Ghost Dance

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GHOST DANCE . The Ghost Dance was the major revivalist movement among nineteenth-century North American Indians. Dating from about 1870, it had its culmination in the 18901891 "messiah craze" of the Plains, which caused the last Indian war in the Dakotas. The name Ghost Dance refers to the ritual round-dances that were thought to imitate the dances of the dead and were performed to precipitate the renewal of the world and the return of the dead. There were other American Indian ceremonial dances that were called ghost dancesfor instance, a ritual dance among the Iroquois. However, it was the messianic Ghost Dance of 1890 that attracted general attention because of its message and consequences. It has been considered prototypical of other revivalist movements among North American Indians, so much so that most later movements have been classified as "ghost dances" (La Barre, 1970).


Strictly speaking, there have been two Ghost Dances, closely connected with each other and almost identical in form and cultic performance.

The 1870 Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance movement of 1870 was introduced on the Walker Lake Reservation in Nevada by a Northern Paiute Indian, Wodziwob ("gray hair," 18441918?). During a trance he was conveyed to the otherworld, where he learned that the dead were soon to return, that the disappearing game animals were to be restored, and that the old tribal life would come back again. In order to hasten this change, people had to perform round dances at night, without fires. This Ghost Dance lasted some few years among the Paiute, several middle and northern California tribes, and some Oregon Indians.

Wovoka and the Ghost Dance of 1890

One of Wodziwob's inspired adherents was Tävibo ("white man"), who despite his name was a full-blooded Northern Paiute. He had a son, Wovoka ("the cutter," 18561932). Wovoka lived in Mason Valley, Nevada, where he served as a farmhand to a white family named Wilson, and because of this association he went under the name of Jack Wilson. During an eclipse of the sun, probably in January 1889, he fell into a trance and was transported to the supreme being in the sky. In this vision the supreme being showed him the land of the dead and the happy life there, and promised that the living would have a reunion with the deceased, providing a series of rules were followed.

At this point the information divides. To the whites, Wovoka said that the reunion would take place in the otherworld if people behaved correctly (i.e., did not lie, steal, or fight) and performed the round dance. To the Indians, he announced the speedy coming of the dead (who would be guided by a cloudlike spirit that was interpreted as Jesus) as well as the return of game and a lasting peace with the whites. The round dance would more quickly bring about this change. The scene was to be on earth, not in the otherworld. It is obvious that, to the Indians, Wovoka presented the same message, in many ways, as Wodziwob.

The round dance was the same as well. It was conducted on four or five consecutive nights. Men and women danced together in a circle, interlacing their fingers and dancing round with shuffling side steps. The dance was exhausting, although not continuous, and no fainting spells or visions were reported.

This second Ghost Dance appeared when the Plains tribes had been subjugated and their old style of living was on the wane. The freedom-loving Plains Indians looked for an escape, and in their desperation they found it in the Ghost Dance. Emissaries were sent over to the "Messiah," Wovoka (who in fact had claimed only to be a prophet, not a messiah), and were instructed in his doctrine. However, the Plains delegates misinterpreted the message to mean that the whites would be driven off or exterminated. The Ghost Dance spread like fire among the Plains Indians, and in particular the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota, Kiowa, and Caddo became staunch believers. Dancing songs expressed the wishes of the arrival of the dead and praised the Father above.

The Lakota added several new traits that were in line with their visionary and militant ethos: they became entranced while dancing; they pondered military action against the whites; and they covered their upper bodies with white "ghost shirts," decorated with spiritual emblems. The ghost shirt was supposed to protect the wearer magically against enemy bullets. It was probably patterned on Mormon garments worn by the Paiute for protection from bodily harm.

Although the Lakota plans for action were very vague, their frenetic dancing in the summer and fall of 1890 released countermeasures from the suspicious white authorities in the Dakotas, resulting in the so-called Ghost Dance Uprising. Highpoints of this development were the arrest and assassination of the famous Lakota leader Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee at the end of December 1890, when Hotchkiss guns indiscriminately killed men, women, and children in Big Foot's camp.

After these catastrophic events, enthusiasm for the Ghost Dance ebbed. Some groups continued dancing, but their expectations of the coming of the dead were projected to a distant future. The last Ghost Dances were held in the 1950s, among Canadian Dakota and Wind River Shoshoni.

Three Main Roots

It is possible to find three main roots of the Ghost Dance: earlier religious movements stimulated by Christian missions, shamanic experiences, and indigenous rituals. Of these sources, the impact of earlier syncretic movements has been thoroughly analyzed, beginning with James Mooney's famous study (1896). The import of native religious development has been properly studied only relatively recently. Scholars have, of course, been aware of changes in the Indian's spiritual, cultural, and military background that may have triggered the outbreak of the Ghost Dance. There is no unanimity of opinion, however, as to whether readjustment to a new sociopolitical situation or predominantly religious drives steered the development. The overwhelming majority of scholars, all of them anthropologists, favor the first view, whereas historians of religions prefer the latter.

The impetus for the Ghost Dance revivalism was the Indians' enforced contact with an expanding white civilization beginning in the 1860s. Because of growing white settlements, the white military takeover, and the introduction of white jurisdiction, there was no more room for the continuation of the old native existence, in particular for the hunters and gatherers of the West. Their independent cultures ceased rapidly, sometimes even abruptly, as on the Plains: the whole culture of the northern Plains tribes, built on hunting buffalo, collapsed when in 1883 the last herd of buffalo was exterminated. The Indians had to adjust to white people's culture and, in part, to their values, in order to survive. At the same time the Indians drew on their past to mobilize a desperate spiritual resistance against the overwhelming white influence. In this reactive effort they combined Christian or Christian-derived elements with indigenous ideas and rituals to form a resistance ideology.

Earlier religious movements

The formation of mixed ("acculturated") ideologies is part of American Indian religious history since the beginning of European colonization: The restitutional ("nativistic") doctrines launched by the Tewa Indian Popé (16801692) and by Neolin, the so-called Delaware Prophet (around 1760), are among the better-known early instances. These prophets proposed an ethical and religious program. In many respects Neolin set the pattern for subsequent prophets, including those of the Ghost Dance: an inspired person who suffers from the ways of the white people enforced upon the Indian people, who long for a return to the good old Indian ways, and who experiences an ecstasy or similar state. In his vision the prophet is brought to the Master of Life, from whom is obtained instructions about a right life. Provided this road is followed, the prophet is told, the game will return, the whites will be driven away, and the old life will be restored. No wonder that such enchanting messages fostered Indian wars, like Pontiac's uprising, which was inspired by Neolin's prophecies.

While the messages of the prophets reflected a yearning for old value patterns, they were in fact deeply dependent on Christian missionary teachings. Exhortations to believers to refrain from liquor, adultery, lying, and murder and to show brotherly friendliness, even beyond tribal boundaries, reveal more or less Christian ethical precepts. Where the abandonment of traditional fetishes and rituals was propagated, as by the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, Christian value judgments are easily recognizable. The very idea that the Supreme Being had to introduce the new religious program through revelation to a prophet also speaks of Christian influence. The hope for the day of salvation, or the coming liberation, implies a linear view of history and an eschatological goal, ideas that were never American Indian, but are thoroughly Christian.

Shamanic experiences

The second root of the Ghost Dance is shamanic experience. Although the instigators of the revivalist movements were prophets (i.e., ecstatics who had received their calling from God) and not shamans (i.e., vocational ecstatics acting on behalf of their fellowmen), the difference is a minor one, for shamans often receive their calling from spirits. There was definitely a Christian background to the Indian conception of the prophet, his reception of an eschatological message after a comatose experience, and his direct contact with a more or less christianized God. However, the pattern of spiritual communication is very much shamanic. Wovoka, for instance, was himself a medicine man, and fell repeatedly into self-induced trances. It was during these séances that he visited the otherworld and received his messages. Of course, the destination of his soul was the heaven of God, not the spirit land of the dead; these were two different realms in most Native American beliefs.

The Ghost Dance had its precursors in movements that crystallized around shamans. Leslie Spier (1935) retraced the Ghost Dance ideology to an older "Prophet Dance" founded on the intense relations of the living with the dead on the Northwest Coast and the Plateau. The Prophet Dance ideology contained such elements as a world cataclysm, renewal of the world, and the return of the dead. World renewal and the return of the dead could be hastened by the performance of the "dance of the dead." The Prophet Dance had its basis, according to Spier, in the periodic cataclysms (earthquakes) to which the region is subject and in the shamanic visits to the dead.

Round-dance ritual

The third main root of the Ghost Dance is, as Michael Hittman (1973) has observed, the indigenous round dance. The latter has been interpreted by some scholars as simply a dance for entertainment, but there is much evidence that the Basin round dance, performed around a pole or cedar tree, was a religious ceremonythe Father Dance, offered with thanksgivings to the Master of Life for food, rain, and health. In the Ghost Dance this old ceremony was given a new, eschatological meaning.

See Also

Neolin; North American Indian Religions, article on Modern Movements; Shamanism, article on North American Shamanism; Wovoka.


The classic in the field is still James Mooney's The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (1896; reprint, Chicago, 1965). It is a reliable account of Mooney's field visits, just after the Lakota conflict, to a number of tribes that performed the Ghost Dance. Other general works, but less professional, are Paul Bailey's Wovoka: The Indian Messiah (Los Angeles, 1957) and David H. Miller's Ghost Dance (New York, 1959). In a wider setting of so-called crisis cults, the Ghost Dance religion has been discussed in, among other works, Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance (Garden City, N.Y., 1970).

The discussion of the Ghost Dance has, in comparative works on prophetism, messianism, and millenarianism, concentrated on terminological, psychological, and acculturation problems, whereas the specialized works on the Ghost Dance have paid attention primarily to its origins. Pathbreaking has been Leslie Spier's The Prophet Dance of the Northwest and Its Derivatives: The Source of the Ghost Dance (Menasha, Wis., 1935). Spier's idea of an exclusively aboriginal origin of the Ghost Dance religion is today in doubt, but much of his work remains extremely useful.

The grounding of the 1890 Ghost Dance in Wodziwob's movement of the same name twenty years earlier has directed scholars' attention to the latter. The details of the 1870 movement have been excellently clarified in Cora Dubois's The 1870 Ghost Dance (Berkeley, Calif., 1939). A new orientation, which argues for the mutual independence of the 1870 and 1890 movements, is represented in Michael Hittman's "The 1870 Ghost Dance at the Walker River Reservation: A Reconstruction," Ethnohistory 20 (1973): 247278.

The connection of the Ghost Dance with the Father Dance has been worked out in my book, Belief and Worship in Native North America, edited by Christopher Vessey (Syracuse, N.Y., 1981); see especially "The Changing Meaning of the Ghost Dance as Evidenced by the Wind River Shoshoni," pp. 264281.

Åke Hultkrantz (1987)

Ghost Dance

views updated May 18 2018

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


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


Ghost Dance

views updated May 29 2018


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.


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.


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

Ghost dance

views updated May 21 2018

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.

Ghost Dance

views updated May 18 2018

Ghost Dance ★ 1983

Sacred Indian burial ground is violated, with grim results. 93m/C VHS, DVD . Sherman Hemsley, Henry Ball, Julie Amato; D: Peter Bufa.