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Ghost Dance

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The Ghost Dance by the Ogalala Lakota at Pine Ridge. Illustration by Frederic Remington

Noted in historical accounts as the Ghost Dance of 1890, the Ghost Dance was a religious movement incorporated into numerous Native American belief systems. The traditional ritual used in the Ghost Dance, the circle dance, has been used by many Native Americans since prehistoric times, but was first performed in accordance with Jack Wilson's teachings among the Nevada Paiute in 1889. The practice swept throughout much of the American West, quickly reaching areas of California and Oklahoma. As the Ghost Dance spread from its original source, Native American tribes synthesized selective aspects of the ritual with their own beliefs, often creating change in both the society that integrated it and the ritual itself.

At the core of the movement was the prophet of peace Jack Wilson, known as Wovoka among the Paiute, who prophesied a peaceful end to white American expansion while preaching messages of clean living, an honest life, and cross-cultural cooperation. Perhaps the best known facet of the Ghost Dance movement is the role it reportedly played in instigating the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, which resulted in the deaths of at least 153 Lakota Sioux. The Sioux variation on the Ghost Dance tended towards millenarianism, an innovation which distinguished the Sioux interpretation from Jack Wilson's original teachings.

Historical foundations

Paiute background

The Northern Paiutes living in Mason Valley, in what is now the U.S. state of Nevada, at the time of settlement by white American homesteaders, were known collectively as the Tövusi-dökadö, (Tövusi- : Cyperus-bulb and dökadö : eaters). The Northern Paiute community thrived upon a subsistence pattern of foraging through this locally plentiful food source for a portion of the year, also augmenting their diets with fish, pine nuts, and the occasional clubbing of wild game.

The Tövusi-dökadö lacked any permanent political organization or officials, instead operating within a less stratified social system of self-proclaimed spiritually blessed individuals organizing events or activities for the betterment of the group as a whole. Usually, community events centered on the observance of a ritual at a prescribed time of year or was intended to organize activities like harvests or hunting parties. One such extraordinary instance occurred in 1869 when Hawthorne Wodziwob, a Paiute man, organized a series of community dances to announce his 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 3-4 years. Wodziwob’s peers accepted this vision, probably due to his already reputable status as a healer, as he urged the populace to dance the common circle dance as was customary during a time of festival. He continued preaching this message for 3 years with the help of a local "weather doctor" named Tavibo, the father of Jack Wilson.

Prior to Wodziwob’s religious movement, a devastating typhoid epidemic struck in 1867. This and other European diseases killed approximately one tenth of the total population, resulting in widespread psychological and emotional trauma, which brought grave disorder to the economic system. Many families were prevented from continuing their nomadic lifestyle, following pine nut harvests and wild game herds. Left with few options, many families ended up in Virginia City seeking wage work.

Round dance precursors

The physical form of the ritual associated with the Ghost Dance religion did not originate with Jack Wilson, nor did it die with him. Referred to as the “round dance”, this ritual form characteristically includes a circular community dance held around an individual who leads the ceremony. Often accompanying the ritual are intermissions of trance, exhortations and prophesying.

The term “ prophet dances” was applied during an investigation of Native American rituals carried out by anthropologist Leslie Spier, a student of Franz Boas. He noted that versions of the round dance were present throughout much of the Pacific Northwest including the Columbia plateau (a region including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of western Montana). However, Spier’s study was conducted at a time when most of these rituals had already incorporated Christian elements, which further complicated the investigation of the round dance’s origin.

European impact on native populations (often prior to actual physical exploration of the more remote regions of the continent) has made it difficult to acquire “pristine” data on North American societies during their “pre-historic” or “proto-historic” eras. Changes in Native American societies before physical contact with Europeans can be attributed to severe disease epidemics, an increased frequency and volume in trade caused by the introduction of European goods, from Europeans purchasing local resources and the introduction of the horse (which revolutionized the foraging lifestyle for some aboriginal societies).

Enculturation and diffusion are not the only explanations for the common circle dance rituals. Anthropologist James Mooney was one of the first to study the circle dance. He observed striking similarities in many Native American rituals. However, he also claimed that “a hope and longing common to all humanity, manifests through behaviour rooted in human physiology and common experience”; therefore, alluding to either the notion of universal imprints on the human mind, or to ubiquitous behaviors drawn from universal life courses that led to the ritual form.

Jack Wilson’s vision

Wovoka – Paiute spiritual leader and creator of the Ghost Dance

Jack Wilson, the prophet formerly known as Wovoka until his adoption of an Anglo name, was believed to have experienced a vision during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. It was reportedly not his first time experiencing a vision directly from God; 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, and was known throughout Mason Valley as a gifted and blessed young leader. He often presided over circle dances, which symbolizes the sun’s heavenly path across the sky, while preaching a message of universal love.

Anthropologist James Mooney conducted an interview with this charismatic preacher in 1892. Mooney confirmed that his message matched that given to his fellow aboriginal Americans. This study compared letters between tribes and notes that Jack asked his pilgrims to take upon their arrival at Mason Valley. Jack told Mooney that he had stood before God in Heaven, and had seen many of his ancestors engaged in their favorite pastimes. God showed Jack a beautiful land filled with wild game, and instructed him to return home to tell his people that they must love each other, not fight, and live in peace with the whites. God also stated that Jack’s 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. God said that if his people abided by these rules they would be united with their friends and family in the other world.

In God’s presence, Jack proclaimed, there would be no sickness, disease, or old age. According to Jack, he was then given the Ghost Dance and commanded to take it back to his people. Jack preached that if this five-day dance was performed in the proper intervals, the performers would secure their happiness and hasten the reunion of the living and deceased. God purportedly gave Jack powers over weather and told him 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 Sioux, their expression Spirit Dance was adopted as a descriptive title for all such practices. This was subsequently translated as “Ghost Dance”.

Role in Wounded Knee Massacre

Through Native Americans and some Anglo Americans, Jack 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 motivations, many left 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 Native American prophet were familiar and often accepted.

Miniconjou Chief Big Foot lies dead in the snow. 1891

While most followers of the Ghost Dance understood Wovoka’s role as being that of a teacher of pacifism and peace, others did not.

An alternate interpretation of the Ghost Dance tradition may be seen in the so-called Ghost Shirts, which were special garments rumored to repel bullets through spiritual power. It is uncertain where this belief originated, although some observers such as James Mooney have argued that the most likely source is the Mormon endowment “garment” (which some Mormons believed would protect the pious wearer from danger). Despite the uncertainty of its origins, it is generally accepted that chief Kicking Bear brought the concept to his own people, the Lakota Sioux, in 1890.

Another Lakota interpretation of Jack’s religion is drawn from the idea of a “renewed Earth” in which “all evil is washed away”. This Lakota interpretation included the removal of all Anglo Americans from their lands, unlike Jack’s version of the Ghost Dance which encouraged harmonious co-existence with Anglos.

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) into five smaller reservations. This was done to accommodate white homesteaders from the Eastern United States and was in accordance with the government’s clearly stated “policy of breaking up tribal relationships” and “conforming Indians to the white man’s ways, peaceably if they will, or forcibly if they must.” Once on the reduced reservations, tribes were separated into family units on 320 acre plots, forced to farm, raise livestock, and send their children to boarding schools that forbade any inclusion of Native American traditional culture and language.

To help support the Sioux during the period of transition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), was delegated the responsibility of supplementing the Sioux with food and hiring white farmers as teachers for the people. The farming plan failed to take into account the difficulty Sioux 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, resulting in rations to the Sioux being cut in half. With the bison virtually eradicated from the plains a few years earlier, the Sioux had no options available to escape starvation.

Increased performances of the Ghost Dance ritual ensued, frightening the supervising agents of the BIA. Kicking Bear was forced to leave Standing Rock, but when the dances continued unabated, Agent McLaughlin asked for more troops, claiming that 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 on the reservation for failing to stop his people from practicing the Ghost Dance.During the incident, a Sioux witnessing the arrest fired at one of the soldiers prompting an immediate retaliation; this conflict resulted in deaths on both sides, including the loss of Sitting Bull himself.

Big Foot, a Miniconjou leader on the U.S. Army’s list of trouble-making Indians, was stopped while en route to convene with the remaining Sioux chiefs. U.S. Army officers forced him and his people to relocate to a small camp close to the Pine Ridge Agency so that the soldiers could more closely watch the old chief. That evening, December 28, the small band of Sioux erected their tipis on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. The following day, during an attempt by the officers to collect any remaining weapons from the band, one young and deaf Sioux 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 Sioux 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, amongst the 153 dead Sioux, most of whom 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 general population learned about the events that had transpired. The U.S. government had insisted on numerous occasions that the Native American had already been successfully pacified, and many Americans felt the U.S. Army actions were 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.

However, twenty of the soldiers involved received Medals of Honour for their part in the slaughter; these awards have never been revoked.

Relevant anthropological theory

Religious revitalization model

Anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace’s model (1956) describes the process of a revitalization movement. It is derived from studies of another Native American religious movement, The Code of Handsome Lake, which may have led to the formation of the Longhouse Religion.

I. Period of generally satisfactory adaptation to a group’s social and natural environment.

II. Period of increased individual stress. While the group as a whole is able to survive through its accustomed cultural behaviour, however changes in the social or natural environment frustrate efforts of many people to obtain normal satisfactions of their needs.

III. Period of cultural distortion. Changes in the group’s social or natural environment drastically reduce the capacity of accustomed cultural behaviour to satisfy most persons’ physical and emotional needs.

IV. Period of revitalization: (1) reformulation of the cultural pattern; (2) its communication; (3) organization of a reformulated cultural pattern; (4) adaptation of the reformulated pattern to better meet the needs and preferences of the group; (5) cultural transformation; (6) routinization-the adapted reformulated cultural pattern becomes the standard cultural behaviour for the group.

V. New period of generally satisfactory adaptation to the group's changed social and/or natural environment.

Ghost Dance within revitalization model

In Alice Beck Kehoe’s ethnohistory of the Ghost Dance, she presents the movement within the framework of Wallace’s model of religious revitalization. The Tövusi-dökadö’s age of traditional subsistence patterns constitutes a period of generally satisfactory cultural adaptation to their environment which lasted until around 1860. Corresponding with an influx of white settlers begins the second phase of Wallace’s model, hallmarked by increased individual stress placed on some members of the community. Almost the entire 1880s are placed into the model’s third period, that of cultural distortion, due to the increased presence of white agribusiness and the United States’ government. With the introduction of Jack Wilson’s Ghost Dance, the fourth period of revitalization is ushered which characteristically occurs after sufficient changes accrue to significantly warp the society’s cultural pattern. Following the revitalization is yet another period of satisfactory adaptation which is dated to about 1900. By this time almost all sources of traditional food were eradicated from the Tövusi-dökadö’s long-established homeland, leading to the adoption of white American subsistence methods while still maintaining a Paiute culture.

Reason for rejection

“Worthless words” was the description given to the Ghost Dance in 1890 by Navajo leaders. Three years later James Mooney arrived at the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona during his study of the Ghost Dance movement, only to discover that the ritual was never incorporated into Navajo society even during the brief period of its widespread acceptance in western portions of the United States. According to Kehoe, the movement did not gain fervor there in 1890 due to higher levels of social and economic satisfaction at that time. Another factor at play was the fear of ghosts and spirits among the Navajo, based in their own particular religious beliefs. Kehoe continues to elaborate on the circumstances of the Navajos’ later acceptance of the Peyote Religion during more desperate times

Movements with similarities

  • 1856-1857 Cattle-Killing in South Africa in which perhaps 60,000 of the Xhosa people died of self-induced starvation. They destroyed their food supplies based on a vision that came to Nongqawuse.
  • The Righteous Harmony Society was a Chinese movement which also believed in magical clothing, reacting against Western colonialism.
  • The Maji Maji Rebellion where an African spirit medium gave his followers war medicine that he said would turn German bullets into water.
  • Melanesian cargo cults believed in a return of their ancestors brought by Western technology (see Vailala Madness, Jon Frum).
  • The Spanish Carlist troops fought against secularism and believed in the detente bala — pieces of cloth with an image of the Holy Heart of Jesus — would protect them against bullets.
  • Burkhanism was an Altayan movement that reacted against Russification.
  • Child soldiers in the civil wars of Liberia wore wigs and wedding gowns to confuse enemy bullets by assuming a dual identity. See Joshua Blahyi.
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