Ghost Dance

From Academic Kids

This article deals with the Native American spiritual movement known as the Ghost Dance. For the novel of the same name by John Norman, see Ghost Dance (novel).

Missing image
The Ghost Dance by the Ogalala Lakota at Pine Ridge

The Ghost Dance, also known as the Ghost Dance of 1890, as noted in historical accounts, is a millennialistic spiritual movement among Native Americans that began toward the end of 1888 and reached its peak just before the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Although the religion is still practiced, it enjoyed only a short period of popularity.



The movement began with a dream by Wovoka (named Jack Wilson in English), a Northern Paiute, during the solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. He claimed that, in his dream, he was taken into the spirit world and saw all Native Americans being taken up into the sky and the Earth opening up to swallow all Whites and to revert back to its natural state. The Native Americans, along with their ancestors, were put back upon the earth to live in peace. He also claimed that he was shown that, by dancing the round-dance continuously, the dream would become a reality and the participants would enjoy the new Earth.

His teachings followed a previous Paiute tradition predicting a Paiute renaissance, his message varied somewhat, and it contained much Christian doctrine. He told his followers that since Jesus was upon the earth already, they should dance the dance and that, although he did not know if the resurrection would be in the winter or the spring, it would be soon. He also told them to remain peaceful and keep the reason for the dance secret from the Whites.

Wovoka's message spread quickly to other Native American peoples and soon many of them were fully dedicated to the movement. BIA agents grew disturbed when they became aware that so many peoples were coming together and participating in a new and unknown event.

When the dance spread to the Lakota, the BIA agents became very alarmed. They claimed that the Lakota developed a militaristic approach to the dance and began making "ghost shirts" they said would protect them from bullets. They also spoke openly about why they were dancing. The BIA agent in charge of the Lakotas eventually sent the tribal police to arrest Sitting Bull, a leader respected among the Lakotas, to force him to stop the dance. In the struggle that followed, Sitting Bull was killed along with a number of policemen. A small detachment of cavalry eventually rescued the remaining policemen. Following the killing of Sitting Bull, the United States sent the Seventh Cavalry to "disarm the Lakota and take control". During the events that followed, many Lakota were killed and several soldiers died. The Lakota allege that this was a massacre rather than a battle, and that the soldiers shot unprovoked.

When it became apparent that ghost shirts did not protect from bullets and the expected resurrection did not happen, most former believers quit the Ghost Dance. Wovoka, disturbed by the death threats and disappointed with the many reinterpretations of his vision, gave up his public speaking. However, he remained well-respected among his followers and continued his religious activities. He traveled and received visitors until the end of his life in 1932. There are still members of the religious movement today.

Paiute foundational traditions

The Paiute tradition that lead to the Natdia (Ghost Dance) began in the 1870 in the Western Great Basin from the visions of Wodziwob (Gray Hair) concerning earth renewal and the reintroduction of the spirits of ancient Numu (Northern Paiute) ancestors into the contemporary day to help the Numu.

This movement continued with additional revelation to a Paiute known as Wovoka (Woodcutter) during a solar eclipse. Central to the Natdia religion was the dance itself - dancing in a circular pattern continuously - which induced a state of religious ecstasy.

Practices and principles

The dance as envisioned by Wovoka: "When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. ...I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat." He also told the dancers to remain peaceful, work for the Whites, be truthful, and abstain from alcohol.

The Natdia, it is claimed, brings about renewal of native society and decline in the influence of the Whites. In essence, it is said to heal the earth and to heal all the people of the four worlds, that is, red, black, white, and yellow.

Believers in the Ghost Dance spirituality are convinced that performing the Ghost Dance will eventually reunite them with their ancestors coming by railway from the spirit world. The ancestor spirits, including the spirit of Jesus, are called upon to heal the sick and to help protect Mother Earth. Meanwhile, the world will return to a primordial state of natural beauty, opening up to swallow up all other people (those who do not have a strong spirituality based upon the earth). The performers of the Ghost Dance theoretically will float in safety above with their ancestors, family, and peoples of the world who follow the extensive spirituality.



  • Download recording Ghost Dance and "gambling song" from the Paiute and Arapaho from the Library of Congress' Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry Collection; performed by James Mooney (possibly along with Charles Mooney; neither are believed to be Native Americans) on July 5, 1894

See also

Movements with similarities

  • The Fists of Righteous Harmony was a Chinese movement, reacting against Western colonialism who also believed in magical clothing.
  • The Melanesian Jon Frum cargo cult believed in a return of their ancestors brought by Western technology.
  • The Spanish Carlist troops fought against secularism and believed in the detente bala, pieces of cloth with an image of the Holy Heart of Jesus, that would protect them against bullets.


  • Bailey, Paul. Wovoka, the Indian Messiah. Westernlore Press; Los Angeles, 1957.
  • Du Bois, Cora. The 1870 Ghost Dance. University of California Press; Berkeley, 1939.
  • Osterreich, Shelley Anne. The American Indian Ghost Dance, 1870 and 1890. Greenwood Press; New York, 1991.

External links



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