The Dance of the Ghosts and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 - StMU Research Scholars (2023)

The Ghost Dance, introduced by the Northern Paiute tribe, was a ceremony that served as a hope of restoring wealth and vitality to all natives who had been attacked and driven from their homes by white American settlers. These ghost dances attempted to unite the tribe and unite its people in hopes of returning to their former ways of life; A strong connection to the spirit world was maintained through this spirit dance. The spirit dance dates back to its beginnings in Nevada in 1869 and was introduced through visions of the prophet Tavibo, a northern Paiute. He spoke of a time when Native Americans would be prosperous again and no longer under white control, stating that whites would disappear entirely. This would allow Native Americans to return to the life they had before the arrival of Europeans, and their buffalo would again be plentiful. This was the desire of many Indians to return and perform in their cultural ways without interruption. Tävibo also claimed that by introducing the spirit dance, he spoke to his deceased ancestors. He claimed that it was these dead family members who conceived and shaped the dance into a round dance ceremony. This supposed interaction with the dead and its general impact on the living is the name of the practice.ghost dance. The dance grew in popularity as it spread across the country, from the great plains to Nevada and California and even Oregon.1

The Dance of the Ghosts and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 - StMU Research Scholars (1)

Other prophets appeared over the next few years, but the ghost dance did not have much appeal until the appearance of another prophet said to be the son of Tavibo. His name was Wovoka but he was also known as Jack Wilson. Wovoka was born into the northern Paiute tribe, but at the age of fourteen his father died. This left Wovoka in the care of a white family at the nearby ranch. Wovoka joined the David Wilson family, worked on the ranch and was given the name Jack Wilson. He got used to many new ways, like the English language and the Christian religion. Living under this new home for years, he rejoined the Paiute tribe as an adult. Over time it was said that he too experienced visions of a higher power or being and spread his teachings among the tribe. Wovoka preached that his people should learn to live in peace with the newcomers for the time being. Like Tävibo, Wovoka introduced dances and songs believed to have been passed down from their Indian ancestors. Wovoka expressed that if these ceremonies were performed and if they flaunted their peace practices, their country would also be free of whites. Not only would there be a banishment of white Americans, but Wovoka also claimed that there would be a resurrection of the dead and that all would be reunited with the dead.2

The dance would last four days; it was a round dance that united the whole tribe. During the dance, some took fans woven from eagle wings and fanned those participating in the round dance. It was said that this act put the dancers in a trance, and while they were submerged, those in the trance would see their relatives who had passed into the afterlife. The dancers would see her in a place of complete serenity. The life they led was that of the past, where all were happy and not under oppression, with provision of buffalo readily at hand.3

Those who followed Tävibower's teachings were not necessarily followers of Wovoka. But in contrast, the ghost dance has been well-received by the Plains tribes in many states, including Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, and the Dakotas. Wovoka's words and practices reached the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Wichita, Caddo, and Apache tribes. The number of participants in a single ceremony often exceeded three thousand, as groups gathered every night for two weeks to dance during a single ghost dance. The greatest influence came from the Lakota Sioux, who brought the dance into practice. Wovoka was consulted and listened to by the Sioux, who took his message seriously. In 1890, Wovoka spoke of the ghost dance that brought about the resurrection of his deceased ancestors. He also claimed that the buffalo herds would return in abundance and that the whites would not only leave but be wiped out by natural disasters, leaving the Indians once more to their peaceful solitude. They all wanted to return to life before contact with the Europeans. The message the Ghost Dance sought to convey was not hatred or rebellion, but the return of its people to the culture and life they enjoyed before the arrival of the white settlers. The ghost dance gave them hope that those times would come. These tribes suffered from terrible conditions imposed on them, forcing them to live on ever tighter reservations. The Lakota were the ones who went beyond the dance and even introduced the addition of special garments to the ghost dance ceremony. They started wearing ghost shirts decorated with symbols. But these shirts were not considered just simple decorations, they were considered protective pieces. The Lakotas believed that these shirts would withstand the damage that would befall them and that even bullets would not penetrate these shirts.4

The Dance of the Ghosts and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 - StMU Research Scholars (2)

As more and more white citizens became aware of the surrounding tribes practicing ghost dance ceremonies, they sensed a threat from them and became alarmed. It was believed that US Indian policy, particularly the Dawes Act, was attacked over these dances and created fears of an Indian rebellion among whites. It is even said that officials, particularly those running the reservations, saw the Lakotas start a war. Even wearing the decorated shirts in dance practice promoted the idea that the Lakotas were forming and initiating preparations for a fight. Anxious, reservations officials called the United States government. Then-President Benjamin Harrison responded by sending the U.S. Army into those reservations to stop the threat, hoping to end the potential conflict that was thought to be brewing between Native Americans and whites. This led to Indian leaders like Sitting Bull being arrested and sadly killed in the act.5

On December 23, 1890, the Miniconjous Lakotas fled their reservation after being struck by fear. According to John Dunn, a local squatter, the military had planned to take the Lakota men and deport them to an island in the Atlantic Ocean. With this news, the Miniconjous Lakotas fled, but after five days the tribe was found by the 7th Cavalry, who were sent to intervene. The Lakotas were sent to Wounded Knee Creek to remain in custody. The next morning, December 29, Colonel James W. Forsyth ordered the tribe to surrender all firearms. In back-and-forth discussions, some Lakotas participated in the Ghost Dance songs. Once again the ghost dance was interpreted as a threat. Some Indians began throwing handfuls of dirt in the air, which was taken as a sign of an attack. This turned against the soldiers patrolling the reserves. In a gunfight, Black Coyote refused to give his gun to a soldier who asked for it. During the tug of war and scramble to get the gun, it accidentally went loose. Because of this sudden shot, the troops opened fire, assuming they were actually under attack and needing to restore order. The Lakotas, who had no guns, did everything they could to escape the situation. The military fired their guns and chased down anyone who tried to flee, killing along the way. Gunfire continued for hours as the military pursued the Lakotas. This event became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Between 145 and 300 Indian supporters were killed, many of these victims were women and children. In an attempt to collect all of the bodies, some were found as far as three miles from the reserve. One hundred and forty-six Lakotas were buried in a common grave while the rest were rounded up and later accounted for.6

The Dance of the Ghosts and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 - StMU Research Scholars (3)

Although the military lost only 25 men, the whites hailed it as a success. People believed that the "wild ways" of the Native Americans might finally be over. The Medal of Honor was awarded to twenty people for their actions during the Wounded Knee Massacre, as their actions were considered extremely heroic. The Wounded Knee Massacre was the final blow to the Indians as it ended four hundred years of conflict between the whites and the natives. In just ten years, the Indian population reached a low of 250,000 people. This massacre led to the extinction of the ghost dance ceremonies among the Lakotas, but the actions continued in other parts of the plain. Well into the 1960s, the ghost dance was practiced in some areas as far north as Canada and is of great cultural importance to all involved. It was an expression of native tribes who yearned for a return to their happy, prosperous, and undisturbed lives before the introduction of white settlers. It shows that the practice is fully connected to one's spirituality as it reunites the members with the deceased. It underscores the importance of culture to Native American Indians through dancing, singing and the clothing worn on the body. The true purpose of these ghost dances was to inspire hope and it continues to do so as it shows that even today this Indian culture should not disappear over time.

  1. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains2011, sv „Ghost Dance“, von Todd M. Kerstetter.
  2. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2011, sv „Ghost Dance“, von Todd M. Kerstetter.
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia,1995, sv "Voca", by Ronald W. Long.
  4. The Oklahoma Encyclopedia of History and Culture,2009, sv „Ghost Dance“, von Gloria A. Young.
  5. The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, 2009, sv „Ghost Dance“, von Gloria A. Young.
  6. encyclopedia of the great plains,2011, sv „Wounded Knee Massacre“, von John E. Carter.

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