Ghost Dance

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Ghost Dance,

central ritual of the messianic religion instituted in the late 19th cent. by a Paiute named WovokaWovoka
, c.1858–1932, Paiute, prophet of a messianic religion sometimes called the Ghost Dance religion. Also known as Jack Wilson, he was influenced by his father (a mystic) as well as by the Christian family for whom he worked and the Shaker religion.
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. The religion prophesied the peaceful end of the westward expansion of whites and a return of the land to the Native Americans. The ritual lasted five successive days, being danced each night and on the last night continued until morning. Hypnotic trances and shaking accompanied this ceremony, which was supposed to be repeated every six weeks. The dance originated among the Paiute c.1870; later, other Native Americans sent delegates to Wovoka to learn his teachings and ritual. In a remarkably short time the religion spread to most of the Western Native Americans. The ghost dance is chiefly significant because it was a central feature among the Sioux just prior to the massacre of hundreds of Sioux at Wounded Knee, S.Dak., in 1890. The Sioux, wearing shirts called ghost shirts, believed they would be protected from the soldiers' bullets.

Ghost Dance

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Each year on Palm Sunday, Christians celebrate the day the people of Jerusalem welcomed and sang for the man they hoped would throw off the yoke of foreign oppression and restore the fortunes they had once known. Messianic movements have happened many times in many different religions, and a look at the Paiute Ghost Dance movement of the late nineteenth century reveals parallels with the Christian celebration of Palm Sunday, establishing a common reference point with one-third of the world's population. Such parallels remind us that we all are brothers and sisters with common dreams and aspirations; it is more difficult to dismiss one religion as superstition when one of the world's major religions has many of the same elements.

Consider the Sioux people in the year 1881. The great chief Sitting Bull had surrendered, ending a way of life and culture that had existed, in the minds of his people, forever. Forced to live on reservations, criticized because they either could not or would not learn to be farmers on worthless land white homesteaders didn't want, living off government subsidies that Congress reduced every year and that were often depleted by dishonest Indian agents, the proud people had, within a few short years, been defeated, slaughtered, ridiculed, and demeaned. The buffalo, central to their religion and economy, was destroyed not because the whites needed the food, but because of an intentional, governmental policy that knew the destruction of the great herds meant the destruction of the Indian people.

Seen in these terms, the Plains Indians were the victims of a religious war deliberately meant to destroy their heart and soul. It was sacrilege in the worst sense of the word—a war of aggression baptized under the rubric Manifest Destiny. The Sioux had been called idolaters and devils, deliberately chosen religious terms designed to brainwash the Christian population, many of whom considered it the work of God to kill Indians. It is a matter of public record that many sermons and newspapers of the time printed, in supposed justification of the slaughter, the Old Testament passages urging the destruction of women, children, and livestock that God is quoted as ordering from time to time against the enemies of Israel: "Now go, attack the Amalekites [Indians] and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle [buffalo] and sheep, camels [horses] and donkeys" (1 Samuel 15:3). When asked about the slaughter of Indian children, it became an editorial staple to repeat the quotation, "Nits make lice!"

In the midst of this despair an Indian religious movement began when a Paiute prophet named Wovoka had a vision in the Nevada desert. He saw a new age, marked by the return of the buffalo, the disappearance of the whites, and the resurrection of Indian ancestors. All this would be brought about if the people danced the Ghost Dance and dared to believe. It was a simple dance, marked by religious frenzy no different from that seen in Pentecostal holiness traditions, Sufi dervish cults, or Jewish Kabbalah mysticism. People would fall to the ground, perhaps speaking in tongues, and describe visions of a better tomorrow. The prophet didn't call the people to fight. There were certainly anti-white feelings expressed, but this was not a war dance. Indeed, the cult forbid the use of weapons, even against the white man. Instead, dancers wore sacred shirts they thought would protect them against bullets if they were attacked.

And this is what made newspaper reporters think the Indians were going to rise up against the settlements. Reservation officials felt their authority threatened as word of the new religious movement spread like wildfire. By 1890, Pine Ridge Reservation agent D. E. Royer called for troops. Right next door, James McLaughlin, agent at Standing Rock Reservation, ordered the arrest of his most famous ward, Sitting Bull, whom he mistakenly thought was the looked-for Messiah figure.

In the early morning of December 15th, forty-three Indian police surrounded the old medicine man's cabin and arrested him when he came outside. Although exactly what happened next is in dispute, fourteen people, including Sitting Bull, were killed. In fear of continued attacks that were immediately ordered, hundreds of people fled the reservation to seek the shelter of Big Foot, chief of the people camped at the Cheyenne River Reservation.

In the fear-shrouded days that followed, the people eventually surrendered and camped at a place called Wounded Knee. On December 28th, they were ordered to turn in their weapons. For a number of reasons, among them the need to hunt and the fear of what might happen next, some of the people refused. When a single shot was fired, probably by a frightened soldier, the army troops began to pour fire into the village. The cavalry, many of whom remembered what had by then become known as Custer's Last Stand, went berserk. Twenty-five soldiers were killed and thirty-nine wounded, most of them as a result of being caught in the cross fire of their own troops. They were buried with full military honors. But between 153 and 300 Indians, mostly women trying in vain to shield their babies, were killed and dumped in a common pit grave. Many of the bodies were mutilated by soldiers seeking grisly "souvenirs."

The Ghost Dance and hopes for renewal were massacred at Wounded Knee.

Not all whites were sympathetic to the "official" version reported to Washington and displayed across the country in newspaper headlines. A former Indian agent with the delightful name of Valentine McGillycuddy had issued an unheeded warning: "If the Seventh-day Adventists prepare for the coming of the Savior, the army is not put in motion. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege?" It was a question asked by many in private. But the public at large soon forgot.

Perhaps the best epitaph to the Ghost Dance's messianic dream was spoken at the sight of the common grave where the Indians were buried. A civilian worker, called in to help with the horrible task, later recalled his thoughts. "It was a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was made of stone, to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit."

Enlarge picture
“Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians,” by Amedee Forestier, Illustrated London News, 1891.

Ghost Dance

Wovoka, the Paiute messiah, taught the tribes a dance from the spirit world that would bring back the buffalo. Unfortunately, the U.S. Cavalry interpreted the drums as beating out a war dance.

On January 1, 1889, Jack Wilson, a Paiute who worked as a hired hand for a white rancher near Mason Valley, Nevada, came down with a terrible fever during a solar eclipse. His sickness became so bad that for three days he lay as if dead.

When he returned to consciousness, Wovoka, as he was known in his tribe, told the Paiute who had assembled around his “dead” body that his spirit had left his body and had walked with God, the Old Man, for those three days. The Old Man had given him a powerful vision that revealed that Jesus lived again upon the Earth Mother and that the dead of many tribes were alive in the spirit world, just waiting to be reborn. If the native people wished the buffalo to return, the grasses to grow tall, the rivers to run clean, they must not injure anyone; they must not do harm to any living thing; they must not make war. On the other hand, they must lead lives of purity, cease gambling, put away the white man’s strong drink, and guard themselves against all lusts and weaknesses of the flesh.

The most important part of the vision that God gave to Wovoka was to revive the Ghost Dance first taught by his grandfather, the Paiute prophet Wodziwob, and spread by his father, Tavibo, during the 1870s. The Old Man had stressed that this was the dance of the spirit people of the Other World. To perform this dance was to ensure that God’s blessings would be bestowed upon the tribe, and many ghosts would materialize during the dance to join with the living in celebration of the return of the old ways. The Old Man had spoken to him as if Wovoka were his son and had assured him that many miracles would be worked through him. He promised Wovoka that the dead from many tribes would soon be born again in a restored world that would once again be filled with plentiful game. All those whites who interfered with this rebirth would be swallowed up by the earth, and only those who practiced the ways of peace would be spared. All the nation would once again belong to the tribes.

Wovoka had spent his time in imitation of death, lying in a trancelike state for three days, receiving his spiritual initiation in the Other World. Wovoka had emerged as a holy man and a prophet, and history would forever know him as the Paiute Messiah.

Soon, representatives from many tribes visited the Paiute and saw them dance Wovoka’s vision. They saw the truth of the Ghost Dance, and they began calling Wovoka “Jesus.” His fame spread so far that newspaper reporters from St. Louis, New York, and Chicago came to see the Ghost Dance Messiah and record his words. The white people were pleased that Wovoka did not speak of war, only of the importance of all people living together in harmony.

Kicking Bear, an Oglala-Brule Sioux who, through marriage with Chief Big Foot’s niece, had become acting chief of the Miniconjou Sioux, traveled from South Dakota to Nevada to see the Ghost Dance. He was impressed with Wovoka, and he saw the scars left on the Paiute’s hands and feet where the whites had crucified him in another life. Kicking Bear was a warrior, sick of the unfulfilled promises of the whites, but he and the Sioux delegates accepted Wovoka as the true Messiah, and they returned to tell Big Foot and Sitting Bull about the Ghost Dance.

Sitting Bull, the great Sioux prophet and holy man, was impressed by Kicking Bear’s report, but rather noncommittal toward the teachings of the Paiute Messiah. While he did not wholeheartedly endorse the Ghost Dance, neither did he prevent those Sioux who wished to join in the ritual from doing so.

In spite of his reservations about following only the path of peace with the whites, Kicking Bear introduced the Ghost Dance to the Miniconjou and other bands of Sioux. Within a few months, most of the Sioux regarded Kicking Bear as the founder of their own version of the Ghost Dance.

Sometime during the fall of 1890 the Ghost Dance spread through the Sioux villages of the Dakota reservations with the addition of the Ghost Shirts, special shirts that could resist the bullets of the bluecoats, the soldiers who might attempt to stop the rebirth of the old ways. As the Sioux danced, sometimes through the night, believing they were hastening the return of the buffalo and their many relatives who had been killed in combat with the pony soldiers, the settlers and townsfolk in the Dakota Territory became anxious. And when the Sioux at Sitting Bull’s Grand River camp began to dance with rifles, it became apparent to the white soldiers that the Ghost Dance was really a war dance after all.

After a nervous Indian agent at Pine Ridge wired his superiors in Washington that the Sioux were dancing in the snow and acting crazy, it was decided that Sitting Bull and other Sioux leaders should be removed from the general population and confined in a military post until the fanatical interest in the Ghost Dance religion had subsided. Sitting Bull was killed by Sioux reservation police on December 15, 1890, and Big Foot and 350 of his people were brought to the edge of Wounded Knee Creek to camp.

On December 28 Col. James W. Forsyth led a force of cavalry, infantry, and Sioux police against the Wounded Knee camp and surrounded it. Their weaponry included Hotchkiss multiple-firing guns and mountain howitzers. A shot rang out. The encamped Sioux scattered to retrieve rifles that had been discarded or hidden. From all around, fire from the automatic rifles, violent eruptions from the exploding shells, and volleys of grapeshot destroyed the village. As they were being slaughtered by two battalions of soldiers, the Sioux sang Ghost Dance songs, blended with their own death chants. Within minutes, approximately three hundred Sioux had been killed, Big Foot among them, and twenty-five soldiers had lost their lives.

Angered by the senseless massacre at Wounded Knee, Kicking Bear and his warriors donned their Ghost Shirts to make them impervious to the whites’ bullets and began to attack small columns of cavalry and to raid ranches and small settlements. As Kicking Bear’s warriors eluded the cavalry and continued to attack supply trains, Colonel Forsyth realized that he was no longer confronting a “hostile” force composed largely of elderly men, women, and children. Kicking Bear’s men were seasoned fighters who skillfully planned ambushes and employed guerrilla tactics.

On January 15, 1891, Kicking Bear’s 3,500 Sioux, cold, starving, and surrounded by 8,000 soldiers, surrendered. Fully expecting to be executed for crimes against the whites, an amazed Kicking Bear and the other Ghost Dance leaders spent two months in prison—then were pardoned to tour Europe as part of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Some years later, after Kicking Bear returned from his foray into show business, he became a Presbyterian minister.

The massacre at Wounded Knee and Kicking Bear’s seventeen-day campaign of revenge ended the Native American tribes’ widespread practice of the Ghost Dance religion and brought the last of the Indian Wars to a close. It was said that Wovoka wept bitterly when he learned the fate of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. The Paiute messiah died in 1932.