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As the mysterious new cult, the Ghost Dance, founded by Jack Wilson or presented through the Native American musical scene by Robbie Robertson, might be a good ethnographic example to identify the concept of religion. Three leading approaches for the religion and culture study include functionalism, symbolic or interpretive anthropology, and poststructuralism. Therefore, it is possible to define if religion fulfills social and psychological needs, serves sacred symbols to facilitate humans’ communication with the world, or it is a reaction to colonialism history and exercise of authority.
Ghost Dance is considered as a complete religion with its transcendental origin in the prophet’s visit to God and the enduring power of Father. It implies the universal idea about earthly rebirth suitable for anyone. From the functionalist point of view, the essence of Wilson’s guidance is “a clean, honest life” achieved through the circling dance of congregations that follow his gospel (Kehoe, 1989, p. 7). By dancing this belief, one may manifest faith and love to fight the evil, which certainly performs the basic social functions, including “renewing goodness from youth and health to abundant food” (Kehoe, 1989, p. 7).
With regard to the “Ghost Dance” song by Robertson, it is a powerful statement of survivance that addresses the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The notions of love and prayers are highlighted here as spiritual forces that resist hate and despair, which serves psychological functions.
Symbolic or Interpretive Anthropology
The cult of Ghost Dance symbolizes the gathering of people embraced by God and Wilson as His representative on earth; therefore, Wilson plays the role of a conduit to the divine. The process of the main ceremony, involving circling dance and trances, led to the “profound emotional catharsis” that unified all the participants and honored the Indians that passed into the afterlife (Kehoe, 1989, p. 8).
Furthermore, the red ocher paint in the tomato cans symbolized life as he was guiding the followers, together with other items such as magpie feathers, pine nuts, and rabbit skin robes. According to Lee (2007), red paint represents healing and happiness in Lakota culture. Hence, the spiritual practice of the Ghost Dance religion was supported by particular symbols with profound meaning.
From the poststructuralist perspective, religion is the product of history. Lee (2007) defines Robertson’s song as the “miniature history lesson” as it emphasizes the critical historical facts of the severe passage in Native history, which did not claim the end of the culture (p. 109). Besides, Jack Wilson’s story is potentially significant for the modern comprehension of anthropology since it engages ethnohistorical aspects, religious and societal changes of former Paiute people, and modern Lakota Sioux culture. Wilson’s father was a leader of the Paiute community who faced the American invasion. Kehoe’s research includes the past of Nevada and among the Sioux, as well as the current situation within and outside America.
To conclude, the Ghost Dance religion is a complex combination of all of the three major approaches to explaining the religion and Paiute community culture in general. However, Ghost Dance emerged more as the societal (functionalist) and symbolic functions, rather than a historical one (poststructuralist), although it was one of the obstacles. With that said, by promoting a clean, honest life, with the focus on harmonic life filled with faith and love, Wilson’s guidance performs basic yet essential societal and psychological needs. Furthermore, the symbolic approach is noted as well as it gives a deeper meaning to the concept of the religion. The historical aspect was still reflected in this story but not in its emergence and formation.
Kehoe, A. (1989). The ghost dance. Orlando, FL: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Lee, K. (2007). Heartspeak from the spirit: songs of John Trudell, Keith Secola, and Robbie Robertson. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 19(3), 89-114. Web.