Among the most frequent errors in discussing the reproductive potentials of religiosity is the assumption that religious traditions may just preserve old habits such as higher fertility. This mistake usually occurs by just exploring main or dying religions, whereas new biocultural adaptions are driven by struggling minorities. For example, the Swiss Census 2000 showed the demographic decline of Swiss Catholics as well as of Swiss Yehova's Witnesses - but a higher fertility among New Protestant movements. But today, I want to focus on a very specific religious movement which has long been discussed as a paragon of "irrational failure" - the Native American Ghost Dance movements who emerged during the late 19th century.
In a syncretic combination of Native American and Christian-Messanic traditions, "Indian (Native American) prophets" such as Wodziwob, Weneyuga and Numataivo started to preach throughout the 1870s to Native American tribes threatened by destruction. According to their gospel, the gods, spirits and ancestors could be summoned by circular trance dances, religious rituals and vows, thereby restoring Native American live and ending the oppression of the Whites. A second wave of ecstatic Ghost Dances started with a Paviatso named Wovoka. It quickly won an even huger following. But it was brought to a violent end by the massacre of Sioux at Wounded Knee by U.S. government troops on December 29, 1890.
For decades, the Ghost Dance movement has been discussed with pity and forbearing among historians and ethnologists. For example, Thomas Overholt commented in 1974:
We may be tempted to write of Wovoka's millennarianism as a fore-doomed and "irrational" response to the crises of White domination... But we should be willing to entertain the notion that for the people who heard this message ... calling on the supernatural for aid in throwing off this grave menace must have been, in terms of their culture, an essential "rational" act.
The Ghost Dance Movements - A Demographic Success in Retrospect?
But fresh perspectives and studies slowly began to shake the assumption of "failed irrationality". Scholars began to note that the Ghost Dance Movements had brought forth new narratives, rituals and teachings among the particpating tribes. Some had rebuilt their identities and families, rejected intra-group violence and alcohol and formed new marriages and alliances. In his eminent study from 1986, Russell Thornton found that those tribes participating in the Ghost Dance Movements actually managed to retain and rebuild their memberships through higher fertility, the integration of "mixed" children and the return of emigrants to their lost identities far better than those tribes who had remained passive. Thornton concluded his "We Shall Live Again. The 1870 and 1890 Ghost Dance movements as demographic revitalization":
It is thus possible to say that the two Ghost Dance movements actually "worked" - not, of course, by returning deceased American Indian populations to life, but by strengthening tribal identity and distinctions between American Indian and European populations. These in turn served to strengthen tribal boundaries, which restricted migrations out of the tribe during population growth." (p. 45)
Although many Native Americans are still struggling with severe problems, a new sense of identity and self-awareness has taken root among many, quite often fostered by religious narratives and rituals. Many "white" Americans have started to "rediscover" Native American ancestors and clever vendors offer DNA-testing to assess tribal roots. Just take it as an example of many: Religion is not just a pile of outdated traditions, it can be a way to (re-)build them.