The Native American Ghost Dance
By Melissa Amen
“The earth will roll up like a blanket with all the bad white
man’s stuff, the fences and railroads and mines and telegraph
poles; and underneath will be our old-young Indian earth with all
our relatives come to life again” (Erodes 482).
comes from Dick Fool Bull’s account of the Ghost Dance of
1890. It adequately summarizes the dance’s main intent: to
rid America of the white man and thus bring about the restoration
of the native way of life.
The Ghost Dance is a Native American
spiritual dance done with the purpose of regaining the life once
known to the tribe. It is characterized by a revival of many traditional
beliefs and by the fervent expectation that a time of perpetual
bliss was immanent.
Wovoka, a Paiute, was born in western Nevada around 1856. Little
is known about his early life, but, at about age fourteen, his
father died. At this time, he became acquainted with the white
man David Wilson. David called Wovoka Jack Wilson which is how
the Indian was known among the white men. From his association
with David and the Wilson family, Wovoka began to learn English
and the white man’s religion. In 1890, when he was extremely
ill with a mysterious fever, Wovoka fell into a trance and was
taken up to the spirit world. Here he saw all his dead ancestors
and God. Everyone was happy and playing games. God instructed Wovoka
to tell his people that they must be good and love one another.
They must live peacefully with the white man but also avoiding
fighting amongst one another. Any old practice that promoted war
must be done away with.
“If they obeyed his instructions
they would at last be reunited with their friends in this other
world, where there would be no more death or sickness or old age” (Mooney
772). Wovoka was then given the dance and told to take it back
to the people. By performing the dance as he was instructed, happiness
would be restored to the tribe (Mooney).
The dance was to last for 5 days and 4 nights and would occur
every 6 weeks. Before and after the dance, participants were
required to bathe. Preliminary painting and dressing for the
dance would take about two hours. After this was done, the leaders
of the dance, usually four men, would gather in a circle. They
would face inward and sing the opening song. The song was repeated
as the dancers begin moving slowly in the shuffle step from right
to left. They go in that direction because it follows the course
of the sun. Different songs are sung throughout the dance including
a special closing song. These songs vary amongst the different
tribes but in one tribe, they are the same for each performance
of the dance.
Unlike most other Native American dances, no drums
or instruments accompany the Ghost Dance. The rhythm of the chanting
is all that guides the dancers’ steps.
As the songs are sung by the leaders, more people join in the
circle. Although led by men only, everyone, including women and
children participate in the dance. Each song begins slowly and
then rises in volume and speed each time it is sung. By the time
the song is repeated for the fourth time, it is loud and fast.
The next song began slowly and with each repetition sped up (Vander).
Throughout the dance, the people fell into trances. Most claim
that in these trances they see their dead relatives and this
gives them, and the people they share their stories with, the
strength to continue the dance.
White officials became alarmed at the religious fervor and activism.
In December 1890 the United States government banned the Ghost
Dance on Lakota reservations.
“Under the false impression
that the ghost dance was the signal for a general Indian uprising,
the white agent at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota called
in the regular army to suppress the ghost dancers” (Erodes
The Native Americans felt so strongly about the dance that
they continued the practice despite it being banned. When the rites
continued, officials called in troops to Pine Ridge and Rosebud
reservations in South Dakota. The military, led by veteran General
Nelson Miles, geared itself for a campaign against the Indians.
The presence of the troops exacerbated the situation. Short Bull
and Kicking Bear led their followers to the northwest corner
of the Pine Ridge reservation to a sheltered encampment known
as the stronghold. The dancers sent word to Sitting Bull of the
Hunkpapas to join them. Before he could set out from the Standing
Rock reservation, in North Dakota, however, Sitting Bull was
From there, the situation only continued to escalate. After the
arrest of Sitting Bull, who was considered a powerful leader
across many tribes, many of the Indians on the reservation began
to resist the Army less peacefully. One man, Catch-the-Bear,
actually pointed a rifle at one of the agents. The rifle instead
hit the prisoner, Sitting Bull. This shot was not what killed
the chief. Simultaneously, one of the Native Americans scouts
for the army, Red Tomahawk, shot Sitting Bull right through the
head. He died in the captivity of the United States Army. His
only action had been spreading the peaceful Ghost Dance. But
he was perceived to be a revolutionist warrior. Those who witnessed
Sitting Bull’s death claim that
he raised his foot as he died, as if he were still doing the Ghost
dance. For this reason, all of the Sioux on the reservation returned
to their dancing, spurred on by their chief’s horrible death
On the morning of December 29, 1890, the soldiers entered the
camp demanding all the Indian firearms be relinquished. A medicine
man named Yellow Bird advocated resistance claiming the Ghost
Shirts would protect them.
“If the Indians wore the sacred garments
of the Messiah-Ghost shirts painted with magic symbols-no harm
could come to them” (Brown 408).
The Sioux of the 1890 dance
were the only ones who believed that the ghost shirts were bullet
proof. Unfortunately, they were soon proved wrong.
The silence of the morning was broken and soon guns echoed in
the river bed. At first, the struggle was fought at close quarters,
but when the Indians ran to take cover, the Hotchkiss artillery
opened up on them, cutting down men, women, and children alike.
The sick Big Foot, a leader at Pine Ridge, among them. By the
end of this brutal, unnecessary violence, which lasted less than
an hour, at least one hundred and fifty Indians had been killed
and fifty wounded. In comparison, the army casualties were twenty-five
killed and thirty-nine wounded. The military leader, Forsyth
was later charged with killing innocents, but exonerated.
soldiers had been sent to protect those men, women, and children
who had not joined the Ghost dancers, but they had shot them down
without even a chance to defend themselves (Coleman 342).
Note to the reader: My original paper was on Ghost Dances throughout
American history. I started with the first movement in 1805 and
went all the way to present day dances. Here I have included
only pieces of my research on the Ghost Dance of 1890, done at
the Battle of Wounded Knee. To read my complete paper, please
email me. CrazyWriter@hotmail.com
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Bantam Books,
Coleman, William S.E. Voices of Wounded Knee. Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press,
Erodes, Richard, and Alfonso Ortiz, ed. American Indian Myths
and Legends. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1984.
Mooney, James. The Ghost-dance Religion and Wounded Knee. New
Vander, Judith. Shoshone Ghost Dance Religion. Chicago: University
of Illinois Press,
Imaging and Imagining the Ghost Dance: James Mooney's Illustrations
and Photographs, 1891-1893.
Our thanks to Melissa for sharing her fascinating research with