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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).

This statement 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 481).

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 arrested.

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 (Brown).

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.

“Those 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

Works Cited
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.
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 York: Dover
Publications, 1973.
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 us.