The Ghost Dance Ceremony

In the Shadow of the Seven Stars
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The Ghost Dance
Adapted from Folklife Today article by Stephanie Hall

The Ghost Dance was a spiritual movement that arose among Western American Indians. This movement began among the Paiute in about 1869 with a series of visions of a Paiute elder named Wodziwob. Wodziwob’s visions foresaw renewal of the Earth and help for the Paiute peoples as promised by their ancestors. This followed a period when many people had died as a result of contact with European diseases.

The Ghost Dance was based on the round dance that is common to many Indian peoples, used as a social dance as well as for healing practices. Participants hold hands and dance around in a circle with a shuffling side to side step, swaying to the rhythm of the songs they sing. In a traditional round dance there is a drum played in the center of the circle. But the Ghost Dance ceremony did not typically use a drum. Instead there was often a pole or a tree in the center of the circle, or sometimes nothing at all. The details of the dance varied somewhat among the peoples who performed it.

Frederick Remington's depiction of the Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance among the Oglala Lakota as depicted by Frederic Remington from sketches made at the event, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 1890. Printed in Harper’s Weekly, December 1890. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //

A typhoid epidemic in 1867 may have influenced the birth of this movement. Initially Wodziwob said that he saw some great cataclysm removing all the Europeans leaving behind only Indians, but in later visions he saw an event that removed all people from the continent, after which those who faithfully practiced the spirituality of their ancestors would be miraculously returned. Later still, his vision no longer predicted the destruction of Europeans, but an immortal and peaceful life for those who practiced his spiritual teachings. A ceremony that featured a communal circle dance was central to the spiritual practice suggested by these visions.

On January 1, 1889, a Northern Paiute named Wovoka had a dream during the eclipse of the sun. His prophesy was similar to that of Wodziwob. He said that he saw the European settlers leaving or disappearing, the buffalo returning, and the land restored to Indian peoples all across the continent. In this vision, ancestors would be brought back to life and all would live in peace.

Arapaho Ghost Dance circa 1900
Arapaho Ghost Dance circa 1900

Hearing of the new prophet among the Paiute, representatives from many different tribes traveled to speak with him. Letters were sent by leaders of the movement to other Indian peoples to explain the vision and the ceremony that would help bring about the transformation of the Earth. Leaders of the movement also visited various Indian nations to help teach them about the vision and the dance.

The Ghost Dance ceremony to spread rapidly to many different Indian peoples, mainly in Western states. The spread of the dance between Indians who were normally distant from each other was alarming to the United States Army. While many European Americans viewed the Ghost Dance as a militant and warlike movement, it is better described as the emergence of a peaceful resistance movement based on Indian beliefs; however, it was also a movement of desperation, as the United States government continued to violate existing treaties and Indians in the West were forced onto reservations.

For the Plains Indians, this was a period of starvation as the European settlers continued to slaughter the buffalo, destroying the Indian way of life and gheir main source of food. From an Indian point of view, Europeans were not only destroying the way of life of Indian peoples, but destroying the natural resources of the plains to an extent that would make it impossible for anyone to live there.

The Ghost Dance is associated with one of the great tragedies of American history. In December 15, 1890, during a dispute about a Ghost Dance ceremony, police killed Chief Sitting Bull at Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota. After this, a group of over 300 Miniconjou Lakota men, women, and children led by Chief Spotted Elk left the Standing Rock Reservation to try and reach the relative safety of the Pine Ridge Reservation. They were detained by United States Army at a creek called Wounded Knee and held at gunpoint.

The men were separated from the women and children but as the soldiers confiscated weapons from the men, there was a disturbance and shooting began. Between 150 and 300 Indians were killed, many of them unarmed women and children. The United States Army lost 25 men during the conflict that ensued.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs later attempted to ban the Ghost Dance, which contributed to the widespread belief that the practice had ended. But, in fact, the Ghost Dance ceremony continued to be performed into the early 20th century and some of the songs are still preserved in the traditions of Indians today.

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