The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert, and joining me today is my cohost Sarah Dowdey.

Sarah: Hey, Katie. How are you doing?

Katie: Hey Sarah! Today, we are going to talk about the Ghost Dance.

Sarah: Yeah, the Ghost Dance actually was kind of a dance craze. But more than that, it is a religion.

Katie: So, not a relative of Thriller, then?

Sarah: No.

Katie: Okay. And if you've heard of the Ghost Dance, it's probably in reference to Sitting Bull, but we won't get to that until later.

Sarah: Yeah. It actually started in 1869 with this guy Wodziwob who started up this kind of cult religion that focused on dancing and singing, and it spread to California and Oregon tribes and then died out or was kind of transformed into other cults. And it came back from a guy named Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson, who brought it back I think - is it the 1870s?

Katie: 1880s.

Sarah: The 1880s, among the Paiute. You know a little bit more about his background life, I think, than I do.

Katie: Yeah. He was actually raised by white people from his teens and was strongly influenced by Presbyterians and Mormons.

Sarah: And during an eclipse on January 1st in 1889, he had a vision.

Katie: And it was some vision. He dreamt that he died, spoke with God in heaven, and then became a messenger to spread a dance and millennial message.

Sarah: And if you're seeing some Christian overtones in this that would make sense.

Katie: You are correct.

Sarah: But he also said that the white people would disappear from the earth and all of the Native American dead would come back to the earth and live free from disease and free from all the unhappiness that they were currently experiencing.

Katie: Their lands would be returned, their food supplies, their way of life.

Sarah: There would be game for everyone again. And you have to remember at this time what was going on with Native Americans and the United States government. Things weren't going well, to put it mildly. The Native Americans had been put on reservations and pretty much every treaty that the government made with them was broken.

Katie: Quickly broken. And the government was getting a lot more violent, too.

Sarah: Right. And they would put the Native American tribes on a reservation, but as soon as they decided they wanted that land, they would move them somewhere else. So, they just kept pushing and pushing them to places where things were getting worse and worse. So, at this time, I think -

Katie: Forestry locations.

Sarah: Right. They'd send them to South Dakota, and say, "Okay, farm, and hold up your end of the deal." Well, in some parts of South Dakota -

Katie: They weren't farmers or it wasn't their way of life.

Sarah: And the land might not be so great for farming.

Katie: So, he had this vision and part of the deal was dancing and singing and clean living could hasten the millennial apocalypse, basically, and not drinking alcohol. Basically, abstaining from things associated with the white people.

Sarah: Right. And the actual dance was supposed to happen for five days, and on the last night, they would dance until dawn. They were supposed to repeat it every six weeks. And if you're wondering what the experience was like, it was hypnotic trances and shaking, according to one source I found. Sarah and I both listened to a recording from the Library of Congress.

Katie: Yeah. The recordings we heard seemed to be one male singer. We couldn't tell if there was instrumentation in the background because they were very old recordings and kind of scratchy. But it was mournful and kind of in a minor tune. It sounded appropriate for something called a Ghost Dance and something that's trying to bring back the dead.

Sarah: Most of the lyrics I could find to the songs were all to the father. "Father, come home," or, "Father, here I am," or, "The father will return." So, you just have to picture this group of people who have been oppressed constantly for the past several decades and starvation is rampant at this time. A lot of people are sick. The people are feeling hopeless, and here comes this man who has this vision for them, where their lives will be returned to something wonderful. And the thing about it is it gives them a sense of agency. There are things that they can do to make it happen.

Katie: Yeah. And the songs and dances were actually revealed in the visions, the lyrics, the steps and all that. And dancers would fall into trances, and sometimes they would receive new songs from their own visions and pass those on. So, Ghost Dance ended up spreading quickly and very far.It made it as far as the Missouri River, the Canadian border, the Sierra Nevada in Northern Texas, so emissaries would actually come in and meet with Wovoka to - initially to probably check out what was going on. They might have heard something and might have been a little skeptical initially or just being polite wanting to send an ambassador to him, but would come back firm converts.

Sarah: Um-hum. The government wasn't too thrilled about this taking-back-their-culture thing.

Katie: Even though it was pacifist; we should mention that.

Sarah: It was very much. It was not a militant movement at all. It was something that would happen naturally. I think the idea was that the earth would be set down again, and all the white people would be underneath the surface of the earth.

Katie: The moral code to bring on the millennium vision actually forbade war against Native Americans or whites.

Sarah: Right. The central tenet of it was making peace with the white people because after all, they wouldn't be there after so long because they'd be buried.

Katie: You might as well. But again, the government wasn't thrilled with it. The agents who were out in the field were sending messages back that people were joining up in these big groups, and they didn't know what was going on. In this case, fear of the unknown led to a lot of distrust.

Sarah: Yeah. They did not see the Christian connection to this.

Katie: Not at all. Even though, basically, Wovoka was the Christ. He was considered a messiah bringing a message.

Sarah: He actually performed a self-inflicted stigmata on his hands and feet believing Jesus had come to the Native Americans as a new messiah. So, there was a strong Christian element, but it was still very disturbing to the government.

Katie: Well, they weren't used to seeing people dancing in circles. It was, apparently, very hypnotic to watch, and it was rather frenzied with people falling down and going i nto trances. It wasn't what they were used to. About this point is where Sitting Bull comes in.

Sarah: Yeah, because in 1890, the Ghost Dance reaches the Lakota Sioux.

Katie: The Western-most part of the Sioux tribes.

Sarah: Which coincided with the Sioux outbreak, even though they're unrelated, it kinda happened around the same time.

Katie: It was two Sioux medicine men that actually started the idea of ghost shirts which was not linked to anything Wovoka had thought of. The idea was that if you wore a ghost shirt, you could stop the bullets from white men. This kind of led to an increased militancy and something that was very at odds with the pacifism.

Sarah: Right, because Wovoka wasn't talking about bullets at all.

Katie: No. Bullets were not involved in Wovoka's Ghost Dance.

Sarah: And some people think these protective shirts might have come from Mormons and their ideas of special clothing and that they'd been adopted by this tribe. But they decorated their shirts with red paint and with feathers and ornamentation. But they didn't wear hats or any kind of headdress, which was unusual, because they were trying to repudiate all the white men's trappings, and that was one of them. So, in 1890, a Sioux Indian named Kicking Bear went to visit Sitting Bull at Standing Rock, and he told him all about Wovoka and how many Native Americans were becoming interested in his ideas. He told him of Wovoka's prophecy and about the grass growing and about the game coming back and how it would save the people. Sitting Bull agreed to get involved in the movement and to help the people. This is the point when the government really got involved, and they wanted to stop it because there was this large gathering of people. Some of them are coming to see Sitting Bull. They were planning to do this big dance, and the government agents had had enough.

Katie: Yeah. The Ghost Dance had basically, finally gotten too big for the government to tolerate.

Sarah: And they were afraid it would turn into some sort of militant uprising. And it turned out that they ended up struggling, and Sitting Bull was killed accidentally, as were several police officers. That night, the Sioux banded together anyway to come and do the dance.

Katie: Soon after that, the army started to round up Native American leaders and arrest them. One particular leader who was elderly and ill, Big Foot, wanted peace and brought his band of 350 people to an encampment at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. I don't know if it was an accident; people aren't sure.

Sarah: Yeah. There's a lot of disagreement.

Katie: If this guy's gun just went off - but one of Big Foot's band fired a shot, and all of a sudden, the soldiers were shooting at the group, which included women and children. The men in Big Foot's group went to retrieve their weapons and started shooting, and it ended up just being a huge massacre which is kind of thought of as the last stand.

Sarah: Right. That was December 29th in 1890, and I keep finding conflicting numbers on how many Sioux were killed at Wounded Knee, but it seems to be around 200. There were something like 450 soldiers just opening fire on unarmed women, children and men.

Katie: So, that was kind of the end of Ghost Dancing, too. It didn't really go much further than that. Versions of it continued into the 20th Century, but it was actually more of a stepping stone for some people getting closer to Christianity and some people getting closer to traditional shamanism.

Sarah: And it's interesting because some historians look at this as just a sad time in U.S. history, the conflict between the U.S. government and the Native American peoples, and other people will actually go back and try to say that it's a good example of Native Americans being militant, and therefore, the government was justified in trying to squelch this revitalization of culture. I would say I ascribe to the former viewpoint.

Katie: Yeah, I think so, because this movement started off as something that was completely peaceful and it just got wrapped up in a lot of violence.

Sarah: And miscommunication. One of the government agents at the time - there was only one who stood up for them - she said, "Well, if it was 7th Day Adventists going out and doing their religious things, you wouldn't be worried. But just because it's Native Americans and their religion, you've decided that it means that they're out to get us." And they weren't. She was the voice of reason, and no one wanted to listen to her.

Katie: If you'd like to learn more about Native American culture and check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog, come to the website at

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