Let's Dance: The Ghost Dance Movement

Introduction

When the Sun died, I went up to Heaven and saw God and all the people who had died a long time ago. God 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

Women dancersThe Ghost Dance religion (or movement) 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. In this vision he saw the second coming of Christ and received warning about the evils of white man. The messianic religion promised an apocalypse that would destroy the earth and the white man. The earth then would be restored to the Native Americans. Salvation of individuals was to be achieved by purging oneself of the evil ways learned from the whites. The religion required frequent ceremonial cleansing, meditation, prayer, chanting and of course dancing the Ghost Dance. Each ceremony lasted for five successive days. The participants danced each night, on the last night the dance continued until morning. The ceremony was to be repeated every six weeks. Within a year, the new religion spread throughout the Native camps in the West, giving Native people the 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. The reaction of the BIA is somewhat ironic, since one of the goals of the agency was to convert the Natives to Christianity. The agency did not recognize that the Ghost Dance religion's fundamental principles were parallel with Christianity and brought many Indians to believe in one God. Misunderstanding and ignorance were part of the BIA decision. Wovoka's message clearly promoted pacifism and warned before making any trouble with the whites or refusing to work for them. However, spreading rumors of Indian treachery ignited fear and panic. In November 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 religious movement in 1889, was brutally ended a year later by the U.S. military.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Topic Three: The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the Peoples of Many Cultures Who Contributed to Its Cultural, Economic and Political Heritage.

STANDARD 6: Regional folklore and culture contributions that help to form our national heritage.

Standard 6A: The student understands folklore and other cultural contributions from various regions of the United States and how they helped to form a national heritage.

3-4: Examine art, craft, music, and language of people from a variety of regions long ago and describe their influence on the nation. [Draw upon visual and other historical data]

Topic Four: The History of Peoples of Many Cultures around the World.

STANDARD 7: Selected Attributes and Historical Developments of Various Societies in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

Standard 7A: The student understands the culture and historical developments of selected societies in such places as Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

K-4: Analyze the dance, music, and arts of various cultures around the world to draw conclusions about the history, daily life, and believes of the people in history. [Draw upon visual data]

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801 - 1861)

STANDARD 1:United States territorial expansion between 1801 - 1861, and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans.

Standard 1B: The student understands federal and state Indian policy and the strategies for survival forged by Native Americans

7 - 12: Explain and evaluate the various strategies of Native Americans such as accommodation, revitalization, and resistance. [Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION:  Film, Sioux Ghost Dance
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  Edison Manufacturing Co., September 24, 1894.
    NOTES: This film features Native American Indian dancers from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and represents the American Indian's first appearance before a motion picture camera.
    SOURCE:  Early Motion Pictures, 1897-1920
    REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

  2. DESCRIPTION:  Sound recording, Arapaho Ghost Dance
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  E. Berliner's Gramophone Co., [July 5, 1894], recorded by James Mooney.
    NOTES: It is possible that the voice is not of an authentic Native American. The bibliographical information lists performers as Charles and James Mooney, but no data has been found to verify the existence of Charles.
    SOURCE:  American Memory
    REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

  3. DESCRIPTION:  Sound recording, Comanche Ghost Dance
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  E. Berliner's Gramophone Co., [July 5, 1894], recorded by James Mooney.
    NOTES: It is possible that the voice is not of an authentic Native American. The bibliographical information lists performers as Charles and James Mooney, but no data has been found to verify the existence of Charles.
    SOURCE:  American Memory
    REPOSITORY:  Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

  4. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, Indian Dance, Pine Ridge Agency S.D., Lakota Sioux men and boys.
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  [1890 or 1891]
    NOTES:  Hand written note on the back of the photograph says "Ghost Dance, before Wounded Knee."
    SOURCE:  American Memory
    REPOSITORY:  Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy Department.

  5. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  n. d.
    NOTES: This shirt was believed to protect its wearer from bullets.
    SOURCE:  PBS: New Perspectives on The West
    REPOSITORY:  National Museum of the American Indian

  6. DESCRIPTION:  Drawing, The Ghost Dance by the Ogallala Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency S.D
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  1890
    NOTES:  Drawn by Frederick Remington, artist, from sketches taken on the spot. Appeared in Harper's Weekly, December 6, 1890.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY:  The Library of Congress

  7. DESCRIPTION:  Drawing, Arapaho Ghost Dance
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  ca. 1900
    NOTES:  artist Mary Irvin Wright; drawing based on photographs by James Mooney.
    SOURCE:  NARA: Research Room: Pictures of Indians in the United States
    REPOSITORY: Still Picture Records LICON, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park

  8. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, Wovoka (seated)
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  n. d.
    NOTES: Images from the National Anthropological Archives may not be reproduced without a permission.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to order a print
    SOURCE:  PBS: New Perspectives on The West
    REPOSITORY:  Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives  

  9. DESCRIPTION:  Letter, Wovoka's Message: A Promised of the Ghost Dance
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: James Mooney, The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 2 (1896).
    NOTES:  The Message was delivered orally by Wovoka and was transcribed by a Cheyenne named Black Short Nose, who attended Carlisle Indian School. James Mooney, an ethnologist working for the Bureau of American Ethnology obtained this document in 1891. 
    SOURCE:  PBS: New Perspectives on The West

  10. DESCRIPTION:  Eyewitness account, The Ghost Dance among the Lakota
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  James Mooney, The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 2 (1894).
    NOTES:  Mrs. Z. A. Parker observed the traditional dancing on White Clay Creek at Pine Ridge reservation, Dakota Territory, June 20, 1890.
    SOURCE:  PBS: New Perspectives on The West

  11. DESCRIPTION:  Barracks ballad, The Indian Ghost Dance and War
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  ca. 1890 by Pvt. W. H. Prather / James Mooney, The Ghost-dance Religion  and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 2 (1896).
    NOTES:  Pvt. W. H. Prather was an African - American member of the Ninth Cavalry. The ballad was composed and popular among the troops during the "Sioux Outbreak" campaign of 1890.
    SOURCE:  PBS: New Perspectives on The West

Additional Media Resources

"Ghost Dance." Documentary by Tim Shwab and Christina Craton. Order at New Day Films.

MSNBS TV News: Ghost Dance

NativeWeb: offers links to additional websites and resources for Native American history and current issues.

PBS: New Perspectives on The West

Additional Instructional Resources

NARA: Indians/Native Americans

NMAI: Education

PBS: New Perspectives on The West: lesson plans and quizzes

Wounded Knee Memorial Museum: For Educators 

Secondary Resources

Hittman, Michael. Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. Lynch, Don, ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990, reprint 1997.

Kavanagh, Thomas W. "Imaging and Imagining the Ghost Dance: James Mooney's Illustrations and Photographs, 1891 - 1893."

Native American Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions. Heth, Charlotte, ed. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute, with Starwood Publishing, 1992.

Osterreich, Shelley Anne. The American Indian Ghost Dance, 1870 and 1890: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Ostler, Jeffrey. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Spier, Leslie. "The ghost dance of 1870 among the Klamath of Oregon." Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1927. Available in American Indians of the Pacific Northwest (American Memory).

Vander, Judith. Shoshone Ghost Dance Religion: Poetry, Songs and Great Basin Context. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Young, William A. Quest for Harmony: Native American Spiritual Traditions. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2002.

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

National Museum of the American Indian
4th Street and Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20560
Phone: 202 - 633 - 1000
Wounded Knee Memorial Museum
207 10th Ave.
Wall, S.D. 57790
Phone: 970 - 226 - 3218

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Lucie Kyrova.