Ghost Dance Religion

Ghost Dance Religion
Ghost Dance Religion

Wovoka (Jack Wilson), a Paiute mystic from Nevada, revived the teachings of Tävibo, a member of the Paiute tribe, following a series of powerful visions beginning in 1886. A short time later, Wovoka began instructing proselytes in the Wanagi Wacipi (Ghost Dance, or the Dance of the Souls Departed), a sacred ceremony designed to hasten earthly renewal for all American Indians, living and dead.

Wovoka’s teachings spread rapidly among a dispirited and hungry people assigned to desolate western reservations. Government officials, frightened settlers, and Christian missionaries responded to the Ghost Dance’s popularity with alarm.

To complicate matters, newspapers flooded the public with exaggerated tales of an Indian Messiah and impending rebellion. The unconfirmed conspiracy allegations later culminated in the murder of Sitting Bull, a respected Hunkpapa chief, and the massacre of 150 American Indian men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in December 1890.

When the Lakota tribe learned about the Wanagi Wacipi in 1889 they dispatched a delegation to meet Wovoka and to join in the dancing. After the delegation returned to South Dakota the following April, tribal leaders convened a council.

To quell any disturbance that the proposed gathering might cause, the government’s Indian agent in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, arrested three of Wovoka’s disciples and detained them until the prisoners offered assurances that no councils would be held. Other Indian agents in the Dakotas withheld rations until the dancing stopped.

The popularity of the ritual led many non-Indian observers to conclude that widespread dancing was a precursor to armed rebellion. Residents of both Dakotas panicked when they learned of the Ghost Dance’s allure. Charles Hyde, a resident of Pierre, South Dakota, informed the secretary of the interior that he had obtained information about a planned Indian outbreak.

Although an investigation later revealed that there was no cause for apprehension, tensions remained high. On 26 September 1890 residents of Mead County wrote to Thomas J. Morgan, the commissioner of Indian affairs, warning that Indians were planning an uprising. Perain P. Palmer, Cheyenne River’s new agent, confirmed that dancers with Winchester rifles were preparing for the arrival of a messiah.

Political leaders took notice when Kicking Bear carried a militant version of the Ghost Dance to Standing Rock in the Dakotas. James McLaughlin, Standing Rock’s agent, expressed grave concern when Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa chief and symbol of American Indian resistance, expressed an interest in the ceremony. Although McLaughlin successfully evicted Kicking Bear from Standing Rock, the dance’s popularity continued unabated throughout the Dakotas.

The Newspaper War

During the fall of 1890 reporters flooded the Dakotas. Rex Alan Smith, author of the acclaimed Moon of Popping Trees (1981), comments that the resulting “newspaper war” inflamed an already unstable situation.

Reporters from the Chicago Daily Tribune, Omaha Daily Bee, Harper’s Weekly, and the New York Times emphasized the hostile nature of the Ghost Dance religion, when, in reality, Wovoka emphasized peace and brotherhood. “War correspondents” who rushed to the scene also paid a Pine Ridge “news factory” to supply them with melodramatic conspiracy stories and titillating rumors.

As a result, reporters on the scene flooded the uninformed American public with outright lies. Local newspapers, especially the Pierre Free Press and the Rapid City Journal, also contributed to the settlers’ unwarranted fears.

In an attempt to stop the hysteria, Charles Moody, editor of the Sturgis Weekly Record, and Elaine Goodale Eastman, a noted educator living in the Dakotas, condemned the “wild and wooly newspaper liars.” Terrified North and South Dakotans, however, ignored the pleas for calm.

By September 1890 the Ghost Dance had also reached the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa communities of the Southern Plains. Newspapers in Guthrie, El Reno, and Oklahoma City also circulated rumors of frenzied dancers, scalping parties, and impending warfare. Not surprisingly, terrified inhabitants responded to the news by requesting military protection.

During this period, however, Thomas J. Morgan was completing a tour of the western reservations. His visits to the Southern Plains convinced the commissioner of Indian affairs that the reports from Oklahoma were grossly exaggerated. A subsequent investigation, which found no evidence of danger, advocated a policy of noninterference until the dancing had stopped.

The Ghost Dance War

Daniel F. Royer, the new agent at Pine Ridge, buckled under the pressure of the escalating crisis. Fearful for his own safety, a frightened Royer informed his superiors that 3,000 crazed Indians were dancing in the snow. Royer and other agents reported that they were at the mercy of “wild and crazy” Indians. Fearing the worst, bureaucrats informed the Dakota agents that President Benjamin Harrison had authorized the use of military force to suppress the Ghost Dance on 14 November 1890.

Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, a former agent at Pine Ridge, rushed to the scene. In his opinion, the presence of armed soldiers only exacerbated the threat of violence. Many dancers, alarmed at the troops’ presence, fled to the security of the Stronghold, a natural Badlands fortress located 50 miles northwest of the agency. McGillycuddy, an eyewitness to the unfolding tragedy, correctly predicted that there would be trouble unless the soldiers immediately withdrew from the region.

On 11 December 1890 Sitting Bull requested permission to travel to Pine Ridge. Rather than allow the Lakota chief to bolster the Ghost Dance’s popularity, General Nelson A. Miles approved James McLaughlin’s request to arrest Sitting Bull, the dance’s “high priest and leading apostle.” Four days later a bungled arrest attempt resulted in Sitting Bull’s murder.

Angry Hunkpapas, fearing for their own safety, bolted Standing Rock and fled to Indian camps along the Cheyenne River in South Dakota. Although Hump, a Miniconjou adherent of the Ghost Dance, had surrendered peacefully on 21 December 1890 at Fort Bennett, Big Foot’s band decided to flee to Pine Ridge.

Major Samuel M. Whitside’s Seventh Cavalry finally caught the desperate band of 370 Indians at Porcupine Butte and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek on 28 December 1890. The next day Colonel James Forsyth gave orders to disarm the Indian camp. During the subsequent search a scuffle ensued, causing a rifle to fire. The soldiers, fearing that they were being attacked, responded with deadly force. When the smoke cleared some 150 Lakota men, women, and children lay dead.

Following the tragedy at Wounded Knee Wovoka withdrew from the spotlight and encouraged the Ghost Dance adherents to travel the “white man’s road.” He died in Yerington, Nevada, on 4 October 1932. Sadly, the jingoism of the “war correspondents” assigned to cover the Ghost Dance in the Dakotas contributed to the bloody episodes of December 1890. The Wounded Knee tragedy was the culmination of thirty years of armed conflict between the U.S. military and American Indians.

Although never completely removed from the public’s consciousness, the Ghost Dance religion and the Wounded Knee massacre received renewed interest during the modern civil rights movement and the takeover of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by members of the American Indian Movement in 1973.