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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Ghost Dance

Updated: May 15, 2022

"He was then given the dance which he was commanded to bring back to his people. By performing this dance at intervals, for five consecutive days each time, they would secure this happiness to themselves and hasten the event."

James Mooney, ethnologist, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (1896)

Throughout history, whenever a society faces an existential crisis rooted in cultural, political, and economic disruption, these societies lend themselves to the emergence of spiritual awakenings and messianic movements. These are not confined to western religions. Native Americans, under decades of pressure from the United States' westward expansion, responded with their own spiritual revitalization movement. The Ghose Dance, pacifist in its basic tenants, was greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted by White settlers, US government officials, and the military. This misunderstanding, along with US government Indian policy in general, would ultimately lead to the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.

The first appearance of the Ghost Dance occurred in 1869. Wodziwob, a Paiute shaman living in what is now the state of Nevada, claimed to have experienced a series of visions. From these visions, Wodziwob predicted a renewal of the Earth, the return of all those who had died, eternal life for believers, and a cataclysmic earthquake that would destroy the white man. (He later revised this so that the earthquake killed everyone on Earth, but only the Native Americans would be restored to life.) Central to Wodziwob's preachings was the performance of a ritual dance and a return to spirituality. Within a few years, when the great earthquake never occurred, Wodziwob's version of the Ghost Dance faded away.

Many Paiute people had been dying from contact with European diseases. A typhoid epidemic in 1867 was particularly harsh. One-tenth of the tribal population was decimated from typhoid and other diseases. This caused the breakdown of traditional social structures. The arrival of Mormon settlers and discovery of the silver-rich Comstock Lode brought added strain upon the limited resources of Nevada and other places in the west. The Paiute were not alone in this regard. Throughout the 1880s, Native Americans felt the increased pressures of western expansion resulting in forced removals and forced assimilation. In particular, the Native American tribes in the Plains suffered a number of extreme hardships.

The bison that the Plains tribes had come to rely on were nearly extinct by this time. The west was suffering from an extensive drought. Settlers were coming into the Dakotas with cattle and other livestock. These settlers took prime grazing and farming land, and the Native Americans were relocated to reservations that occupied the poorest soils. Some Native Americans tried their hand at farming, but lacking adequate resources, most of them failed. Starvation was becoming the norm. Hand in hand with this was the policies of the federal government. After 1880, the government made a concerted effort to rapidly assimilate Native Americans into what they considered mainstream America. The aim was to provide them with a Christian education and turn them into yeoman farmers. Police and courts were established to bypass tribal councils. Old customs and traditions were banned. Then by the end of the decade, new epidemics of the flu, measles, and whooping cough spread across the Plains. The western Sioux, or Lakotas, were the hardest hit, already suffering from hunger.

Native Americans during the 1880s saw rapid changes in their societies: the loss of cultural identity, the struggle to maintain their economic livelihood, the breakdown of social norms, and the disintegration of their traditional lifestyles. It is no surprise then, in this atmosphere, that a new version of Wodziwob's Ghost Dance would emerge. And once again, it would be among the Northern Paiute, and this time it would spread out into the central and northern Plains.

Wovoka, or Jack Wilson

On January 1, 1889, the western parts of the United States experienced a total solar eclipse. During the eclipse, a Paiute man, Wovoka, fell into a trance and had a vision. Wovoka was raised by and worked for a Christian family in Nevada by the name of Wilson. He also went by the name of Jack Wilson. He had a reputation among his people for having the ability to control the weather, especially rainmaking. His vision was very similar to Wodziwob's. In his vision (and subsequent ones), Wovoka visited a beautiful, peaceful place and filled with abundant game. He told of a time when European settlers would disappear, and the bison would return once more. Ancestors would be resurrected, and all would live in harmony. All of this, Wovoka said, would come about if the people lived righteously and performed a special circle dance.

The circle or round dance was the significant ceremonial rite of Wovoka's teachings. Round dances were already an important aspect of Native American traditions. They were used not only for religious ceremonies but more often as social occasions. Dancers held hands and shuffled in a side-to-side step while swaying to songs. Songs and dances were often accompanied by a drummer in the center of a circle. The Ghost Dance ceremony did not utilize a drum, but many tribes placed a pole in the center or formed a circle around a tree. Different tribes modified the dance to integrate it into their own traditional folkways. The goal for many participants was to induce a hypnotic state or trance to bring upon visions. The dance was a way to connect with one's ancestors. Wokova ordained that the dance be done on five consecutive nights and at periodic intervals.

The Ghost Dance, though, was more than just the dance. It was a religious movement that synthesized elements of Native American spirituality and Christian faith. In some of his messages, Wovoka spoke of Jesus or a messiah who would help the Paiute people. He told people that they needed to go work for white people and earn money to buy food and clothing. He urged them to send their children to school, that they should take up farming, and they needed to cooperate with the government. He said Indians needed to live in peace with the white man. He assured them that by doing so, they did not need to give up their "Indianness." In this way, Wovoka provided them hope and a means to adapt to rapid changes within their society to survive. It was a potent psychological message.

When other tribes learned of Wovoka's teachings, they sent delegates to bring back the message to their home tribe. These representatives traveled to and from Nevada via the network of railroads that now crisscrossed the United States. There were younger Native Americans, ones who had been educated at the many Indian boarding schools. They knew how to read and write in English, and they shared Wovoka's message to their classmates and graduates. In using these modern methods of communication, the Ghost Dance movement spread quickly throughout the tribes.

Outsiders misunderstood the movement. Witnesses described the dance as crazed, irrational, and indecent. (Women purportedly pulled their dresses up over their heads and fell to the ground naked.) The dance was viewed as satanic by the more puritanical. Rumors, innuendo, and misinformation spread among settlers along with sensational newspaper stories. Native Americans were killing white people and stealing children as part of the Ghost Dance ritual. For the Native Americans, the Ghost Dance was a spiritual rejuvenation. For federal officials, it went against the program of assimilation. Many saw it as a return to heathen practices and not how Christians acted. As such, the government banned the practice of the Ghost Dance rituals.

After decades of struggle suppressing Native American resistance, military officials were determined to bring the remaining tribes onto reservations and under military rule. This was especially true in regards to the Lakota. When the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota continued to do the Ghost Dance, the government sent the army in the fall of 1890. The oversized military presence and the exaggerated fears of an inexperienced Indian Agent heightened tensions. When Lakota leader Sitting Bull finally decided to surrender, he was killed. In December, Big Foot, the other Lakota leader, decided to lead the rest of his people onto the reservation. The Lakota gathered at Wounded Knee under the watch of a military escort. Fear and mistrust on both sides created a powderkeg. A single shot was necessary for chaos to erupt. More than 250 men, women, and children were massacred.

Aftermath of Wounded Knee

The massacre at Wounded Knee is often viewed as the closing chapter on Native American resistance to European colonialism. But the Ghost Dance would continue to be practiced well into the 20th century in different versions as suited individual tribes. Like other spiritual awakenings, it arose to meet the spiritual, psychological, and physical needs of a society facing a crisis in the midst of rapid change.


Further Reading

The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890: Rani-Henrik Andersson

Dancing Toward Wounded Knee: Sarah Handley-Cousins

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