The Ghost Dance

Published November 15, 2022 by tindertender

On this day, November 12th, 1890, an indigenous movement giving hope to the peoples in their loss and grief, was met with fear and violent suppression by the US government and it’s armed forces.

The Ghost Dance is, and was, a spiritual movement that came about in the late 1880s when conditions were in grave despair on Indian reservations with sickness, starvation and death ever present, Native Americans needed something to give them hope.

  • the Ghost Dance song:
    “The whole world is coming,
    A nation is coming, a nation is coming,
    The eagle has brought the message to the tribe, The father says so, the father says so.
    Over the whole earth they are coming,
    The buffalo are coming, the buffalo are coming, The crow has brought the message to the tribe, The father says so, the father says so.”
    “When the Sun died, I went up to Heaven and saw God [Creator] and all the people who had died a long time ago. God [Creator] told me to come back and tell my people they must be good and love one another, and not fight, or steal or lie. He gave me this dance to give to my people.”

    ~ Wovoka. HISTORIC AUDIO RECORDING, click on link below to hear.

The Ghost Dance was an answer to the subjugation of Native Americans by the U.S. government. It was an attempt to revitalize traditional culture and to find a way to face increasing poverty, hunger, and disease, all representing the reservation life of the Native Americans in the late nineteenth century.
The Ghost Dance originated among the Paiute Indians around 1870. However, the tide of the movement came in 1889 with a Paiute shaman Wovoka (Jack Wilson). Wovoka had a vision during a sun eclipse in 1889.

While many European Americans were alarmed by the Ghost Dance and saw it as a militant and warlike movement, it was quite the opposite — an emergence of a peaceful resistance movement based on Indian beliefs. It was also a movement of desperation, as existing treaties had been violated and Indians in the West were forced onto reservations. For the Plains Indians, this was a period of starvation as the buffalo were slaughtered, destroying their way of life and main source of food. From an Indian point of view, Europeans were not only destroying the way of life of Indian peoples, but destroying the natural resources of the plains to an extent that would make it impossible for anyone to live there. European Americans often saw the Ghost Dance as irrational. From an Indian point of view, what was being done to them and their way of life was irrational.

James Mooney wrote a book about the Ghost Dance, hoping it would help to counter newspaper articles about it that were inaccurate and promoted prejudice toward the Indians. His research was first published as part of a report in 1890, then enlarged as a book in 1896. The press encouraged popular belief that the dance was dangerous and possibly a prelude to an Indian uprising. Mooney emphatically explained that it was peaceful. In his introduction he describes several fieldwork trips between 1890-1894 that “occupied twenty-two months, involving nearly 32,000 miles of travel, and more or less time spent with about twenty tribes.” As a participant/observer he sang and danced with the Arapaho and Cheyenne, consulted with participants in the new religion, and also took photographs. One reason for the excitement about the Ghost Dance among ethnographers at that time was that the researchers of American Indians were seeing the emergence of a new religion developing in a surprisingly short time and crossing culture and language barriers. This was an extremely rare event. The new movement spread throughout the Native camps in the West, giving Native people much needed hope.

White settlers reacted differently to the “new religion”. Some traveled to the reservations to observe the dancing, others feared the possibility of an Indian uprising. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) eventually banned the Ghost Dance, because the government believed it was a precursor to renewed Native American militancy and violent rebellion. One of the goals of the agency was to convert the Natives to Christianity. The agency did not recognize the Ghost Dance, misunderstanding and ignorance were part of the BIA decision.

Wovoka’s message clearly promoted pacifism. However, spreading rumors of Indian treachery ignited fear and panic with non natives. On November 12th, 1890, president Benjamin Harrison ordered the military to take control over Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota.

On December 29, 1890, 300 Lakota men, women and children were killed in an event that came to be known as the Massacre of Wounded Knee. What started as a peaceful movement in 1889, was brutally ended a year later by the U.S. military.

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