The Native American Ghost Dance, a Symbol of Defiance

Religious Ritual Became a Symbol of Defiance By Native Americans

Sioux Indians in native dress performing the Ghost Dance, illustrated in the London News

Library of Congress / Getty Images

The ghost dance was a religious movement that swept across Native American populations in the West in the late 19th century. What started as a mystical ritual soon became something of a political movement and a symbol of Native American resistance to a way of life imposed by the U.S. government.

A Dark Moment in History

As the ghost dance spread through western Native American reservations, the federal government moved aggressively to stop the activity. The dancing and the religious teachings associated with it became issues of public concern widely reported in newspapers.

As the 1890s began, the emergence of the ghost dance movement was viewed by white Americans as a credible threat. The American public was, by that time, used to the idea that Native Americans had been pacified, moved onto reservations, and essentially converted to living in the style of white farmers or settlers.

The efforts to eliminate the practice of ghost dancing on reservations led to heightened tensions which had profound effects. The legendary Sitting Bull was murdered in a violent altercation sparked by the crackdown on ghost dancing. Two weeks later, the confrontations prompted by the ghost dance crackdown led to the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre.

The horrific bloodshed at Wounded Knee marked the end of the Plains Indian Wars. The ghost dance movement was effectively ended, though it continued as a religious ritual in some places well into the 20th century. The ghost dance took a place at the end of a long chapter in American history, as it seemed to mark the end of Native American resistance to white rule.

Origins of the Ghost Dance

The story of the ghost dance began with Wovoka, a member of the Paiute tribe in Nevada. Wovoka, who was born about 1856, was the son of a medicine man. Growing up, Wovoka lived for a time with a family of white Presbyterian farmers, from whom he picked up the habit of reading the Bible every day.

Wovoka developed a wide-ranging interest in religions. He was said to be familiar with Mormonism and various religious traditions of native tribes in Nevada and California. In late 1888, he became quite ill with scarlet fever and may have gone into a coma.

During his illness, he claimed to have religious visions. The depth of his illness coincided with a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, which was seen as a special sign. When Wovoka regained his health, he began to preach of knowledge which God had imparted to him.

According to Wovoka, a new age would dawn in 1891. The dead of his people would be restored to life. Game which had been hunted nearly to extinction would return. And the white people would vanish and stop afflicting the indigenous peoples.

Wovoka also said a ritual dance which had been taught to him in his visions must be practiced by native populations. This "ghost dance," which was similar to traditional round dances, was taught to his followers.

Decades earlier, in the late 1860s, during a time of privation among western tribes, there had been a version of the ghost dance which spread through the West. That dance also prophesied positive changes to come to the lives of Native Americans. The earlier ghost dance spread through Nevada and California, but when the prophecies did not come true, the beliefs and accompanying dance rituals were abandoned.

However, Wovoka's teachings based on his visions took hold throughout early 1889. His idea quickly spread along travel routes, and became widely known among the western tribes.

At the time, the Native American population was demoralized. The nomadic way of life had been curtailed by the U.S. government, forcing the tribes onto reservations. Wovoka's preaching seemed to offer some hope.

Representatives of various western tribes began to visit Wovoka to learn about his visions, and especially about what was becoming widely known as the ghost dance. Before long, the ritual was being performed across Native American communities, which were generally located on reservations administered by the federal government.

Fear of the Ghost Dance

In 1890, the ghost dance had become widespread among the western tribes. The dances became well-attended rituals, generally taking place over a span of four nights and the morning of the fifth day.

Among the Sioux, who were led by the legendary Sitting Bull, the dance became extremely popular. The belief took hold that someone wearing a shirt that was worn during the ghost dance would become invulnerable to any injury.

Rumors of the ghost dance began to instill fear among white settlers in South Dakota, in the region of the Indian reservation at Pine Ridge. Word began to spread that the Lakota Sioux were finding a fairly dangerous message in Wovoka's visions. His talk of a new age without whites began to be seen as a call to eliminate the white settlers from the region.

And part of Wovoka's vision was that the various tribes would all unite. So the ghost dancers began to be seen as a dangerous movement that could lead to widespread attacks on white settlers across the entire West.

The spreading fear of the ghost dance movement was picked up by newspapers, in an era when publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were beginning to champion sensational news. In November 1890, a number of newspaper headlines across America linked the ghost dance to alleged plots against white settlers and U.S. Army troops.

An example of how white society viewed the ghost dance appeared in the form of a lengthy story in the New York Times with the subheadline, "How the Indians Work Themselves Up to a Fighting Pitch." The article explains how a reporter, led by friendly Indian guides, trekked overland to a Sioux camp. "The trip was extremely hazardous, owing to the frenzy of the hostiles." The article described the dance, which the reporter claimed to have observed from a hill overlooking the camp. 182 "bucks and squaws" participated in the dance, which took place in a large circle around a tree. The reporter described the scene:

"The dancers held on another's hands and moved slowly around the tree. They did not raise their feet as high as they do in the sun dance, most of the time it looked as though their ragged moccasins did not leave the ground, and the only idea of dancing the spectators could gain from the motion of the fanatics was the weary bending of the knees. Round and round the dancers went, with their eyes closed and their heads bent toward the ground. The chant was incessant and monotonous. 'I see my father, I see my mother, I see my brother, I see my sister," was Half Eye's translation of the chant, as the squaw and warrior moved laboriously about the tree.
"The spectacle was as ghastly as it could be: it showed the Sioux to be insanely religious. The white figures bobbing between pained and naked warriors and the shrill yelping noise of the squaws as they tottered in grim endeavor to outdo the bucks, made a picture in the early morning which has not yet been painted or accurately described. Half Eyes says the dance which the spectators were then witnessing had been going on all night."

On the following day the other side of the country, the front-page story "A Devilish Plot" claimed that Indians on the Pine Ridge reservation planned to hold a ghost dance in a narrow valley. The plotters, the newspaper claimed, would then lure soldiers into the valley to stop the ghost dance, at which point they would be massacred.

In "It Looks More Like War," the New York Times claimed that Little Wound, one of the leaders at the Pine Ridge reservation, "the great camp of the ghost dancers," asserted that the Indians would defy orders to cease the dancing rituals. The article said the Sioux were "choosing their fighting ground," and preparing for a major conflict with the U.S. Army.

Role of Sitting Bull

Most Americans in the late 1800s were familiar with Sitting Bull, a medicine man of the Hunkpapa Sioux who was closely associated with the Plains Wars of the 1870s. Sitting Bull did not directly participate in the massacre of Custer in 1876, though he was in the vicinity, and his followers attacked Custer and his men.

Following the demise of Custer, Sitting Bull led his people into safety in Canada. After being offered amnesty, he eventually returned to the United States in 1881. In the mid-1880s, he toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, alongside performers like Annie Oakley.

By 1890, Sitting Bull was back in South Dakota. He became sympathetic to the movement, encouraged young Native Americans to embrace the spirituality espoused by Wovoka, and apparently urged them to take part in the ghost dance rituals.

The endorsement of the movement by Sitting Bull did not go unnoticed. As the fear of the ghost dance spread, what appeared to be his involvement only heightened tensions. The federal authorities decided to arrest Sitting Bull, as it was suspected he was about to lead a major uprising among the Sioux.

On December 15, 1890, a detachment of U.S. Army troops, along with Native Americans who worked as police officers on a reservation, rode out to where Sitting Bull, his family, and some followers were camped. The soldiers stayed at a distance while the police sought to arrest Sitting Bull.

According to news accounts at the time, Sitting Bull was cooperative and agreed to leave with the reservation police, but young Native Americans attacked the police. A shoot-out occurred, and in the gun battle, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.

The death of Sitting Bull was major news in the East. The New York Times published a story about the circumstances of his death on its front page, with subheadlines described him as an "old medicine man" and a "wily old plotter."

Wounded Knee

The ghost dance movement came to a bloody end at the massacre at Wounded Knee on the morning of December 29, 1890. A detachment of the 7th Cavalry approached an encampment of natives led by a chief named Big Foot and demanded that everyone surrender their weapons.

Gunfire broke out, and within an hour approximately 300 Native men, women, and children were killed. The treatment of the native peoples and the massacre at Wounded Knee signify a dark episode in American history. After the massacre at Wounded Knee, the ghost dance movement was essentially broken. While some scattered resistance to white rule arose in the following decades, the battles between Native Americans and whites in the West had ended.

Resources and Further Reading

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "The Native American Ghost Dance, a Symbol of Defiance." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 29). The Native American Ghost Dance, a Symbol of Defiance. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Native American Ghost Dance, a Symbol of Defiance." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).