The Ghost Dance originated among the Great Basin Paiute as a religious movement arising out of the extreme social, political, economic, demographic, cultural, and personal stress brought about by the rapid incursion of Europeans and, later, Americans into North America. Anthropologists refer to such movements as revitalization, nativistic, new religious, and/or transformative social movements. As such, they renew past cultural beliefs and practices with revitalizations of selected aspects of these beliefs, while actively adapting them to various non-Native (usually Christian) beliefs and practices. These movements are also not simply religious but also political and social in their scope.
The 1870 Ghost Dance movement was led by the Paiute prophet Wodziwob, who predicted that the performance of a prescribed dance would bring about the disappearance of all Whites, the return of all deceased Natives, and a restoration of a halcyon pre-contact life. This religious movement primarily spread west to California and Oregon. The Ghost Dance of 1890 was a more widespread spiritual movement that originated under the inspired leadership of the Numu (Northern Paiute) Indian Wovoka (Jack Wilson). The dance was taken up by a large number of Native American groups from the West Coast to the Great Plains. (Other Native American religious leaders who lead movements of this type include Handsome Lake, Neolin, Smohalla, and John Slocum.) While the movement begun by Wovoka is best known in English as the Ghost Dance, the Northern Paiute referred to it as the nanigukwa (Circle Dance). Forms of both Ghost Dances continued in California and the western United States and Canada until the 1960s in some regions. There was a brief revival of the dance among groups of Lakota in the 1970s.
The leader of the more influential 1890 movement, Wovoka (“woodcutter” in English) was born between 1856 and 1863. Reputed to have spiritual powers, his father, Numu-tibo’o (Buckskin), born around 1835, and himself took part in the 1870 Ghost Dance movement. Wovoka’s mother Tiya was known as a very hard worker whose work ethic became central to Wovoka’s religious message. At 14, Wovoka went to the staunch Presbyterian home of the Wilson family, from whom he derived his own English name and elements of his religious teachings. Wovoka married an Indian named Tumma, whose English name was Mary. They had six sons, all of whom died young, and four daughters, one of whom was not fathered by Wovoka. Mary Wilson died in 1932, the same year as Wovoka.
Wovoka previously experienced some minor visions, and it was on New Year’s Day of 1889 that he received his Great Vision, reportedly brought on by a severe fever or the shock of a great sound. Wovoka went into a deep trance, “died” along with the sun during an eclipse that day, and returned to life, as did the sun. While dead, he went to heaven, where he conversed with God and saw many dead people who lived rejuvenated and happy lives. During this trance, he was taught the round dance and instructed to conduct it for 3 to 5 consecutive days at a time. He received five songs that gave him power over the weather. Wovoka also claimed he was invulnerable to bullets and reportedly made ice appear on a hot July 4th. Wovoka validated his spiritual power through trances, his control of the weather, and other extraordinary feats. He stressed that his religion was meant for all people and that it was a religion of peace and harmonious coexistence.
Wovoka instructed his own people in this faith and received representatives of over 30 different tribal groups, including the Pawnee, Shoshone, Bannock, Arapaho, and Gros Ventres. He also communicated with these groups by letter. While different groups adapted his teaching according to their own cultural patterns, the prophet instructed all visitors in the round dance, told them to work hard, not to steal or lie, and to be at peace with all.
Despite Wovoka’s message of peace, the Ghost Dance is best known in history as being one of the precipitating factors in the Wounded Knee Massacre. The reconstituted 7th Cavalry was called out during the Ghost Dance on Pine Ridge Reservation and rounded up Big Foot’s band, which was traveling from the Cheyenne River Reservation to Pine Ridge on December 29, 1890. Shooting broke out at Wounded Knee Creek while the Lakota were being disarmed, and a general massacre ensued. Between 270 and 300 women, children, and men were killed.
In response to the massacre, Wovoka told people not to dance any more, lest there be more violence. He remained committed to his vision and continued to act as a religious leader and healer, distributing the paints, bird feathers, and Stetson hats that were central to his spiritual practice.
Modern descriptions of the Ghost Dance movements of 1870 and 1890 rely on critical reading of contemporary newspaper accounts of the dance, as well as on missionary correspondence and journals, transcribed Native accounts, documents by Indian agents on the various reservations, and military reports. (With the exception of James Mooney, no anthropologist directly observed these ceremonies or interviewed Wovoka or other participants.) Beyond describing the dance and relating a sequence of historical events, anthropologists attempt to understand the dance from the Native and non-Native perspectives, and they employ ethnohistoric and symbolic analysis in discussions of the causes of the dance movement. Finally, anthropologists restudy the descriptions and theories generated by their own predecessors to correct the historical record and better understand the social processes and symbolic meanings involved in the Ghost Dance.
In considering any interpretation of the dances, keep in mind that culture is engaged in by individuals, not just groups. Not all Indians would have participated in a local Ghost Dance. Groups and the individuals within them varied in their understanding of the dance. Some groups, such as the Navajo, did not engage in the dance at all because the dead were considered malevolent and not to be summoned back for contact with the living. Wovoka himself felt that some people misinterpreted his teachings.
James Mooney of the Bureau of American Ethnology wrote one of the earliest and most comprehensive accounts of the Ghost Dance. He personally visited Wovoka in 1892, participated in one of the dances, and interviewed many people who had taken part in this movement. Michael Hittman is the main biographer of Wovoka and chronicler of the Ghost Dance religion. Shelley Osterreich created a helpful annotated bibliography on the Ghost Dance. Alice Kehoe provides broad historical and cultural contexts for this religious phenomenon, and Raymond DeMallie provides an example of an analysis of the Ghost Dance in the specific context of Lakota culture.
- DeMallie, R. J. Jr. (1982). The Lakota Ghost Dance: An ethno-historical account. Pacific Historical
- Review, 51, 385-405. Hittman, M. (1997). Wovoka and the ghost dance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Kehoe, A. B. (1989). The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and revitalization. Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Mooney, J. (1991). The Ghost-Dance religion and the Sioux outbreak of 1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Osterreich, S.A. (1991). The American Indian Ghost Dance, 1870 and 1890: An annotated bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.