The Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890

Native Americans performing a Ghost Dance | Image courtesy of Native Americans Online

The Ghost Dance, introduced by the Northern Paiute tribe, was a ceremony that acted as a hope to bring back prosperity and liveliness to all of the natives who had fallen under attacks and displacements from their homelands by white American settlers. These Ghost Dances sought to unify the tribe and bring their people together in the hope of returning to their previous ways of living; it was through this Ghost Dance that a strong connection to the spirit world was maintained. Dating back to its beginning in Nevada in 1869, the Ghost Dance was introduced by the visions of the prophet Tävibo, a Northern Paiute. He spoke of a time when Indians would once again be prosperous and no longer be under the control of white people, claiming that white people would disappear altogether. This would allow native Americans to return to the life they once had before the Europeans came, and their buffalo would once again be plentiful. This was the wish many Indians held, to return and resume to act in their cultural ways with no interruption. Tävibo also claimed that in introducing the Ghost Dance, he had spoken to their deceased ancestors. He claimed that it was these dead family members who contrived and shaped the dance into a circular performance dance ceremony. This supposed interaction with the dead and their overall influence on the living is how the name of the practice came to be called the Ghost Dance. The dance grew in popularity as it spread throughout the land, over the great plains to Nevada and California, and even to Oregon.1

Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson | Image courtesy of Native American Netroots

During the following years, other prophets emerged, but the Ghost Dance did not continue to see widespread appeal until the appearance of another prophet, said to be Tävibo’s son. His name was Wovoka, but he was also known as Jack Wilson. Wovoka was born into the Northern Paiute tribe, but at age fourteen his father died. This left Wovoka to be raised by a white family, on the nearby ranch. By joining David Wilson’s family, Wovoka worked on the ranch and was given the name of Jack Wilson. He become accustomed to many new ways, such as the English language and the Christian religion. While he lived under this new household for years, as he became an adult he rejoined the Paiute tribe. In time, he too was said to experience visions from a higher power, or supreme being, and he spread his teachings among the tribe. Wovoka preached that his people should learn to live peacefully, for the time being, with the newcomers. Just as Tävibo had done, Wovoka also introduced dances and songs thought to have been passed on from their Indian ancestors. Wovoka expressed that if these ceremonies were performed, and if they exhibited their practices of peace, then their land too would become free of white people. Not only would a banishment of the white Americans come, but Wovoka also claimed there would be a resurrection of the deceased, and that all would be reunited with those who had passed.2

The dance would last for four days; it was a round dance that united the entire tribe. During the dance some would take fans that were woven from the wings of eagles and fan those partaking in the round dance. This act was said to put the dancers into a trance, and while submerged, those in the trance would see their relatives who had passed on to the afterworld. The dancers would see them in a place of complete serenity. The lives they were living were the ones of the past where all were happy and under no oppression, with the supply of buffalo easily at hand.3

Those who followed the teachings of Tävibo were not necessarily followers of Wovoka. But in contrast to that, the Ghost Dance was welcomed among the Plain tribes across many states, including Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, and the Dakotas. The words and practices of Wovoka reached as far as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Wichita, Caddo, and Apache tribes. The numbers of those participating in a single ceremony often exceeded three thousand, as groups gathered to dance every night for two weeks during a single Ghost Dance. The greatest influence reached the Lakota Sioux, who brought the dance into practice. Wovoka was consulted and listened to by the Sioux, and they took his message to heart. By 1890, Wovoka was speaking of the Ghost Dance bringing about the resurrection of their deceased ancestors. He also claimed that herds of buffalo would return in abundance, and that whites would not only leave, but would be annihilated by natural disasters, leaving Indians to their peaceful solitude once again. All wished to return to the life before any contact with the Europeans had occurred. The message that the Ghost Dance was trying to fulfill was not of hatred or rebellion, but one of returning their people to the culture and life they had enjoyed before the coming of white settlers. The Ghost Dance gave them hope that such times were yet to come. These tribes were suffering dreadful conditions, which had been forced on them, forcing them to reside in ever narrowing reservations. The Lakota people were the ones who went beyond the dance and even introduced adding special garments to the Ghost Dance ceremony. They began wearing ghost shirts that were adorned with symbols. But these shirts were not only considered a matter of simple decor, but were thought of as pieces of protection. It was a belief of the Lakotas that these shirts would resist harm from coming to them, and that even bullets would not penetrate these shirts.4

This is one of the four “Silverblade” novels, by Joseph Badger. The novels followed Silverblade, a half-blood Shoshone, and his knowledge of the Ghost Dance | Image courtesy of River Campus Libraries, The Ghost Dance in Popular Culture: Jacob Goldstein

As more white citizens became aware of the Ghost Dance ceremonies being practiced by tribes around them, they sensed a threat by them and became alarmed. The U.S. Indian Policy, more specifically The Dawes Act, was believed to have been under attack by these dances and it created a fear among the white people of an uprising from the Indians. It is even said that officials, especially those who ran the reservations, saw that a war was being ignited by the Lakotas. Even the act of wearing the decorated shirts in practice of the dance fomented the idea that the Lakotas were forming and instigating the makings of a battle. In fear, the officials of the reservations called on the United States government. The president at the time, Benjamin Harrison, responded by sending the U.S. Army down to these reservations to stop the threat, hoping to end the potential conflict that was believed to be rising between the Indians and whites. This resulted in Indian leaders, such as Sitting Bull, being arrested and, unfortunately in this act, killed.5

On December 23, 1890, the Miniconjous Lakotas fled and escaped their reservation village after being struck with fear. From the words of John Dunn, a local squatter, the military had planned to take the Lakota men and deport them to an island in the Atlantic Ocean. With this news, the Miniconjous Lakotas ran, but after five days, the tribe was found by the Seventh Cavalry, who were sent to intervene. The Lakotas were sent to reside in confinement on Wounded Knee Creek. By the next morning, December 29, Colonel James W. Forsyth ordered that the tribe surrender all firearms. In back and forth arguments, some Lakotas engaged in the songs of the Ghost Dance. Once again, the Ghost Dance was interpreted as a threat. Some Indians began throwing handfuls of dirt in the air, and this was seen as a signal of attack. This ignited the soldiers who were supervising the reservations. In a quarrel over a rifle, Black Coyote refused to surrender his gun to a soldier who had demanded it. During the tug of war and struggle to get the gun, it accidentally fired. Because of this sudden shot, troops opened fire because they were under the assumption that they were indeed under attack and needed to regain order. The Lakotas, who had no weapons, did all they could do to flee the situation. The military fired their weapons and chased down all that attempted to escape, killing along the way. The gunfire continued for hours as the military pursued the Lakotas. This occurrence became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Between 145 to 300 Indian followers died, many of these victims being women and children. In the attempt to gather all bodies, some were found even three miles away from the reservation. One-hundred-forty-six Lakotas were buried in a mass grave, while the others were gathered and accounted for later.6

The Wounded Knee mass grave | Photo | Courtesy of U.S. Uncut

While the military lost only twenty-five men, it was celebrated among the white people as a success. People believed that the “savage ways” of the Indians may finally be over. The Medal of Honor was presented to twenty individuals for their acts during the massacre at Wounded Knee, as their actions was seen as being extremely heroic. The Wounded Knee Massacre was the final blow to the Indians as this ended the four hundred year conflict between the whites and the natives. In only ten years, the Indian population reached a low of 250,000 people. This massacre resulted in the Ghost Dance ceremonies dying out among the Lakotas, but elsewhere in the plain, the acts continued. In some areas as far away as Canada, the Ghost Dance was practiced well into the 1960’s. The ceremonial Ghost Dance holds a rich cultural importance to all of those who were a part of it. It was an expression of native tribes longing for the return of their happy, prosperous, and unbothered lives before the introduce of white settlers. It shows the practice as being completely connected with ones spirituality, in that it reunites members to those who have passed. It highlights how important culture is to native Indians by the acts of dancing, singing songs, and the clothing they put on their bodies. The true purpose of these Ghost Dances was to inspire hope, and it continues to do so in that it shows that even today this Indian culture should not die out as time progresses.


  1.  Encyclopedia of The Great Plains, 2011, s.v. “Ghost Dance,” by Todd M. Kerstetter.
  2.  Encyclopedia of The Great Plains, 2011, s.v. “Ghost Dance,” by Todd M. Kerstetter.
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 1995, s.v. “Wovoka,” by Ronald W. Long.
  4.  The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, 2009, s.v. “Ghost Dance,” by Gloria A. Young.
  5. The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, 2009, s.v. “Ghost Dance,” by Gloria A. Young.
  6.  Encyclopedia of The Great Plains, 2011, s.v. “Wounded Knee Massacre,” by John E. Carter.

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50 Responses

  1. Native American culture has always fascinated me; they are perhaps one of the most ignored and disenfranchised group of people in the United States, yet always approach difficult situations from a calm and peaceful perspective; and when your land has been ripped away from you by force, and your brethren massacred, that’s a lot easier said than done.
    I knew about certain Native rituals, but never heard much about this Ghost Dance. It’s certainly interesting to see how Native Americans had their views of the apocalypse/redemption and prophecy.

    I think it’s important to learn that have been displacing each other from lands from the beginning of time; it’s not something that’s exclusive to America. However, that doesn’t make such atrocities any less disgusting and horrible. What the United States did to the indigenous peoples is unforgivable.

  2. I enjoyed the article . I am trying to find out who Red Fish was and the names of the Shamen were that were present at the Knee. Do you know where I might find this info? Thank you, Rev. Debra Marshall

  3. This article did a good job of showing that as a species we have difficulty understanding what we don’t know. In this case, the neighboring areas believed that the Ghost Dance was a threat and a call for war, without understanding the culture of the Natives and what the Ghost Dance really was. A dance of hope led to conflict and the unnecessary loss of life.

  4. This was a great read thank you. My grandfather is Native American and I love hearing stories and reading about their history. This was a great article on the wounded knee massacre and indians. It is horrific to see how the easily different cultures and misunderstandings can turn into disasters. . The Wounded Knee Massacre is, still today, a stain on American History. The indians were just trying to keep their traditions and culture alive.

  5. Nice article. Wavoka and his father seemed to be quite influential leaders in the native american tribes of the second half of the nineteenth century. Their message that one day the whites would disappear and buffalo would be plentiful again was such a message of hope. It is no wonder that they both had so many followers. However, in the end they lost their lives and their land which just so sad because all they wanted to do was go back to the way things were.

  6. It is horrific to see how the easily different cultures and misunderstandings can turn disastrous. The Wounded Knee Massacre is, still today, a stain on American History. The author did a good job portraying the events, actions, and miscommunications that led to this tragedy. While I cannot see a main character protagonist in the story, since Wovoka did not remain in the rest of the story, I think the protagonist in this story is simply those who practice the Ghost Dance. This unifies all the Native American tribes discussed in the story under one banner that many can root for in this day and age of understanding and ethnical equality.

  7. I read a book called “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” which depicted everything that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre, but from the Native Americans’ point of view. It is frightening and revolting that American men were awarded medals for this massacre, even more when Americans have been killing off the Native American population. I like that this article explains the reason that America felt threatened because it gives insight on to how cruel the result of the Ghost Dance was.

  8. According to the teachings of Wovoka, the Ghost Dance ceremony would reunite the spirits of the dead with those of the living, and the power of these spirits could be harnessed in battle with white settlers and the US Army. Though the practice of the Ghost Dance originated with the Paiute tribe of Nevada, it quickly spread to other Indian tribes in the Southwest. Wovoka’s most influential prophecy was that the white man would be forever banished from the land, and that the buffalo, which had been hunted to near-extinction by white settlers, would return and bring with it a lasting revival of the Native American way of life.

  9. Nice article. Native American and White relations has always been quite rocky. I feel bad for the Native Americans. They never asked for the Europeans to come to their land. They had a way of life that worked for them, but when the white settlers showed up, they began to undue their way of life. The massacre at wounded knee was just terrible. The american soldiers fired on unarmed and they were thought to be heroes. Just terrible

  10. This is a really good article about the Indians and the Wounded Knee Massacre. There are billions of people in this world. Then there are also so many different cultures, religions, and traditions that people keep. The Indians were just trying to keep their tradition and happiness throughout their tribes. You really caught my attention with this topic. Good Job!

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