Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
by Scott McDonnall
In this essay I will discuss the Ghost Dance religion that spread so rapidly through various Indian tribes west of the Mississippi in the 1880's and early 1890's. I will look at the origins of the religion, its theology and practice, but, in particular, I will look at the part it played in the incident that has come to be known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.
The task of describing the Ghost Dance religion is possibly more energetic than it is practical in that there were many different tribes, and nearly all of them practiced the religion in a little different way from all the other tribes. To be sure, there is a body of belief that seems to have been intact throughout the various expressions of the religion, and I will restrict most of my comments to those well-documented aspects.
The Ghost Dance religion of 1889 had its origin with a Paiute Indian named Wovoca. I mention this because in the early 1870's there was something akin to this religion started by Wovoca's father but it never really came to any prominence. Wovoca, better known as Jack Wilson, by reason of the fact that he had grown up in the family of Mr. David Wilson near Pyramid Lake, Nevada, was suffering from a fever at the time of the total eclipse of the suns, January 1, 1889. Jack was a mild kindly dispositioned fellow, very industrious and trustworthy, and held in high esteem by both Indians and whites. At the time of the eclipse he claimed to have fallen asleep in the day time and to have been taken up to heaven, where he saw God and all the people who had died long ago engaged in their old time sports; all happy and forever young. The scene was a pleasant land and full of game. (4-459)
After showing these things to Wovoca, God then begin to tell him of the world to come. God declared that a new world was being prepared for the Indian race. It was already advancing from the West and was expected to arrive in the spring of 1891. The ground would tremble as a signal for Indians everywhere to fix in their hair sacred feathers by which to soar aloft while the new land covered the old. (some texts say this was to be a flood or large wave). The new land would push the white people before it, back across the ocean to where they came from in the first place. When the cataclysm subsided, the Indians would lower themselves from the sky. Here they would find all Indians who had once lived on earth—friends, relatives, and ancestors. Together they would enjoy eternal life, unmarred. by pain, sickness, discomfort, want or death. On every side, deer, antelope, and elk would roam in abundance, and herds of buffalo, such as only the old people could recall, would once more blacken the prairie. (5-69)
God, after showing Wovoca the new world, commanded that he go back and tell his people they must be good and love one another, have no quarreling and live in peace with the whites; they must work, and not lie and steal; they must put away the old practices that savored, of war; and, if they faithfully obeyed his instructions, they would at last be reunited with their friends in the other world, where there would be no more death or sickness or old age. Wovoca was then given the dance which he was commanded to bring back to his people. By performing this dance at intervals, for five successive days each time, they would secure this happiness to themselves and hasten the event. (3-53,54). In addition, Wovoca was given powers to control the elements and. govern the great land of the west.
In short, that is the vision that Wovoca had; as mentioned before, there are some embellishments (even Wovoca's story changed from time to time) as to particulars, but most texts agree to the above.
To add validity to this vision and hence to aid its rapid spread to all Indian tribes in the west, Wovoca performed several miracles to prove that he was indeed the Messiah. But before getting into the miracles, let me take a closer look at Wovoca himself and at his background and training.
From his father, Tavibo, Wovoca had acquired a degree of mysticism that contributed to the vision that led to his own notoriety. "From his father, also, Wovoca had learned sleight-of-hand and other tricks of the magician's art that made up part of the stock in trade of every successful medicine man.@ (5-64)
After the death of Tavibo, Wovoca went to live with David Wilson, a white rancher in Mason Valley. Adopted by the family and named Jack Wilson, Wavoca came under Christian influences. The stories of Jesus= healing of the sick and controlling the elements greatly impressed Wovoca. Even though he rejected their teaching, Wovoca had been exposed to Mormon theology and customs. Indians occupied a place of significance in Mormon theology and this almost certainly helped to shape Wovoca's own beliefs. In addition he also encountered the Shakers. It is thought that from the Shakers, Wovoca inherited the importance put on trances (dreams or visions of departed loved ones and talking with God).
Once he was ready to really launch his new religion, Wovoca gambled his reputation on a spectacular stratagem; he publicly vowed to cause ice to float down Walker River in midsummer. With numerous witnesses, he did. From that day forward, the Paiutes revered him as one of the great shamans of all time. "What they never knew was that the Wilson boys, to help their adopted brother advance in his chosen profession, had filled a wagon with blocks of ice from the Wilson ice house and surreptitiously dumped them in the river above the place appointed by Wovoca as the scene of his miracle." (5-66)
Later that summer the leaders of his people came to him and said that, if they did not get rain soon, there would be great suffering from lack of crops. Wovoca, told them, "You can go home and on the morning of the third day you and all the people will have water." (5-67) Rain began to fall at once and by the end of the third day the rivers were overflowing their banks. Wovoca was doubtless an extraordinarily skilled weather forecaster (as most Indian shamans were), but from then on few Paiutes doubted his story of his journey to heaven.
There are other stories of his "miracle" powers. Once, as many watched, he made two birds talk to each other; another time he caused two horses to do the same. (5-71) The story is told of how a delegation of Sioux had travelled to Wovoca's tribe to investigate the new religion and before their departure he told them, "On the way home, if you kill any buffalo, cut off the head, the tail, and four feet, and leave them, and that buffalo will come to life again." (5-72) On their journey home they did come across a small herd of buffalo and killed one. After butchering the carcass they left the aforementioned parts in a pile and before their eyes the buffalo came alive and ambled off. Most researchers agree that Wovoca was a very accomplished hypnotist.
From these humble and somewhat sensational beginnings, a new religion was born and swept like wildfire through the Indian tribes of the west.
Conditions leading up to spread of Ghost Dance
To better understand how this religion, built mostly on magic, spread so rapidly, it is important that we are aware of the conditions that the Indian faced in the late 1880's.
By this time most of the Plains Indians had come under the domination of white men. Most had been defeated in battle; their lands had been taken; and they had been relegated to reservation life. With their ever increasing contact with white men, their way of life changed radically. These changes took place in nearly every arena of life physical (geographic as well as health), religious, economic, political and psychological.
Most all tribes, "faced threats to their well-being in the form of...numerous communicable diseases introduced to them by the Anglo-American invaders...Gonorrhea was the most prevalent disease with syphilis close behind. Since no native cure was known for either ill, both venereal diseases appear to have been communicated to the (Indian) population through the exploitation of their women by Anglo Americans..." (1-38)
For a brief look at how the white population reacted to the health problems of the reservation Indians, note this newspaper article written in 1886 from Mineral Park:
Several Wallapai Indians have visited the happy hunting grounds in the past few weeks, and have become better Indians than they ever were on earth. They succumbed to a kind of lung fever which seems to be epidemic among the tribe at this season of the year. (1-38)
After having removed the Indians from vast portions of their lands, the ranchers and farmers would often deny them even access to the water holes. In some cases their lives were threatened if they tried to gain access to the water holes for their horses and cattle. The following appeared in a newspaper article after some Pai Indians tried to water their horses on land now belonging to a white rancher.
Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast ... And it to said that the most effective is the whistle of a well directed bullet. (1-37)
Along with other health threats, the Indians often suffered discomfort from Anglo-American foods which they were forced to eat because that is what was rationed to them. The shift from game, seeds, and pit-baked mescal staples to cultivated cereals and hardtack often caused challenges with their metabolism. A contemporary newspaper notice of this problem of rations suggested a remedy indicative of the white settlers FACE="WP TypographicSymbols">= attitude toward them.
The Wallapai Indians complain of the quality of the flour served out to them by the government, and say it is full of weevils and has an intensely bitter taste. A plentiful supply of arsenic mixed with it would disguise the bitter taste. We offer this suggestion to the contractor and sincerely hope he will adopt it...(1-41)
The rationing of food came about primarily as a result of the Dawes Act in 1887. The architects of Indian policy conceived the ration system as a bridge between savagery and civilization. At the end of the bridge, the Indian would find 160 acres of land. By tilling his acres, he would acquire dignity, frugality, individuality, and ultimately the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship. Once the bridge had been crossed, it could be destroyed. Before the dream expressed by the Dawes Act could be made a reality, however, the Indian had to be taught to support himself. Thus the Indian agents received instructions to break up the band camps, and to disperse the Indians over the reservations and encourage them to become farmers. The Indian Bureau furnished seeds, implements, and finally, "practical farmers" to teach the nomadic huntsmen the arts of horticulture and. husbandry. (5-23)
Parenthetically speaking, the system failed for much the same reasons that our modern welfare system doesn't work. That is, there were no incentives for the Indians to make it work. Many felt that if they showed signs of success then their rations would be cut off and if something happened to the crops then their people would starve. It must be pointed out that this was happening at a time of great drought and even the white farmers were pulling up stakes and moving back east where the weather was more conducive to raising crops. Of course the reservation Indian did not have that option.
In a remarkably short period of time the Native American had to surrender most of his customs on which the old life had focused. Warfare was an activity no longer possible, therefore the principle means of attaining prestige, wealth, and high rank vanished the moment they arrived at the reservations. With the decline of the buffalo, the tribal economy promptly collapsed. Politically the Indian had to adopt the white man FACE="WP TypographicSymbols">=s ways. The war council no longer could function and the white man did not honor the medicine men as they did. In the place of these traditional institutions the white man raised up an indigenous police force to rule. The Indian agents systematically stripped the powers of the recognized chiefs and replaced those powers with the police force. The rationale was that the chiefs stood in the way of civilizing the tribes. This was a move that would be somewhat analogous to stripping the powers away from our state governments and replacing them with the Black Panthers.
"While the economic order crumbled and the political system buckled with the pressures of reservation life, the Government and religious denominations warred on long-established religious beliefs and social customs. In 1881, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price voiced the guiding sent. sentiment of the decade:
To domesticate and civilize wild Indians is a noble work, the accomplishment of which should be a crown of glory to any nation. But to allow them to drag along year after year, and generation after generation, in their old superstitions, laziness, and filth, when we have the power to elevate them in the scale of humanity, would be a lasting disgrace to our government." (5-30,31)
The first step was to root out paganism. "At the direction of Secretary of the Interior Henry M. Teller, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on April 10, 1883, distributed a set of rules designed to stamp out "demoralizing and barbarous" customs. The directive defined a number of "Indian Offenses." It was an offense to hold feasts and dances, including the Sun Dance (Sun Dance was a very important religious dance to many Indian tribes. It was not until 1968 through the influence of Senator Robert Kennedy that the practice of the Sun Dance was once again made legal.). It was an offense to have more than one wife. All practices of medicine men, medical and religious, were offenses. Willful destruction of property, the traditional way of showing grief over the death of a relative, was an offense." (5-31)
During the 1880's, Christian missionaries made good progress and. enlisted many adherents. There were several reasons for this. "The promise of life in paradise after death proved a strong attraction. It corresponded to the Indian's earlier vague conception of a "happy hunting ground" and held out some hope of eventual relief from the unhappy reservation life. Christian rituals, especially those of the Catholics, provided a slight compensation for the loss of the old ceremonies." (5-34)
The chief explanation for the willingness of the Indian to embrace Christianity, however, lay in the multiple character of their old pantheon. One god more or less made little difference. Confronted with the unmistakable evidence of the power of the white man, they logically turned to the white man's God for this brand of power. But in doing so they did not give up their old gods. To illustrate I use the confession of an Ogalala Sioux.
When I believed the Oglala Waken Tanka was right I served him with all my powers...In war with the white people I found their Waken Tanka the Superior.I then took the name of Sword and have served Waken Tanka according to the white people's manner with all my power. I joined the church and am a deacon in it and shall be until I die. I have done all I was able to do to persuade my people to live according to the teachings of the Christian ministers.
I still have my Wasicun (ceremonial pouch or bundle of a shaman) and I am afraid to offend it, because the spirit of an Oglala may go to the spirit land of the Lakota. (5-34)
In light of the conditions facing the Indian in the 1880's it is easy to see why they took to the Ghost Dance as they did. Among benefits of getting sweet revenge on the white man without shedding their own blood, and restoring old customs even if somewhat modified the dance offered a form of physical release for pent-up aggressions which they had not possessed before. As mentioned briefly before, the dance was a true hybrid of the dominating Christian religion of their conquerors and the religion of their forefathers. Maybe more importantly, the Ghost Dance met most of the Indians= most urgent needs.
Ghost Dance, Sioux and-Wounded Knee
Having discussed the birthing of the new religion and the. conditions into which it was born, I now wish to look, in particular, at the Sioux Nation and its unique expression of the Ghost Dance religion.
The first knowledge of the Messiah craze (Ghost Dance) reached the Sioux in the summer, of 1889, by letters received at Pine Ridge f rom tribes in Utah, Wyoming Montana, Dakota and Oklahoma. By the fall of 1889 the matter had so much interested the Pine Ridge Dakotas that a great council was held to discuss the subject. The outcome of the council was that a delegation would be sent to visit Wovoca and learn first hand what this new religion was all about. Among this delegation was Short Bull and Kicking Bear, both who would later be leaders of the movement. This was the same delegation mentioned earlier that saw the buffalo come alive.
After spending some time with Wovoca the Sioux delegation returned home to report on their findings. The report that they gave was an awful and unjustifiable exaggeration of what Wovoca actually taught. Wovoca took great pains to write down his message, and there was absolutely nothing in it to justify the Sioux version. Here is Jack Wilson's (Wovoca) message verbatim:
When you get home you must make a dance to continue five days. Dance four successive nights and the last night keep up the dance until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then disperse to their homes. You must all do in the same way.
I, Jack Wilson, love you all and my heart is full of gladness for the gifts which you have brought me. When you get home I shall give you a good cloud which will make you feel good, I give you a good spirit and give you all good paint. I want you to come again in three months, some from each tribe.
There will be a good deal of snow this year and some rain, in the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before.
Grandfather (meaning himself the Messiah) says when your friends die you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life.
Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are all alive again. I do not know when they will be here, maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness, and everyone will be young again.
Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes, at the coming of the new world, do not be afraid, it will not hurt you.
I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everyone may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words from me sometime. Do not tell lies. (4-461, 462)
The delegates returning from Wovoca's presence added their own new twist to the doctrineCa tragic one as it turned out. As we can see from the above quotation from Wovoca, the doctrine was entirely pacifistic. All other tribes absorbed this commandment, but not the Sioux. They were full of bitterness and itching for a fight. The government had cut the already inadequate rations in the hope of forcing them to put more effort into farming and as a result, near starvation circumstances followed. Many stories are told of grown Sioux men going through garbage cans in search of a few morsels of food.
Because of this bitterness, the doctrines of peace became doctrines, if not of war, at least of vicious antagonism to the whites. (5-73) To illustrate this point I will compare the interpretations of the same portion of Wovoca's teachings from the Cheyenne holy man, Porcupine, with what the Sioux version was a la Kicking Bear. This portion deals with Wovoca's crucifixion. The crucifixion story is missing in the early Wovoca teachings but he saw fit to embellish the story shortly after to religion began to spread.
The Messiah said that "after God made the earth the people were afraid of me and treated me badly. This is what they done to me." He exhibited the scars on his hands and feet. "I did not try to defend myself; I found my people were bad, and so went back to heaven and. left them." Now God had sent him back to "renew everything as it used to be and make it better."
Kicking Bear's version:
AThe white people are not good." said the Messiah "They killed me and you can see the marks of my wounds." But now he came as a savior of the Indians, and the whites could not harm him. If soldiers tried to arrest him, he would, merely by raising his arms, "knock them into nothingness." Or he would cause the earth to "open and swallow them in."
Porcupine enjoined the Cheyennes: Wovoca "told us not to quarrel or fight or strike each other, nor shoot one another; that the whites and the Indians, to be all one people." Kicking Bear proclaimed that the Messiah, as punishment for three centuries of oppressing the red race, would wipe the white race from the earth. The whites "have treated the Indians very bad the way through,"...and the Messiah is "going to exterminate the whites by some phenomenon in the spring of 1891." (5-73)
Thus the whites were not to be gently pushed aside, but violently and vengefully destroyed. From this idea, it was for some only a short mental leap to the belief that force would help prepare for the day of deliverance.
It is to be remembered that Kicking Bear was one of the original delegation along with Short Bull. While Kicking Bear was stirring up trouble on the Pine Ridge reservation his cohort Short Bull had gotten himself expelled from the nearby reservation at Rosebud. After his expulsion from Rosebud, Short Bull Joined Kicking Bear at Pine Ridge and shortly thereafter boldly announced himself as the true Messiah and declared that inasmuch as the whites had so seriously interfered in the Ghost Dance that he would at once "start this thing a running." (4-470) In a very short time many Sioux were participating in the Ghost Dance. There are accounts of
up to 1,000 dancers participating at the same time. So we see that the hot winds that withered. the crops nourished the seed of the Ghost Dance religion. This time it took root and sprang into full bloom before the agents could put a stop to it.
To be sure, the agents did not take the Ghost Dance seriously at first. When they did become aware of it nearly 40% of the reservation were dancing. The following telegram to Agent McLaughlin at Pine Ridge from an Agent Wells from a nearby agency shows the confusion and sense of urgency they felt.
Pardon me for the privilege I take in asking you some questions in regard to your Indians taking part in the new religious craze, the Ghost Dance, or what is known as the coming of Messiah next Spring. Are your Indians practicing it to such an extent that you anticipate any difficulty in supressing [sic] it, or what in your opinion would be the beat means of stopping it. The reason I ask is our Indians are getting so crazy over it that it is certainly getting serious as they are defying the Police force, and from what I can lern [sic] the Rose Bud Indians are worse than ours, and there is no telling what will grow out of it in the near future... I am telling you this that you can see the magnitude the craze has taken if it will be any service to you to know. Dr. D.F. Royer, our new agent took charge this week, but I think he has got an elephant on his hands, as the craze had taken such a hold on the Indians before he too charge. (2-5,6)
The mention of the new agent Dr. Royer brings up another "quirk" of fate that coincided with the events taking place on the Pine Ridge reservation. Agents were chosen according to the spoils system. Because of the recent change in administrations, the old agent was booted out and Dr. Royer was given the position. Royer's appointment was political. He was totally inexperienced in Indian affairs, and upon the test proved to lack tact judgment and courage. The Indians gave agent Royer the name of FACE="WP TypographicSymbols">Ayoung-man-afraid-oh-his-Indians. FACE="WP TypographicSymbols">@ The Indians were quick to perceive his weakness and from the first showed little respect for his authority and within a few days began to treat him with utter contempt and in the emergency which confronted him, the agent called upon the military for support in preserving order upon the reservation. (4-468, 469)
In the ensuing days the Sioux dancers became more and more belligerent and bolder in their defying of agency authority. The result was that agent Royer was granted his wish of military intervention. Whether by the "Grace of God" or by the "whip of history," the Seventh U.S. Calvary was chosen to aid in squelching the Ghost Dance. It will be remembered that just a few short years before, at the battle of "the Little Big Horn," this unit had been soundly defeated in battle by the very band of Indians that they were now in pursuit of. No doubt a sense of bitterness and an aching for revenge permeated the ranks of those who lost friends in the first battle. (9-415)
The presence of the troops frightened the dancers into running for the outlying areas of the some skirmishes fought. One legend of the Ghost Shirt was born during one of these skirmishes. The Ghost Shirt was part of the special clothing worn while dancing the Ghost Dance. The Sioux were the only Indians to give the Ghost Shirt bullet proof qualities. (2-42) During one of the skirmishes with the soldiers, a lone Indian rode his pony within easy rifle range of soldiers, line and allowed them to fire on him. Whether true to the qualities of the Ghost Shirt he was wearing, or due to the poor shooting of the soldiers he escaped unscathed. (2-33)
It is not within the scope of this paper to go into detail about the massacre that occurred after the rebel dancers returned to the agency camp. Suffice to say another bizarre set of circumstances led to the soldiers opening fire on the unarmed camp of men, women and children. The outcome was that an estimated 350 Sioux lost their lives.
Were troops necessary? The arrival of soldiers on the reservations united the dancers in armed defense of religious freedom and was therefore the immediate cause of the hostilities that later broke out. The answer, it seems evident, is yes. "The dancers at Pine Ridge composed about forty percent of the population... These people were belligerent, suspicious, and excited to the point of irrationality. They expected the white men to interfere with the dance and were prone to consider the most innocuous administrative action as interference. With this state of mind, it was only a question of time until some incident ended in bloodshed. By the middle of November the lives of government employees at Pine Ridge, if not at Rosebud, were clearly in danger." (5-111,112)
But the conditions that made troops necessary in November could almost have certainly been avoided if Congress had fulfilled its obligations to the Sioux earlier in the years and if the spoils system had not placed an inexperienced agent at Pine Ridge at a critical time. "The old agent GallagherCcould probably have kept the situation in hand until spring failed to bring the expected millennium." (5-112)
There was no hope on earth, and. God seemed to have forgotten us. Some said they saw the Son of God; others did not see Him. If He had come, He would do some great things as He had done before. We doubted it because we had seen neither Him nor His works.
The people lid not know; they did not care. They snatched at the hope. They screamed like crazy men to Him for mercy. They caught at the promise they heard he had made.
The white men were frightened and called for soldiers. We had begged for life, and the white men thought we wanted theirs. (9-415)
These words from Red Cloud describe the confusion and fear that white men held for the Ghost Dance. The religion was grossly misunderstood by most of the white population. White men dance for pleasure, fun and recreation. The Indian dances seriously usually as a religious expression. Because of this great gap in their understandings few white men ever really sought to understand the Ghost Dance. One that did was a Captain Hugh L. Scott, He wrote his superiors that, "Wovoca has given these people a better religion than they ever had before, taught them precepts, which, if faithfully carried out, will bring them into better accord with their white neighbors, and has prepared the way for their final Christianization." (5-69) Another who did was the Smithsonian Institution's able ethnologist, James Mooney. In 1891, while the religion still gripped the tribes, he went west and, by means of specialized training and a sympathetic approach, learned all any white man possibly could about it.
"Mooney himself saw the Ghost Dance in its larger context and not just a phenomenon of primitive peoples. Any race that has been crushed as were the American Indians, he observed, is likely to turn to a self-appointed redeemer. Hope becomes a faith and the faith becomes the creed of priests and prophets, until the hero is a god and the dream a religion, looking to some great miracle of nature for its culmination and accomplishment. " (5-71)
The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew Messiah, the Christian millennium, and the Hesunanin of the Indian Ghost dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity.
1. Dobyns, Henry F. and Euler, Robert C.. The Ghost Dance of 1882. Prescott College Press, 1967
2. Vestal, Stanley. New Sources of Indian History. University of Oklahoma Press, 1934
3. Lesser, Alexander. The Pawnee Ghost Dance Hand Game. N.Y., AMS Press, 1969
4. Robinson, Doane. A History of the Dakota or Sioux Indians. Minneapolis, MN, Ross & Haines, Inc., 1967
5. Utley, Robert K., The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. New Haven and
London, Yale University Press 1963
6. Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull Champion of the Sioux. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1932
7. Kelley, William Fitch. Pine Ridge 1890. San Francisco, Pierre Bovis, 1961
8. Deloria Jr., Vine, We Talk, You Listen. NY.,Macmillan Co., 1970
9. Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. New York, Bantam Books, 1970.
Additional information was taken from conversations with Bill Schworz, who was an observer for the National Council of Churches at Pine Ridge reservation during the incident there in the early 1970's.2002