In January 1889, Wavoka, a Paiute Indian, had a revelation during a total eclipse of the sun. It was the genesis of a religious movement that would become known as the Ghost Dance. It was this dance that the Indians believed would reunite them with friends and relatives in the ghost world. The legend states that after prayer and ceremony, the earth would shatter and let forth a great flood that would drown all the whites and enemy Indians, leaving the earth untouched and as it was before the settlers came to America.
The religion prophesied the peaceful end of the westward expansion of whites and a return of the land to the Native Americans. The first dance was held by Wovoka in 1889. The ritual lasted five successive days, being danced each night and on the last night continuing until morning. Hypnotic trances and shaking accompanied this ceremony, which was supposed to be repeated every six weeks. The ceremony also had rhythmic drumming and introduced many new musical instruments into Indian religious ceremonies.
In addition, both men and women participated in the dance, unlike other Indian religions in which men were the primary dancers, singers, and musicians. Word spread quickly and the Utes, Bannocks, and Shoshone tribes accepted the Ghost Dance. Eventually, the plains tribes also accepted the Ghost Dance movement. The peaceful message of hope was uplifting to many Indians. It gave them a sense of hope that the progress of the white man would be stopped by the will of Nature. While adopting the movement, many tribes added specific customs and rituals that reflected the tribe’s individuality.
The Sioux, for instance, added two specific elements including the use of hypnosis to bring about trances as well as aid in communication with the dead, and Ghost Clothing. There are two specific types most commonly used, the ghost shirt and the ghost dress. Both were believed to protect the wearer from bullets. Sitting Bull, a famous Sioux warrior, adopted the ghost dance into his way of life. He was a respected leader, medicine man, and warrior. His following of the movement alarmed both the military and Indian Agencies. In 1890, just a few months after attending his first ghost dance, Sitting Bull was killed while resisting arrest.
His followers fled and joined Kicking Bull, one of the first to Practice with Wovoka. Donning their ghost shirts and with their beliefs firm in their hearts, the followers of the ghost dance were rounded up at Wounded Knee creek and killed while resisting arrest. Hundreds of Sioux were killed, including women and children, all wearing their ghost shirts, that unfortunately, did not make them immune to the bullets of the military and Indian Agencies. The ghost dance continued to be practiced in more southern tribes, but at the end of the movement came with the deaths at Wounded Knee.
The hopes of the Indians also ended at that massacre. Many of Wovoka’s ideas and concepts were adopted by Peyote cults and can be found in practice today. Indian tribes did not survive the push of the white man. Broken up and with broken dreams, the tribes were shuffled onto reservations and lost many of their customs and rituals. The Ghost Dance was one of those customs lost, but never forgotten. Resurrected from the past, the Ghost Dance and other tribal beliefs are brought together in the education of our nation.