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Ghost Dance: the True Meaning of the Americas

“Before you are an old man, the birds of the jungle will no longer blaze like fire across the sky. Mountains of ice at the top of the world will melt and the sea will rise and fall, poisoning its waters and claiming its shores. You did not see because you have not yet learned to see. Your kind, the Two-Legged Ones, have been tricked into destroying your strand in the weave of nature, but I have come to help you.”

This warning of impending global environmental destruction was given in 1972 by Desheto​, the spirit of an endangered psychedelic mushroom that only grows in the cloud forests of central Mexico, to Michael Stuart Ani, author of The Ghost Dance: An Untold History of the Americas. Published in 2016, the book is a captivating account of a hidden history of the Americas that traces a thread of connections to a single ancient Indigenous ritual: the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance, according to Ani, was a ritual that spread throughout the pre-Columbian Americas, renamed and reinterpreted by various cultures as far back as the Olmecs. However, at its heart, the Ghost Dance was a ritual designed to save humanity from environmental self-destruction today.

The book does not easily fit into established genres. Its unique narrative methodology interweaves vivid depictions of historical events, Indigenous mythology, and the author’s experiences with sacred psychedelic plants. Sometimes it is difficult to gauge if the events described in the book can be fully corroborated with historical evidence, or whether this is even important. To begin with, records of Indigenous history are often so sparse, unclear, and distorted by centuries-long ignorance and racist cultural suppression that corroboration is simply unfeasible. Ani gives the example of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, whom he says was actually an Indigenous medicine man — an identity and concept too “foreign” at the time to make it into Western history books.

Another aspect of pre-Columbian Indigenous American cultures that is not commonly known is the extent to which they were connected. The Indigenous people of North, Central, and South America were not separated by arbitrary national borders like today; they shared many rituals, myths, cultural concepts, languages and goods. Through extensive personal experience living with Indigenous people across the Americas, Ani is able to portray an underrepresented pan-Amerindian mythology. The story of the Ghost Dance offers a rare, integrated sense of meaning to the history of the Americas, as well as providing a broader sense of significance to today’s global environmental crisis.

Michael Stuart Ani, a self-described jungle guide, has lived his whole life in the cause and company of Indigenous people. He has been involved and active in Indigenous causes since the late ’60s. I identify with the author in some ways because, like him, I grew up as a non-Native American within a Native American context. My mother is German, my father is an ethnic Mongolian from China, but my mother eventually remarried and I spent my formative years growing up in Arizona with my San Carlos Apache step-father and sisters. It is a unique experience to have, as not many outsiders get to experience both the deep beauty and heartbreaking darkness of the Indigenous American experience. The years living with my step father were not easy, but the experience left me with the recognition, I share with Ani, of the urgency of the Indigenous message for ecological reciprocity today. The message at the heart of the Ghost Dance.

Ani’s journey began as a young man when he befriended John Fire Lame Deer​, an old Lakota sage from whom he first learned of the Ghost Dance. Lame Deer told him that its steps and history had been lost. Lame Deer led Ani on a peyote vision quest ceremony in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado in 1969. It was during this experience that Ani understood he would have to follow the “rope of the dead” to Mexico in search of the lost steps of the Ghost Dance.

Ani arrived in Oaxaca that same year where he lived with the Indigenous Mazatecan people. There he began a relationship with a sacred psychedelic mushroom known as Desheto, a species of mushroom that had been kept secret from Westerners. He lived under the supervision of a powerful Mazatecan Che-ney (healer), Jose Martinez, but Ani emphasizes that the commonly understood shaman/pupil relationship as depicted by Carlos Castaneda, who was also hanging around at the time, was false, and that the teachings came from the plants directly with minimal intervention from the shaman. Ani was the only outsider who was ever let into this world.

Today, Desheto is on the brink of extinction, threatened by climate change and human incursions, as it only grows in the delicately balanced cloud forest ecosystem of the Sierra Mazateca. This mushroom is a different species than the Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms commonly known in the West today as magic mushrooms. According to Ani, the cubensis mushrooms, which grew on cow patties and sugar cane fields, were themselves not used by the Mazatecan people, but only sold to Westerners as a way of generating some income for the impoverished locals; which also served to hide their true sacrament, Desheto, the “Prince of Plants.”

Through many ceremonies, over the span of thirty years, Desheto revealed to Ani the full story of the Ghost Dance, an ancient ritual that lay at the core of Indigenous American mythology. The Ghost Dance had spread throughout the Americas over the course of millennia and was reinterpreted from culture to culture, by the Lakota, the Paiute, the Hopi, the Huichol, the Aztecs, the Toltecs, and finally, back to its original source, with the ancient Olmecs in central Mexico. Despite regional variations, the essence of the dance has remained the same: the Ghost Dance is the ritual that calls upon the Ancestors for help in maintaining humanity's relationship to nature.

The original Olmec ritual told the story of a struggle between two gods, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca.​ Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, created civilization; his brother Tezcatlipoca, the lord of the witches, foresaw that humanity’s flourishing would inevitably lead to ecological destruction and thus cast a veil of illusion over civilization, inverting its values and leading humankind towards self-destruction before killing off mother-nature entirely. This mythology is an example of how, unlike in Western religions, concern for nature is embedded at the very core of Indigenous religions and cultures throughout the world.

The Ghost Dance was not only independently performed in local times and contexts, but also as a ritual cycle taking place over centuries, with different acts playing out throughout history. Some readers may be familiar with the Ghost Dance as a ritual performed by North American tribes during the tail end of the American-Indian wars in the 1890s, as a last-ditch effort to expel the white man from the Americas. The ritual frightened the white settlers so much that the American government immediately outlawed the ceremony and deployed the army to enforce the ban. In 1890, during a gathering for the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee, the U.S. Army massacred 250 unarmed Lakota men, women, and children. The massacre at Wounded Knee was later commemorated by an armed standoff between the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the U.S. federal government in 1973, for which Stuart Ani helped organize supplies. The Ghost Dance ultimately remained illegal in the United States until 1978.

The ceremony itself involves the consumption of sacred psychedelic plants, like peyote, mushrooms, or ayahuasca. Ani’s book describes it as the “ritual that would teach humans to interpret the wisdom of the Fruit of Knowledge.” Essentially it is a practice through which the phenomena of psychedelic experiences can be properly interpreted and received. Only by consuming entheogenic plants can the veil of illusion be broken.

In the book, when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519, he was invited to attend the local version of the Ghost Dance, known as the Miccailhuitontli (“Lady of the Dead Ceremony”). The Spaniards judged the mushroom-consuming ritual as devil worship and proceeded to massacre their hosts. Later, when the Spanish crown and the Vatican were firmly in control of Tenochtitlan, present day Mexico City, they tried to outlaw the Ghost Dance, which provoked a popular revolt. Instead of outlawing it altogether, the Spanish government decided to change the date of the ritual, moving it from late July, when the mushroom is in season, to November and replacing the sacrament with alcohol. This practice evolved into the Mexican holiday known today as Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

At the heart of many Indigenous and shamanistic cultures is the use of psychedelic plants, which are used as medicine and psycho-spiritual technologies and activate alternate brain functions for novel information processing and problem-solving. The study of psychedelics has been gaining prominence in Western medicine in recent years, as their usage appears to correlate with strong benefits to mental health and psychological well-being. They are the only medicines empirically shown to be able to effectively heal treatment-resistant forms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches, and even end of life anxiety. Both psilocybin and MDMA have been designated special “Breakthrough Therapy” status by the American Federal Drug Administration. Studies have shown that psychedelics can shift people’s political attitudes in an anti-authoritarian direction and also increase self-reported scores of “nature relatedness.” As one study participant describes it: “Before I enjoyed nature, now I feel part of it. Before I was looking at it as a thing, like a TV or a painting... [But now I see] there’s no separation or distinction, you are it.” These results, however, are only scratching the surface in comparison to the knowledge of plant medicines held by Indigenous people. While Western science has only begun to understand the effects of psychedelics, the usage of plant medicines like ayahuasca, for example, stretches back at least four millennia among the cultures of the Amazon basin.

​In 1972, Desheto sent Ani to South America to continue his journey along “the rope of the dead” of the Ghost Dance. There, deep in the remote rainforests of Venezuela, Columbia, and Brazil, he lived with the Yanomami and other uncontacted tribes still hidden in the jungles. For more than two decades, he helped them fight epidemics, wildfires, and the incursions of missionaries, miners, and loggers that brought disease, sex trafficking, and violence. Ani started the Amazonia Foundation in 1992 as a vehicle for his pandemic relief efforts.

Ani says he first came to understand the specific relationship between the destruction of nature and disease from an experience with the Piaroa tribe in 1988. The Piaroa took him three days into the jungle and showed him many different plants and animals, despite having no common language between them. Then, during an ayahuasca ceremony, the many plants and animals that had been shown to him suddenly fell together in his mind like the pieces of an ornate puzzle; Ani was able to see and understand the complex interrelations of ecosystems, as well as their relationship to disease, for the first time. Since this experience, Ani has warned of increasing occurrences of epidemics escaping from the wilderness because of ecological destruction.

When I first read the book in the fall of 2019, the looming threat of a global pandemic seemed abstract and distant. Needless to say, I was surprised when COVID-19, likely a zoonotic transmission resulting from environmental destruction and biodiversity loss, arrived on the world stage not three months later. At one point, Desheto tells Ani, “The Two-Legged Ones think plants are helpless and at their mercy but they are wrong; humans are at our mercy. I called upon the Mother of All Plagues [the goddess of diseases] to cull the human herd.”

The complex interrelated consequences of environmental destruction and disease, of health and biodiversity, is something Indigenous people have implicitly understood for centuries, and which they have warned Westerners about. Western science has only caught on within recent decades. Scientists used to think that zoonotic viruses and contagions simply existed out in the wilderness and that only random contact and transmission could lead to outbreaks. But they are beginning to understand now that the degradation of finely tuned ecosystems and the resultant stressors on organisms provide the conditions for the production of viruses in the first place. Destroying habitats and biodiversity not only releases disease, it creates disease. A more holistic conception of health, in which the organism cannot be separated from the environment, is direly needed.

Indigenous cultures throughout the world place the metaphor of the interconnected fabric of ecology at the core of their cultures and religions, whereas Western agricultural religions shaped European culture to consider nature and land only in terms of resources, property, and sovereignty, leading to today’s ecological crisis. Indigenous peoples make up only 6% of the global population while protecting 80% of the biodiversity of the planet. “Indigenous people are the key to all of our survival … it is not us who must save them, but it is them who must save us,” says Ani in a video on his Instagram account (@theghostdance).​ “My hope is with the Indigenous people, holding the line of Western environmental destruction, long enough to give nature the time to heal herself.”

Artist Timur Si-Qin’s interests in contemporary philosophy, the evolution of culture, and the dynamics of cognition take form in branded ecosystems and installations of 3D printed sculptures, light-boxes, and VR. Si-Qin’s works seek to think beyond the anthropocentric dualisms at the center of western consciousness.

Si-Qin’s long term project is the proposal of a new secular faith in the face of climate change called New Peace. Drawing from disparate disciplines like the Evolution of Religion, Marketing Psychology, and Object Oriented Ontology, Si-Qin understands spiritualities as cultural softwares capable of deep behavioral and political intervention. New Peace is thus a new protocol for the necessary renegotiation of our conceptual and spiritual relationship with the non-human. New Peace is an artwork, a brand, a sect, and self propagating memetic machine.

Si-Qin is a New York-based artist of German and Mongolian-Chinese descent who grew up in Berlin, Beijing, and in the American Southwest. Recent exhibitions include Magician Space, Beijing, The Highline, NY, Kaleidoscope/ Spazio Maiocchi, Milan, Art Basel - Hong Kong, the 5th Ural Industrial Biennale of Contemporary Art and the 2019 Asian Art Biennale.

Yanomami at the riverbank (courtesy of Ani)

John Fire Lame Deer marching with Martin Luther King Jr. (source unknown)

Drawing of Tezcatlipoca in the Codex Borgia (public domain/wikipedia)

Desheto (courtesy of Michael Stuart Ani)

Amazon (courtesy of Ani)

The author's Instagram account (@theghostdance)

Published: 2020.07.03