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Museum Mondays: Rare treasure on exhibit, through Wednesday

October 13, 2013

How do cultures change themselves? One way is through “revitalization movements,” deliberate efforts by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture. Revitalization movements usually occur in response to outside stresses and pressures and are often religious in nature. One of the best-known examples of revitalization movements was the Ghost Dance, a short-lived but significant example of Native American unification and resistance.

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In 1889 a Paiute man named Wovoka from the Wind River Reservation in Nevada began preaching a new prophecy he had received in a vision. In this vision, if native people lived good lives and danced a new dance, the world would be renewed. Whites would disappear, game animals would return, and the Indians would be reunited in this world with their dead ancestors. This dance we know today as the Ghost Dance. Many tribes sent delegates to learn the dance from Wovoka, and the religion spread rapidly.

Within just a few months, dozens of tribes throughout the Great Basin and the Great Plains had adopted the Ghost Dance. The religion became a uniting force among the tribes. White society got nervous. Newspapers reported the “Messiah Craze,” as it was called, in an alarmist manner. In addition to the anxiety caused by any pan-Indian movement, authorities feared that the Lakota Sioux, most of whom were practitioners of the Ghost Dance led by Sitting Bull, were preparing to attack white settlements and railroads in South Dakota. Misunderstandings of the prophecy and dance led directly to the Wounded Knee Massacre in December of 1890, which effectively ended the movement.

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Because the Ghost Dance is no longer practiced, one of the best ways to understand its values and ideals is through its surviving material culture. The Logan Museum of Anthropology’s latest exhibit, Dancing to Renew the World: The Plains Ghost Dance, curated by Julia Lacher’13, features one of the museum’s most significant objects: an Arapaho Ghost Dance dress. Only a handful of these dresses are known to exist. Pioneer anthropologist Alfred Kroeber observed this dress or an identical one among the Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma in 1899. Albert Green Heath collected the dress in 1916 and the Logan acquired it from the Heath family in 1955.

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The exhibit also includes two other Ghost Dance objects: a Sioux man’s shirt and a Kiowa feathered ornament.

The Arapaho dress was last exhibited 20 years ago at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and has not been on public view on campus since 1976 due to the light sensitivity of its painted images. Curator of exhibits and education Dan Bartlett has rigged up a new LED lighting system to minimize fading of the paint. Still, the exhibit will only be in place for a few more days: it closes on Wednesday (Oct. 16)

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