Ghost Dance Movements 1870-1890

In the mid to late 1800s, a number of "new" religion/religious movements arose among the American Indians (often variations on older ones with newer, sometimes Christian aspects; also many drew inspiration and ideas from each other). Many of them were varying combinations of "revitalization" and "millenarian" movements.

Usually "brought" to the tribes by a prophet of some sort, the main features tended to be a return to the "old ways," plenty of land free from white encroachment, abundant food and resources, an expulsion or elimination of whites from the land (North America), and in many cases a return of the ancestors from the dead.

What is referred to as the "Ghost Dance" generally means the movement of the late 1880s. Before discussing that, one must first examine the Ghost Dance movement of 1870, which while separate, is undeniably linked.

Ghost Dance of 1870
While religious movements (and history, in general) do not function within a vacuum, without a usually complex web of causes and sources, one needs a starting place. And the starting place for the ghost Dance is a Paiute Indian named Wodziwob (ca. 1844-ca. 1873, possibly much later).

To give some context. The Indian Wars had begun. The Indian Removal Act had done its damage, not only taking a physical/mortal toll, but was harming tribal identity and structure, as well as spirituality. Indians were being pushed onto reservations (whether by trickery, coercion, or going "willingly" as a means of self-preservation) and what land there was being taken/sold/stolen as settlers and miners kept moving onto what was (supposed to be) Indian land. Further, for the plains Indians (those both indigenous to the area and those who had be "removed" or placed on reservations there), the great slaughters of the Bison were taking place.

As is often common with oppressed groups, particularly very spiritual ones, religious ideas of escape began to form. Wodziwob lived with his fellow Paiutes on the Walker River Reservation in what is currently western Nevada. He spread the story that he had visited the spirit world (a commonality in both Ghost Dance movements, as well as other similar ones). He told of a time when the ancestors would return from the dead and the Indians could return to their traditional way of life. One of the ways to attain this was participating in variations on traditional dances. He encouraged the "Round Dance" (participants dancing in a circle, chanting and singing) which was meant to help bring back the dead. He also supported a dance of mourning called the Cry Dance.

These sorts of ideas were "in the air" as well and influential on other movements. The dances and variations spread throughout California and the Northwest (variation is an important thing to bear in mind with the Ghost Dance movement). As with Wodziwob's story and predictions, features including visiting ancestors (whether via dream or some other "experience") to gain the knowledge being passed on, return to the older traditional ways, and dance as a means of accomplishing the goals. The return of the dead was often a part but not necessarily on the scale of the Ghost Dance. Others stressed the "end of the world" aspect.

Also of note is that Judeo-Christian ideas were beginning to filter into the Indians' spirituality (even more so later on) which is not surprising given the length of contact in the New World as well as the number of missionaries that actively sought conversion (which was achieved with varying degrees of willingness). Some groups even had somewhat similar notions of an afterlife and/or a supreme being. Apocalyptic end-time events show some good parallels. This should be expected as contact between different religious groups often leads to assimilation of ideas and concepts (despite many religions refusing to admit this to be the case).

Another Paiute who was important is Tavibo (sometimes Tävibo; ca. 1835-ca. 1870, perhaps ca. 1915). Also living near the Walker River Reservation, he was something of a disciple of Wodziwob and help spread the Ghost Dance religion. In fact he had his own epiphany where he had visions concerning the Indian people. He spent time alone in the mountains where he received sacred knowledge from the Great Spirit (intense meditation and asceticism—especially among those already religiously and mystically inclined—is a common aspect of those claiming visions and messages from the gods).

One of his visions concerned the white people being swallowed up by the earth. While a strong (and hopeful) message, few people converted. Another vision said that all the people would be killed in an earthquake, following which the Indians would return and live as they did in precontact times, the earth and land restored to them. A third one was that only those Indians who were believers would be resurrected (an objective viewing—some might say cynical—of this might suggest an attempt at gaining more converts). His ideas spread and were popular for a time among a few of the Indian nations. As is common with prophet-based movements, a lack of fulfilled predictions led to a decline in followers. But, possibly most importantly, Tavibo is believed to be the father of Wovoka—initiator of the later Ghost Dance.

Having grown up on the same reservation (even if he wasn't Tavibo's son), Wovoka (ca. 1858-1932) was undoubtedly exposed to the various ideas of the Ghost Dance and similar movements. He had lost his father in his teens and lived and worked on a ranch with a white family by the name of Wilson (Wovoka's "white" name was Jack Wilson). And of course, he would have had further religious exposure there, in the form of Christianity.

He returned to his tribe later in life and when he was about thirty (1889), went through a "resurrection." On 1 January, while suffering from an illness (apparently scarlet fever) and during a solar eclipse, he had a vision (again note the psychological and physical circumstances as well as the way a mystical mindset might interpret them). Similar to the earlier Ghost Dance and other traditions, he had visited the land of the dead to bring back messages of hope, renewal, return of the dead, and expulsion of the white man. This time the Christian influences are much stronger. It has become a messianic movement to some extent and Jesus is mentioned explicitly (at times Wovoka suggesting that he was the messiah, himself). In his own words, he describes both the vision and the message for the Indians:

When the Sun died, I went up to Heaven and saw God and all the people who had died a long time ago. God told me to come back and tell my people they must be good and love one another, and not fight, or steal or lie. He gave me this dance to give to my people.

When you get home you must make a dance to continue five days. Dance four successive nights, and the last night keep us the dance until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then disperse to their homes. You must all do in the same way.

I, Jack Wilson, love you all, and my heart is full of gladness for the gifts you have brought me. When you get home I shall give you a good cloud which will make you feel good. I give you a good spirit and give you all good paint. I want you to come again in three months, some from each tribe there.

There will be a good deal of snow this year and some rain. In the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before.

Grandfather says, when your friends die you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. This young man has a good father and mother.

Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.

Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes do not be afraid. It will not hurt you.

I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words again from me some time.

Do not tell lies.

While some of the more peaceful, moral aspects are arguably more universal, the mention of "God," heaven, and the direct use of "Jesus"—particularly his appearing like a cloud—suggest the influence of Christianity (one might argue that the ritual cleansing of the bathing might point to the notion of baptism).

Other facets of the message Wovoka spread were prayer, abstention of drinking alcohol, meditation (along with performing the ritual of the dance). An earthquake is also mentioned as in Tavibo's prophecies. He even asked that when the participants "return home, go to farming, and send all your children to school" ( Also important to note is that it is a peaceful message. A message of nonresistance and patience.

The religion became quite popular and not surprisingly so, as all the factors that gave the original Ghost Dance and its related movements their desirablity were even more significant to the Indians. More and more Indians had been herded onto reservation land—land that was continually shrinking (especially since the passage of the General Allotment Act, also know as the Dawes Act), the sacred Black Hills had been essentially stolen from them, the Indian Wars were wearing down their numbers and destroying their culture and traditions (things that were continued on the reservations), and the Bison and other game were being wiped out. The Indians needed something to latch onto, something spiritual to help them and give a meaning and purpose to their existence. And hope.

Its popularity was not only in the same regions as the earlier Ghost Dance, but became very popular among the various plains Indians, particularly the Lakota bands of the Sioux Nations. It was among them that the dance gained its notoriety.

Ghost Shirts and the "absurd craze"
One of the ways in which the Ghost Dance managed to become as popular and widespread as it was, was its ability to be adapted to the ideology, spiritual traditions, and other needs of the groups that embraced it (much like many religions, Christianity and its hundreds, if not thousands, of variations being the obvious parallel). For those of the plains—who'd lost their freedom to travel and hunt and live as they choose by being placed on reservations or chased if they refused or reacted against such measures, lost their most sacred place (the Black Hills or Paha Sapa), and who were watching their important means of sustenance (Bison) dwindle away in heaps of rotting corpses—these ideas of renewal and, especially, the disappearance of the white man, returning things to precontact days, was particularly potent. Some of whom felt it would be just vengeance on the whites who had done so much wrong to the Indian peoples.

Interested groups had sent out representatives to observe the ceremonies and listen to the message. The news they brought back to the reservations was inspiring. Converts were widespread and the dances common. Some groups were made up largely of women who were dancing in hope to see their slain loved ones return.

An interesting note is that the great chief Sitting Bull was skeptical of the whole thing, not believing that the dead could come back to life. He allowed it on the reservation due to the conviction and insistence of the believers. One concern was that soldiers were going around to other reservations to force a stop to the activities—not only was it a new religion and strange, it seemed to be "advocating" the destruction of the white race. He didn't want soldiers coming to his reservation—the government was already cracking down on Indian culture and religion, discouraging, and in some cases outright banning its practice (various Christian groups were "given" reservations to send their missionaries). Allowing it was the beginning of a chain of events that ended in disaster and massacre (not to blame Sitting Bull, as he was hardly responsible for the actions of other Indians, nor the actions of an army or policies of a government, but the dance led to the outcome, regardless).

One of the additions given the movement by the Lakotas was the concept of the "Ghost Shirt." It was explained to Sitting Bull that the Indian believers would have nothing to fear from the soldiers if they wore their sacred shirts, covered with magic and religious symbols—because they could not be penetrated by bullets. If this (to the soldiers and administrators) religio-populist movement wasn't worrisome enough, this idea of magical bulletproof clothing sounded dangerous. And with the trouble the army had already had with the Sioux Nations, it suggested insurrection and war (something that may have been on the minds of some of the adherents).

Despite some notable similarities to the Christian message and even explicit mention of Jesus and messiah (many believed that an Indian messiah would be coming in 1891), this dance that was rapidly spreading throughout the reservations was alarming to the army. James McLaughlin, agent at the Standing Rock Reservation, called it an "absurd craze" as well as "demoralizing, indecent, disgusting" ( Further he condemned it, saying "a more pernicious system of religion could not have been offered to a people who stood on the threshold of civilization" (Brown). Aggravating things were the fears of settlers, who worried of an uprising. This was complicated by newspapers spreading wild stories of the movement (similar to the irresponsible and damaging exaggerations and lies "reported" in the days that led up to Sand Creek).

The official word was that the dance had to be terminated.

The Death of Sitting Bull
"Intelligence" claimed that Sitting Bull was behind the movement on the reservations (the army constantly worried that he would "break" the reservation again and foment an uprising). By then so many were participating in the dance that schools were empty and farms untended. As one agent from Pine Ridge Reservation informed Washington that "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy" and that "we need protection and need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined...and this should be done at once" (Brown).

Meanwhile, Chief Big Foot had taken his band of believers off his reservation to perform their rituals and avoid interference by soldiers and agents.

In a sad but interesting note, at Pine Ridge, where the numbers of soldiers was quickly increasing, a former agent was brought in for "recommendations." This Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy stated that

I should let the dance continue. The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians. If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare their 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 troops remain, trouble is sure to come. (Brown)

Of course, no one followed his recommendations.

Since it was already assumed that Sitting Bull was at the head of this "trouble," soldiers and Indian police were sent to arrest him. During the arrest, an Indian loyal to Sitting Bull fired at one of the policemen, who accidentally shot Sitting Bull (another one shot him in the head at nearly the same time). Despite it being "accidental," there had been a general belief among the men that Sitting Bull would continue to be a problem even if they successfully brought him in. It was felt that death was preferable to capture and an attempt of rescue or aid would give justification/excuse for the killing.

Wounded Knee
When the news of the "arrest"got to Big Foot and his group (it was December 1890), they attempted to return to Pine Ridge where they thought Chief Red Cloud might be able to protect them. Before they made it, they were surrounded by cavalry and made to halt. There they were informed that they would be taken to Wounded Knee Creek (there was a camp there). Though there were protestations, the soldiers led the band to the camp (Big Foot was of little help as he was ill with pneumonia and possibly dying).

There were approximately 350 Indians, about two-thirds of which were women and children. There were around 500 soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry which had taken part in the earlier Indian War campaigns, including Little Big Horn. Some have claimed the soldiers, who were heavily drinking the night before, spoke of getting revenge for Custer's death.

The next day (29 December), the captive Indians, under the watch of the soldiers and four Hotchkiss cannons capable of firing exploding shells up to two miles, were asked to disarm (most did without resistance). When the soldiers were not satisfied, they began searching them. One Indian ceremonially threw dirt into the air and spoke of the protection from bullets the Ghost Shirts would offer. Then, while attempting to disarm a deaf Indian who had concealed a rifle, it went off into the air. Almost immediately gunfire broke out. Rifles and cannon opened up into the gathered, captive (and nearly totally unarmed) crowd killing over 200, some of whom had made to escape and were ran down by the soldiers and killed (some as far as 2-3 miles, 3.2 to 4.8 km). There were about 50 survivors, some dying of their wounds later (the total death toll isn't certain as some bodies may have been removed before burial). Wovoka's dance and the Lakota's Ghost Shirts were impotent against the violence of the gunfire.

Only 25 soldiers were killed and 39 wounded (many by their own crossfire). The wounded were loaded onto wagons (left exposed to the bitter cold) and carted to an Episcopal Mission. A blizzard came on that made it impossible to dispose of the bodies. On 3 January 1891 (the year the Indian Messiah was supposed to appear), the soldiers returned and buried what they found in a mass grave. A picture of Big Foot's contorted, frozen body was taken and remains the strongest visual statement on the massacre.

After Wounded Knee
Wounded Knee essentially ended the Indian Wars and much of the resistance on the reservations (not all). It also largely ended the Ghost Dance movement. Converts drifted away from Wovoka and his message of peace and renewal. But the dance and its message did not go extinct. Ghost Dances have been periodically performed among various bands throughout the United States.

Hope springs eternal....

The dance itself. From

The actual dance was performed by all members joining hands to create a circle. In the center of the formation was a sacred tree, or symbol of a tree, decorated with religious offerings. Looking toward the sun, the dancers would do a shuffling, counter-clockwise side-step, chanting while they sang songs of resurrection. Gradually the tempo would be increased to a great beat of arousal. Some dances would continue for days until the participants "died," falling to the ground, rolling around and experiencing visions of a new land of hope and freedom from white people which was promised by the messiah. The dance often produced mass hypnosis in its transfixed participants, and thus, it became known as the Ghost Dance.

While the explanation of the name seems a bit off, the mention of the hypnotic qualities of repetitive, focused movements—particularly over a long time, often without nourishment and being physically taxing—is important as similar activity is known to cause " trances" and "visions," things reported to occur by some participants.

(Sources: Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian history of the American West 1970; Carl Waldman Biographical Dictionary of American Indian History to 1900 rev. ed. 2001, Atlas of the North American Indian rev. ed. 2000;,;,;;;