Native American History: Ghost Dance

A mysterious and often misunderstood Native American ritual, the Ghost Dance once inspired fear among white Americans during the late 19th century.

…but, this ominous spirit dance actually began as a nonviolent religious movement called "fight no one and hate no one".

Origins of the Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance movement was born from a vision of the Paiute prophet, Wovoka. He prophesied that this dance would bring peace and happiness to the devastated Indian tribes - disease had ravaged the Indian population and their numbers were decimated; many of their land treaties with the white settlers had been broken and the Native American people were forcefully relocated to reservations…they had been stripped of their land, their culture, and their freedom.

A hope for peace
During this time of profound misery, Wovoka began to practice and teach the Indian tribes this spirit dance to give them hope and help them overcome their pain and suffering.

It was believed the dance would incite a great apocalypse and ultimately lead to a peaceful end of the white American expansion, the preservation of the Native American culture, and the return of the buffalo.

The Lakota version of the dance
As the dance spread throughout the Plains Indian tribes of the West, each began to fuse elements of the ritual with their own beliefs. Although violence and rebellion against white Americans was never a part of the Ghost Dance, many Lakota (a once proud warrior society) were willing to die to protect it.

By the late 1800s, countless Lakota traditions had already been banned by the government. It seemed they had few alternatives left other than to use force against their oppressors - from reservation police, government agents, and the military, to white settlers - in defense of their culture and the few traditions they had left.

In reaction to the years of intense battle, loss of land, broken treaties, and cultural restrictions, those Lakota who practiced the Ghost Dance began to make sacred shirts that were believed to be bullet-proof.

Ghost Dance shirts & dresses
Made of animal hide adorned with fringe and feathers, the paintings decorating a Ghost Dance dress or shirt ranged from the very simple to the complex with elaborate designs that represented their mythology, such as the sun, moon, stars, as well as trance-like visions.

This sacred clothing was worn by all believers - man, woman, or child - as an outside garment during the sacred dance, but it was also thought to have been worn at other times under ordinary dress.

The Ghost Dance comes to a tragic end
The Ghost Dance is often linked to Lakota resistance and the white Americans' fear of an Indian uprising. On December 29, 1890, this atmosphere of volatile distrust finally erupted in a bloody massacre - the Ghost Dance ended in tragedy at Wounded Knee.