Lakota ghost shirt (via ndstudies.gov)
Gary Snyder’s “Passage to More than India” ends with “the chorus of a Cheynne Indian Ghost dance song—hi-niswa’ vita’ki’ni—‘We shall live again.’” Snyder’s essay, a fascinating survey of gnostic traditions, weaves in every thread of the Sixties counterculture: rock music, LSD, cannabis, Tantric Buddhism, Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, anarcho-syndicalism, Christian heresies, free love, alternative family structures and the American Indian vision quest. The hippies, Snyder argued, belonged to “the Great Subculture which goes back as far perhaps as the late Paleolithic.”
This subculture of illuminati has been a powerful undercurrent in all higher civilizations. In China it manifested as Taoism—not only Lao-tzu but the later Yellow Turban revolt and medieval Taoist secret societies—and the Zen Buddhists up till early Sung. Within Islam the Sufis. In India the various threads converged to produce Tantrism. In the West it has been represented largely by a string of heresies starting with the Gnostics, and on the folk level by “witchcraft.”
The Ghost Dance appears briefly in the essay as the apocalyptic religion that preceded the revival of the peyote cult. Its tenets, Snyder writes, were that “if all the Indians would dance the Ghost Dance with their Ghost shirts on, the Buffalo would rise from the ground, trample the white men to death in their dreams, and all the dead game would return; America would be restored to the Indians.”
‘Engraving Depicting the Ghost Dance,’ 1890 (via National Archives)
Wovoka, the Paiute prophet of the Ghost Dance religion, said it was revealed to him in a vision during the solar eclipse of January 1, 1889:
When the sun died, I went up to heaven and saw God and all the people who had died a long time ago. God told me to come back and tell my people they must be good and love one another, and not fight, or steal, or lie. He gave me this dance to give to my people.
As Wovoka and his followers were at pains to point out after Wounded Knee—like the killing of Sitting Bull, a violent response to the Ghost Dance—the doctrine was nonviolent, and the prophet disclaimed the belief that the ghost shirt protected its wearer from gunfire. James Mooney’s The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 reproduces a contemporary account of Wovoka’s doctrine, “The Messiah Letter,” which emphasizes the importance of ethical behavior:
You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life[...]
Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are all alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.
Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes [at the coming of the new world] do not be afraid. It will not hurt you.
I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words again from me some time. Do not tell lies.
Sioux Ghost Dance, filmed by Thomas Edison on September 24, 1894:
Patti Smith, Jessie Smith and Lenny Kaye perform “Ghost Dance” at the Wadsworth Atheneum, October 20, 2011: