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Native American Religious Practices: The Ghost Dance

Updated on November 28, 2016

What is a Ghost Dance

The definition of ghost dance is "a religious dance of Native Americans looking for communication with the dead". That's a basic account of a ghost dance, but according to others like, Weston La Barre it was much more. He described the ghost dance as "an international tribal movement, response to the loss of hunting territories, the virtual disappearance of the once enormous buffalo,...a succession of crushing military defeats, new and usually fatal diseases,...all together meaning the breakdown of their whole hunting economy and prowess-warfare, as they were herded onto successively smaller and smaller reservations" (41). This was a religious movement that brought hope to people who had lost everything. It wasn't a violent retaliation or a sign of a war uprising, it gave hope to the hopeless. The ghost dance was a way for the tribes to gain back their land and restore what had been wiped out. In this blog I will be discussing how the movement came to be, the ceremony, and some of the songs sung during the ceremony.

The Ghost dance by the Ogallala [sic] Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency-Drawn by Frederic Remington from sketches taken on the spot.
The Ghost dance by the Ogallala [sic] Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency-Drawn by Frederic Remington from sketches taken on the spot. | Source

Tribal Movements

There were 2 ghost dance movements, both being "a typical crisis cult, and a solution bringing hope to the people" (La Barre 41). The first movement, in 1870, was brought forth by Tavibo or "white man". Tavibo was a Paiute from Walker Valley, which is south of Virginia City, Nevada. Tavibo "had gone into the mountain where he met a great spirit, who told him all the whites would be swallowed up in a great earthquake" (227). When Tavibo went back and told his people, they didn't believe him. It took him 2 more tries of going back to the mountain in order for his people to believe. This was the birth of the ghost dance. The second wave of the ghost dance came with Wovoka in 1890. Wovoka received his vision of a new ghost dance in 1889, when he became sick. "At this time 'the sun died' in a total eclipse, and in a delirium or trance he was taken to see God" (229). God wanted Wovoka to go back to his people and "preach goodness" and to never again proceed in war (229). Both movements were important for giving birth to this wave of hope and giving their people something to believe in.

Wovoka was the creator of the Ghost Dance Paiute. He was a Paiute shaman
Wovoka was the creator of the Ghost Dance Paiute. He was a Paiute shaman | Source

Ghost Dance Ceremony

The ceremony itself was one of universal peace. The ceremony mainly took place in the afternoon or evening because the morning was spent preparing. One preparation, found in a book by James Mooney, involved consecrating the ground. This was done by having one leader sprinkle some kind of sacred powder on the ground while praying. During the Lakota version a tree was planted in the center and decorated with feathers and other ornaments. The Lakota tribe ghost dance was described as follows: "The dancers first stood in line facing the sun, while the leader, standing facing them, made a prayer and waved over their heads the 'ghost stick', a staff about 6 feet long, trimmed with red cloth and feathers. After...he faced the sun and made another prayer, after which the line closed up to form a circle around the tree and the dance begun" (Mooney 178). Among the Paiute tribe the dance lasted 4 nights and on the morning of the 5th day the performance ended with the shaking of blankets and then going to the nearest stream. According to Mooney, "the shaking of the blankets dispels all evil influence and drives sickness and disease away from the dancers" (46-47). Another version comes from an Apache shaman, Nakaidoklin, in 1881. He communed with the spirits and was said to be able to raise the dead. In his vision, "Nakaiodklin predicted that the whites would be driven from the land" (La Barre 228). In his dance "the dancers wheeled around a hub where the prophet stood and sprinkled them with sacred pollen" (228). All these dances were influenced by the movements of 1870 and 1890.

 Burial of the dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee. U.S. Soldiers putting Indians in common grave; some corpses are frozen in different positions. South Dakota.
Burial of the dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee. U.S. Soldiers putting Indians in common grave; some corpses are frozen in different positions. South Dakota. | Source

Wounded Knee

While the Ghost Dance was a religious practice done by the Native American tribes, the Americans saw it as a threat and the battle of Wounded Knee illustrates that. The battle at Wounded Knee occurred on December 29, 1890 near Wounded Knee creek on and Indian reservation. The battle at Wounded Knee was said to be a part of the Ghost Dance Wars. The Americans didn't see this traditional religious movement as a peaceful gathering and instead saw was a threat. They felt that this religious movement would lead to a battle, but instead the events caused by the Americans were what lead to the Indian Wars. "European Americans were alarmed by the sight of the many Great Basin and Plains tribes performing the Ghost Dance, worried that it might be a prelude to armed attack. Among them was the US Indian Agent at the Standing Rock Agency where Chief Sitting Bull lived. US officials decided to take some of the chiefs into custody in order to quell what they called the "Messiah Craze." The military first hoped to have Buffalo Bill — a friend of Sitting Bull — aid in the plan to reduce the chance of violence. Standing Rock agent James McLaughlin overrode the military and sent the Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull." ( This ultimately lead to the death of Sitting Bull in 1890 and the Native American tribes to come together and create this hostile view of the Ghost Dance.

Wounded Knee (Ghost Dance)

Ghost Dance Dress

Songs of the Ghost Dance

Another interesting aspect of the Ghost Dance are the songs sung during the ceremony. When reading these songs I noticed how they were like bible verses. A few spoke to me and were what pushed me to discover more about this religious movement. One song, "Labors of the Spirit", is from the Arapaho tribe and sounds more like a bible verse: "My children, my children / I take pity on those who have been taught, / Because they push on hard, / Says our Father." (Cronyn 51). To me, this sounds like a life lesson that might be taught in a church or bible study class. According to La Barre, many of the earlier Indian cults were mixed with the teachings of Christian religion (44). So the Ghost Dance wasn't entirely Native American traditions, but an example of bringing two religions together as one in order to have peace. When reading these songs or verses I noticed that after some of them there is a line "Says the Father" and it mimics how Christians use 'Amen' after every prayer. Another song of the Ghost Dance is from the Paiute tribe, "Sons of Life Returning": "The wind stirs the willows. / The wind stirs the grasses. // The cottonwoods are growing tall, / They are growing tall and verdant. // A slender antelope, / A slender antelope / He is wallowing upon the ground. // Fog! Fog! / Lighting! Lighting! / Whirlwind! Whirlwind! // Whirlwind! / Whirlwind! / The snowy earth comes gliding, the snowy earth comes / gliding. // There is dust from the whirlwind, / There is dust from the whirlwind, / The whirlwind on the mountain. // The rocks are ringing. / The rocks are ringing, / They are ringing in the mountains." (Cronyn 53-54). This song reads like a poem, in that when I read it I can picture all of these things happening in my head. It's a spiritual experience having nature react all around you. All the songs of the Ghost Dance have their own significance and are important to the religion.

Ghost Dance

An End to a Movement

Today, "among most of the tribes the movement is already extinct, having died a natural death, except in the case of the Sioux" (Mooney). It's a shame to read about something so spiritual and knowing that you will probably never be able to get the visual experience. Among the ones who no longer practice are the Shoshoni, they lost faith after failed predictions, the Sioux, their faith ended after Wounded Knee, and the Paiute. The Kiowa have taken up the dance again and tribes in Oklahoma have made it a part of their tribal life (200). "The Ghost Dance was a fluid religion that evolved as it spread, and several distinct movements arose as descendants of the original Ghost Dance." (


Cronyn, George W. ED. Native American Poetry. New York, Dover Publications 2006.

La Barre, Weston. The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion. New York: Dell, c1972, 1978.

Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and The Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Chicago, University of Chicago Press 1965.


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