Published in October, 1959 by Houghton Mifflin, Milton Lott’s second novel didn’t see paperback release until this January, 1968 edition. I reported on Lott’s first novel, THE LAST HUNT, here.
The title is somewhat of a misnomer as the Ghost Dance doesn’t appear until book three, the shortest and last section of the novel. What the book is about is life for the Sioux on a reservation. We see what the people are going through during the years of 1889 and 1890, the harsh life, so different from what they had lived before. The older men remembered the buffalo hunts and can only tell younger tribe members what the life was like.
Some of the participants are Turning Hawk, Eagle Voice, an interpreter, Little Wound, a small boy both blind and deaf, Westland, an artist studying and sympathizing with the Sioux, Reverend Martin, a missionary there to “civilize” the Sioux, and his wife, Lea, who feels the plight of her husband’s charges much more so than he does.
Martin really believes he’s there to help the Sioux, but in the course of the book, his real feelings keep slipping out. “Nasty savages, filthy lice-ridden.” When he witnesses a young Indian calm a recalcitrant horse , he ascribes it occult status. He collects medicine bags and other native implements to be destroyed. “They must live like white men. Anything else is sinful!”
When disease strikes both the reservation and whites servicing the area, Martin is incensed that she helps the doctor minister to the sick and when the Ghost Dance starts to spread through the western tribes, he wants it stopped. But even he doesn’t want what finally happens at the end. Reporters ramped up things for their stories. One in the book tripled the number of Sioux he actually saw dancing. His explanation: gt to give the people something to read. Probably that many all over the west doing the Ghost Dance anyway!”
I would say this book is not for everyone. If one expects a slam bang western, this isn’t it. Lott tells his story at a leisurely pace, building his characters toward their fates, which I already knew was coming, even as sketchy as I was on the Ghost Dance. After all, it’s one of the more famous events of that time period.