Research: Ghost Dancers

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Written by: Lori Soard
Date: 2002

In the late 1880’s, many Indians on reservations began to perform a new kind of dance. They had unusual visions in which Jesus Christ met with ancient Indian spirits. They believed their chanting and dancing would cause the return of the buffalo, raise their warriors from the dead and bring back their traditional way of life-causing the disappearance of whites. Life on the Indian reservations in the 1880’s was full of suffering. The Sioux were told to farm the land but were not taught how or given proper tools. In addition, droughts and scorching summer winds shriveled the crops and caused their livestock to die. To the Sioux, who believed the earth was sacred and should not plowed, planted or used for profit, this struggle for survival was upsetting.

To survive they had to depend on the government. Often rations of food were late and of mediocre quality. Many died, especially the old and extremely young. Meanwhile, missionaries imposed their religious beliefs on the Indians. Their way of life seemed to be over. Full of hopelessness, the Sioux turned to the Great Spirit for strength to conquer their suffering.

The answer seemed to be a new religion. On New Year’s Day, 1889, there was a solar eclipse. A medicine man of the Paiute tribe in Nevada, named Wovoka, had a vision. He was instructed by God to order his people to stop fighting and live together in peace. He was to train them specific prayers, songs and a certain dance.

The dance would deliver them from their plight. This message of hope soon expanded to include all the Plains tribes. It would also lead to tragedy on the banks of a creek named Wounded Knee. The dance had to be performed by entire tribes to work. It would last two or three days and nights, during which time, the dancers must not take food or water. While performing the dance, Indian men, women and children formed a circle and danced to the right and then left, chanting. They would move faster and faster, chanting louder and louder, working themselves into a frenzy. Then, one would leave the circle and drop to the ground, claiming to have had a vision like Wovoka’s.

This dance became very popular on Sitting Bull’s reservation. The whites became apprehensive, they feared that the chanting and dancing that went on late into the night meant another Indian uprising. More soldiers were sent onto the reservation.

On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was placed under arrest. A shot was fired and the result was the death of Sitting Bull and eight of his people.

A few days later, a similar conflict broke out at a camp at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Soldiers immediately opened fire on the chief, Bigfoot, and whole families around him. At least 153 Indians were massacred on the spot and many more crawled away to die in the snow. The Indian Wars ended at Wounded Knee.

Ghost Dancers

Lori Soard started Word Museum in 1997. She’s a published author and has written thousands of articles over the years for newspapers, magazines and online. She has a PhD in Journalism and lives in Southern Indiana with her husband. They have two grown daughters, both animal lovers their house is always filled with pets.

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