The Ghost Dance movement was a manifestation of Native Americans' fear, anger, and hope regarding the onslaught of white invaders, U.S. Army brutalization, and the U.S. legislative oppression of indigenous nations. Ghost Dance was the term Plains Indians applied to the new ritual; Paiutes, from which it sprang, simply called it by their traditional name, Round Dance.
The indigenous peoples of North America had been decimated, subjugated, and imprisoned on reservations. Their lands had been confiscated and their lifestyle crushed by U.S. government policies. By 1870, Indian circumstances were at a low ebb; in the wake of the Civil War, the United States had resolutely fought to control Indian life, culture, and self-determination. The Indians had been driven from place to place, many losing their traditional lands and suffering from starvation and disease.
By the 1880s, the federal government had managed to detain nearly all of the Indians on reservations, usually on land so poor that white men had no use for it. The handouts of rations and supplies that had been guaranteed them by the treaties were of poor quality, if they arrived at all. Indian life was just as desperate in 1889 as it had been in 1870.
All hope of defeating the United States militarily was gone, poverty was endemic, and assimilation into the dominant culture was the policy of the federal government. The arrival of railroads brought waves of settlers into former Indian lands. By 1890, conditions were so bad on the reservations, with starvation conditions existing in many places, that the situation was ripe for a major movement to rise among the Indians.
The original Ghost Dance movement (1870)
The original Ghost Dance began on the Walker Lake Reservation in Nevada, in 1870. It was initiated by Wodziwob (Gray Hair), a Northern Paiute Indian, as a result of his visionary experiences in the late 1860s. He told of having traveled, in a trance, to another world, where he was informed that an Indian renaissance was at hand, and declared that Indians could create a new paradise by performing a series of rituals.
In order to hasten those auspicious events, Indians were instructed to perform certain round dances at night. Wodziwob’s vision said that tribal Indian life would soon return, that the dead would come back to life, and that the animals the Indians had traditionally hunted — importantly, the buffalo — would be restored.
Wodziwob's teachings soon spread westward among Indian groups living in California and Oregon, among them the Klamath, Miwok, Modoc, and Yurok. Each group adapted the ritual to fit within its own traditions. As the movement spread it evolved; the Earth Lodge religion and the Big Head religion were among the offshoots.
After a few years, the Northern Paiute Ghost Dancers became disillusioned, since Wodziwob’s prophecies did not come true, and they gave up the dance. However, other groups to which the movement had spread continued to perform it to some degree. The 1870s Ghost Dance movement gradually subsided.
The second Ghost Dance movement (1890)
From vision to religion. Wovoka, a Paiute shaman (medicine man) who had participated in the Ghost Dance of 1870, became ill with a fever late in 1888 and experienced a vision that provided part of the basis for the new Ghost Dance. While cutting wood in the Pine Grove hills — during the solar eclipse of January 1, 1889 — he received a revelation.
Wovoka reportedly was taken into the spirit world, where he saw dead ancestors alive and well and saw all natives being taken up into the sky. The earth swallowed up all whites, and all dead Indians were resurrected to enjoy a world free of their conquerors. The natives, along with their ancestors, were put back upon the earth to live in peace.
He also claimed that he received instructions from God that by dancing the Round Dance continuously, the dream would become a reality and the participants would enjoy the new Earth. Wovoka's teachings followed the 1870 tradition that predicted a Paiute renaissance. A central doctrine of the Ghost Dance, as preached by Wovoka, involved reuniting the living and the dead. The return of the dead would be accompanied by a glorious return of traditional Indian culture. Wovoka began to prophesy around 1888.
Wovoka's prophecies stressed the link between righteous behavior and imminent salvation. Salvation was not to be passively awaited, but welcomed by a regime of ritual dancing and upright moral conduct. Wovoka’s prophecies hinged on simple principals: Do not hurt or do harm to anyone. Do not fight. Do what is right, always. Treat one another justly. Cleanse the body often. Remain peaceful. Be truthful. Abstain from alcohol. Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them.
The vision itself emphasized cooperation with whites in this world and equality with them in the next. Wovoka believed that if he complied, he and other Indians would be rewarded in the new life. Wovoka also discouraged the practice of mourning — the dead would soon be resurrected — demanding instead the performance of prayers, meditation, chanting, and especially dancing. In his thirties, Wovoka began to piece together a religion from diverse cultural and religious doctrines into what would be called the Ghost Dance religion of 1890.
His first source, tribal mysticism, drew upon the Northern Paiute Wodziwob who had prophesied in 1870. He urged his followers to dance in circles, already a tradition in the Great Basin area, while singing religious songs.
Wovoka's second source, his Christian education, added the concept of a supreme being, and validation for the resurrection of natives. Drawing on the Bible, Wovoka incorporated the story of Jesus, the messiah who had come to live on earth to spread the message of peace and love to the white man, and the resurrection of believers. God gave Wovoka a dance that was to be performed for five consecutive days.
In 1890, on the Walker River Indian reservation in Nevada, Wovoka revived the Ghost Dance. His message of a new golden age was received with enthusiasm, and it spread quickly among the Great Basin and Great Plains tribes. Many tribes sent delegates to visit Wovoka, hear his message, and receive instructions for the dance. Throughout the year 1890, the Ghost Dance was performed, stimulating anticipation of a return of the old ways.
That turn of events was all the more remarkable for three reasons:
the geographic and language barriers among the various tribes,
lack of access to media or other technology to spreading the news, and
the fact that Wovoka never left the Paiute land.
Instead, members of other nations came to Nevada to learn from him. The movement preached unity among tribes — even those that were once enemies — and a revival of Indian customs that were threatened by the civilization of European peoples.
They also spoke openly about why they were dancing. The Ghost Dance, they claimed, brought about renewal of native society and decline in the influence of the whites. Wovoka gained followers among the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota (Sioux), Kiowa, and Caddos.
The dance and ceremonial garments. The most important practice to ensure the effectiveness of the movement was the dance itself. It was unlike other Indian dances with fast steps and loud drumming. Participants joined hands and sidestepped leftward around a circle, following the course of the sun, while singing special songs about how Native American life would be restored to its former order and balance in a dance. It would be performed for four or five days and was accompanied by singing and chanting, but no drumming or other musical instruments. In addition, both men and women participated in the dance, unlike others in which men were the main dancers, singers, and musicians. Wovoka claimed that performing the dance would result in the return of the buffalo.
The ritual garments were just as important as the movement itself. The Ghost Dance dresses and shirts, painted with magic symbols, reflected the spiritual aspects of the ceremony.
Wovoka told those that had come to learn from him,
"When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat."
He also told the dancers when the earth shook at the coming of the new world; they were not to be afraid because they would not be hurt.
Wovoka stopped teaching the Ghost Dance between 1891 and 1892, owing to the sorrow he felt by the misinterpretation of his vision by other Indians, particularly the Lakota.
Among the Lakota. The most enthusiastic supporters of the new movement were the Lakota. Its spread to Lakota reservations coincided with a period of intense suffering there.
Kicking Bear, a Miniconjou Teton Lakota, along with Short Bull, a Miniconjou mystic, made a pilgrimage to Nevada to learn about the new dance. Kicking Bear brought the Ghost Dance back to the Pine Ridge reservation. Kicking Bear gave an entirely different interpretation of Wovoka’s message. Unlike Wovoka's anti-violence, the Ghost Dance took on a militaristic aspect and emphasized the possible elimination of the whites.
In its Lakota version, after opening invocations, prayers, and exhortations, the dancers joined hands and began a frenetic circle dance. Many who were sick participated in the hope of being cured, and many fell down, sometimes unconscious, sometimes in a trance, as the dance progressed. Eventually the dancing stopped and the participants sat in a circle, relating their experiences and visions. The dance might be repeated.
When the dance spread to the Lakota, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents became alarmed. They claimed that the Lakota had developed a militaristic approach to the dance, and began making "ghost shirts" they believed would protect them from bullets.
In early October 1890, Kicking Bear visited Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock reservation. He told him of the visit he had made to Nevada to visit Wovoka, and of the great number of other Indians who were there as well.
Sitting Bull greatly doubted that the dead would be brought back to life. He had no personal objections to people dancing the Ghost Dance. He had heard, however, that his allowing the movement alarmed the military and Indian agencies, and they were calling in soldiers on some reservations. He did not want the soldiers to return to kill more of his people. Kicking Bear assured him that, if the dancers wore their Ghost Dance shirts, the soldiers’ bullets would not strike them. Sitting Bull consented to Kicking Bear remaining at Standing Rock and teaching the Ghost Dance.
The Standing Rock Indian Agent had Kicking Bear removed, but that did not stop the movement there. The agent, who thought it was a preparation for further hostilities, telegraphed Washington, asked for troops, and blamed Sitting Bull. Messages about Indians dancing in the snow were sent to Washington.
By 1890, nearly 3,000 members of the Seventh Cavalry arrived to protect the settlers. In mid-November, an army detachment arrived at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota to suppress the armed uprising they feared was coming. A sizable detachment of military troops was dispatched to prepare for any possible uprising.
The Ghost Dance instilled fear in white settlers, especially in areas where the Lakota, whose strain of the religion was especially militant, performed it. The white’s feared that it foreshadowed an Indian uprising, and as such had to be destroyed by the U.S. military. The U.S. Army’s answer to the Ghost Dance was a final solution. That suppression, and the governmental/military mentality, led directly to the Wounded Knee massacre.
Wounded Knee massacre. On December 28, 14 days after the brutal shooting of Sitting Bull, the U.S. Army sought to disarm and relocate the Lakota people, who failed to stop their Ghost Dance.
The U.S. authorities ordered the arrest of another Lakota chief, Big Foot. Big Foot's band, which consisted mostly of women who had lost their husbands and other male relatives in battles with Custer, Miles and Crook, had danced until they collapsed, hoping to guarantee the return of their dead warriors. Big Foot and about 350 Lakota marched to Pine Ridge Reservation to seek protection from the military. At Pine Ridge they surrendered on December 28, 1890, and were escorted to Wounded Knee by the military, where they established a camp at Wounded Knee Creek.
The following morning, December 29, 1890, the military ordered all Indian weapons to be relinquished and burned. A medicine man advocated armed resistance telling the other Indians that their Ghost Dance shirts were bulletproof.
A shot was fired by an unidentified gunman.
On the frozen plains at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, government troops opened fire on the mostly unarmed Lakota people, and massacred 290 Sioux men, women and children, including many trying to flee, in a matter of minutes. Thirty-three soldiers died, most from friendly fire, 20 Medals of Honor were presented to surviving soldiers. As their corpses lay frozen in the snowy fields, it was pathetically plain that the "ghost shirts" worn by many were ineffective in warding off the white man’s bullets.
As news of Wounded Knee spread throughout the Native nations, the Ghost Dance died quickly. Wovoka's prophecies were empty; the land would not be returned from the white man through divine intervention. When it became obvious that ghost shirts did not protect their wearers from bullets, and the expected resurrection of the dead had not occurred, most believers quit the dance.
With the suddenness of its birth, Ghost Dance disappeared. The Wounded Knee massacre put an end to the Ghost Dance as a widespread phenomenon. It was continued in several isolated places, but the expectation of the imminent return of the dead and of traditional culture was minimized. The last known Ghost Dances were held in the 1950s among the Shoshone.
See Indian Wars Time Table .