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Ghost Dance Spooked the US Government

Updated on February 25, 2014

The Spirit Dance was depicted in art and photographed

This art rendition depicts the Spirit Dance that has Indigenous and Christian roots.
This art rendition depicts the Spirit Dance that has Indigenous and Christian roots.
Here is an old photo of a couple of Spirit Dancers. These dancers were anticipating the arrival of paradise as understood by the First Nations.
Here is an old photo of a couple of Spirit Dancers. These dancers were anticipating the arrival of paradise as understood by the First Nations.

The Spirit Dance moved an entire nation

What came to be known as the ghost dance originally came from diverse sources and was called variably, the spirit dance, the circle dance and prophet dance. It is to be distinguished from the Sun Dance as this is an entirely different dance where braves to be only participated as opposed to the circle dance celebrating the solar passage where all participated. What we do know is that in one occasion, the practice of the ghost dance lead to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 in what was to be the last great “Indian War”. There were many spirit dances held before this, and the prophet Wovoka, a Paiute medicine man and spiritual leader, sought the path of love and unity between First Nations and whites in a universal brotherhood. This may have been a last desperate measure in a losing battle. He claimed that if the First Nations peoples followed this path and avoided violence, bloodshed and self mutilation, that the ancestors would come back and the world would transform to a paradise where there was food, health, youth, peace and love for all. Sentiment notwithstanding, the path of history was to be otherwise, especially at Wounded Knee. It has since remained a living hell for many First Nations peoples who languish in reservation concentration camp conditions. The spirit dance itself was a celebration of the path of the sun and a way of connecting the living people with their dead ancestors. This is perhaps the reason it became degenerated into the term “ghost dance” as celebrations included five days of non stop circle dancing to singing and drumming. The fact that the spirit dance became known to many as the ghost dance, was an unfortunate turn of events that spooked the US government into an act of atrocity seldom equaled then and since.

Prior to this tragic turn, wars, disease, the destruction of the food base in some instances and forced relocation had its psychic shock on many First Nations and reduced many to a state of mental trauma. This reduced many people into a state of lassitude and torpor that we can see manifested even today in a lot of the First Nations' descendants. The various turns of war over the previous century in particular caused tremendous confusion and chaos in the various nations. Decimation from diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza and even the common cold hit hard, especially in nations like the Huron that suffered devastating losses to smallpox alone. Other nations suffered when wars drove them to complete extinction before the eyes of neighbors. The destruction of the plains nation's food base was yet another huge shock. Shock like this is commented on by Velikovsky of all people when he wrote “Mankind in Amnesia”. We saw something like this unfold right after the Malaysian Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami. People that survived were in a state of shock, wandering aimlessly like what is depicted for zombies in the popular movie lore and the zombie march today. Considering the extent and prolonged agonies of the First Nations, it is thus not surprising that they now are for the most part in a state of psychic shock, which has passed down through the generations, manifesting in a host of ways. In fact, we are now aware enough of this phenomenon that it has been incorporated as a tool of war in the “shock and awe” doctrine and was expressed in Desert Storm in Iraq.

After the medicine man Wovoka started the movement, there were apostles, Porcupine of the Cheyenne along with Sitting Bull of the Arapaho people, who brought the teachings of the Pale Prophet, Kanichi ta Kanichi wa to the First Nations people. They told of a Pale Prophet that had appeared to the people present at the Spirit Dance. They brought his teachings to the other tribes that lived upon the Great Plains as well.

The last memory associated with the Spirit dance that got translated to “Ghost Dance” that contemporary history leaves us with is the tragic occurrence at Wounded Knee. A few days before Christmas, hundreds under Chief Big Foot, comprising some 350 people, mostly women old men and children, were on a pilgrimage. This was a peaceful journey to participate in the sacred ceremony they called the Spirit Dance. Forms of it had been practised for centuries without trouble. On their pilgrimage toward the location that was to become known as Wounded Knee, they hoped to bring about peaceful change to a way of life that seemed to be vanishing before their eyes. But peace was to be non-existent as they were all slaughtered. Among the dead was their leader, Chief Big Foot. They never even made it to the ceremony.

Prior to the Massacre, the U.S. Government continued a long standing policy to coerce the Lakota into signing away more of their lands. The large bison herds, as well as other staple species of the Sioux diet, had been driven nearly to extinction, which was in retrospect, was an engineered famine under the auspices of the Indian Removal Act enacted in 1830 by the Andrew Jackson administration. Given this reality, we can see why congress failed to keep its treaty promises then as it still does today to feed, house, clothe and protect reservation lands from encroachment by settlers and gold miners. They also failed to properly oversee the Indian Agents. As a result of all this there was unrest on the reservations that persists to this day and is the basis of recent protests. Prior to Wounded Knee, there was a warning of impending trouble. That warning apparently went unheeded.

General Nelson Miles sent this telegraph from Rapid City to General John Schofield in Washington, D.C. on December 19, 1890, less than a fortnight from the massacre:

"The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing. They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures. The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses. "

During this time of degradation and suffering that news spread among reservations of a Paiute prophet named Wovoka, founder of the Spirit Dance religion. Due to the fact that he was a Christian convert, he had a vision that the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, had returned as a First Nation savior and would raise the dead First Nations believers to life and raise them above the earth in a type of rapture. At this time the white man would disappear from First Nations' lands, the bison herds and all the other animals would return in abundance and the ghosts of their ancestors would return to earth. It is the last bit that put the word "Ghost" in "Ghost Dance". They would then return to earth to live in peace in a new paradise earth. This sounds remarkably similar to many other Christian sect beliefs among white and black Christians that held apocalyptic rapture beliefs. Many apocalyptic seminars are built on this same idea today and this has been prevalent since the 1970s. In the late 1880s, this belief thought that this would all be brought about by performance of the "Spirit Dance". While performing the Spirit Dance, they would wear special Spirit Dance shirts, which they believed to be bulletproof, to their later misfortune. Had it been done after the 1960s this could have been true if they wore Kevlar. We see this rapture belief today in many Christian sects, some of which even believed that Jesus would return in a flying saucer to collect and take them to heaven. The fact remains, is that even among Christians, there is a problem of alienation and difference that leads to tragic wars, such as in this case of Christian whites against Christian First Nations.

The sight of the many Great Basin and Plains nations performing the Spirit Dance alarmed some white settlers nearby. Among these was the “Indian” Agent at the Standing Rock Agency where Chief Sitting Bull lived. US officials at the encouragement of the settlers and agent decided to take some of the various chiefs into custody in order to derail the "Messiah Craze." The military's original plan was to have Sitting Bull's friend Buffalo Bill assist the plan to reduce the chance of violence. Standing Rock agent, Royer, who lacked experience in First Nation affairs, overrode the military protocol and sent in the Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull.

On December 15, 1890, 40 First Nations policemen arrived at Chief Sitting Bull's house. They arrested and restrained him. Anxious crowds then gathered outside the house to protest the arrest. The first shot rang out when Sitting Bull tried to pull away from his captors. The fired shot killed the officer who had been restraining Chief Sitting Bull. Additional follow up shots were fired, killing eight of Sitting Bull's supporters and six policemen. After Sitting Bull's death, 200 members of the Hunkpapa band, who became fearful of reprisals, fled Standing Rock to join Chief Spotted Elk, later to be known as "Big Foot" and his Miniconjou band at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. After this, Spotted Elk and his band, along with 38 Hunkpapa left the Cheyenne River Reservation on December 23. They made a journey to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to seek shelter with Chief Red Cloud.

Less than a week went by and the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred on December 29, 1890 near Wounded Knee Creek a.k.a. in Lakota as “Cankpe Opi Wakpala”. This was on what was to become known as the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. During the day before, a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Major Samuel M. Whitside intercepted Big Foot's band of the Miniconjou and 38 Hunkpapa Lakota near Porcupine Butte. They escorted the group 5 miles westward to Wounded Knee Creek where they made camp. The rest of the 7th Cavalry Regiment arrived led by Colonel James Forsyth and surrounded the encampment armed four Hotchkiss guns.

During the following morning of December 29, 1890, the troops went into the camp to disarm the Lakota. One version of events has it that during the process of disarming the Lakota, the deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle claiming he had paid a lot for it. A scuffle over Black Coyote's rifle developed as a result and escalated. A shot was fired, which resulted in the 7th Cavalry opening firing indiscriminately from all sides with the Hotchkiss guns, killing men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow troopers in the crossfire. Those few Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the firing troopers, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire. The surviving Lakota at this turn of events then fled, but the U.S. cavalrymen pursued and killed many who were unarmed. By the time it was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded, mostly women and children, some of whom died later. Other estimates placed the number of dead at 300. 25 troopers also died, and 39 were wounded and six of these also died. It is believed that many troopers were the victims of friendly fire, as the shooting took place at close range in chaotic conditions.

The few that did survive the rampage of the US military, were abandoned to be devoured by coyotes and vultures in the freezing Dakota winter. This became part of the “Trail of Tears” that is now forever seared on the psyches and memories of all the First Nation descendants. This was also to have immediate consequences.

After this by historical account, there came a Minneconjou Medicine man who was known by the name of Kicking Bird. His heart was heavy, after seeing many injustices befall his people. He would hence change the nature of the Ceremony into one that was designed to wipe out the white man, and the “Ghost Dance” evolved to become a ceremony based upon hate, drifting to the opposite concept of its original purpose. According to the new expression, the Sioux were going to dance, the cities would roll up like carpets, the bison would return, and the white men would be no more. This was not the Spirit Dance that was brought to Wavoca, and the strange men from the South. This fighting spirit was to spook the US and Canadian governments and the European descendants ever after with each new round of flair up, FBI raids, arrests, shootings, blockades and gauntlet runs. The spirit had indeed been desecrated and little wonder there was a reaction against whites participating in or watching the sun dance and the ghost dance.

In an era of economic chaos and uncertainty, the countries founded on this kind of lebensraum, a new hope is kindling on the reserves. However, the new inhibitors are tenacious, have a tight control over all aspects of life, science and technology against which superstition, censorship imposed from those in control and faith bound ideas cannot stand. Maybe an apocalypse will come, but the way things are shaping up, this is one made by our own hands. There have been natural calamities in the past and it is certain there will be more to come. Perhaps one of these will level current civilization and allow a return to the old ways. In any event, everything will still be bound to nature and the laws of physics and not superstition and cherished beliefs. This is the nature of dialectical materialism and if we are to have a paradise world, it will be made by all of those who work with nature and one another to make it such a place. It cannot come if people are split into haves and have nots, which war against one another due to those who have and will not share with the very people who created something useful out of their work.

Many times in the past there have been egalitarian societies, such as among the Inca. There is thus no doubt that we can achieve such a reality again as long as we change our behavior to match the requirements of such a society of real equals. This cannot come from mere lip service, but of genuine acts of concern for one another. As for my First Nations brothers and sisters, I weep over the tragedies imposed on all sides. The Trail of Tears still exists and affects many peoples around the planet. Let us then resolve to work together to wipe away these trials of tears and make a better world for all; to rejoice at the sheer marvel of existence and life.

Here is a snippet of one of the first films ever on the Spirit Dance

The 1868 Washita Massacre


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    • LillyGrillzit profile image

      Lori J Latimer 

      8 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

      Thank you very much! All honor to The People!

    • syzygyastro profile imageAUTHOR

      William J. Prest 

      8 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      Thanks to Edison, we have one of the few films of actual First Nations ceremonies before it became a tourist attraction.

    • Robwrite profile image


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      I've learned a lot about Indians from these hubs. Thank you. That film "Ghost Dance" was from 1894, by Thomas Edison's studio. It was one of the very first films ever made.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      8 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thank you for a truly impressive series of articles. There is a lot that people can learn from them.


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