The Ghost Dance: Rebellion and Revival

In the development years of the United States where American exploration lead to westward expansion the Native American tribes who once occupied various territories across North America were systematically culled and relocated to reservations often far from their native lands. Stripped of their liberties to roam and hunt freely, to practice their own culture and spirituality proudly, denied their roots in place of a English education, their land and dignity robbed of them, their tribes slaughtered in the Indian Wars and through disease, Native Americans were suffering through cultural and physical genocide at the hands of their white neighbors. Each tribe had experienced the promises of the government and each had felt the sharp pangs of deceit as those promises were left broken or altered beyond their original intent. However, in the hearts of what appeared to be a defeated people resided a glimmer of hope. Spread as quickly as wild fire and with implications just as grand, a new Messiah came forward with a message and gave the western tribes of America something they could believe in that was wholly their own. The Ghost Dance was a movement that returned a piece of autonomy to Native Americans as well as rekindled a bond with the traditions and power of their cultures prior to the interference of European influences. For this reason, the Ghost Dance was viewed as dangerous and a threat to the American Government, one that needed to be shut down immediately.
In January of 1889, Wovoka, a Paiute from Nevada, had a vision where he met with his ancestors and God in heaven.[1] He instructed his native brethren to no longer engage in the behavior of lying, stealing, cheating, drinking, and fighting.[2]Stating that resistance to such base behaviors would gain them entrance to heaven and, through an apocalypse, bring about the destruction of the white man and the return of the land and wild game such as buffalo “to their original condition.”[3] His vision and the Ghost Dance ritual to follow, was rooted in both Native American traditions such as “meditation, prayer, and ritual cleansing”[4]and Christian teachings as in his references to Heaven. The combining of these traditions could have been inspired by Wovoka’s childhood and upbringing. He was a mystic among his community and likely influenced by an elder Paiute mystic, Tavibo, who preached similar prophesies in the 1870s.[5]When he was a child, Wovoka was sent to live on an English under the influence of the ranch owners who practiced Presbyterianism.[6] Before the end of the year, the Ghost Dance ritual had made its way across the western half of the United States spreading from one tribe to the next including the Utes, Mohave, Caddo, Pawnee, Shoshone, Cheyenne, and Arapaho[7] to the Plains reservations of the Sioux. A call to action spread amongst the tribes stating “There is a new Messiah, and he is an Indian. There is a sacred dance you must learn, and songs you must sing.”[8] Delegations, often consisting of different tribes, strangers to each other, and even, at one time, enemies, attended meetings with Wovoka, the freshly minted Messiah, where he lectured on his vision and taught them the ritual of the dance.[9] Wovoka instructed the delegations as such, “When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way… I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feat at the dance and have food that everybody may eat.”[10] The members of the delegations then returned to their home tribes and shared what they learned from Wovoka. Among the new converts was the Sioux medicine chief, Sitting Bull, who quickly became a priest under the tutelage of Kicking Bear, an apostle of Wovoka,[11]and who hosted the first Ghost Dance for the Sioux on October of 1890.
The Ghost Dance was intended to bring together the spirits of deceased ancestors and those of the living with the intention of utilizing this power in battle against the United States Army.[12] Wovoka explained that the Great Spirit would return the Earth to the way it once was by purging the land of the whites by way of a soil tsunami. So long as the Native Americans continued the dance, they would be kept safe from the catastrophic wave by floating in the sky as it passed beneath them.[13]Although Wovoka preached patience and peace, the Sioux soon took it upon themselves to alter the Ghost Dance in such a way as to fit their personal rituals. This included the creation of the Ghost Shirt which was believed to repel bullets as well as holding firearms while participating in the dance.[14]Wovoka’s message, however, was straight forward, “You must not fight. A good time is coming. Be good, love one another, do not quarrel. Live in peace with the whites. Word hard, put away everything of war. And dance to hasten the coming of what I have promised.”[15]
The Ghost Dance was more than just a physical act. Those who participated found themselves transitioning between reality and the spirit world where they were able to speak with the ancestors and see for themselves the potency of the dance. The dance itself was far from disorganized and frenzied. Rather, it was a quiet affair of participants holding hands while their bodies swayed and they circled the center pole.[16] The dance drove many to exhaustion as the Sioux were comprised of many starving and weak individuals due to life on the reservation. As they crossed over to the spirit world many returned, but not all had the strength to do so. Rather than perform their traditional burial and grieving ceremonies, the Sioux abided by Wovoka’s instructions regarding grief and carried on with the dance, fully believing their loved ones would be resurrected soon.[17] The Ghost Shirts were part of a formal dress that the Sioux put together made of either buckskin or died cloth and beaded fringe down the sides.[18]Additionally, men and women wore a single feather in their hair, a first for women to be allowed to be adorned as such.[19] Sitting Bull further defied Wovoka’s instructions by allowing tribal members to speak openly about their reason for the dance. This, coupled with the mass cooperation of tribes across the Plains, brought the dance to the attention of the United States Government and became cause for alarm in the thick of the Indian Wars.
The Ghost Dance was viewed by the government to be the precursor to a Native American uprising[20]and eventually war. The gathering of differing tribes, the act of a choreographed dance and its purpose, and the presence of a new faith which empowered the Native Americans made those who sought control through the reservations nervous. This created a foundation of suspicion against the peaceful religious ritual which ultimately culminated in the Massacre of Wounded Knee. James McLaughlin, an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, demanded Sitting Bull to stop his tribe’s participation in the Ghost Dance, but Sitting Bull refused.[21] As a response, McLaughlin sent in the Indian Police to apprehend Sitting Bull, but instead of arresting him, he was killed along with some of the officers in a skirmish.[22] This would ultimately mark the beginning of the end of the Ghost Dance as the Seventh Cavalry were called in to disarm the Sioux and take control of the situation and reservation. On December 29, 1890, over 400 soldiers participated in the massacre of more than 200 Sioux Indians including men, women, and children.[23]The Wounded Knee Massacre did not stop at the main encampment, rather, after a blizzard had passed it was seen that as far as three miles away from the main scene of the atrocity, women and children were hunted down, mutilated, and murdered as they tried to escape.[24] The failure of the Ghost Dance and Ghost Shirts to protect the people against the American soldiers sounded a death knell of the Ghost Dance religion among the Sioux.
            It is of no wonder why the United States government, particularly the amped up agents of the Indian Wars, felt threatened by the birth of the Ghost Dance religion and its ability to bring together a tribe they had once believed defeated. Not only was the idea that the son of God, the Messiah, was a Native American offensive to their Christian sensibilities, but the perceived militaristic congregation of the Sioux coupled with the overall message of the Ghost Dance prophecy that there would be a purging of the white people from the lands gave the government cause to be concerned. This does not, however, justify the ruthless mass murder of the Sioux in what stands out as one of America’s darkest marks in history. Although the Wounded Knee Massacre marked the end of the Indian Wars and left the Sioux battered and hopeless, it would not mark the end of further persecution nor the resiliency of the native peoples of America. Wovoka’s message still lives on among many tribal members and the Ghost Dance is still practiced today, albeit, in private ceremonies.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1.     Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, a Macmillan Education Imprint, 2016.
2.     Johnson, Dorothy M. “Ghost Dance: Last Hope of the Sioux.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 6, no. 3 (1956): 42-50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4516093.
3.     Stein, Rebecca L., and Philip L. Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. London: Routledge, 2016. 239-240.
4.     “The Ghost Dance – A Promise of Fulfillment.” Legends of America. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-ghostdance/.
5.     “The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee.” Khan Academy. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-gilded-age/american-west/a/ghost-dance-and-wounded-knee.
6.     “Wovoka.” PBS. Accessed November 28, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/wovoka.htm.

FOOT NOTES

[1]Rebecca L. Stein, and Philip L. Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. London: Routledge, 2016. 239.
[2]Ibid, 239
[3]Ibid, 240
[4]Ibid, 240
[5]“Wovoka.” PBS. Accessed November 28, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/wovoka.htm.
[6]Rebecca L. Stein, and Philip L. Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. London: Routledge, 2016. 240.
[7]Dorothy M. Johnson. “Ghost Dance: Last Hope of the Sioux.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 6, no. 3 (1956): 42-50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4516093. 42.
[8]Ibid, 42
[9]Rebecca L. Stein, and Philip L. Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. London: Routledge, 2016. 240.
[10]“The Ghost Dance – A Promise of Fulfillment.” Legends of America. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-ghostdance/.
[11]Dorothy M. Johnson. “Ghost Dance: Last Hope of the Sioux.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 6, no. 3 (1956): 42-50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4516093. 43.
[12]“The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee.” Khan Academy. Accessed December 02, 2018. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-gilded-age/american-west/a/ghost-dance-and-wounded-knee.
[13]Dorothy M. Johnson. “Ghost Dance: Last Hope of the Sioux.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 6, no. 3 (1956): 42-50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4516093. 45.
[14]Ibid, 45
[15]Ibid, 45
[16]Ibid, 47
[17]Ibid, 46
[18]Ibid, 45
[19]Ibid, 45
[20]Colin G. Calloway. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, a Macmillan Education Imprint, 2016.
[21]Dorothy M. Johnson. “Ghost Dance: Last Hope of the Sioux.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 6, no. 3 (1956): 42-50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4516093. 46.
[22]“The Ghost Dance – A Promise of Fulfillment.” Legends of America. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-ghostdance/.
[23]Ibid, 1
[24]Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, a Macmillan Education Imprint, 2016. 334-335.
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