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The Ghost Dance religion that swept through the Plains Indian tribes in the early 1890s was embraced wholeheartedly by the Pawnees. It was a message of hope to a people devastated by the attacks of enemy tribes, the encroachment of white settlers, and the outbreak of epidemics. For the Pawnees, who were looking to the U.S. government and trying unsuccessfully to farm their land, the Ghost Dance movement promised salvation: a restoration of the Indian dead, the buffalo, and the old times.
Alexander Lesser shows how the Ghost Dance brought about a partial revival of traditional Pawnee culture and its dances and songs. The ancient guessing hand game, remembered best by a tribe starved for the joy of play, became an important part of the Ghost Dance ritual. What had been a gambling game, a representation of warfare played by men, was transformed into a sacred game played by both sexes as an expression of faith or "good fortune."
Lesser surveys the history of the Pawnee Indians and their relations with the federal government and describes in detail the Ghost Dance hand games that "were the chief intellectual product of Pawnee culture" from the onset of the messianic movement to the original publication of this book in 1933. Citing such authorities as James Mooney and Stewart Culin, Lesser produced an enduring classic, now introduced by Alice Beck Kehoe, a professor of anthropology at Marquette University and the author of "The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization."