For other uses, see Ghost Dance (disambiguation).
The Ghost Dance (Caddo: Nanissáanah, also called the Ghost Dance of 1890) was a new religious movement incorporated into numerous American Indian belief systems. According to the teachings of the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka (renamed Jack Wilson), proper practice of the dance would reunite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to Native American peoples throughout the region.
The basis for the Ghost Dance, the circle dance, is a traditional form that has been used by many Native American peoples since prehistoric times, but this new ceremony was first practiced among the NevadaPaiute in 1889. The practice swept throughout much of the Western United States, quickly reaching areas of California and Oklahoma. As the Ghost Dance spread from its original source, Indian tribes synthesized selective aspects of the ritual with their own beliefs.
The Ghost Dance was associated with Wilson's (Wovoka's) prophecy of an end to white expansion while preaching goals of clean living, an honest life, and cross-cultural cooperation by Indians. Practice of the Ghost Dance movement was believed to have contributed to Lakota resistance to assimilation under the Dawes Act. In the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890, United States Army forces killed at least 153 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa from the Lakota people. The Lakota variation on the Ghost Dance tended towards millenarianism, an innovation that distinguished the Lakota interpretation from Jack Wilson's original teachings. The Caddo still practice the Ghost Dance today.
The Northern Paiutes living in Mason Valley, in what is now the U.S. state of Nevada, were known collectively as the Tövusi-dökadö (Tövusi-: "Cyperus bulb" and dökadö: "eaters") at the time of European contact. The Northern Paiute community at this time was thriving upon a subsistence pattern of fishing, hunting wild game, and foraging for pine nuts and roots such as Cyperus esculentus.
The Tövusi-dökadö during this period lacked any permanent political organisation or officials, and tended to follow various spiritual leaders and community organizers. Community events centered on the observance of seasonal ceremonies such as harvests or hunting. In 1869, Hawthorne Wodziwob, a Paiute man, organized a series of community dances to announce a vision. He spoke of a journey to the land of the dead and of promises made to him by the souls of the recently deceased. They promised to return to their loved ones within a period of three to four years.
Wodziwob's peers accepted this vision, likely due to his reputable status as a healer. He urged the populace to dance the common circle dance as was customary during a time of celebration. He continued preaching this message for three years with the help of a local "weather doctor" named Tavibo, father of Jack Wilson.
Prior to Wodziwob's religious movement, a devastating typhoid fever epidemic struck in 1867. This and other European diseases killed approximately one-tenth of the total population, resulting in widespread psychological and emotional trauma. The disruption brought disorder to the economic system and society. Many families were prevented from continuing their nomadic lifestyle.
Round dance influence
A "round dance" is a circular community dance held, usually around an individual who leads the ceremony. Round dances may be ceremonial or purely social. Usually the dancers are accompanied by a group of singers who may also play hand drums in unison. The dancers join hands to form a large circle. The dancers move to their left with a side-shuffle step to reflect the long-short pattern of the drum beat, bending their knees to emphasize the pattern.
During his studies of the Pacific Northwest tribes the anthropologistLeslie Spier used the term "prophet dances" to describe ceremonial round dances where the participants seek trance, exhortations and prophecy. Spier studied peoples of the Columbia plateau (a region including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of western Montana). By the time of his studies the only dances he was allowed to witness were social dances or ones that had already incorporated Christian elements, making investigation of the round dance's origin complicated.
Jack Wilson, the prophet otherwise known as Wovoka, was believed to have had a vision during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. It was reportedly not his first time experiencing a vision; but as a young adult, he claimed that he was then better equipped, spiritually, to handle this message. Jack had received training from an experienced holy man under his parents' guidance after they realized that he was having difficulty interpreting his previous visions. Jack was also training to be a "weather doctor", following in his father's footsteps. He was known throughout Mason Valley as a gifted and blessed young leader. Preaching a message of universal love, he often presided over circle dances, which symbolized the sun's heavenly path across the sky.
AnthropologistJames Mooney conducted an interview with Wilson prior to 1892. Mooney confirmed that his message matched that given to his fellow Indians. This study compared letters between tribes. According to Mooney, Wilson's letter said he stood before God in heaven and had seen many of his ancestors engaged in their favorite pastimes, and that God showed Wilson a beautiful land filled with wild game and instructed him to return home to tell his people that they must love each other and not fight. He also stated that Jesus was being reincarnated on earth in 1892, that the people must work, not steal or lie, and that they must not engage in the old practices of war or the traditional self-mutilation practices connected with mourning the dead. He said that if his people abided by these rules, they would be united with their friends and family in the other world, and in God's presence, there would be no sickness, disease, or old age.
Mooney writes that Wilson was given the Ghost Dance and commanded to take it back to his people. He preached that if the five-day dance was performed in the proper intervals, the performers would secure their happiness and hasten the reunion of the living and deceased. Wilson said that the Creator gave him powers over the weather and that he would be the deputy in charge of affairs in the western United States, leaving current President Harrison as God's deputy in the East. Jack claims that he was then told to return home and preach God's message.
Jack Wilson claimed to have left the presence of God convinced that if every Indian in the West danced the new dance to "hasten the event", all evil in the world would be swept away, leaving a renewed Earth filled with food, love, and faith. Quickly accepted by his Paiute brethren, the new religion was termed "Dance In A Circle". Because the first European contact with the practice came by way of the Lakota, their expression "Spirit Dance" was adopted as a descriptive title for all such practices. This was subsequently translated as "Ghost Dance".
Spread of the prophet's message
Through Indians and some white settlers, Wilson's message spread across much of the western portion of the United States. Early in the religious movement, many tribes sent members to investigate the self-proclaimed prophet, while other communities sent delegates only to be cordial. Regardless of their initial motivations, many left as believers and returned to their homeland preaching his message. The Ghost Dance was also investigated by many Mormons from Utah, for whom the concepts of the Indian prophet were familiar and often accepted. While many followers of the Ghost Dance believed Wovoka to be a teacher of pacifism and peace, others did not.
An elaboration of the Ghost Dance concept was the development of ghost shirts, which were special clothing that warriors could wear. They were rumored to repel bullets through spiritual power. It is uncertain where this belief originated. Scholars believe that in 1890 chief Kicking Bear introduced the concept to his people, the Lakota, while James Mooney argued that the most likely source is the Mormontemple garment (which Mormons believe protect the pious wearer from evil).
The Lakota interpretation drew from their traditional idea of a "renewed Earth" in which "all evil is washed away". This Lakota interpretation included the removal of all European Americans from their lands.
In February 1890, the United States government broke a Lakota treaty by adjusting the Great Sioux Reservation of South Dakota (an area that formerly encompassed the majority of the state) and breaking it up into five smaller reservations. The government was accommodating white homesteaders from the eastern United States; in addition, it intended to "break up tribal relationships" and "conform Indians to the white man's ways, peaceably if they will, or forcibly if they must". On the reduced reservations, the government allocated family units on 320-acre (1.3 km2) plots for individual households. The Lakota were expected to farm and raise livestock, and to send their children to boarding schools. With the goal of assimilation, the schools taught English and Christianity, as well as American cultural practices. Generally, they forbade inclusion of Indian traditional culture and language.
To help support the Lakota during the period of transition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was to supplement the Lakota with food and to hire white farmers as teachers for the people. The farming plan failed to take into account the difficulty that Lakota farmers would have in trying to cultivate crops in the semi-arid region of South Dakota. By the end of the 1890 growing season, a time of intense heat and low rainfall, it was clear that the land was unable to produce substantial agricultural yields. Unfortunately, this was also the time when the government's patience with supporting the so-called "lazy Indians" ran out. They cut rations for the Lakota in half. With the bison having been virtually eradicated a few years earlier, the Lakota were at risk of starvation.
The people turned to the Ghost Dance ritual, which frightened the supervising agents of the BIA. Those who had been residing in the area for a long time recognized that the ritual was often held shortly before battle was to occur. Kicking Bear was forced to leave Standing Rock, but when the dances continued unabated, Agent James McLaughlin asked for more troops. He claimed the Hunkpapa spiritual leader Sitting Bull was the real leader of the movement. A former agent, Valentine McGillycuddy, saw nothing extraordinary in the dances and ridiculed the panic that seemed to have overcome the agencies, saying: "The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians. If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare the ascension robes for the Second Coming of the Savior, the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege? If the troops remain, trouble is sure to come."
Nonetheless, thousands of additional U.S. Army troops were deployed to the reservation. On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was arrested for failing to stop his people from practicing the Ghost Dance. During the incident, one of Sitting Bull's men, Catch the Bear, fired at Lieutenant "Bull Head", striking his right side. He instantly wheeled and shot Sitting Bull, hitting him in the left side, between the tenth and eleventh ribs; this exchange resulted in deaths on both sides, including that of Sitting Bull.
Main articles: Wounded Knee Massacre and Ghost Dance War
December 29, 1890 - Spotted Elk (Lakota: Unpan Glešká – also known as Big Foot) was a Miniconjou leader on the U.S. Army's list of 'trouble-making' Indians. He was stopped while en route to convene with the remaining Lakota chiefs. U.S. Army officers forced him to relocate with his people to a small camp close to the Pine Ridge Agency. Here the soldiers could more closely watch the old chief. That evening, December 28, the small band of Lakota erected their tipis on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. The following day, during an attempt by the officers to collect weapons from the band, one young, deaf Lakota warrior refused to relinquish his arms. A struggle followed in which somebody's weapon discharged into the air. One U.S. officer gave the command to open fire, and the Lakota responded by taking up previously confiscated weapons; the U.S. forces responded with carbine firearms and several rapid-fire light-artillery (Hotchkiss) guns mounted on the overlooking hill. When the fighting had concluded, 25 U.S. soldiers lay dead, many killed by friendly fire. Among the 153 dead Lakota, most were women and children. Following the massacre, chief Kicking Bear officially surrendered his weapon to General Nelson A. Miles.
Outrage in the eastern United States emerged as the public learned about the murders. The U.S. government had insisted on numerous occasions that the Indian had already been successfully pacified. Many Americans felt the U.S. Army actions were unduly harsh; some related the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek to the "ungentlemanly act of kicking a man when he is already down". Public uproar played a role in the reinstatement of the previous treaty's terms, including full rations and more monetary compensation for lands taken away.
Twenty U.S. soldiers received Medals of Honor for their actions (some sources state the number as 18 or 23). American Indian and human rights activists have referred to these as "Medals of Dis-Honor" and called for the awards to be rescinded, but none of them have ever been revoked.
Following the Wounded Knee Massacre, interest and participation in the Ghost Dance movement dropped dramatically for fear of continued violence against practitioners. Like most Indian ceremonies, it became clandestine rather than dying out completely.
Despite the widespread acceptance of the Ghost Dance movement, Navajo leaders described the Ghost Dance as "worthless words" in 1890. Three years later, James Mooney arrived at the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona during his study of the Ghost Dance movement and found the Navajo never incorporated the ritual into their society.
Kehoe believed the movement did not gain traction with the tribe due to the Navajo's higher levels of social and economic satisfaction at the time. Another factor was cultural norms among the Navajo, which inculcated a fear of ghosts and spirits, based on religious beliefs.
The Ghost Dance today
The Wounded Knee massacre was not the end of the Ghost Dance religious movement. Instead, it went underground. Wovoka continued to spread its message, along with Kicking Bear, Short Bull and other holy men.
During the Wounded Knee incident of 1973, Lakota men and women including Mary Crow Dog, the wife of Leonard Crow Dog, ghost danced on the site where their ancestors had been killed. In her book, Ms. Crow Dog indicated that ghost dances continue as private ceremonies.
Ghost dancing is portrayed in the 1992 film Thunderheart which takes place near the Wounded Knee Memorial. Scriptwriter John Fusco believed it was necessary to show a few seconds of a traditional ghost dance, which protagonist Ray Levoi would perceive as dreams or visions. The 2004 film Hidalgo, also written by Fusco, also portrayed ghost dancers and the Wounded Knee massacre. Fusco consulted Lakota historians and elders and had Ghost Dancers enact the ceremony in both films.
Patti Smith recorded a song, "Ghost Dance", about or inspired by the ceremony on Easter (1978). Rapper Magneto Dayo and The Lakota Medicine Men did a tribute song called "The Journey" referencing the "Ghost Dance" (2016) on the album Royalty of the UnderWorld.
- ^Edmonds, Randlett. Nusht'uhti?ti? Hasinay: Caddo Phrasebook. Richardson, TX: Various Indian Peoples Publishing, 2003: 19. ISBN 1-884655-00-9.
- ^ abcd*Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee. New York: Dover Publications; 1896
- ^Utley, Robert, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation, Yale University Press, 1964
- ^Cross, Phil. "Caddo Songs and Dances"Archived 2010-08-24 at the Wayback Machine.. Caddo Legacy from Caddo People. Retrieved December 9, 2009.
- ^ abKehoe, Alice Beck (1989). The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization. Washington, DC: Thompson Publishing. pp. 32–33.
- ^Kehoe, The Ghost Dance, p. 33.
- ^"Ghost Dance – The Messiah Letter from Wovoka". www.ghostdance.us.
- ^Kehoe, The Ghost Dance, p. 5.
- ^Kehoe, The Ghost Dance, p. 13.
- ^Hittman, Michael, Wovoka and the Ghost Dance, pp. 84-88, University of Nebraska Press, 1997 ISBN 0-8032-7308-8.
- ^Kehoe, The Ghost Dance, p. 15.
- ^Wallace, Anthony F. C. "Revitalization Movements: Some Theoretical Considerations for Their Comparative Study", American Anthropologist n.s. 58(2):264-81. 1956
- ^Boyd, James (1891). Recent Indian Wars. [Philadelphia] Publishers Union.
- ^Brands, H.W. (2002). The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. University of Chicago Press. p. 18.
- ^Kehoe, The Ghost Dance, p. 20.
- ^"Sitting Bull: Biography". Spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2012-05-25. Retrieved 2012-05-15.
- ^ abKehoe, The Ghost Dance, p. 24.
- ^ abGreen, Jerry (1994). "The Medals of Wounded Knee"(PDF). Nebraska History. Nebraska State Historical Society. 75: 207. Retrieved September 22, 2011.
- ^"Indian Wars Period". Medal of Honor Recipients. U.S. Army Center of Military History. Retrieved September 22, 2011.
- ^"Support the Action to Revoke the Congressional Medals of Honor to the Soldiers of the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee"(PDF). National Congress of American Indians. November 30, 2001. Archived from the original(PDF) on March 28, 2012. Retrieved September 22, 2011.
- ^Winter Rabbit (February 9, 2011). "Action: Rescind Wounded Knee Medals of Dis Honor". Daily Kos. Retrieved September 22, 2011.
- ^Paul, Daniel N. (ed.). "Massacre: Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA, December 29, 1890". We Were Not the Savages: First Nation History. Retrieved September 22, 2011.
- ^Renee Sansom Flood, Lost Bird of Wounded Knee (Scribner, 2014).
- ^Mary Crow Dog with Richard Erdoes, Lakota Woman (Grove Weidenfeld, 1990).
- ^Elizabeth Roetman, Straight From the Horse’s Mouth: Hopkins, Hidalgo, and Hollywood. Quotes from Fusco's interviews where he explained how he located descendants of Wounded Knee survivors to ghost-dance for both films.
- ^Wendell, Eric (2014). Patti Smith: America's Punk Rock Rhapsodist, p.54. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780810886919. "The 'Ghost Dance' in question may refer to the Native American practice, a holy tradition meant to reunite the living with the spirits of the departed."
- ^Johnstone, Nick (2012). Patti Smith: A Biography, unpaginated. Omnibus. ISBN 9780857127785. "The title referred to the Native American Indian ritual of the ghost dance...This was another song about different modes of communicating with God and parallel planes of existence."
- ^Dethier, Brock (2003). From Dylan to Donne: Bridging English and Music, p.38. Boynton/Cook. ISBN 9780867095326. "Patti Smith's 'Ghost Dance', for instance, can spark discussions of cultural appropriation, treatment of the sacred, and of course the genocide of Native Americans."
- Andersson, Rani-Henrik. The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8032-1073-8.
- Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001. ISBN 978-0-8050-6669-2.
- Du Bois, Cora. The 1870 Ghost Dance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8032-6662-9.
- Kehoe, Alice Beck. The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-57766-453-6.
- Osterreich, Shelley Anne. The American Indian Ghost Dance, 1870 and 1890. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0-313-27469-5.
- Stannard, David E.American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-19-508557-0.
The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 appears in many history textbooks as the “end of the Indian Wars” and a signal moment in the closing of the Western frontier. The atrocity had many causes, but its immediate one was the U.S. government’s effort to ban a religion: the Ghost Dance, a new Indian faith that had swept Western reservations over the previous year.
The history of this episode—in which the U.S. Army opened fire on a mostly unarmed village of Minneconjou Lakotas, or Western Sioux, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota—teaches us about the moral perils of abandoning religious freedom. Although the First Amendment guarantees freedom of conscience, only in recent decades did that protection extend to American Indian ceremony and belief.
For most of U.S. history, the federal government sought to assimilate native peoples by eradicating their religious ceremonies and belief systems. These efforts increased with all-out campaigns to turn Indians into Protestant, English-speaking farmers in the closing years of the 19th century. Under government regulations that took effect in 1883, the Department of Interior banned “heathenish” (meaning virtually all) Indian dances, in an effort to force conversion to Christianity.
Thus, customary ceremonies that once brought spiritual relief to Lakotas, such as the Sun Dance, became illegal. At the same time, reservations grew dramatically poorer. Congress’s 1889 decision to reduce food rations to Lakota Sioux, bringing many to the point of starvation, and to strip Indians of most of their reservation lands, increased native peoples’ sense of desperation. On other reservations, among Arapahos and Cheyennes, for example, similar pressures also contributed to a growing feeling of crisis.
It was at this point, in the fall of 1889, that the new teachings of what became known as the Ghost Dance religion began to energize believers among Lakotas and in other Indian communities, especially on the Great Plains. Many greeted its teachings with joy. This was no violent uprising: Armed resistance to U.S. authority had ended in 1877. For well over a decade, Lakotas had peacefully occupied reservations in South Dakota and North Dakota. Other peoples who took up the Ghost Dance, such as Arapahos and Cheyennes, had lived on reservations in Montana, Oklahoma, and elsewhere for even longer.
A view of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.
None of these peoples were threatening hostility. What they sought was redemption from their suffering, and the new religion promised it. Tribal members passed along rumors of an Indian messiah who would come in the spring, bringing a new earth, on which believers would find no white people, but abundant buffalo and horses. For this wondrous event to transpire, said the evangelists, believers must adopt a new ceremony: a sacred dance in which participants held hands and turned in a large circle. Among Lakotas, the circle turned at an ever faster pace until some dancers collapsed into trances. On awaking, many recounted visions of the afterworld and encounters with spirits of their departed kin and friends.
At its peak, perhaps one in three Lakotas joined the dance circle, and the exuberance of believers was spectacular, with hundreds dancing at any moment and dozens falling into visions. But to U.S. government officials responsible for administering the reservations, the excitement could only mean trouble. “The dance is indecent, demoralizing, and disgusting,” wrote one. “I think,” wrote another, “steps should be taken to stop it.”
Why did the dancing elicit such strong condemnation? The wave of Ghost Dance enthusiasm had run headlong into the government’s policy of assimilation, the ongoing effort to force Indians to look and behave like Protestant white people. While most officials recognized Ghost Dancers were peaceful, they were nonetheless perturbed by the sudden appearance of the large circles of ecstatic dancers. The rhythmic movement of bodies proved to white observers that Indians were refusing to assimilate, to abandon old religions and embrace Christianity. The Ghost Dance looked like dangerous backsliding toward “Paganism.”
And yet, to many Indians and even a few white defenders, the Ghost Dance religion also looked a lot like Christianity. Some white observers compared the dance to evangelical camp meetings, and one urged officials to let Ghost Dancers “worship God as they please.” The religion, after all, promised the coming of a messiah, who some adherents called “Christ,” and some of its teachings were not that different from those of Christianity.
The prophet of the Ghost Dance was a Northern Paiute named Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, who hailed from Nevada. By 1889, Northern Paiutes had long since entered the Nevada workforce as teamsters, road graders, builders, domestic servants, and general rural laborers. Wovoka himself was a well-regarded ranch hand. According to multiple accounts from the period, he instructed his followers not only to dance, but also to love one another, keep the peace, and tell the truth. He also told Ghost Dancers to take up wage labor, or as he put it, “work for white men.” They should send children to school, attend Christian churches (“all these churches are mine,” Wovoka counseled), and become farmers. Such teachings were transmitted to distant followers on the Plains. Lakota evangelists, too, instructed their followers, “Send your children to school and get farms to live on.”
The Ghost Dance religion was no militant rejection of American authority, but an effort to graft Indian culture on to new ways of living, and to the new economy of wage work, farming, and education that the reservation era demanded. But to government officials, the dancing was a sign of religious dissent and had to be stopped.
The wave of Ghost Dance enthusiasm had run headlong into the government’s policy of assimilation, the ongoing effort to force Indians to look and behave like Protestant white people.
When Ghost Dancing continued throughout 1890, President Benjamin Harrison sent in the army. On December 28, some 500 heavily-armed cavalry accepted the surrender of a village of 300 elderly Minneconjous, women, children, and some lightly-armed men. The next morning, as troops were carrying out orders to disarm their prisoners, a gun fired, probably by accident. Nobody was hurt, but an impulsive commanding officer ordered his troops to open fire. By the time the shooting stopped, some 200 Lakotas lay dead and dying. In the aftermath, a brief shooting war finally erupted, with skirmishes taking the lives of dozens of Indians and a handful of soldiers before Lakotas once more surrendered their arms.
To this day, the pain of Wounded Knee is still deeply felt within the Pine Ridge community and by descendants of the victims. The stain of the Wounded Knee Massacre remains on the army and the U.S. government.
But efforts to suppress the Ghost Dance religion had the opposite effect. Army violence convinced many believers that its prophecies must be true, and that the government was trying to stop them from being fulfilled. Why would the government want to stop prayers to the Messiah, unless white people knew the Messiah was real? Clearly, said believers, the government knew the Messiah was coming.
After a brief period, secret Ghost Dances returned to South Dakota. Elsewhere, dances among Southern Arapahos and Southern Cheyennes took on renewed energy. Among some peoples, Ghost Dances were held regularly through the 1920s. Across many different Indian reservations, the ceremony and its teachings endure to this day.
Only in the late 20th century would Indian people begin to secure limited rights to observe their own religions. As they have done so, our memories of assimilation campaigns and their tragic consequences have faded. But as Americans still debate the merits of religious freedom, the Ghost Dancers of Wounded Knee remind us of the terrible price of suppressing belief.