Ghost Dance

By the 1880's the U.S. government had managed to confine almost all of the Indians on reservations, usually on land so poor that the white man could conceive of no use for it themselves. The rations and supplies that had been guaranteed them by the treaties were of poor quality, if they arrived at all. Graft and corruption were rampant in the Indian Bureau. In an attempt to stem this problem, 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. This call, however, opened the door to other denominations setting up shop on the reservations. An attempt was made to convert the Indians to Christianity with mixed results.

However, by 1890 conditions were so bad on the reservations, nationwide, with starvation conditions existing in many places, that the situation was ripe for a major movement to rise among the Indians. This movement found its origin in a Paiute Indian named Wovoka, who announced that he was the messiah come to earth to prepare the Indians for their salvation. Representatives from tribes all over the nation came to Nevada to meet with Wovoka and learn to dance the Ghost Dance and to sing Ghost Dance songs.

In early October of 1890, Kicking Bear, a Minneconjou, visited Sitting Bull at Standing Rock. He told him of the visit he and his brother-in-law, Short Bull, had made to Nevada to visit Wovoka. They told him of the great number of other Indians who were there as well. They referred to Wovoka as the Christ and told of the Ghost Dance that they had learned and the way that the Christ had flown over them on their horseback ride back to the railroad tracks, teaching them Ghost Dance songs. And they told him of the phophecy that, next spring, when the grass was high, the earth would be covered with new soil, burying all the white men.The new soil would be covered with sweet grass, running water and trees; the great herds of buffalo and wild horses would return. All Indians who danced the Ghost Dance would be taken up into the air and suspended there while the new earth was being laid down. Then they would be replaced there, with the ghosts of their ancestors, on the new earth. Only Indians would live there then.

This new religion was being taught at all of the Sioux reservations now. Big Foot's band, which consisted mostly of women who had lost their husbands and/or other male relatives in battles with Custer, Miles and Crook, would dance until they collapsed, hoping to guarantee the return of their dead warriors. Sitting Bull greatly doubted that the dead would be be brought back to life. He had no personal objections to people dancing the Ghost Dance; however he had heard that the agents were getting nervous about all of the dancing and were calling in the soldiers on some reservations. He did not want the soldiers to return to kill more of his people. Kicking Bear assured him that, if the dancers wore their Ghost Dance shirts, painted with magic symbols, the soldiers bullets would not strike them. Sitting Bull consented to Kicking Bear remaining at Standing Rock and teaching the Ghost Dance. This began a chain of events that lead to his death on December 15.

As the number of people involved in the Ghost Dance movement increased, the panic and hysteria of the Indian agents increased with it. Agent McLaughlin had Kicking Bear removed from Standing Rock, but this did not stop the movement there. McLaughlin telegraphed Washington, asking for troops and blaming Sitting Bull as the power behind this "pernicious system of religion." The whites stumbled over each other in their attempts to quell this movement. Panicky messages about Indians dancing in the snow, wild and crazy, were sent to Washington. One voice of sanity, the former agent, Valentine McGillycuddy, recommended allowing the dances to continue.

"The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians. If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare the ascension robes for the Second Coming of the Savior, the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege? If the troops remain, trouble is sure to come"

Nonetheless, on December 12, the order was received to arrest Sitting Bull. On December 15, 43 Indian police surrounded Sitting Bull's cabin before dawn. Three miles away they were backed up by a squadron of cavalry. When Lieutenant Bull Head entered the cabin, Sitting Bull was asleep. Upon awakening, he agreed to come with the police and asked that his horse be saddled while he dressed. When they left the cabin, a large group of Ghost Dancers, much larger than the police force, had assembled and challenged the police. One dancer, Catch-the-Bear, pulled out a rifle and shot Lieutenant Bull Head in the side. In an attempt to shoot back at his assailant, Bull Head instead accidentally shot Sitting Bull. Then another policeman, Red Tomahawk, shot Sitting Bull in the head. Many Indian policemen died that day before the cavalry arrived to quell the fighting.

This event then precipitated the events that were to follow at Wounded Knee.

Shop at our online calendar & poster store! We have selected a great group of posters with images of Notable Native Americans, creations of many Native American artists, portraits made by Edward Curtis, and a large selection of other images and calendars.

Imaging and Imagining the Ghost Dance: James Mooney's Illustrations and Photographs, 1891-93 by Thomas W. Kavanagh

Three Noted Chiefs of the Sioux, Harper's Weekly 34, 20 Oct. 1890: 995.

A page on the last Ghost Dance that was held is now available.

Find books on the Ghost Dance.

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© 1995 Karen M. Strom