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The Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance


Wovoka. Spreading rapidly from it origins among the Northern Paiutes of Nevada, the Ghost Dance became the major pan-Indian religious movement of the late nineteenth century. The movement was based on responses to visions recounted by a Paiute holy man named Wovoka, who claimed to have inherited his fathers powers as a dreamer. Wovokas visions, which promised an imminent end to the world to be followed by a renewal of life for Indians in a lush and plentiful land, struck a powerful chord among Plains Indians traumatized by white expansion and yearning for a restoration of their traditional and independent life. As a child, Wovoka learned from his father both the traditional Paiute creation story, which emphasized the renewal of human life and a blooming of the desert, and the teachings of other Indian spiritual leaders, perhaps including the Squaxin prophet John Slocum. Wovoka experienced other visions, including being taken into heaven, and he claimed miraculous powers, such as the ability to predict and control the weather. His health was seriously affected by scarlet fever until he made a dramatic recovery on 1 January 1889, a day that coincided with a total eclipse. The prophet announced that he had had a vision in which he had talked with the Great Spirit. During the vision Wovoka had seen the dead of his tribe in a pleasant land, looking youthful and living according to Paiute traditions. The Great Spirit promised Wovoka that the world would be renewedthe dead would rise again, and game would be restored in plenty. In turn, Wovoka was asked to prepare his people to love one another, to avoid war with the whites and fights among themselves, and to be ethical and diligent. The Great Spirit then gave the Paiutes a dance that would hasten the time of the renewal of the world and put families in touch with their dead relatives. The people were to perform the dance, which was similar to a traditional Paiute round dance, each month for four consecutive nights and on the morning of the fifth day.

Word Spreads. Reports of the vision spread rapidly among the Indians of the West, many of whom were starved of hope. Most Plains and West Coast Indians sent representatives to Nevada, and many delegates returned as initiates into the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance fit closely into the context of traditional Paiute religion, opening the people to spiritual influence and enabling dancers to share in Wovokas vision. The movement offered a powerfully attractive alternative to the religious options offered by white missionaries. The dance and its promise of Indian revival appealed powerfully to many Indian groups, even though few of them shared in the specific religious worldview of the Paiutes. Ghost Dance teachers, therefore, had to select elements from Wovokas teaching that could be connected to their own spiritual traditions.

Lakota. Among the Lakota people, who were still seeking to resist white control, the Ghost Dance recalled the tribes Sun Dance ritual, which had been suppressed by whites in 1883. The Lakota viewed the Sun Dance as an essential rite of purification that led to the annual return of the buffalo, the main source of food on the Plains. Many Lakota also believed that the Ghost Dance would make them invincible against whites, providing them with magic talismans, such as ghost shirts, which would stop army bullets. The movement aroused fear among whites, and then persecution. The conflict peaked in late 1890. On 15 December Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader of the movement, was killed in a scuffle with Indian police. Fourteen days later a band of about two hundred Lakota practitioners under the leadership of Big Foot was massacred by federal troops at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. After the massacre at Wounded Knee Wovoka urged Indians to stop the dancing and attend to the pacifist message of his original vision. The movement did subside, but some groups carried on the dance well into the twentieth century.


Alice Beck Kehoe, The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1989);

James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

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