Skip to main content
Select Source:

Ghost Dance

Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance was the central rite of a messianic Native American religious movement in the late nineteenth century. It indirectly led to the massacre of some 250 Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890, marking an end to the Indian wars. As a trance-enducing rite of a hybrid faith, it combined elements of Christianity with Native American religious traditions.

The Ghost Dance first emerged around 1870 in the Walker Lake area on the California-Nevada border. A Paiute mystic named Wodziwob, or "Fish Lake Joe," began to preach an apocalyptic vision in which a great flood or fire would eliminate the white man from the world and deceased tribal people would return alive to the earth. Wodziwob's assistant, a shaman named Tavibo, spread the new doctrine among Nevada tribes.

The original Ghost Dance fervor among far western American tribes gradually ebbed only to be rekindled in 1888 by Wovoka, Tavibo's son. The new prophet, also known as Jack Wilson, was said to practice miracles such as curing the sick, controlling the weather, and withstanding bullets shot at him. Wovoka claimed that while feverishly ill he saw in a vision all deceased Indians surrounding the throne of "the Great Spirit" God who told him to teach his people to love one another and to live peacefully with white people. Further, all deceased Indians would return to the earth and recover their ancestral lands. According to the vision, white men and women would retreat to their European homelands. The prophet taught his followers a five-day ritual of song and circle dances that would hasten the coming of this new millennium; hence, the Ghost Dance was born.

Wovoka's Paiute tribesmen became missionaries of this new messianic faith. It attracted many impoverished and unhappy western tribes who had been herded by the United States military onto reservations, including the Arapaho, Bannock, Caddo, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Sioux, Shoshones, and Utes. Each tribe adopted its own Ghost Dance songs and wore clothing painted with sacred symbols believed designed to ward off bullets.

The Ghost Dance movement came to a tragic end on Sioux reservations in South Dakota during the winter of 18901891. Sitting Bull, the famous Hunkpapa Sioux warrior chief, had become an enthusiastic follower of the new faith, along with his people on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. Their new religious fervor alarmed white United States government agents on the reservation who decided to arrest the chief as a means of restoring peace to the reservation. On December 15 Sitting Bull was shot and killed during a skirmish when Native American agency police tried to arrest him.

Some of Sitting Bull's followers escaped to the Cheyenne River Reservation to join Miniconjou Sioux who were also practicing the Ghost Dance under the leadership of Chief Big Foot. But on December 29, when American cavalry caught up with Big Foot's group encamped along Wounded Knee Creek and tried to disarm them, rifle shots on both sides broke out. The American military, armed with four Hotchkiss machine guns, massacred the Sioux warriors and their unarmed women and children. The massacre marked the ending of the Indian wars in the American West.

See also: Genocide; Dance; Native American Religion

Bibliography

Andrist, Ralph K. The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indian. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt, 1991.

Internet Resources

Kavanagh, Thomas W. "Imaging and Imagining the Ghost Dance: James Mooney's Illustrations and Photographs, 18911893." In the Indiana University [web site]. Available from http://php.indiana.edu/~tkavanag/visual5.html.

KENNETH D. NORDIN

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ghost Dance." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ghost Dance." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ghost-dance

"Ghost Dance." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ghost-dance

Ghost Dance

GHOST DANCE

GHOST DANCE. The name Ghost Dance applies to two waves of a nativistic or messianic movement. Both originated among the Paiute Indians of Nevada in the nineteenth century.

In 1869 a prophet named Wodziwob began to predict supernatural events, claiming that the worn-out world would end, thus eliminating white men, and that all dead Indians would then return to the renewed world. Wodziwob professed to be in communication with the dead, and he instructed his followers to dance a circle dance and sing certain divinely revealed songs. The movement spread to the Indians of southern Oregon and northern California, but it gradually subsided when the promised super-natural events did not occur.

In 1889 there was a resurgence of the Ghost Dance, this time led by another Paiute messiah named Wovoka, or Jack Wilson. Wovoka claimed to have visited the spirit world while in a trance and to have seen God, who directed him to return to announce to the Indians that they should love one another and live peacefully, returning to the old Indian ways. By dancing and singing certain songs, they would hasten the end of the world and the disappearance of the whites. In the aftermath of this event, Indians would be restored to their hunting grounds and reunite with departed friends.

The revitalized Ghost Dance gained its principal strength among the tribes east of the Rockies. The movement spread rapidly to some Plains tribes, including the Lakota (Sioux), Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche, who had recently been confined to reservations and were in the process of having their lands allotted. Enthusiasm for the dance, which included the wearing of "ghost shirts" that were supposedly impervious to bullets, led government officials to interpret the movement as a prelude to a militant revolt. Tensions mounted in late 1890 after Sitting Bull, a leader of the Ghost Dance at Standing Rock Reservation, was killed by Indian police attempting to arrest him. Two weeks later, more than two hundred Minniconjou Lakota Ghost Dancers who had fled the Cheyenne River Reservation after Sitting Bull's death were massacred by troops of the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Despite the tragedy, the Ghost Dance did not completely disappear after Wounded Knee. Although officially banned, Wovoka's original pacific doctrine continued to be practiced on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation into the early 1900s, and Ghost Dance congregations continued to function on Dakota reserves in Saskatchewan until the 1960s. Elements of the Ghost Dance were also incorporated into the revitalization of traditional cultural practices such as the Pawnee hand game and Kiowa war dance. Wovoka himself continued in his roles as shaman and healer at Walker River Reservation in Nevada until his death in 1932.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

De Mallie, Raymond. "The Lakota Ghost Dance: An Ethnohistorical Account." Pacific Historical Review 51 (1982): 385–405.

Hittman, Michael. Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. Edited by Don Lynch. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Mooney, James. "The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Out-break of 1890." In 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892–93, Part 2. 1896. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. A classic account.

FrankRzeczkowski

See alsoPaiute ; Wounded Knee Massacre ; andvol. 9:A Letter from Wovoka .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ghost Dance." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ghost Dance." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ghost-dance

"Ghost Dance." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ghost-dance

Ghost dance

Ghost dance. The most famous millennial movement among the N. American Indians, amongst the destitute tribes of the Great Basin and the Plains in 1889–90. The founder was Wovoka (c.1856–1932), a Paiute, also called Jack Wilson. After a mystic experience of visiting heaven, he proclaimed the peaceful coming of a paradisal age in which the depleted buffalo and the ancestors (i.e. ‘ghosts’, hence the name) would return and the whites would depart. Its coming would be hastened by moral reform and the newly revealed round dance which, after several days of dancing, led to meeting the ancestors in a visionary trance. The movement among the Sioux was regarded by many whites as more militant; this culminated in the massacre of some 300 at Wounded Knee in Dec. 1890. With hopes thus crushed, the movement passed its peak by 1892; it lingers on among some tribes and provided the inspiration for the confrontation between Indians and government forces at ‘Wounded Knee II’ in S. Dakota in 1973.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ghost dance." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ghost dance." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ghost-dance

"Ghost dance." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ghost-dance

Ghost Dance

Ghost Dance, central ritual of the messianic religion instituted in the late 19th cent. by a Paiute named Wovoka. 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.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ghost Dance." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ghost Dance." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ghost-dance

"Ghost Dance." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ghost-dance