reports is enhanced today by the fact that his research was done at an early date, when some of the Oklahoma tribes still lived relatively independent of interference in Indian Territory and others, only recently confined to reservations, preserved customs and values of prior ages.

His most celebrated work, “The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,” was a careful account of the religion which swept across the reservations west of the Mississippi in 1890 and the following years. Mooney talked to the Paiute prophet, Wovoka, and visited many of the tribes, including the Sioux, who were receptive to the ghost dance. The ghost dancers believed that a native millennium was about to arrive, in which the faithful dancers would be saved, to live in the ancient way in a world relieved of white men and their customs. The organization of the ghost dance among the Sioux, itself a response to various economic and political pressures, led to the killing of Sitting Bull, then chief, and to the massacre of Indians who resisted being disarmed. Mooney’s sympathetic account of the dance generally and of Sioux resentments in particular has become a classic of early American ethnography. As a result, the ghost dance has achieved international fame and is often treated in secondary sources as the very prototype of nativistic or revitalization movements. His ability to understand the nativistic aspirations of the Indians and to see in their behavior a homologue with religious enthusiasms in other times and places (in the early phases of the great religions and the movement of Joan of Arc, as well as other Indian movements) was probably owing in part to his own vigorous interest in Irish nationalism.

Anthony F. C. Wallace

[See alsoIndians, North American; Millenarism; Nativism And Revivalism.]


1885 Linguistic Families of the Indian Tribes North of Mexico, With Provisional List of the Principal Tribal Names and Synonyms. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Misc. Publ. No. 3. Washington: The Bureau.

1891 The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Pages 301–397 in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Seventh Annual Report . . . 1885-1886. Washington: The Bureau.

1894 Siouan Tribes of the East. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 22:1–101.

1896 The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Part 2, pages 641–1136 in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Fourteenth Annual Report . . . 1892-1893. Washington: The Bureau. → An abridged edition with an introduction by Anthony F. C. Wallace was published in 1965 by the Univ. of Chicago Press.

1898 Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians. Part 1, pages 129–445 in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Seventeenth Annual Report ... 1895-1896. Washington: The Bureau.

1900 Myths of the Cherokee. Part 1, pages 3–548 in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Nineteenth Annual Report ... 1897-1898. Washington: The Bureau.

1907 The Cheyenne Indians. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs 1:357–442.

1928 The Aboriginal Population of America North of Mexico. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 80, No. 7. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.


[Hewitt, J. N. B.] 1922 James Mooney. American Anthropologist New Series 24:209–214. → Includes a comprehensive bibliography of Mooney’s works, prepared by his wife.

Hodge, Frederick W. (editor) (1907-1910) 1959 Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. 2 vols. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 30. New York: Pageant.