05 July 2014

The Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians

By 1870, the world of the American Indian had become intolerable.  A typhoid epidemic, along with other diseases of European origin to which the native Americans had no immunity, killed approximately a tenth of the Indian population.  Following the Civil War, the United States focused on controlling Indian life and assimilating native peoples into the dominant culture, essentially erasing the indigenous culture, religion, beliefs, customs, and practices of the various Indian tribes.  Indians had been forcibly herded onto reservations, often miles away from their hereditary lands.  There they were subjected to starvation, exacerbated by the wholesale destruction of the buffalo herds on which the Plains Indians in particular subsisted; diseases, with some of which the Indian populations were even deliberately infected; and the devastation of the white man’s whiskey.  Treaties and agreements were made and broken without compunction by the U.S. government, backed by the army, particularly when mineral or other natural wealth was detected beneath the Indians’ land.  In desperation, and on the edge of extinction, the American Indians of the Great Plains turned to faith and shamans. 

Sometime around 1869, a Northern Paiute man named Hawthorne Wodziwob (“Gray Hair” or “White Hair”) from the Walker Lake Reservation in Nevada had a vision.  He told his people that he’d gone into a trance and traveled to another world where the souls of the dead revealed that an Indian renaissance was coming.  “Our fathers are coming, our mothers are coming, they are coming pretty soon,” other Paiutes quoted Wodziwob.  “You had better dance.  Never stop for a long time.  Swim.  Paint in white and black and red paint.  Every morning wash and paint.  Everybody be happy.”  Wodziwob (d. 1872), who probably hadn’t been a shaman before his visionary experience (his background, including his birth date, is obscure), promised that if the Indians danced in a circle at night, they could create an Indian paradise on Earth, with the disappearance of the white man, the return of Indian dead, and the restoration of all the animals the Indians had traditionally hunted, most significantly the buffalo.  The prophet conducted the first Ghost Dance ceremony in 1870 and what the Dictionary of Native American Mythology called a “religious revitalization movement” soon spread to other tribes in the Plains beyond the Paiute, even as far as California and Oregon.  After a few years the Northern Paiute Ghost Dancers became disillusioned when Wodziwob’s prophecies didn’t come true.  They gave up the practice around 1872, though other tribes continued to perform the dance.

One of Wodziwob’s disciples was a Paiute named Tavibo (“Sun Man” or “White Man”), a shaman who may have been the father of Wovoka (“Wood Cutter,” c. 1856-1932), the prophet of the reappearance of the Ghost Dance religion in the 1890s.  By the 1880s, the U.S. government, through the power of the army, had rounded up most Indians on reservations, largely unwanted land on which eking out a living was difficult.  (It’s ironic—and not really pertinent to this history—that these lands sometimes yielded great oil wealth in the early 20th century, and that in more recent times, became the sites of hugely profitable casinos because the laws governing tribal lands exempted them from state and federal restrictions on gambling.)  Like the short-lived earlier incarnation of the Ghost Dance religion, the 1890 resurgence was a response to the Indians’ fear and anger over the invasion by Euro-Americans, the brutality of the army, and the legislative attacks on native peoples by Congress.  A man of peace, Wovoka (known as Jack Wilson among whites) told his people after a vision: “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 was a complex man quite aside from his historical impact.  Born near what is now Carson City, Nevada, Wovoka might have been the son of Tavibo, a shaman who joined Wodziwob’s 1870 Ghost Dance movement and continued to teach many of the same ideas Wovoka himself would teach.  (The rumor that Tavibo was Wovoka’s father is not provable, but it is certain that the younger medicine man was influenced by many of his predecessor’s teachings.)  But Wovoka, intelligent and temperate, had medicine training of his own as well and grew into a tall man with a deep voice, piercing eyes, and a stoic, dignified demeanor.  When his father died around 1870, however, 14-year-old Wovoka was taken in by David and Abigail Wilson, a rancher and his wife from Yerington, Nevada.  While working on the ranch, the Native ranch hand used the name Jack Wilson and learned Christian teachings and Bible stories from the rancher, who was a devout Presbyterian.  (Yerington’s Lyon County, abutting Carson City on the east, was also home to large Catholic and Mormon communities who both proselytized the Native Americans and was a frequent stopping place for itinerant preachers.)  Wovoka began to preach to his people in 1888 and among them gained a reputation as a powerful medicine man, probably enhanced by his skill with magic tricks.  He was known to perform apparent levitation, for instance, and one of his most famous stunts was to withstand a shotgun blast.  It’s likely that this feat gave credence to the Indians’ belief that the “ghost shirt,” a ceremonial garment worn for the ritual, was bulletproof.

Adherents also believed that Wovoka was able to control the weather and heavenly events.  He was reputed to have made a block of ice fall from the sky on a summer day, to have brought rain or snow to end droughts, to have used the sun to light his pipe, and to have formed icicles in his hands.  His most astounding claim was that he’d had a vision during a trance from which he recovered during a solar eclipse on 1 January 1889, after which he was credited with restoring the sun and saving the universe.  (Wovoka may have suffered from scarlet fever in 1888 and had been in a coma for two days when this vision occurred, according to a white observer who’d been a friend of Jack Wilson’s.)   It was this vision that was the beginning of the 1890 Ghost Dance movement.  Wovoka proclaimed that he had contacted God, who gave him explicit commands for living Indians (in a translation by anthropologist James Mooney): 

[W]hen your friends die you must not cry.  You must not 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 until you leave them. . . .  [B]athe in the water [of the river]. . . .  Do not tell lies.

While some, including both Indians and whites, saw the man as a huckster and a charlatan, others believed he was a true spiritual leader and visionary.  In the end, however, it really makes little difference which view is true since Wovoka’s influence on the Indians of the Great Plains and beyond was profound and lasting.  Spurred by the demoralized state of the American Indian, devastated by war, reservation life, poverty, and disease, his teachings soon spread to other Plains tribes, including the Sioux, a militant people some of whom, unwilling to wait for divine intercession, saw the Ghost Dance as a path to revenge against the white intruders.  The Ghost Dance was practiced by Indian peoples as far from Nevada as the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.  (This sweep was all the more remarkable because Wovoka didn’t travel outside Paiute territory.  At a time before any practicable mass communications, emissaries of the far-flung tribes of the Plains made pilgrimages to Wovoka to interview him about his teachings and learn the ritual at his hands.)

The Ghost Dance religion was founded on purging Indians of the evil ways learned from whites.  (All objects and materials introduced to the New World by Europeans such as metal were excluded from use in the ritual.)  The ritual included frequent ceremonial cleansing, meditation, prayer, singing, and of course round-dancing.  Each ceremony lasted five successive days and the celebrants danced every night; dancing on the last night continued until dawn and the ritual was repeated every six weeks.  In its Lakota Sioux version, the Ghost Dancers circled around a fir tree decorated with feathers and other symbolic ornaments that served as offerings to the spirits.  Starting with prayers and appeals, the participants then joined hands in a circle and began a wild dance.  Indians who were sick often took part hoping to be healed and dancing continuously in a circle often resulted in a state of religious frenzy or trance (similar, I’d guess, to that experienced by the Dervishes in Turkey and the Middle East).  In the trance, many Indians reported that they saw visions of dead ancestors on their ways to rejoin the living.  Eventually the dancing stopped and the participants sat in a circle, recounting their experiences and visions.  Later the dance might be repeated.

In June 1890, Mrs. Z. A. Parker, a reservation schoolteacher, watched a Lakota Ghost Dance ceremony on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Dakota Territory.  After interviewing several of the dancers, she wrote a detailed eyewitness description of the rite: 

We drove to this spot about 10.30 oclock on a delightful October day.  We came upon tents scattered here and there in low, sheltered places long before reaching the dance ground.  Presently we saw over three hundred tents placed in a circle, with a large pine tree in the center, which was covered with strips of cloth of various colors, eagle feathers, stuffed birds, claws, and horns—all offerings to the Great Spirit.  The ceremonies had just begun.  In the center, around the tree, were gathered their medicine-men; also those who had been so fortunate as to have had visions and in them had seen and talked with friends who had died.  A company of fifteen had started a chant and were marching abreast, others coming in behind as they marched.  After marching around the circle of tents they turned to the center, where many had gathered and were seated on the ground.

. . . .

As the crowd gathered about the tree the high priest, or master of ceremonies, began his address, giving them directions as to the chant and other matters.  After he had spoken for about fifteen minutes they arose and formed in a circle.  As nearly as I could count, there were between three and four hundred persons.  One stood directly behind another, each with his hands on his neighbor’s shoulders.  After walking about a few times, chanting, “Father, I come,” they stopped marching, but remained in the circle, and set up the most fearful, heart-piercing wails I ever heard—crying, moaning, groaning, and shrieking out their grief, and naming over their departed friends and relatives, at the same time taking up handfuls of dust at their feet, washing their hands in it, and throwing it over their heads.  Finally, they raised their eyes to heaven, their hands clasped high above their heads, and stood straight and perfectly still, invoking the power of the Great Spirit to allow them to see and talk with their people who had died.  This ceremony lasted about fifteen minutes, when they all sat down where they were and listened to another address, which I did not understand, but which I afterwards learned were words of encouragement and assurance of the coming messiah.

When they arose again, they enlarged the circle by facing toward the center, taking hold of hands, and moving around in the manner of school children in their play of “needle’s eye” [a Victorian-era game much like Red Rover].  And now the most intense excitement began.  They would go as fast as they could, their hands moving from side to side, their bodies swaying, their arms, with hands gripped tightly in their neighbors’, swinging back and forth with all their might.  If one, more weak and frail, came near falling, he would be jerked up and into position until tired nature gave way.  The ground had been worked and worn by many feet, until the fine, flour-like dust lay light and loose to the depth of two or three inches.  The wind, which had increased, would sometimes take it up, enveloping the dancers and hiding them from view.  In the ring were men, women, and children; the strong and the robust, the weak consumptive, and those near to death’s door.  They believed those who were sick would be cured by joining in the dance and losing consciousness.  From the beginning they chanted, to a monotonous tune, the words—

Father, I come;
Mother, I come;
Brother, I come;
Father, give us back our arrows.

All of which they would repeat over and over again until first one and then another would break from the ring and stagger away and fall down.  One woman fell a few feet from me.  She came toward us, her hair flying over her face, which was purple, looking as if the blood would burst through; her hands and arms moving wildly; every breath a pant and a groan; and she fell on her back, and went down like a log.  I stepped up to her as she lay there motionless, but with every muscle twitching and quivering.  She seemed to be perfectly unconscious.  Some of the men and a few of the women would run, stepping high and pawing the air in a frightful manner.  Some told me afterwards that they had a sensation as if the ground were rising toward them and would strike them in the face.  Others would drop where they stood.  One woman fell directly into the ring, and her husband stepped out and stood over her to prevent them from trampling upon her.  No one ever disturbed those who fell or took any notice of them except to keep the crowd away.

They kept up dancing until fully 100 persons were lying unconscious.  Then they stopped and seated themselves in a circle, and as each recovered from his trance he was brought to the center of the ring to relate his experience.  Each told his story to the medicine-man and he shouted it to the crowd. . . .  I asked one Indian—a tall, strong fellow, straight as an arrow—what his experience was.  He said he saw an eagle coming toward him.  It flew round and round, drawing nearer and nearer until he put out his hand to take it, when it was gone. . . .  After resting for a time they would go through the same performance, perhaps three times a day.  They practiced fasting, and every morning those who joined in the dance were obliged to immerse themselves in the creek.

The Plains Indians believed the Ghost Dance ritual would resurrect their dead ancestors, as indicated in this Comanche incantation: “We shall live again, / We shall live again.”  (Each tribe had its own chants and prayers to accompany the Ghost Dance, as recorded and transcribed by Mooney in 1894.  As each participant expressed his or her trance experience as a song, there could be as many as 20 or 30 new songs from one dance, to be sung in place of old ones at the next ceremony.  Mooney’s transcriptions of the songs generally include repetitions of each line which, for the sake of brevity, I’ll omit.)  Along with raising dead Indians, who would bring relief from illness and aging, the practice was believed to have the power to annihilate by supernatural means the intruding white people—and their insidious technological culture—as suggested in this Arapaho song:

The  yellow-hide, the white-skin (man).
I have now put him aside—
I have no more sympathy with him.

The rite also could return the land to an aboriginal paradise free of disease, misery, and deprivation, as expressed in this Kiowa verse: 

The spirit host is advancing, they say.
They are coming with the buffalo, they say.
They are coming with the (new) earth, they say.

Wovoka preached that the Indians’ aboriginal paradise would arise only if the Indians danced the round dance “every six weeks.”  They must also share power with the “President of the East,” Benjamin Harrison; coexist peacefully with the dominant white population; and live a morally upright life.  The prophet counselled passivism and patience until God intervened in the Indians’ behalf.  He also promoted the revival of Indian customs abandoned under the influence of the Europeans and cooperation among all Indians, even between tribes that had been traditional enemies—the beginnings of a form of pan-Indianism that would become a political force in the 1960s and ’70s with the rise of the American Indian Movement (founded in 1968). 

(Wovoka’s concept of a supreme being was apparently borrowed from Christianity, as was the notion of a messiah who comes to live on Earth to spread a message of peace and mutual love with the white Americans.  The songs of the Ghost Dance frequently speak of “the father,” as you’ll see, rather than the multiple deities of most Native American religious practices.  One Kiowa Ghost Dance song explicitly references Jesus:

God has had pity on us.
Jesus has taken pity on us.
He teaches me a song.
My song is a good one.

(Some detractors, especially among white Christians, referred to Wovoka derisively as the “Indian who impersonated Christ!” and the man who “proclaimed himself an aboriginal Jesus who was to redeem the Red Man” and fearfully characterized Wovoka’s Ghost Dance movement as “the Messiah Craze.”) 

According to Mooney (1861-1921), who studied the Ghost Dance movement in 1892-93 and observed and interviewed Wovoka, the Paiute shaman “earnestly repudiated any idea of hostility toward the whites, asserting that his religion was one of universal peace.”  Mooney laid out Wovoka’s fundamental philosophy in an 1897 report to the Bureau of American Ethnology (now part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History):

The great underlying principle of the Ghost Dance doctrine is that the time will come when the whole Indian race, living and dead, will be reunited upon a regenerated earth, to live a life of aboriginal happiness, forever free from death, disease, and misery. . . . .  The white race, being alien and secondary and hardly real, has no part in this scheme of aboriginal regeneration, and will be left behind with the other things of earth that have served their temporary purpose, or else will cease entirely to exist.

All this is to be brought about by an overruling spiritual power that needs no assistance from human creatures . . . .

Plains tribes such as the Caddo, Wichita, Arapaho, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Lenape (an east-coast people who were moved to what is now Oklahoma in the 1860s) all agreed that the disappearance of the white people and their civilization would be accomplished entirely by divine means when the earth was returned to the way it had been before the Europeans came.  (Some followers of Wovoka even thought that the new existence would be race-less and that whites, too, would be enveloped in the rapture, but that notion was not part of the medicine man’s epistemology.)  Only the Sioux, impatient to be rid of the oppressors, preached armed resistance rather than waiting for God to deliver the miracle—clearly in violation of Wovoka’s doctrine. 

Nonetheless, the potential power of the dance so threatened the U.S. government that it was outlawed across the Plains and though the original Ghost Dance doctrine as expressed by Wovoka repudiated both war and conflict with whites, many settlers and missionaries, calling it “the Ghost Dance craze,” misconstrued the ritual as a war dance.  Further, because the Lakota version of the Ghost Dance was being used to promote violence against whites, the army was dispatched to suppress it.  It had been the Lakota who’d developed the ghost shirt, which they believed would protect them from any harm, even bullets:

It is I who make these sacred things,
Says the father, says the father.
It is I who make the sacred shirt,
Says the father, says the father.
It is I who made the pipe,
Says the father, says the father,

says one Sioux song, and another specifies:

Verily, I have given you my strength,
Says the father, says the father.
The shirt will cause you to live,
Says the father, says the father.

The Ghost Dance gave to all Indians a sense of hope, but it was especially enticing to the Lakota Sioux who were experiencing terrible conditions on reservations.  Lakota leaders like Sitting Bull had resisted U.S. government policy toward Indians and the assimilation of their people into the Euro-American culture.  Indeed, Sitting Bull, the revered medicine man of the Lakota Sioux, when asked why he remained destitute and cold in Canada where he fled with his people after Little Bighorn (1876) rather than return to the U.S. and live on a reservation under the care of the BIA (to which he would surrender in 1881), answered:

Because I am a red man.  If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place.  He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, in my heart he put other and different desires.  Each man is good in his sight.  It is not necessary for Eagles to be Crows.  We are poor . . . but we are free.  No white man controls our footsteps.  If we must die . . . we die defending our rights.

The Lakota added the ghost shirt to the Ghost Dance ceremony, believing the vestment could protect them from harm.  Mrs. Parker described the shirt as made from white cotton,

painted blue around the neck, and the whole garment was fantastically sprinkled with figures of birds, bows and arrows, sun, moon, and stars, and everything they saw in nature.  Down the outside of the sleeve were rows of feathers tied [by] the quill ends and left to fly in the breeze, and also a row around the neck and up and down the outside of the leggings.  I noticed that a number had stuffed birds, squirrel heads, etc., tied in their long hair. The faces of all were painted red with a black half-moon on the forehead or on one cheek.

The men also wore cotton leggings painted red, some “in stripes running up and down, others running around.”  The ghost dress, fashioned for the women in a style similar to the men’s shirt,  

was cut like their ordinary dress, a loose robe with wide, flowing sleeves, painted blue in the neck, in the shape of a three-cornered handkerchief, with moon, stars, birds, etc., interspersed with real feathers, painted on the waists, letting them fall to within 3 inches of the ground, the fringe at the bottom. In the hair, near the crown, a feather was tied.

White settlers and reservation officials saw the Ghost Dance religion as a threat to U.S. Indian policy and the ceremony and ghost shirts as indications that the Lakotas intended to go to war.  BAI agents called on the federal government to ban the ritual and in 1890, the Bureau of Indian Affairs outlawed the Ghost Dance and the government enhanced its presence on the northern Plains, dispatching the army to arrest key leaders like Sitting Bull, Kicking Bear, and Big Foot in an attempt to halt the Ghost Dance movement.  On 15 December 1890, tribal police killed Sitting Bull while trying to arrest him under BIA orders, and two weeks later, a group of Sioux Ghost Dancers retreated to a site in South Dakota where they were pursued by the 7th Cavalry (the same regiment that was trapped and wiped out at the Little Bighorn, “Custer’s Last Stand,” in 1876), ordered to “disarm the Lakota and take control.”  On 29 December, white fear and ignorance led to the massacre of hundreds of mostly unarmed Lakota Sioux (about 90 men, including Big Foot, and 200 women and children) at Wounded Knee.  This touched off the Ghost Dance War of 1890-91 against the Sioux, perhaps the last of the many Indian Wars in the West starting before the Civil War but gaining frequency and fierceness in the Great Plains after 1860 until the closing of the frontier in the early 1890s.   

The Ghost Dance religion among the Lakota died out after the Wounded Knee Massacre.  Because of the violent misinterpretations of his teachings, plus the death threats from the BAI police force, the U.S. Cavalry, and the white settlers, Wovoka abandoned his active ministry.  He remained involved in religious affairs, traveling even to Washington to meet with presidents and other government dignitaries, and was a respected figure in the Indian community until his death in 1932.  The Ghost Dance movement faded when Wovoka’s prophecies, like those of his predecessor Wodziwob 20 years earlier, failed to materialize and the ghost shirt proved ineffective as protection against death and injury (a claim Wovoka never made), but a few among the believers continued to practice the rite into the 1960s and ’70s as a symbol of resistance to assimilation, the duplicitous treatment of the federal government, and the destruction of Indian culture by the white society.  However short-lived and despite the tragic consequences of its misapplication, the Ghost Dance has had a permanent impact on American Indian life and culture. 

[Principal sources:
·   Binnema, Ted. “Chronology.” The Native North American Almanac. ed. Duane Champagne. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. 1-189.
·   Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. The History of Dance. New York: Crown Publishers, 1981.
·   Ghost Dance [website]. N.d. Http://www.ghostdance.us. 8 June 2014.
·   “Ghost Dance.” United States History[website]. N.d. Http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h3775.html. 8 June 2014.
·   “Ghost Dance.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia [website]. 2 Apr. 2014. Http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_Dance. 8 June 2014.
·   “The Ghost Dance – A Promise of Fulfillment.” Native American Legends [website]. N.d. Http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-ghostdance.html. 8 June 2014.
·   Gill, Sam D., and Irene F. Sullivan. Dictionary of Native American Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1992. S.v. “Ghost Dance of 1870.”
·   Gill, Sam D., and Irene F. Sullivan. Dictionary of Native American Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1992. S.v. “Ghost Dance of 1890.”
·   Leach, Maria, ed. Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Vol. 2. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1950. S.v. “ghost dance” by Gertrude Prokosch Kurath.
·   Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965; reprint Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892-1893. Part 2. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1896. 641-1110.

[Auxiliary sources may also include links to cross references within some of the websites cited.  The passage describing the Ghost Dance at Pine Ridge and the instructions Wovoka gave his followers (from a document known as “The Messiah Letter”) were both originally published in Mooney but are also on the Ghost Dance website.  The transcribed Ghost Dance songs are also in Mooney and some are posted on Ghost Dance.]

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