GHOST DANCERS, ELVIS, AND MESSIAHS OF ALL STRIPES: The Nagging Phenomenon of Revival Cults

     Whether they go by the name of Nativistic Movement, Revival Cults, Millenarianism, or some other recognized name, the recurrence at regular intervals around the world of such cultic practices is nothing new.  Such happenings usually involve a messianic figure preaching a return to a former way of life or spiritual belief--generally in the face of a cultural onslaught by some powerful outside influence--and are an often and well-documented phenomenon in most anthropological literature.  It seems that no past or modern culture has been immune from experiencing this common upheaval anytime a superior outside force (either technological, spiritual, or both) encounters and threatens to overwhelm  a smaller or less socially advanced culture.   More recently, however, many aspects of this traditional pattern have begun to occur within modern cultures, as the appearance of various cults organized around a single, central theme and a messiah-like, charismatic individual seem to be popping up with increasing frequency, and often with destructive outcomes.  We have seen the tragic outcomes recently caused in places like Waco, TX and by figures such as Jim Jones and others in our own country.

 The trail of such behavior, however, is a long one indeed and reaches far into the human past, probably from the days of the first civilizations, if not even earlier.  The Romans, in particular, were very good at initiating the conditions that set off these patterns of behavior.  One need only look at the rise of Christianity, from its initial reaction to a Roman occupation threatening to submerge an ancient and existing belief system to its rise as a vast personality death cult around a martyred messiah figure, to see a complete example of the entire process.  That this process has repeated itself many times--if in less dramatic and long-lasting fashion--around the world in cultures of all sizes, should lead the careful observer to recognize obvious signs at the approach and spread of such a frequently disruptive, if not destructive, behavior pattern. In the more recent past, it has been the spread of the British empire, in particular, that has time and again set-off this destructive process.  In the last two hundred years we saw examples in the caste wars of Yucatan, the Boxer Rebellions in China, and more recently Mau Mau in Kenya, and other numerous places where the global colonial empires' footprints were heavy and unyielding.

In contemplating including an example of this phenomenon in the plot line of my current novel in The People of the Stone saga, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT (now available through major book outlets and this website) it became necessary to take a look at the most common elements of this entire pattern to see which ones might fit well into the story line and the characters this author was developing.  While these Nativistic Movements (the term I prefer to use) are a world-wide phenomenon, I naturally chose to look at the North American past to search for examples that might relate more specifically.  It is not a difficult thing to find them throughout historic times and in several places and cultures.  Let's look at some of the common elements that might be accurately adapted into any historical, fictional setting.


One of the most widely studied such happenings in all of anthropology is, of course, the famous Ghost Dance of the upper Plains in the late Nineteenth Century.  There, followers of the Paiute medicine man, Wovoka, sought to cast off the dominant and overwhelming white, European culture before it totally submerged the native belief systems in a new spiritualism (Christianity) and replaced a functional warrior and hunting society with a sedentary, agricultural one with a sophisticated new technology.  In its purest form, the nativistic movement generally casts up a charismatic voice from a living descendant of the culture about to be overwhelmed, who then begins to preach a message of returning to an idealistic past through some system of purification rituals (in this case chants, ghost shirts, painted symbols, etc.).  Ideally, followers of the new ritual will succeed in casting out or destroying the new, outside threats to their way of life, with the ultimate goal of bringing back the spirits of lost ancestors (or in the Ghost Dancers case, the all but extinct buffalo) to help restore the idyllic past that existed before the arrival of the more advanced and now intrusive culture.  Frequently, but not always, this individual message results in armed conflict in which the final destruction of the culture about to be overwhelmed is sped to its inevitable conclusion.  The Prophet (and as in the case of the earlier Tecumseh rebellion, literally the man's name) may or may not be martyred in some way, but there is almost always a final attempt at annihilation by one side against the other (Wounded Knee in the case of the Ghost Dancers.)    NOTE:  My personal favorite, fictional account of this process would be the 1939 classic movie "Gunga Din", which includes all the elements of a Nativistic Movement fairly well-explained.  Unfortunately, Hollywood after its usual fashion, later attempted to remake the classic with an American twist and produced the not-so-classic film "Sergeants Three"--which, ironically, was set in the Ghost Dance period and locale.

Naturally, when I decided to explore the theme of the fall of a long-established culture in my new novel, set at the height of the Hopewell transition into the Mississippian period in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, (also the setting for other novels in The People of the Stone saga), I looked very quickly at the possibility of exploring this idea.  Some of the story is set in what can easily be seen by the reader as the Cahokia mound complex of Illinois at a time when the decline of the high point of North American prehistoric culture has begun.  All the elements are put into place to produce a fine, classic nativistic movement and prophet figure, and any one who has read any of the other anthropological novels in this genre that I have been attempting to refine will easily see the character of "The Corn Planter" as just such a cult figure (with apologies to Tecumseh--and his brother, The Prophet--or Wovoka, Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, Elvis (yes Elvis, or have you not followed the cult status he has achieved since his death among the Fifties nostalgia crowd), or any other of American history's more recent revivalist cult heroes).

 Pushing this plot line, of course, is the introduction of a new spiritualism--this time coming from the Mayan areas to the south in the form of the Feathered Serpent cult with its superior world view and dominant agricultural and economic influences.  There is also an existing culture already in decline: partly from its poor environmental choices, brought to the fore by the outside impacts of an extended drought,  and partly from internal strife as well, along with a noticeable decline in the abilities of the long-existing ruling class to produce new leaders equal to the more competent ones from their past.  All-in-all, the perfect elements for a revivalist cult emergence, with a charismatic leader (one of this author's favorite themes as always) to be produced were there in the archeological record of that time period and location, waiting to be called upon and given voice by the novelist.  In large part, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT is an attempt to more fully explore the several things that can--and often do--happen to bring about the rapid decline and fall of a previously successful and on-going cultural experiment when it faces inevitable change, which it is not yet ready to grasp in its fuller context..

Unfortunately, there are many of us today who would see aspects of those same elements alive and operating in our own fragile cultural experiment here in North America.  We can never be so arrogant as to think that our civilization is immune from these same forces, which the past can and does show us have time and again operated in a most predictable fashion to bring about the destruction of an otherwise powerful and dominant social experiment.  Our environment has become just as fragile, and our institutions and the leaders they produce have begun to fail us at critical times, in much the same fashion as we can so easily witness at different points in our own not-so-distant past.  My own prehistorical fictional account of just such a failure can be easily read in the remains which that past has left us, along with the native peoples who managed to survive it--but in a far different manner than we can see in their great ancestors from that glorious past.

  Will our own future be one of regret-driven reflection, and failed attempts, to bring back a lost glory that our own negligence and arrogance took from us?  Are not many of the current manifestations of the "Tea Party" movement--not to mention its erstwhile 'charismatic' former governor of Alaska leader among others--and their attempts to "restore their America" to some undefined former national glory by calling upon an old fundamentalist creed little more than the easily recognized shadows of this age-old process of the rejection of progress or newness?  If so, it should be kept in mind that these movements almost always lead to widespread system failure--and to violence.  We should not be surprised if it did so once more as well; for there is truly "nothing new under the sun."

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