Ghost Dancers Essay
The original Ghost Dance appeared on the Walker Lake Reservation in Nevada in 1870, and was initiated by a Northern Paiute Indian named Wodziwob, or “Gray Hair” to his contemporaries. (History, p. 1). Apparently Wodziwob had a visionary experience sometime in the late 1860’s in which he went, in some sort of trance, to another world. In this world he was told that an Indian renaissance was close at hand. By the 1870’s, in the wake of the Civil War, Indian fortunes were at a low point. Wodziwob was the precursor to Wovoka, who would come later on, however they both had the same wish for their people, which was for them to regain their freedom from the White Man, and for the killing to stop.
The United States was intent on controlling Indian life as well as assimilating the Indian population into the white man’s ways and life. The Indians were moved by the U.S. Government from place to place, and they were suffering from starvation and disease, with no relief in sight. The government had managed to confine nearly all of the Indian population on reservations, and, in general, on lands that were so poor that the white man could envision absolutely no use for himself. The white men actually felt they were doing a favor for these Indians by allowing them to live, albeit on lands that were worth nothing—lands that did not lend themselves to farming or supporting themselves in any way. “Graft and corruption were rampant in the Indian Bureau…and a move was made to recruit Quakers to take the positions as Indian Agents, however not nearly enough Quakers responded to the call for volunteers.” The Quakers were felt to be honest and upright, and the original idea was that they could change the course of what was happening on the Indian Reservations, but it was not to be. (Imaging, p. 1).
It was at this time that other denominations came into the picture and opened up on the Indian reservations, attempting to convert the Indians to Christianity, a move that had somewhat mixed results. By 1890, conditions on the reservations were so bad, with so many Indians literally starving to death, that the situation was “ripe for a major movement to rise among the Indians. Wodziwob’s vision had told him that the old ways, the tribal Indian life would be returning soon, and that the dead would miraculously come back to life.” (History, p. 1). Wodziwob believed that the buffalo that the Indian had hunted for years and years would return, and would be plentiful. The Indian people would be restored to the health and good fortune they had known before the advent of the white man. (History, p. 1). Wodziwob’s “movement” spread beyond the Paiute to other tribes, and the Indians were instructed to perform certain round dances at night in order to hasten the coming of Wodziwob’s vision. The movement changed somewhat as it spread to California, Oregon and Nevada; “the Earth Lodge religion and the Big Head religion were among the offshoots.” (History of, p. 2). The Indian people were in the very beginning of an internal rebellion, realizing too late that the white man had taken literally everything from them, leaving them dying and with broken spirits.
Unfortunately, several years passed and the Indians were still starving and dying, wondering when their salvation would come. They were becoming disillusioned with Wodziwob’s prophecies, which did not appear to be coming true, and they began to give up the dance. Only a few of the groups to whom the movement had spread kept performing the dance, at least to some degree. It was difficult to believe in a savior when bellies were hollow.
Fortunately, another “savior” was close at hand. Following closely on Wodziwob’s heels, came Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, who was a Paiute Indian, and founded the most prominent phase of the Ghost Dance. Wovoka means “wood cutter” in the Northern Paiute language. (Wovoka, p. 6). Wovoka would give his people hope once more.
Wovoka was a Paiute shaman, son of the mystic, Tavibo, whose teachings had been instrumental in influencing this new religion. Tavibo means “white person,” and Tavibo’s teachings were, in fact, similar to those of Wovoka. (The Wounded, p. 1). Tavibo had prophesized that all whites would eventually be “swallowed up by the earth, and all dead Indians would emerge to enjoy a world free of their conquerors.” (Wovoka, p. 8). Tavibo urged his followers to dance in circles while singing religious songs, and it is easy to see why Wovoka later became the father of the Ghost Dance.
Wovoka was born in the Smith Valley area, southeast of Carson City, Nevada. He was later given the white name of Jack Wilson by a white family for whom he worked as a farmhand. Wovoka was taken in by this family, headed by David Wilson, when his father died in 1870. David Wilson was a rancher in the Nevada area and was a devout Christian. Wilson taught Wovoka the English language, as well as teaching him Christian theology and Christian bible stories. ( Wovoka, p. 7). Wovoka was barely a boy of fourteen when his father died and his entire life was uprooted and changed. Even though Wovoka would later believe that the white man would be wiped out by some natural occurrence, he nonetheless charged his followers “not to hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them.” (Jack Wilson, p. 1). Perhaps this stemmed from the portion of his young life spent living with the Wilson’s and learning their ways.
t was in his early adulthood that Wovoka began gaining a reputation as a very powerful shaman, more so than his own father. “He was adept at magic tricks…one trick he often performed was being shot with a shotgun, which may have been similar to the bullet catch trick….and is also reported to have performed a levitation trick.” (Wovoka, p. 8). It is likely that the fact that Wovoka was skilled at magic tricks definitely gave him an advantage when he related his future vision to his people. Of course they would have heard that he could do magic, thus making his prophecies that much more real to his people.
Seeing the death and diseases that were attacking his people, Wovoka apparently had a vision during a sun eclipse (and while suffering from a high fever) in which he saw “the second coming of Christ and received a warning about the evils of the white man.” Wovoka’s vision was very detailed and included the resurrection of the Paiute dead as well as the “removal of whites and their works form North America.” (The Wounded, p. 1). Wovoka announced that he, himself, was the Messiah, come to earth to prepare the Indians for their salvation.” (Imaging, p. 1). In order to facilitate the resurrection of the Indian dead, Wovoka told the tribes that they must also practice the customs of the Ghost Dance movement and “renounce alcohol and farming and end mourning, since the resurrection was coming soon.” (The Native, p. 2).
Of course news of the vision spread quickly from tribe to tribe that an Indian Messiah was coming soon to liberate them from their pain and misery. The practice of the ghost dance was done to facilitate the coming of the Indian Messiah. The dance was “unlike other Indian dances, with fast steps and loud drumming. The Ghost Dance was one of slow shuffling movements, following the course of the sun. It would be performed for four or five hours, and was accompanied by singing and chanting, but no drumming or other musical instruments.” (The Native, p. 3). Unlike other Indian dances, both women and men participated. In the Lakota version, “the Ghost Dance circle usually had at its center a tree decorated with feathers and other symbolic ornaments that constituted offerings to the divine powers.” (History, p. 4). There were opening prayers and then the dancers would join hands and dance in a circle. Many Indians who were sick would participate in the hopes that they would be cured, and at times some of them would fall down unconscious, or in some kind of trance. When the dance would finally end, the participants would sit in their circle and discuss their experiences and visions that took place during the dance. Sometimes when the participants were refreshed, the dance would be repeated. (History, p. 7).
The first dance was held by Wovoka around 1889, and soon the Utes, Bannocks and Shoshone tribes were accepting the tradition as well. The Plains Indian tribes then accepted the ghost dance and “the peaceful message of hope was spreading and uplifting many Indians.” (The Native, p. 3). Many of the tribes adapted the movements of the original ghost dance and added specific customs and rituals to the dance that added their own individuality. The Sioux, specifically, added “two specific elements including the use of hypnosis to bring trances and aid in the communication with the dead, and a ghost shirt. Made of buckskin or cloth, the shirt was said to make the wearer immune to bullets, a weapon of death known initially only to the white man.” (The Native, p. 3).
We must remember, that the belief in the coming of a messiah, or a deliverer from pain and suffering is as old as the human race itself. For people who have been subjected to “alien domination,” it is even more common. Although the idea of a messiah may seem to come from a myth, it is even more likely that it comes from simple human longing for deliverance. Both the Quichua of Peru and the Aztec of Mexico were known for their elaborate messiah traditions which were said to restore their happiness from years past. (Indian Ghost, p. 1).
Interestingly, some reservation agents felt that the Ghost Dance movement was “reinforcing violence against the whites because the Indians practicing the Ghost Dance were “wild and crazy,” even though the underlying motives of the movement inspired all. The BIA requested military protection for white settlers, and the Ghost Dance was outlawed.” (The Arapaho, p. 1). The government agent at Standing Rock, James McLaughlin believed the Ghost Dance to be absurd and crazy, calling it “demoralizing, indecent, and disgusting.” (The Wounded, p. 3). These white men failed to realize the peaceful action of the Indians, and although they had striven to convert the Indians to Christianity, were oblivious to the fact that the Ghost Dance had definite roots in the Christian faith.
Wovoka’s visions were definitely interwoven with his teachings from David Wilson of Jesus. While the Ghost dance has sometimes been seen throughout the years as an expression of Indian militancy and rebellion, Wovoka’s pronouncements ironically “bore the heavy mark of popular Christianity. Wovoka’s invocation of a “Supreme Being,” immortality, pacifism and explicit mentions of Jesus all speak of an infusion of Christian beliefs into Paiute mysticism.” (Wovoka, p. 8). Wovoka preached that to survive, the Indians must send their children to white man’s schools and spend their lives farming.
Additionally, he told his people to treat one another in a just and fair manner, and to avoid malicious or destructive behaviors, including drinking and fighting. (History, p. 4). It would certainly seem that these goals were the same as those of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, yet the Bureau feared that the “swelling numbers of Ghost Dancers….was a precursor to renewed Indian militancy and violent rebellion.” (The Wounded, p. 3). The white missionaries of the time, although zealous in their efforts to convert the Indians to Christianity, rarely put faith into the lives or hearts of the Indian people. Wovoka took the book of Revelations and refashioned the age-old warnings into warnings to his own people. “He claimed the Native people would receive God’s favor since it was the white man who rejected Christ. And unlike the New Testament, which was vague concerning the time and place of God’s new world, Wovoka spelled out the immediacy of what he said…..stating “Jesus is now upon the Earth.” (Wokova, p. 4).
In 1889, Indian life was desperate and without hope. The initial hopes of defeating the United States Military was long gone, and poverty for the Indian people was widespread and rampant. “Many tribes sent delegates to visit Wovoka, hear his message and receive instructions for the dance.” (History, p. 5). The increasing popularity of the Ghost Dance, despite the ban, made U.S. authorities nervous, and the settlers fearful for their lives.
Sitting Bull, a noted shaman, encouraged his people to ignore the ban and continue the ghost dance, and in mid-November of 1890, “an army detachment arrived at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota to suppress the armed uprising that seemed to be looming…In mid-December army officers decided to arrest Sitting Bull, the most intransigent of the militant Indian chiefs; he was killed in a gun battle between his supporters and the soldiers.” (History, p. 5). Apparently, the Indian police had surrounded the cabin where Sitting Bull lay sleeping. Lieutenant Bull Head entered the cabin and woke Sitting Bull. He agreed to come with the police, and asked that his horse be saddled while he dressed. When Sitting Bull and Lieutenant Bull Head left the cabins, a group of Ghost Dancers had also surrounded the cabin, challenging the police who were going to take Sitting Bull away. One Ghost Dancer, Catch-the-Bear, pulled out a rifle and shot Lieutenant Bull Head in the side; Bull Head attempted to shoot back at Catch-the-Bear and instead accidentally shot Sitting Bull. Another policeman known as Red Tomahawk, then shot Sitting Bull in the head, killing him. (Imaging, p. 3).
Following the murder of Sitting Bull, the U.S. authorities ordered the arrest of Big Foot, a well-known Lakota chief. He and a band of approximately 350 Lakota finally surrendered on December 28, 1890, after establishing a camp at the Wounded Knee Creek. One of their members, Yellow Bird, “advocated resistance by telling other Indians that their Ghost Dance shirts were bulletproof.”
After hearing this, an Indian known as Black Coyote refused to give up his gun to the soldiers. The gun accidentally went off, and the soldiers took it as a sign to attack. (The Arapaho, p. 3). A fight then broke out between the Lakota and the U.S. military as the military attempted to disarm the Lakota. The army panicked and stormed the Indian camp with gunfire, killing 290 Lakota, many of whom were women and children and most of whom were not fighting back, but merely trying to flee. Although many of the Lakota’s were wearing the ghost shirts, it was rather sadly proven that the shirts were far from resistant to bullets. On New Year’s Day, Army troops returned to the site and buried the Indians in a mass grave. (History, p. 5). While there were many members of the army troops who, realizing the tragedy, expressed sorrow and remorse for the killing of innocent women and children, the damage was done. News of Wounded Knee spread rapidly through the Indian Nations, and the Ghost Dance died a quick death. The Indians felt that “Wovoka’s prophecies were hollow; the land would not be returned from the white man through divine intervention.” (Wovoka, p. 9).
The killing of Sitting Bull, and the massacre at Wounded Knee were just one more nail in the coffin, so to speak, for the Indian Nation. Sitting Bull had long been considered a wise and fearless leader, and his senseless death further lent a feeling of hopelessness to the Indian tribes. When the Lakota were killed at Wounded Knee, through no reason other than trigger-happy soldiers, the feeling grew even more. There was a resignation, a death of spirit among the Indians and their leader Wavoka was now viewed with distrust and harsh feelings.
From Jack Random’s novel, The Killing Spirit, which details the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee, comes this moving passage of Jerico, witness to the massacre at Wounded Knee:
He saw two great war chiefs, one in full war bonnet on a large brown bay, the other with a single feather on a white Appaloosa, bearing the mark of thunder. He saw the sacred pipe of the Lakota passed from Sitting Bull to Crazy Horse to Jerico on the earth below. He fell to his knees and wept until he had no more tears. As he rose in the breadth of time, the sky darkened, the circles of dancers collapsed in exhaustion, and the vision slowly receded. In the distance, the cry of a thunderbird and silence. The sun returned and the dancers breathed a sigh of relief. They had accomplished a great deed, a deed that would live in the hearts of the people for all generations to come. The air was still and the mood was elation, yet there was a tinge of uncertainty. They had touched the other world, the world of ancestral spirits, yet they had opened a window to darker spirits as well. The soldiers and guards pointed their weapons down and bowed their heads in respect for the dead and the living tribute to their sorrow. Those who died at Wounded Knee so many moons ago survived in the hearts and minds of those who still walked these hallowed grounds and remembered…Eyes burning, blanketed in sweat and tears, Jerico witnessed the scene of his people’s glory transformed into one of unspeakable horror: charred bodies, scorched earth and a trail of firebirds in the Eastern sky.” (Random, p. 4).
Wovoka vanished nearly into obscurity, although in his later years he worked at sideshows of county fairs and even as an extra in silent Western movies. It is a very sad statement on the life of one who strove so hard to deliver his people from oppression and death. There is one remaining photograph of Wovoka, which was taken on the set of one of these films. Wovoka died on September 20, 1932, almost forgotten by whites and Native Americans alike. There was a period of time, following the tragedies of Wounded Knee and the death of Sitting Bull, where it was considered a taboo to even mention the name of Wovoka among the Native Americans. It was not until much later, into the 1970’s that his name was resurrected during the birth of Native American activism. “The tragedy of Wovoka is a legacy of pain and suffering among the very people he wanted to save. The songs of the Ghost Dance are silent today and the dream of Wovoka vanished in the harsh light of reality. The Christian principles which he laced into his theology were brutally ignored by the soldiers and settlers who held allegiance to Christ and yet destroyed the Native way of life with a brutality unknown in the gospel teachings.” (Wovoka, p. 10).
Ghost Dancing had come and gone with barely a whisper of remembrance for those who believed, and those who died for those beliefs.
Essortment. The Native American Ghost Dance. Accessed on November 25, 2006 at:
Ghost Dance. The Arapaho Project. Accessed on November 26, 2006 at:
Ghost Dance Religion. The Wounded Knee Massacre, December 29, 1890. Accessed on
November 30, 2006 at:
Ghost Dance. Imaging and Imagining the Ghost Dance. Accessed on November 28, 2006 at:
Indian Tribal History. Indian Ghost Dance History. Accessed from Access Genealogy,
Indian Tribal Records. On November 28, 2006 at:
Paiute. Wokova Ghost Dancers. Accessed on November 26, 2006 at:
PBS, The West. Jack Wilson (1856-1932). Accessed from New Perspectives on the West, on
November 27, 2006 at: http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s-z/wokova.htm
PBS, The West. The Ghost Dance Among the Lakota. Accessed from New Perspectives on
the West, on November 27, 2006 at:
Random, Jack. Wounded Knee Ghost Dance. From the Novel, The Killing Spirit, Accessed
on November 28, 2006 at: http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/3-2-2006-90156.asp
Religious Movements Homepage. History of Ghost Dance. Accessed from the University of
Virginia Homepage on November 25, 2006 at: