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The Ghost Dance War: A Violent Response to Native American Resistance

An infamous massacre followed a Native American religious revival.


  • An 1890 illustration of a Ghost Dance at Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

By the late 19th century, Native Americans in the West were in a desperate situation. The buffalo, which had been integral to many tribes’ and nations’ survival for generations, had been hunted to near extinction. Decades of violent conflict and war with the United States had forced tribes further and further west and onto reservations. And now, a drought was rendering most of their land infertile. Despite all of this, a glimmer of hope came in an emerging religious movement centered on the Ghost Dance. 

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Circular dances were commonly practiced among Native Americans for social and healing purposes. The Ghost Dance specifically can trace its origin back to 1869, when Wodziwob, an elder from the Paiute tribe, had a series of visions. He saw the American continent being cleansed of everyone but those who participated in a specific set of spiritual practices, especially a circular dance. With land restored to the Native Americans, their communities would have peace and prosperity once more.

Related: These Native American History Books Shed New Light on the Past and Present

In 1889, 17 years after Wodziwob’s death, a Northern Paiute named Wovoka had a similar vision during a solar eclipse. He saw the descendants of European settlers disappearing, the buffalo returning, the land being restored to Native Americans, and dead ancestors reunited with the living. Since Wovoka had spent part of his childhood being raised by an American Christian family, many of his teachings were influenced by Christianity. His utopian vision of Native groups living peacefully among the spirits, free from European occupation, was similar to the age of paradise that Christians believed would be ushered in by the Second Coming of Christ. 


Cheyenne and Arapahoe people perform a Ghost Dance at the Indian Congress of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898.

When word of Wovoka’s prophecy got out, representatives from several tribes came to speak with him and the message soon spread across the West. The Ghost Dance became particularly popular among the Lakota Sioux in the Great Plains states. Stories of the rarely-seen buffalo miraculously appearing near a reservation were proof enough to some, and the practice continued to grow in popularity.  

The Ghost Dance involved a group of people forming a circle by holding hands and moving in a clockwise direction to the rhythm of a song. Other specific elements of the dance varied between the tribes who practiced it, as each community added their own customs. The Sioux added elements from their traditional Sun Dance. 

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The dance began with all participants sitting in a circle around a tree that had been cut down and decorated with spiritual offerings. Holy men would stand near the tree and lead a prayer and pass around a sacred drink before the dancers let out a loud cry of sadness. The dancers would then stand and begin to sing without any instruments as they started walking in a circle. The Ghost Dance could go on for hours, with participants only stopping when they collapsed from exhaustion. 

The Last Days of the Sioux Nation

The Last Days of the Sioux Nation

By Robert M. Utley

By the fall of 1890, the Ghost Dance was popular enough that it attracted the attention of US officials, mostly Indian Agents who monitored the reservations. Most Native American cultural and religious ceremonies, including dances, had been outlawed by the US government several years earlier, but that was only one of the many reasons Americans took issue with the Ghost Dance. 

By the late 19th century, the American government wanted the Native American population to assimilate. Many white Americans believed that if Native Americans were “civilized” enough and abandoned their traditional practices, then everyone could live in harmony. This was the height of the Victorian era, so to most Americans, civilized meant restrained, quiet, and Christian. To the federal officials on Sioux reservations, the Ghost Dance, with its rhythmic singing and people collapsing from exhaustion, was none of those things. 

Related: 9 Books to Read for Native American Heritage Month

In addition, the fact that the Ghost Dance was so rooted in Native American customs and the desire to return to their traditional way of life was especially disturbing to white Americans. It seemed to them like a rejection of assimilation and an act of rebellion. In fact, that may have been what made it so appealing to many Indigenous people. The dance was a new form of worship, suited to their current situation, that was very connected to their Native American identities and traditions.


Sitting Bull.

The Ghost Dance was always meant to be a peaceful way to demonstrate resistance to harmful US policies, but that did not stop Americans from interpreting it as a threat. By late fall, government officials were worried enough about the dance that they called for military support. On November 13, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison sent armed troops to the Sioux reservations to snuff out any sparks of uprisings or violence. In total, one-third of the entire US army was sent to Sioux land, making the opposition to the emerging Ghost Dance War the largest military campaign since the end of the Civil War . 

The presence of troops put everyone in the region on edge as orders started to go out to arrest Ghost Dancers. On December 15, police arrived at the home of Sitting Bull, the most famous and formidable living Lakota chief, on the Standing Rock Reservation to arrest him on charges of allowing his people to perform the Ghost Dance. As the police started to take Sitting Bull away, one of his followers shot an officer. In the ensuing skirmish, the police shot Sitting Bull in the head and chest, killing him.

Lakota Woman

Lakota Woman

By Mary Crow Dog

Word of Sitting Bull’s death spread quickly, and Ghost Dancers from multiple Sioux reservations began to flee. One group of over 300 Miniconjou Lakota men, women, and children led by Chief Spotted Elk, sometimes also known as Big Foot, were on their way to the Pine Ridge Reservation when they were stopped on December 28 by US troops and forced to camp along the bank of Wounded Knee Creek. The soldiers already knew the group harbored suspected Ghost Dancers, and subsequently herded them into a ravine where they could be watched from the hills above. 

The next morning, the soldiers began going through the group to confiscate weapons. One man, who was deaf and may not have understood the orders, refused to give up his gun, and in the ensuing struggle, it went off. Even though the shot didn’t hit anyone, the soldiers opened fire into the almost completely unarmed group. The women and children tried to flee, but many were hit by bullets from the machine guns stationed at the top of the hill. 

Three days after the event that would come to be known as the Wounded Knee Massacre , the soldiers returned with a burial party. The night of the massacre, a blizzard had set in, and the bodies of the victims, including Spotted Elk himself, were now frozen. Anywhere between 150 and 300 Native Americans were killed at Wounded Knee. Between 25 and 30 American soldiers died.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

By Dee Brown

In the immediate aftermath, the American government regarded what they called the Battle of Wounded Knee as a victory. Much to the dismay of Native Americans, 20 soldiers were decorated with the Medal of Honor, awarded for acts of valor. The Wounded Knee Massacre largely halted the Ghost Dance practice and the so-called Indian Wars for decades. But the truth is a bit more complicated than that. 

The Wounded Knee Massacre continues to be an important symbol of the violence that met Native American resistance. Most famously, it was the site of an occupation by members of the American Indian Movement in 1973. People revived the Ghost Dance and practiced it for several more decades into the early 20th century. Elements of the Ghost Dance persist in the traditions of several Native tribes today. 

Sources: PBS , Library of Congress’ Folklife Today , Indian Country Today ,

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The Native American Ghost Dance, a Symbol of Defiance

Religious Ritual Became a Symbol of Defiance By Native Americans

Library of Congress / Getty Images

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what caused the ghost dance war

The ghost dance was a religious movement that swept across Native American populations in the West in the late 19th century. What started as a mystical ritual soon became something of a political movement and a symbol of Native American resistance to a way of life imposed by the U.S. government.

A Dark Moment in History

As the ghost dance spread through western Native American reservations , the federal government moved aggressively to stop the activity. The dancing and the religious teachings associated with it became issues of public concern widely reported in newspapers.

As the 1890s began, the emergence of the ghost dance movement was viewed by white Americans as a credible threat. The American public was, by that time, used to the idea that Native Americans had been pacified, moved onto reservations, and essentially converted to living in the style of white farmers or settlers.

The efforts to eliminate the practice of ghost dancing on reservations led to heightened tensions which had profound effects. The legendary Sitting Bull was murdered in a violent altercation sparked by the crackdown on ghost dancing. Two weeks later, the confrontations prompted by the ghost dance crackdown led to the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre .

The horrific bloodshed at Wounded Knee marked the end of the Plains Indian Wars . The ghost dance movement was effectively ended, though it continued as a religious ritual in some places well into the 20th century. The ghost dance took a place at the end of a long chapter in American history, as it seemed to mark the end of Native American resistance to white rule.

Origins of the Ghost Dance

The story of the ghost dance began with Wovoka, a member of the Paiute tribe in Nevada. Wovoka, who was born about 1856, was the son of a medicine man. Growing up, Wovoka lived for a time with a family of white Presbyterian farmers, from whom he picked up the habit of reading the Bible every day.

Wovoka developed a wide-ranging interest in religions. He was said to be familiar with Mormonism and various religious traditions of native tribes in Nevada and California. In late 1888, he became quite ill with scarlet fever and may have gone into a coma.

During his illness, he claimed to have religious visions. The depth of his illness coincided with a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, which was seen as a special sign. When Wovoka regained his health, he began to preach of knowledge which God had imparted to him.

According to Wovoka, a new age would dawn in 1891. The dead of his people would be restored to life. Game which had been hunted nearly to extinction would return. And the white people would vanish and stop afflicting the indigenous peoples.

Wovoka also said a ritual dance which had been taught to him in his visions must be practiced by native populations. This "ghost dance," which was similar to traditional round dances, was taught to his followers.

Decades earlier, in the late 1860s , during a time of privation among western tribes, there had been a version of the ghost dance which spread through the West. That dance also prophesied positive changes to come to the lives of Native Americans. The earlier ghost dance spread through Nevada and California, but when the prophecies did not come true, the beliefs and accompanying dance rituals were abandoned.

However, Wovoka's teachings based on his visions took hold throughout early 1889. His idea quickly spread along travel routes, and became widely known among the western tribes.

At the time, the Native American population was demoralized. The nomadic way of life had been curtailed by the U.S. government, forcing the tribes onto reservations. Wovoka's preaching seemed to offer some hope.

Representatives of various western tribes began to visit Wovoka to learn about his visions, and especially about what was becoming widely known as the ghost dance. Before long, the ritual was being performed across Native American communities, which were generally located on reservations administered by the federal government.

Fear of the Ghost Dance

In 1890, the ghost dance had become widespread among the western tribes. The dances became well-attended rituals, generally taking place over a span of four nights and the morning of the fifth day.

Among the Sioux, who were led by the legendary Sitting Bull , the dance became extremely popular. The belief took hold that someone wearing a shirt that was worn during the ghost dance would become invulnerable to any injury.

Rumors of the ghost dance began to instill fear among white settlers in South Dakota, in the region of the Indian reservation at Pine Ridge. Word began to spread that the Lakota Sioux were finding a fairly dangerous message in Wovoka's visions. His talk of a new age without whites began to be seen as a call to eliminate the white settlers from the region.

And part of Wovoka's vision was that the various tribes would all unite. So the ghost dancers began to be seen as a dangerous movement that could lead to widespread attacks on white settlers across the entire West.

The spreading fear of the ghost dance movement was picked up by newspapers, in an era when publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were beginning to champion sensational news. In November 1890, a number of newspaper headlines across America linked the ghost dance to alleged plots against white settlers and U.S. Army troops.

An example of how white society viewed the ghost dance appeared in the form of a lengthy story in the New York Times with the subheadline, "How the Indians Work Themselves Up to a Fighting Pitch." The article explains how a reporter, led by friendly Indian guides, trekked overland to a Sioux camp. "The trip was extremely hazardous, owing to the frenzy of the hostiles." The article described the dance, which the reporter claimed to have observed from a hill overlooking the camp. 182 "bucks and squaws" participated in the dance, which took place in a large circle around a tree. The reporter described the scene:

"The dancers held on another's hands and moved slowly around the tree. They did not raise their feet as high as they do in the sun dance, most of the time it looked as though their ragged moccasins did not leave the ground, and the only idea of dancing the spectators could gain from the motion of the fanatics was the weary bending of the knees. Round and round the dancers went, with their eyes closed and their heads bent toward the ground. The chant was incessant and monotonous. 'I see my father, I see my mother, I see my brother, I see my sister," was Half Eye's translation of the chant, as the squaw and warrior moved laboriously about the tree. "The spectacle was as ghastly as it could be: it showed the Sioux to be insanely religious. The white figures bobbing between pained and naked warriors and the shrill yelping noise of the squaws as they tottered in grim endeavor to outdo the bucks, made a picture in the early morning which has not yet been painted or accurately described. Half Eyes says the dance which the spectators were then witnessing had been going on all night."

On the following day the other side of the country, the front-page story "A Devilish Plot" claimed that Indians on the Pine Ridge reservation planned to hold a ghost dance in a narrow valley. The plotters, the newspaper claimed, would then lure soldiers into the valley to stop the ghost dance, at which point they would be massacred.

In "It Looks More Like War," the New York Times claimed that Little Wound, one of the leaders at the Pine Ridge reservation, "the great camp of the ghost dancers," asserted that the Indians would defy orders to cease the dancing rituals. The article said the Sioux were "choosing their fighting ground," and preparing for a major conflict with the U.S. Army.

Role of Sitting Bull

Most Americans in the late 1800s were familiar with Sitting Bull, a medicine man of the Hunkpapa Sioux who was closely associated with the Plains Wars of the 1870s. Sitting Bull did not directly participate in the massacre of Custer in 1876, though he was in the vicinity, and his followers attacked Custer and his men.

Following the demise of Custer, Sitting Bull led his people into safety in Canada. After being offered amnesty, he eventually returned to the United States in 1881. In the mid-1880s, he toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, alongside performers like Annie Oakley.

By 1890, Sitting Bull was back in South Dakota. He became sympathetic to the movement, encouraged young Native Americans to embrace the spirituality espoused by Wovoka, and apparently urged them to take part in the ghost dance rituals.

The endorsement of the movement by Sitting Bull did not go unnoticed. As the fear of the ghost dance spread, what appeared to be his involvement only heightened tensions. The federal authorities decided to arrest Sitting Bull, as it was suspected he was about to lead a major uprising among the Sioux.

On December 15, 1890, a detachment of U.S. Army troops, along with Native Americans who worked as police officers on a reservation, rode out to where Sitting Bull, his family, and some followers were camped. The soldiers stayed at a distance while the police sought to arrest Sitting Bull.

According to news accounts at the time, Sitting Bull was cooperative and agreed to leave with the reservation police, but young Native Americans attacked the police. A shoot-out occurred, and in the gun battle, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.

The death of Sitting Bull was major news in the East. The New York Times published a story about the circumstances of his death on its front page, with subheadlines described him as an "old medicine man" and a "wily old plotter."

Wounded Knee

The ghost dance movement came to a bloody end at the massacre at Wounded Knee on the morning of December 29, 1890. A detachment of the 7th Cavalry approached an encampment of natives led by a chief named Big Foot and demanded that everyone surrender their weapons.

Gunfire broke out, and within an hour approximately 300 Native men, women, and children were killed. The treatment of the native peoples and the massacre at Wounded Knee signify a dark episode in American history . After the massacre at Wounded Knee, the ghost dance movement was essentially broken. While some scattered resistance to white rule arose in the following decades, the battles between Native Americans and whites in the West had ended.

Resources and Further Reading

  • “ The Death of Sitting Bull .” New York Times , 17 Dec. 1890.
  • “ It Looks More Like War .” New York Times , 23 Nov. 1890.
  • “ The Ghost Dance .” New York Times , 22 Nov. 1890.
  • “ A Devilish Plot .” Los Angeles Herald , 23 Nov. 1890.
  • History of the Wounded Knee Massacre
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Wounded Knee

By: Editors

Updated: July 7, 2023 | Original: November 6, 2009

A sign at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, South Dakota, where 250 American Indians were killed in 1890.

Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, was the site of two conflicts between Native Americans and representatives of the U.S. government, including the U.S. Army and, later, the FBI. An 1890 massacre left some 150 Native Americans dead, in what was the final clash between federal troops and the Sioux tribe. In 1973, members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days to protest conditions on the reservation.

Ghost Dance and Sitting Bull

Throughout 1890, the U.S. government was worried about the increasing influence at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Ghost Dance spiritual movement, which taught that Native Americans had been defeated and confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs.

Many Sioux believed that if they practiced the Ghost Dance and rejected the ways of the white man, the gods would create the world anew and destroy all non-believers, including non-Indians. On December 15, 1890, reservation police tried to arrest Sitting Bull , the famous Sioux chief, whom they mistakenly believed was a Ghost Dancer, and killed him in the process, increasing the tensions at Pine Ridge in South Dakota .

Did you know? Nearly half of the Sioux killed at the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre were women and children.

Wounded Knee Massacre

On December 29, the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under Big Foot, a Lakota Sioux chief, near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, a fight broke out between an Indian and a U.S. soldier and a shot was fired, although it’s unclear from which side.

A brutal massacre followed, in which an estimated 150 Indians were killed. (Some historians put this number at twice as high.) Nearly half of them were women and children. The U.S. cavalry lost 25 men.

The conflict at Wounded Knee was originally referred to as a battle—the Army troops involved were later rewarded with Medals of Honor—but in reality it was a tragic and avoidable massacre. Surrounded by heavily armed troops, it’s unlikely that Big Foot’s band would have intentionally started a fight. Some historians speculate that the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry were deliberately taking revenge for the regiment’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876.

Whatever the motives, the massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and was one of the last major confrontations in the Indian Wars , America’s deadly series of wars against the Plains Indians and other Native Americans.

American Indian Movement

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968 in an effort to stop police harassment of Indians in the Minneapolis area. Borrowing some tactics from the Vietnam war protests of the era, AIM soon gained national notoriety for its flamboyant demonstrations. However, many mainstream Indian leaders denounced the youth-dominated group as too radical.

In 1972, a faction of AIM members led by Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier sought to close the divide by making alliances with traditional tribal elders on reservations. They had their greatest success on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, after a group of young white men murdered a Sioux man named Yellow Thunder.

Although Yellow Thunder’s attackers received only six-year prison sentences, this was widely seen as a victory by the local Sioux accustomed to unfair treatment by the often racist judicial system. AIM’s highly visible publicity campaign on the case was given considerable credit for the verdict, winning the organization a great deal of respect on the reservation.

Wounded Knee Siege

AIM’s growing prestige and influence, however, threatened the conservative Sioux tribal chairman, Dick Wilson. When Wilson learned of a planned AIM protest against his administration at Pine Ridge, he retreated to tribal headquarters where he was under the protection of federal marshals and Bureau of Indian Affairs police.

Rather than confront the police in Pine Ridge, some 200 AIM members and their supporters decided to occupy the symbolically significant hamlet of Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 massacre. Wilson, with the backing of the federal government, responded by besieging Wounded Knee.

During the 71 days of the siege, which began on February 27, 1973, federal officers and AIM members exchanged gunfire almost nightly. Hundreds of arrests were made, and two Native Americans were killed and a federal marshal was permanently paralyzed by a bullet wound.

The leaders of AIM finally surrendered on May 8 after a negotiated settlement was reached. In a subsequent trial, the judge ordered their acquittal because of evidence that the FBI had manipulated key witnesses. AIM emerged victorious and succeeded in shining a national spotlight on the problems of modern Native Americans.

Trouble Continues at Pine Ridge

The troubles at Wounded Knee, however, were not over after the siege. A virtual civil war broke out between the opposing Indian factions on the Pine Ridge reservation, and a series of beatings, shootings and murders left more than 100 Indians dead. When two FBI agents were killed in a 1975 gunfight, the agency raided the reservation and arrested AIM leader Leonard Peltier for the crime.

The FBI crackdown coupled with AIM’s own excesses ended its influence at Pine Ridge. In 1977, Peltier was convicted of killing the two FBI agents and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, Peltier’s supporters continue to maintain his innocence and seek a presidential pardon for him.

And in 2021, members of the U.S. Congress petitioned President Joe Biden to revoke the Medals of Honor soldiers received for their participation in the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre.

what caused the ghost dance war

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Disaster at Wounded Knee. Library of Congress . What really happened at Wounded Knee, the site of a historic massacre. National Geographic . Warren, Merkley, Kahele Lead Bicameral Letter Urging Biden to Rescind Medals of Honor Awarded to Soldiers who Perpetrated Wounded Knee Massacre. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senate . Wounded Knee Massacre. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains .

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What really happened at Wounded Knee, the site of a historic massacre

In 1890, U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children in an attempt to suppress a religious movement—and were awarded medals of honor for their acts of violence.

In January 1891, a group of U.S. Army soldiers marched past their general for a final review. Though their setting was a windswept, seemingly empty South Dakota valley, it was a festive occasion. Company after company paraded past, observed only by their general and small clusters of the people they had recently subdued.

Just a few weeks before, 500 of these marching men had massacred at least 300 Lakota men, women, and children. Twenty of the soldiers would soon receive the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest and most prestigious commendation, for their actions at Wounded Knee.

More than a century later, legislators and activists are calling on President Joe Biden to revoke the medals awarded to the soldiers who participated in the killings. Once touted as a victory against an intractable enemy, Wounded Knee is remembered today as an outright massacre. 

( Subscriber exclusive: In the shadow of Wounded Knee .)

The origins of the Ghost Dance

The massacre at Wounded Knee was a reaction to a religious movement that gave fleeting hope to Plains Indians whose lives had been upended by white settlement. The Ghost Dance movement swept through Native American tribes in the American West beginning in the 1870s. It was based on a series of teachings by Paiute medicine men, who prophesied that an upcoming upheaval would lead to the eradication of white men from the Earth and the resurgence of Native Americans.

The movement quickly took on special significance for the Lakota people of North and South Dakota. Over the course of a few decades they had lost over 58 million acres of their land, and were forced to share what was left among multiple tribes and bands. By 1889, they had been split into five separate reservations in North and South Dakota. ( Reckoning with a century of trauma at U.S. boarding schools for Native American children .)

The movement’s adherents thought that songs and ceremonies could hasten the coming disaster, bring back their dead, and ensure the restoration of their lands. Lakota believers wore special shirts thought to repel bullets, while some experienced a hypnotic state brought on by the repetitive songs and shuffling, circular mass dances shared by followers.

'We need protection.'

But the Ghost Dancers’ hopes were met with fear from white settlers, who worried the rituals would incite violence against them. Federal Indian agent Daniel F. Royer—jokingly nicknamed “Young Man Afraid of Indians” by the Lakota he had been hired to monitor—was one of them. In December 1890, Royer sent a desperate telegraph from Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands region of South Dakota to his bosses at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

“Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” he wrote. “We need protection, and we need it now.”

American authorities on other Lakota reservations were also worried about the Ghost Dance’s most prominent adherent, Chief Sitting Bull. In 1876, he had led the offensive against the U.S. Army and Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn , popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” in which Custer and all of his soldiers were killed.

Though technically a prisoner of war being held at the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota, Sitting Bull had been given special permission to travel the country as a performer, most famously with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in 1885. But by the time Royer telegraphed his bosses in 1890, Sitting Bull was back at Standing Rock and had indicated he would permit Ghost Dancers to gather in his camp.

The war against the Ghost Dance

Convinced the movement posed a threat to whites, the U.S. Army banned Ghost Dance ceremonies on all reservations in December 1890 and began amassing troops across the region. The federal government had initially planned to have Buffalo Bill Cody try to convince Sitting Bull to make the dancers stand down. But Cody was intercepted enroute by Army officials and ordered to turn back. The U.S. Army now planned to arrest Sitting Bull instead.

On December 15, 1890, about 40 Native American policemen employed by the Indian Agency converged on Sitting Bull and attempted to take him into custody. When he resisted, a skirmish broke out and Bull Head, the police lieutenant, shot and killed Sitting Bull. Some of Sitting Bull’s band fled in the night and headed to join the slain chief’s half-brother, Chief Spotted Elk, at another reservation.

Convinced federal troops would kill more chiefs, Spotted Elk and his allies headed south to Pine Ridge in search of protection. But their pace was slowed by the weather and illnesses. On December 28, they encountered Army troops, who told them to head to Wounded Knee Creek. That night, as the Lakota made camp at Wounded Knee, about 500 soldiers surrounded the 300 or so men, women, and children.

Carnage at Wounded Knee Creek

The next morning, Colonel James W. Forsyth ordered the Lakota to lay down their weapons and told them they would be taken to a new camp. The Lakota assumed this meant they would be moved away from Lakota territory altogether. Some began to sing Ghost Dance songs.

The troops surrounding the Lakota had been taught that the Ghost Dance and its ceremonies were preludes to war. When one of the dancers took dirt from the ground and flung it in the air, the soldiers interpreted it as a signal of some kind and began firing.

The result was carnage. Though they fought back, the Lakota were at a numerical disadvantage and were outgunned, especially by the early machine guns used by some of the troops.

By the time the shooting stopped a few hours later, bodies were everywhere. Most, including babies and women, had been shot at close range. Some of the Lakota dead were found up to three miles away from the camp where the few who fled had been chased down.

The U.S. Army recovered its own dead, but left the Lakota victims to freeze during the three-day blizzard that followed. Before flinging the frozen bodies into a mass grave, many soldiers stripped the Lakota naked, saving their ghost shirts as souvenirs.

Twenty-five Army soldiers were killed during the fighting, many due to friendly fire. Though no reliable record of Lakota victims remains, contemporary historians estimate at least 300 were killed.

Battle or massacre?

As soon as word of the incident got out, people began to tussle over how to define what had happened at Wounded Knee. Forsyth was relieved of his command after the massacre. His conduct was investigated, but he defended his actions and was quickly reinstated. American newspapers that had breathlessly followed the amassing of troops in the Dakotas portrayed it as a necessary battle ; local white settlers celebrated it as a victory over a warlike people.

“We had better, in order to protect our civilization…wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the earth,” wrote South Dakota newspaperman L. Frank Baum, the future author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,  in response to the news.

Meanwhile, Native Americans, Lakota and otherwise, interpreted it as a sign that the U.S. government would stop at nothing to eradicate them. “I did not know then how much was ended,” wrote Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man who survived the massacre. “The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

It would be the last large skirmish in a century of armed conflict between Native Americans and American troops.

Should the Medals of Honor be revoked?

In 1891, the Army issued 20 Medals of Honor to soldiers who had participated in the atrocity.

Over the years, public opinion about the incident shifted as historians dug into the events surrounding the incident. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee , Dee Brown’s 1970 history of how white Americans’ actions along the frontier devastated Native Americans, sold millions of copies and turned Wounded Knee into a household name. And as part of the broader fight for Native American sovereignty , participants in the American Indian Movement called attention to the massacre, including during a 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee in which two activists were shot. ( Learn more about the Red Power movement's fight for sovereignty .)

Wounded Knee became a rallying cry for activists as they pointed out how centuries of land theft, broken treaties, and forced assimilation affected Native Americans. In 1990 Congress formally apologized for the slaughter.

Calls to rescind the medals have grown louder. In January 2021, the South Dakota State Senate passed a bill that called on the U.S. Congress to open an official inquiry into the medals, and a group of U.S. lawmakers attempted to revive an earlier proposal to revoke the medals. Now, with that bill languishing in committee, they are calling on Biden to do it himself.

 “You have the authority to revoke these medals immediately,” wrote the lawmakers, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Kansas Congresswoman Sharice L. Davids, in a letter to the president on November 2, 2021. “It is well past time to remove this stain from our nation’s history.”

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Dancing Toward Wounded Knee: The Hope and Tragedy of the Ghost Dance Religion

Published by sarah handley-cousins on october 13, 2019 october 13, 2019.

In the 1880s, when the buffalo were all but extinct, droughts and over-grazing meant famines, and the promised rations from the government shrank, a new religion spread rapidly through the tribes of the Great Basin and Plains west. It was called the Ghost Dance religion, preached by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, who spread a message that peace and hard work would bring a better future. But the hope-filled religious revival was perceived as a threat by Indian agents and the US Army, and Wovoka’s message of peace led to slaughter at Wounded Knee Creek. The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee have been considered inextricably linked ever since, but in this episode, we explore the complex and moving history of the religion and question whether we really should end this story with the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Listen, download, watch on YouTube , or scroll down for the transcript.

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Transcript for Dancing Toward Wounded Knee: The Hope and Tragedy of the Ghost Dance Religion

Sarah: It’s just after New Year’s, 1892. You’re in what seems like the middle of nowhere – the flat, empty Paiute territory in northwestern Nevada in the dead of winter, after an unusually heavy snowfall. Looking out around you, you see vast expanses of nothing except sage brushes mounded with snow. Ahead, as you and your small group of white and Native American men travels toward a settlement called Pine Grove, the mountains were lit brightly with sun, and sky above was blue. It seems like a positive sign as you move slowly toward your goal – finding the mysterious Paiute prophet known as Jack Wilson.

Elizabeth: For years, newspapers all over the United States have shared breathless accounts of the mysterious Jack Wilson. Some say that he purports to be a messiah, even an Indian Jesus Christ, with the power to raise generations of Indians from the dead, restoring the ancient populations to their former glory. His message inspired tribes across the west, from the Arapaho to the Sioux, to dance wildly in circles and gather in large, ominous numbers. And after the dance led to last year’s bloodshed, it seems clear to most Americans that it was Jack Wilson who was the dangerous figure behind the aggression of the western tribes.

Sarah: Finally, just as you’re starting to wonder whether doomed to wander lost in the cold, you see rising smoke and a circle of wikiups. Your guide ushers you into one, a small circular lodge of rushes laid out over a pole framework with an open hole at the top, through which smoke and sparks float from the large central fire. Around the fire are a young man and woman, a small boy, and a baby. This man didn’t seem like a threat at all – he was dressed in simple American-style clothing and was gentle with his children. This was the man who sparked the explosive new Indian religion and set into motion the events on the Pine Ridge Reservation? Was this the prophet who preached the Ghost Dance religion?

This is how ethnologist James Mooney met the man many knew as Jack Wilson: the Paiute prophet Wovoka. Mooney had traveled from Washington DC on an anthropological mission funded by the Bureau of Ethnology, an organization that functioned as the anthropological research arm of the Department of the Interior and Smithsonian Institution. Mooney’s interview with Wovoka, combined with his months of interviews and research into the history, performance, and theology of the Ghost Dance, was published in 1896 as a report to the secretary of the Smithsonian, and later as The Ghost Dance Religion and Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Mooney set out not only to record the culture of the Ghost Dance, but to try to understand it. Eastern newspapers reported Indian uprisings and apocalyptic visions, but what did adherents to the new religion really believe?

For this installment of our series on radical religions, we turn to the Ghost Dance Religion, the faith that offered hope to Indians and inspired irrational fears in whites, and which is inextricably tied to the massacre that became the symbolic end of the Indian Wars, Wounded Knee.

and I’m Elizabeth

and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

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Sarah: I want to start with a note about terminology. Throughout the episode, we’re going to use the term “Indian” to refer to indigenous or Native Americans. I’m choosing to do this in part because most of the people I know who are Native American use the word “Indian” to describe themselves, but also following the example of historian Louis Warren, who explains his choice to use the term “Indian” by saying that Indians weren’t citizens of the United States, nor were there any concrete plans to make them citizens – and, importantly, most Indians did not want to become citizens – so neither Americans nor Indians themselves perceived them as “American.” On the other hand, Warren makes a point to refer to Americans as “Americans” instead of “whites” or otherwise because there were a wide variety of people (mostly men) involved in fighting and governing Indians, and while they were not necessarily all white, they were all members of the American state and were, or could become, citizens. We might also use the terms “Lakota” and “Sioux” interchangeably – like the difference between Haudenosaunee and Iroquois, “Lakota” is the tribe’s own name for itself, and “Sioux” is what they were named by the French. Finally, we should note that some tribes have multiple bands, such as the Ogalla, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou Lakota Sioux – unless the differentiation is important (and sometimes it is) we’ll usually refer to them just by their overarching name, mostly because this is how they appear in sources.

Elizabeth: While we’re starting out with terminology, we may as well begin our discussion of the Ghost Dance with definitions. At its most fundamental level, the Ghost Dance was a religion , named for the powerful dance that made up a central component to its observance. The name “Ghost Dance” is the one that modern Americans typically use to describe the religion, and it was the one that most Americans used for it in the late 19 th century, but Indians called it a number of different things. The Comanche called it “the father’s dance,” the Kiowa called it the “dance with clasped hands,” and the Paiute called it “dance in a circle.” The name the Ghost Dance comes from the term that many prairie tribes, including the Sioux and Arapaho, used: the “spirit” or “ghost” dance. In a way, calling it just “the Ghost Dance” is misleading, because it wasn’t just a dance or a ceremony – it was an entire religious movement, with its own teachings, sacraments, and visions of the afterlife. The dance was only one component. Most modern historians, and even James Mooney in 1896, referred to it as the “Ghost Dance religion.”

Sarah: The religion originated initially around the year 1870, also emerging from the Paiute Reservation at Walker River, Nevada. The man at the center of the emerging faith was not Wovoka – he was only a teenager – but a man named Wodziwob, or Fish Lake Joe. We know very little about Wodziwob other than that he was from Fish Lake, Nevada, and that he had traveled to Walker River some time before 1870, when the new faith really seemed to take off. Wodziwob prophesied a “return to the old ways, with plentiful game and plant food and all Indians, living and dead, reunited on a renewed earth.”[1] The faith was essentially millenarian, which is a theological concept that teaches that with certain behaviors and ceremonies, you can help to usher in a utopian world – in this case, Wodziwob taught that by dancing a particular dance and singing particular songs, Paiutes could return their world to the “old ways.” We don’t have much detail on his teachings in this early formulation of the religion, but sources do indicate that Wodziwob taught that generations of dead Indians would return to life and come back to the Paiute on trains from the east, and that white people were to be “swallowed up by the earth.” Other than this pretty radical aspect, historian Gregory Smoak maintains that everything else was fairly run of the mill for a Paiute faith practice – people of all ages formed a circle, clasped each others hands, and shuffled in a round to the left while singing. Round dances were very common, so what set this dance apart was the sought after result.

Paiute woman grinding corn | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: A persistent question for historians and anthropologists who have studied this early form of the Ghost Dance (well, and the later one, too) is why did the Paiute, who had long standing beleifs that ghosts were bad omens, and dead bodies were taboo disease vectors, suddenly embrace a religion that taught that the dead were going to come back to life, even arriving in their villages by the train-full? One very practical reason might be that Wodziwob wasn’t from Walker River, but from Fish Lake, and brought a Fish Lake tradition called the “cry dance,” an annual mourning ceremony, to Walker River and applied it to the pre-existing Round Dance, making it essentially a dance that mourned the recently dead as well as one that looked forward to better times. But historian Louis Warren looks at the early Ghost Dance religion by zooming way out and considering the social and cultural things that may have influence Wodziwob and the Walker River Paiutes in the late 1860s and early 1870s. For instance, the Paiute tribe had dispersed from their traditional organization structure, which emphasized tight social bonds within small communities, in search of food and stability. The fact that Wodziwob joined the Walker River settlement from another area is evidence of exactly this. The Ghost Dance promised well-being and community – things that the Paiute were craving in a period of social instability and disruption.

Sarah: Louis Warren also points out that two seemingly small parts of Wodziwob’s teachings are actually really profound: first, that the Indian dead would arrive by train, and that the white Americans would descend into the earth. America was industrializing, and the west along with it. The transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, bringing trains through Paiute territory for the first time ever. Trains, no doubt, loomed large in the imaginations of Paiute people in 1869 and 1870. And what’s more, Warren argues, white men were descending into the earth – they were mining all over, including in Virginia City, just 80 or so miles northwest of the Walker River reservation. I want to quote Louis Warren directly here on just why this is so important. “These real-world resonances may make the prophecies seem naïve, but these fragments of the original visions that come down to us through the record may have had a symbolic meaning: Indians would be saved (the resurrected dead signifying the restored health of Indian community and culture) by engaging modern industry (riding the train), just as so many were attempting to do.” So the religion was not just about a return to the past – it was about bringing the “old ways” with them into the future.

Elizabeth: The 1870 Ghost Dance originated by Wodziwob traveled through Paiute and neighboring communities, but it didn’t really stick around. A Ghost Dance evangelist named Frank Spencer brought the practice with him through California and Oregon to the northern bands of the Paiute and Modoc, for instance, but even by 1872, the initial enthusiasm had faded. There’s some debate about how far it traveled, and how long it lasted, but either way, if it remained, it wasn’t a major force either among the Paiute or other tribes after the mid 1870s. Wodziwob himself died in 1872. But what the prophet began was destined to live on, because Wovoka lived in Walker River when Fish Lake Joe was sharing his visions, met the prophet, performed the early Ghost Dances, and was deeply influenced by these experiences. According to James Mooney’s description of their conversation in 1892, Wovoka was born in about 1855, and was the son of a Paiute “petty” chief and medicine man named Tävibo (Teh-vibo or Tay-vibo), or in English, “White Man.” When his father died, Wovoka went to live with a white farmer named David Wilson, which is how he got the English name “Jack Wilson.” Mooney also points out, and I think it’s a compelling point, that Wovoka was the son of “White Man” and also the son of a white man . Wovoka seems to have had a signature style that included a broad brimmed hat with a tall crown portion – maybe like a ten-gallon hat but with a wide, flat brim. We know this because he was photographed many times, all wearing similar hats and one of the photographs was taken when he was about 19 or 20 years old, standing amid several white Americans, and he’s already wearing the hat!

Sarah: The 1870s were hard for the Paiute. Regional economic hopes hung on the Comstock Lode, a vein of silver that had been discovered by Americans in 1859 and had been mined heavily ever since. By the late 1870s and early 1880s, it was becoming clear that silver mining was not what it once was, leaving miners – as well as the many business and service people who depended on them – struggling to make ends meet. Nevada’s population began to fall as people fled the state looking for better opportunities. According to Louis Warren, by 1890, it was “the most poorly inhabited state in the union, with 44,000 residents scattered in small settlements across 110,000 square miles of sagebrush and creosote.” In 1889, the New York Times called it a “dying state.” With a depressed economy and tiny population, things were dire for the Paiute. They had – of necessity, and in keeping with American expectations of them – become enmeshed in the new economy, working in or around mines and ranches. One good example – there was cattle ranching in Nevada (it was the only sector that was growing!) and sometimes the Paiute might work as ranch hands. But because ranching was open range, there really wasn’t much demand for labor – but on the flip side, cattle destroyed bunchgrass, a hardy plant that produced seeds the Paiute collected for food. Cattle ate the grass, of course, but they also trampled it so thoroughly that it made it hard for the seeds to germinate for new grasses to come up in the spring. Cattle also destroyed other plant foods, including buckberry and grass bulbs. With overgrazing came problems with soil erosion, which affected rivers and streams, killing off mussel and fish populations. It was becoming increasingly necessary for the Paiute to live off of the American population, meaning they need to work for the cash to buy American supplies – but at the same time, that population was shrinking and work was scarce. The fate of the Paiute had become completely contingent on the fate of the Americans in Nevada – as Sarah Winnemucca, a well known Paiute advocate at the time, said: “If the white people leave us, to go over the mountains to California, we must go over the mountains with them too, or else starve.”


Elizabeth: So this was the context in which Wovoka came into the manhood, and in which he experienced his first visions. In the late 1880s (most scholars disagree over whether it was 1887 or 1889), Wovoka began to have visions or “dreams,” as one acquaintance called them. His body would go stiff and he would be fully in a trance, sometimes for hours or even days at a time. After one of these trances, Wovoka shared that he had traveled through the stars to heaven, and had been stunned by the beauty of what he saw. The land was teeming with game and fish, and populated by both white and Indian people who had all been restored to youth – everyone was dancing, playing games, and walking together. After his first vision, he returned many times, and eventually began to shape what he learned into a message he could share with other Indians. It was possible to bring this vision of heaven to earth, he preached, but in order to do it, Indians “must not fight, there must be peace all over the world, the people must not steal from one another, but be good to each other, for they are all brothers.”[2] Wovoka also began to organize large gatherings to perform a version of the Paiute Round Dance.

Sarah: These dances were much larger, more frequent, and performed only at night, and instead of being accompanied by drums or other music, only singing. The songs were likely written by Wovoka himself, and often invoked spirits in the form of weather – one went like this: Fog! Fog! Fog! Lightning! Lightning! Whirlwind! Whirlwind! The snowy earth comes gliding, the snowy earth comes gliding! As the Ghost Dance became more and more popular at the close of the decade, the weather was drying out and the native plants were more or less gone. And as Wovoka began to perform spectacles (you might call them miracles, you might call them “booha,” a Paiute word a practical joke or spectacle). Some revolved around raising the dead (for instance, he ordered his brother to shoot him with a shotgun, but while there were holes in his shirt and shot around his feet, he was unharmed) but the most common miracle involved weather. Wovoka was known for bringing about clouds and making it rain. Over and over again, Wovoka conjured ice. Sometimes it appeared in his hands, other times floating in neighboring streams, other times falling in large blocks from the sky. Once, the ice that he conjured landed in a wash basin. The watching crowds waited for the ice to melt and then drank it reverently.

Elizabeth: Now, many Paiutes, essentially, called bullshit and pointed out that these tricks were easily disproven, but historian Louis Warren says, actually it is far less important whether they were miracles or not, but what kinds of things Wovoka tried to conjure. Ice was a symbol of his ability to affect the weather – and god damn, did the Paiute need rain. Another quote here: “Snow and ice figured prominently in Wilson’s displays of power because booha is immanent in frozen water, which promises redemption from thirst; melting ice signifies not only the benevolent spirits of the high mountain peaks, but the emergence from winter and the beginnings of earthly renewal. Wilson [Wovoka] thus appealed to customary Paiute spiritualism – the booha of the weather maker, harnessed to the power of water – but also to those who drank from the well of Christian symbolism, in particular holy water and baptism.” It wasn’t just the Indians who needed the rain. The dry weather in Nevada was just one part of a drought across the west during the 1880s. And white Americans were also trying to conjure rain – Frank Melbourne, “the Rain King” of Kansas took folks’ money and released fumes into the sky that were supposed to make it rain. And the Inter-State Artificial Rain Company – among other artificial rain companies – tried to conjure rain by releasing chemicals into the sky.

Sarah: Along with conjuring weather and preaching peace to bring about a utopian vision, Wovoka also implored his followers to work . One version of Wovoka’s message recorded by the Black Short Nose, a Cheyenne, said “do not refuse to work for the white man,” while another stated that Indians should “work for white men.” Louis Warren even goes so far as to say that “for Wovoka, wage work was a holy commandment.” And this is one of the things about Louis Warren’s book God’s Red Son that just really … blew my gourd, I guess. Warren makes this argument that this was Wovoka making a very progressive argument to “reconcile” the Paiute to the changes that were inevitably coming with the changes the Americans were wreaking on the Western landscape. He exhorted them to work, but also told them it’s going to be ok. Things are changing, but we’re all going to go together into this future, and things will be good. He came up with a system where dances took place every three months, giving people regular community gatherings to come together for prayer and comfort. [Aside about the studies about why people continue to go to church – community & comfort.] Fundamentally, Warren argues, the Ghost Dance religion was a progressive message.

Elizabeth: Like during the 1870 Ghost Dance enthusiasm, the religion soon began to travel beyond the Paiute. The tribe that becomes most famously associated with the religion is not the Paiute (which is strange, considering they originated it) but the Lakota Sioux, well over a thousand miles to the east in the Dakota territory (soon to be South Dakota). Like the Paiute, the 1870s and 1880s were difficult decades. For over a century, the Lakota were known as a very large and powerful tribe. The horse, which first arrived with the Spanish in the 15&1600’s and made their way to the Lakota by 1700, transformed the tribe’s ability to cover territory and perform the task most central to their survival, their culture, and their spirituality: following and hunting bison. The Lakota were a mobile tribe, spread out and traveling across over huge tracts of what is now Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. But by the 1870s, the train was threatening all of this just as it had the Paiutes. The train made it possible for Americans to arrive in what had once been extremely remote Lakota territory. Some of the land, particularly the Nebraska territory, was enticing to Americans for its agricultural potential, but Americans also came to the region to mine, ranch, hunt buffalo. (Including Teddy Roosevelt!) One result was an environmental disaster – again, so similar to the situation that faced the Paiute. The buffalo, which was so integral to Lakota culture, rapidly disappeared. And the population dropped because heavy cattle ranching interfered with their range land, and because people broke up their land into farms by stringing up barbed wire fences (which famously “closed the west”) but they really dropped because American men really liked to shoot them. And shoot them, and shoot them, and shoot then. The population plummeted from something like 30 million in 1790 to about 5 million during the 1870s to less than 300 in 1889. The last buffalo hunts (at least among the band of the Lakota that Warren focused on, which was the Brule or Sicanju Lakota) took place in 1883.

Sarah: Because Americans coveted Lakota lands, they began to move to get their hands on it during the middle of the century. [Remember, the Nebraska territory is literally one of the factors that leads to the Civil War.] In 1851, the US government and several Great Plains tribes signed the Treaty of Laramie, which began to determine the land that was designated Indian territory, although it didn’t set strict borders or establish a reservation. Just seventeen years later, in 1868, the US Government and the Lakota Sioux (plus a couple others) negotiated another Treaty of Fort Laramie, which did create ‘real’ borders by establishing the Great Sioux Reservation, a 25 million acre plot of land (like, half of South Dakota). In exchange for limiting their lands to this reservation, the government promised to set up agencies around the reservation where agents of the US government would oversee Indian life, try to keep them under control and supervision, and distribute rations. But the Great Reservation wasn’t enough for the Americans. The Lakota and neighboring tribes continued to hunt, meaning they continued to live a nomadic lifestyle. To Americans, this looked wasteful. All that great grazing and growing land, just sitting there while these primitive people followed the dwindling buffalo. Further, in the mid 1870s, reports started to circulate that there was gold in the Black Hills, a sacred mountain range right in the Great Sioux Reservation. The Lakota refusal to cooperated with sblatant treaty violation and land grabs from Americans was what led to the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 between the Lakota, parts of the Cheyenne, and the US Army. And of course, a key moment in this larger war was the Battle of Little Big Horn, in which notorious prat George Armstrong Custer and his 7 th Cavalry were decimated by Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.

Crazy Horse

Elizabeth: But while the Little Big Horn was a resounding Lakota victory, it was followed by severe retribution from the US Army. By May 1877, Lakota war leader Crazy Horse surrendered to the US Army (and was subsequently killed by them), they were forced onto the Great Sioux Reservation, and when the US government threatened to stop distributing rations, the Lakota Sioux were essentially forced to cede the Black Hills to the US. Sitting Bull, another Lakota war leader, took his band of Hunkpapa Lakota refused to surrender to the Americans, and instead fled to Canada – but when his people starved there, too, they eventually made their way back to the reservation. By the late 1880s, most Lakota were surviving through a blend of subsistence agriculture (something that Lakota had never practiced before, and is sort of hard to nail without experience) and government rations. Some Lakota were able to eke out a living farming or other enterprises (grinding buffalo bones into fertilizers or attempts to lease out grazing lands) but it was a hardscrabble existence that – by design – made the Lakota largely dependent on the Indian agencies, and by extension, the US government. In 1887, things became yet worse for the Lakota with the passage of the Dawes Severalty Act, aka the Dawes Act. This law was spearheaded by Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, who sat on the Board of Indian Commissioners, who had been tasked in 1869 with working on what the came to call the “Indian problem.” Dawes was genuinely concerned with the ‘problem’ of Indians, which he figured should be much easier to solve than many of the other problems facing Gilded Age America. After all, he reasoned, with millions of immigrants knocking at the gates, and millions of black Americans in the Jim Crow South, why shouldn’t we be able to easily solve a problem of just 300,000 people?

Sarah: Dawes’s eventual solution, in the form of the Dawes Act, is to come up with a way to force the Indian population to assimilate to American ways of living. The Dawes Act had several components, but the nutshell version is that “gave” each Indian head of household an allotment of 160 acres on which to start a farm. The land was held in trust by the US government for 25 years. The Dawes Act is just a whole bundle of horribleness, and I want to get to how the Ghost Dance religion comes into all this, so I’m not going to elaborate on the veritable chamber of horrors that this piece of legislation was – but the Dawes Act has a double effect. On the one hand, people like Henry Dawes get to pat themselves on the back for “solving the Indian problem” by “giving” Indians land and encouraging them to assimilate into the American populace. On the other hand, the Act is literally designed to destroy tribal governance and organization by forcing Indians to adopt nuclear family units, restructure gender roles by demanding male heads of household, allows the American government to seize all of the reservation land that isn’t used to fulfill the allotments and resell it, establishes a system of discrimination based on “full blood” and “mixed bloods” in which “full bloods” received less land and land of poorer quality, and resulted in seizing Indian children from their families and tribes, stripping them of their native languages, cutting off their hair, and forcing them to become as much like white Americans as possible. Oh, all while still treating them like garbage because as much as you assimilate, you can’t get white.

Elizabeth: It should come as no surprise that the Americans weren’t great at following through with their promises, but once the Lakota were confined to the Great Sioux Reservation, and even after the Dawes Act began to go into effect, the Americans failed to support the Indians with the promised rations. They were always pitiful, but in 1889, as part of attempts to cut government spending (Grover Cleveland is THE WORST) the ration allotments were cut by 10 percent. This meant millions of pounds of beef for several of the remaining reservations. In Washington as well as among average Americans, this seemed like just another belt-tightening measure similar to how modern conservatives might discuss cutting food stamp funding – they reasoned that government support encouraged Indians to be dependent instead of learning to support themselves through farming and industry. But fundamentally – even legally – these rations were not welfare – they were a part of a settled upon exchange. In the treaties of Fort Laramie, the government effectively said: give us this land, and we’ll take care of you with rations. Either way, the rations were getting smaller and smaller, and the effect was that the Lakota were weak, sick, and suffering. At the same time, Indian agents were started to outlaw religious ceremonies that they felt were holding Indians back from assimilating. Moreover, the ceremonies allowed Indians to reinforce their tribal bonds, gather in large numbers, and, Americans feared, gave them opportunities to plot. For instance, the traditional Lakota Sun Dance, in which Lakota men and women cut and pierced their bodies and danced to bring on a trance-like state in which they might experience visions, was outlawed in 1883 at the Rosebud Agency.

Sarah: So we have a situation among the Lakota similar to that among the Paiute: terrible weather, stolen lands, dying traditions, encroaching Americans, starvation, sickness, and spiritual desperation. This is exactly when – in 1889 – a young Lakota man named Short Bull is chosen to go (with a group of other Lakota men) on a sort of pilgrimage to Walker River to meet the prophet. The local council of elders told Short Bull: “We have a letter from the West saying the Father has come and we want you to go and see him, and tell us what he says and we will do it. Be there with a big heart. Do not fail.” Keep in mind, this is a journey of well over 1000 miles. Short Bull describes this whole journey with such reverence. He met Wovoka, who was followed around by crowds of people (some Paiute, and some outsiders like Short Bull, there to meet the Prophet), and watched them perform the dance. I should say here, Short Bull had a reputation as sort of a brawler – he had fought at Little Big Horn, and was just known to be of sort of a warrior spirit. But the message that Short Bull brings back from Wovoka to the Lakota is one of peace: “Have your people work the ground so they do not get idle, help your agents, and get farms to live on. Educate your children. Send them to schools.” He begged them to fight no more. He even told them to go to church – the Christian churches. Wovoka said, “all these churches are mine.” Louis Warren calls this “the gospel according to Short Bull,” and emphasizes that there was nothing in it that called for confronting or killing Americans. Later, the Chicago Tribune prints all sorts of things that they said is the principles of the Ghost Dance as described by Short Bull – but they’re all the opposite of the things that we can be reasonably sure (scholars are, anyway) Short Bull really said or recorded. One part of the Ghost Dance that was unique to the Lakota was the “ghost shirt,” a kind of shirt that some Lakota came to believe would stop bullets – in the same way that Wovoka was able to survive being shot by his brother back in Nevada. This becomes a very famous part of the Ghost Dance in the American imagination, but in reality, it was actually only a small part, and only within Lakota communities.

what caused the ghost dance war

Elizabeth: But the Ghost Dance spreads beyond the Lakota, too – when Short Bull takes his pilgrimage to Walker River, he’s accompanied by another Sitting Bull from the Arapaho, who then brings the Ghost Dance back to the Arapaho living in what is now Oklahoma. It spread to the Cheyenne through a woman named Moki, or Little Woman, who had lost both of her children and had been sort of in a fog of grief for years. When she heard of the Ghost Dance, during Moki’s first experience she found herself reunited with her children in her trance. Her husband, Grant Left Hand, was skeptical about the Ghost Dance’s power, but his desire to see his son overrode his skepticism. After experiencing the trance (and seeing his son) he was also a convert to the Ghost Dance religion. Moki then went on to write Ghost Dance songs herself, and Grant Left Hand created a version of the Ghost Dance that was combined with a sacred Arapaho ceremony called the Crow Dance, bringing the new religion into the Arapaho spiritual belief system. And Moki is a good example of how powerful the Ghost Dance was in the lives of women, promising to reunite them with their children, parents, or other loved ones who had died during the years of sickness, malnutrition, and war. One unnamed Lakota woman wrote a Ghost Dance song that sums this up briefly but sadly: It is my own child! It is my own child!

Sarah: By mid-1890, the Ghost Dance was truly a pan-Indian religion, spreading from California to Oklahoma and encompassing several tribes. But while it influenced nearly all the Great Basin and Plains tribes, it didn’t convince all the Indians in those tribes. The Lakota were split: over the dance and over how much to cooperate with the Americans. In 1889, General George Crook had manipulated several Lakota leaders into signing over their rights to significant remaining portions of the Great Sioux Reservation – essentially taking several men hostage until they signed, then using dirty tricks to get the rest of the signatures. The sale (or really, theft) of these lands drove a wedge between Lakota angry about the land deal. This was followed quickly by the Congressional decision to cut costs by cutting rations. Suffice it to say, things in Sioux country were bad, but dividing colonized people and turning them against each other is always a good tactic for colonizers. The Americans loved to use Indians as reservation police officers to carry out the wishes of the agents, for instance, and were always ready to listen to a disgruntled Indian who wanted to turn on his tribesmen. One such disgruntled Lakota was William Selwyn who had been educated in an Indian school in the East then returned to the Sioux lands to serve as the postmaster on the Yankton reservation. Selwyn began telling E. W. Foster, his agent at Yankton, outrageous things about the Ghost Dancers. The Americans were already suspicious of the new religion, and conflated the Lakota who were angry about the land sales with the Lakotas who had taken up the dance, making their numbers (and potential threat) much larger. But Selwyn began telling the agents that there were “secret plans” for a “general Indian war in the spring.” This fed into fears the Americans already had that the Indians were planning some sort of Ghost Dance uprising. Those fears started to spread to newspapers, which breathlessly reported that the Western tribes were plotting an uprising – and that they believed they were impermeable to bullets wearing their magic shirts. That just seemed to confirm that something was brewing – why wear armor if you’re not planning to use it? 

Elizabeth: Key to their fear was the fact that Sitting Bull, the war leader who had helped to defeat the 7 th Cavalry in 1876 at Little Big Horn, escaped to Canada but returned in 1881. His mere existence rankled the Americans, who were constantly convinced he was secretly fomenting rebellion. In November 1889, amid rising concerns that a Ghost Dance ‘outbreak’ was coming, President Benjamin Harrison ordered the Secretary of War to prepare for “the suppression of any threatened outbreak, and to take such steps as may be necessary to that end.” Just days later, an agent at Pine Ridge sent a telegram to the army that said: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. We need protection and we need it now.” It seemed more likely than ever that something was brewing, so General John R. Brooke ordered all Indians in Sioux lands to report to their agency to be accounted for. Many of the Lakota Ghost Dancers refused to comply, and instead began to gather together to escape from the Army’s increasingly tight grip. And actually, the sense of an impending threat from the Army actually served to confirm many of the Ghost Dancers’ beliefs – it felt like, perhaps, the end times were coming. Maybe the Army was beating down on them was just proof that Wovoka’s message had been true. (Skeptics, of course, interpreted the evidence to mean exactly the opposite.) Two Ghost Dance leaders (Little Wound and Big Road) decided to report to their agent at Pine Ridge, followed by a steady stream of others, but Short Bull was determined to take his followers to survive outside of the government’s control. This was easier said than done – the weather was brutal and rations were short.

what caused the ghost dance war

Sarah: Sort of inexplicably, in mid December, Standing Rock agent James McLaughlin decided to arrest the Lakota Sitting Bull, using the “threat” of the Ghost Dance as his justification. Sitting Bull wasn’t even into the Ghost Dance – he was dismissive of the more mystical parts, and said that it was sort of a distraction and waste of time that would pass in time. But McLaughlin hated Sitting Bull, and saw his opportunity to strike. He sent Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull, and in an ensuing shuffle, Sitting Bull was shot. It would seem like this was accidental (something about a feud between a police officer and one of Sitting Bull’s friend’s) except for the fact that the police man who fired stood over the incapacitated Sitting Bull and fired again, this time severing his spine and killing the war leader. Unsurprisingly, Sitting Bull’s followers, panicking, tried to fight back – which served as the spark for the nearby 8 th Cavalry to start firing on the entire camp. Followers scattered, but not before some of Sitting Bull’s closest followers and his beloved teenage son, Crow Foot.

Elizabeth: One of the last to resist returning to report to the agencies was Big Foot, a Ghost Dance leader with a small band of Minneconjou and some Hunkpapa Lakota. They were tired, cold, and hungry, and Big Foot had pneumonia. Too exhausted to keep resisting, Big Foot had more or less surrendered to the 7 th Cavalry and were being escorted back to Pine Ridge. On the night of December 28, they camped on the bank of Wounded Knee Creek. In the morning, Colonel James Forsyth of the 7 th Cavalry called for a council with the men of the band. Nearly all the men in the small band – which was no stronger than 350 Indians including elderly people, women, and small children – came to the council, bringing without them some young boys wearing American-style school uniforms. The soldiers (of which there were 470 total) lined up in front of the men, The women and children were on the other side of the soldiers, on the bank of the creek ravine. Forsythe ordered Big Foot to hand over all the weapons in the camp. Big Foot complied, but when Forsyth saw that the guns were old, and some nonfunctioning, he grew convinced the Indians must be hiding more. When no more guns were produced, he ordered his men to begin searching the Lakota’s belongings. Now, technically, Forsyth was going against his orders from the general in charge of the campaign against the Ghost Dancers, General Nelson Miles, who had expressly said to keep the soldiers away from interacting directly with the Indians. Even after rifling through their belongings, Forsyth only turned up a few more weapons – but he still wasn’t convinced he had everything. Big Foot, growing increasingly weak, ordered his followers to hand over everything they had – and a couple of young men, frustrated with the soldiers, did produce hidden guns.

Sarah: One of these young men was Black Coyote, who was deaf. While the Lakota (among many other Plains tribes) used sign language to communicate regularly, in the stressful moment, no one had signed to Black Coyote what was going on. Black Coyote shouted that he did not want to hand over his gun, because it had been expensive. A soldier reached out and tried to snatch the gun, and Black Coyote hung on. The gun went off. The shot flew harmlessly in to the sky, but the jolt of the concussion made Forsyth act, and he began to yell “fire! fire on them!” And that’s all it took. The soldiers, who far outnumbered the Indians, opened up their significant fire power on the Lakota. Most of the men died right away, but some tried to run to the ravine where the rest of the followers were waiting – and the gunfire followed them. The soldiers then used their Hotchkiss gun (a light cannon) on the Lakota in the ravine, who were mostly women and small children. Soldiers picked off people one by one as they tried to escape or even move, sometimes shooting people who were wounded on the ground. Eventually, a shout went out that it was safe for survivors to surrender. Big Foot, who somehow escaped the first volley, sat up, probably in an attempt to surrender. A soldier shot him dead. His daughter ran to him – the soldier shot her, too. Within 40 minutes, the shooting was done in the camp on the Wounded Knee Creek – but for hours, soldiers rode around the surrounding area, looking for escapees, and shooting them too – every man, woman, and child.

Black Elk’s description: “I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hope is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” [30]

Elizabeth: The 7 th Cavalry were adamant that the shooting was the fault of the Lakota, who had been militant religious radicals. But, as Louis Warren points out, the shooting only broke out because an Indian, rightfully, demanded that he be compensated if the army seized a gun that was his private property. This was exactly the kind of thing that Americans wanted – concepts of individual property ownership and an emphasis on cash. Even think of the little boys in their school uniforms, dressed like Americans and acquiescing to their demands to attend boarding schools. It makes it all the more clear that assimilation was never going to be enough – even when Indians acted like Americans, even when they did what the Americans wanted, they were massacred. On the flip side, those who thought the massacre was abhorrent tended to see it as a murder of innocents – not in the sense that they were guiltless (which they were) but in the sense that Indians were hopelessly naïve and unable to change with changing times. It seems like the ultimate proof of the vanishing Indian, incompatible with a modern America, and so destined to die out in one way or another. When newspaper photographers arrived, they took photographs of frozen corpses covered in snow, left unburied days after the massacre. Eventually, they would all be thrown into a mass grave by civilians hired by the army.

Sarah: Most stories about the Ghost Dance end here – and actually, in most of our survey classes, the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee is where we stop teaching Native American history. Wounded Knee had come to serve as a kind of bookend for Indian history: Columbus on one end, Wounded Knee at the other. And I think that’s because it feels like such a clear ending to the decades of land grabs and wars that make up what we often call “the Indian wars.” I’m certainly guilty of this – when I teach my survey course, I like to lean on narratives, and have narrative arcs even in my lectures, so I tend to tell a story of doomed resistance that ends in the massacre at Wounded Knee. But what that does, as I grappled with in my reading for this episode, is that it plays into exactly what Americans wanted out of this entire struggle. They wanted a docile, controlled and ultimately exterminated (literally or figuratively) race that could essentially move out of the way for American progress. And isn’t that often the story we tell in teaching, when we shift from Wounded Knee to the booming businesses and technological changes of the Gilded Age? (Calling myself out here.) We know from past episodes that there was some panic about the “vanishing Indian,” at least among ethnologists and early anthropologists, but that’s what Americans wanted – so we vanished them physically, by shunting them onto reservations, and destroying their culture, and then, finally, by disappearing them even from history after 1890. And what’s so perverse about this is that at the same time, Americans fucking loved Indians. They went in droves to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows to watch subdued, colonized Indians reenact battles and perform Indian-ness for them within safe confines.

what caused the ghost dance war

Elizabeth: Take, for example, the post Wounded Knee story of Short Bull. After Wounded Knee, Short Bull, as one of Wovoka’s disciples, was deemed a threat, and along with a few other Lakota men, were hauled off to Chicago and thrown into the newly constructed Fort Sheridan, built to ensure there was a heavy military presence in Chicago in case of labor unrest. After some months in confinement, who showed up at the fort, but Buffalo Bill himself, asking if he could take the prisoners to be part of a European tour of the show. Because it was probably considerably better than sitting in a military fortification, the men agreed. Many years later, Short Bull appeared with Cody in a film called the Indian Wars . The film included a reenactment of Wounded Knee, but I’m assuming it left out the frozen corpses of children in the snow. This is a theme we’ve discussed in several of Sarah’s episodes, but it’s one that bears repeating: Americans love the idea of Indians, but hate real Indians. We want to be able to watch our Westerns and sit in sweat lodges and wear feathers in our hair at Coachella, but when real Indians remind us that it violates treaty rights to lay gas pipelines through sacred lands and waters, or when they push back on state governments that refuse to care for stretches of interstate roads because they resent Indian casino revenue, we do not like Indians very much at all.

Sarah: And there’s one final thing I want to say – I was surprised at just how much I got wrong about the Ghost Dance. I had always felt like I understood all this quite well. I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I include a lot of Native American history in my survey courses, but I didn’t realize that I never really got the Ghost Dance until I started reading for this episode. Louis Warren makes this argument, very forcefully, that the Ghost Dance was not the last dying gasps of a culture that was being crushed, it was a progressive, maybe even sort of syncretic religious response to extreme cultural, social, political, and environmental forces. The religion wasn’t about killing white people and bringing back the buffalo – it was about finding a way forward in a world that was making the old ways increasingly impossible. Wovoka taught Indians to live peacefully, work hard, stop fighting with Americans, send their children to school, and use the dance to preserve old community bonds and forge new ones. For some Ghost Dancers, it was a way of marrying Christian beliefs – think about Wovoka as a messiah, unifying themes of a loving “Father” spirit, the exuberant dancing analogous to Pentecostal worship – to Indian faith systems. It was a way of trying to move forward into the future that had already been designed by white Americans and forced upon them. The dance was never about resistance – it was about finding a new way. It was about hope, not vengeance.


Louis Warren, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 2017)

Louis Warren, “Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance: Christian Prayer, American Politics, and Indian Protest,” Reviews in American History 39 (December 2011), p. 665-672. 

James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965)

Gregory Smoak, Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century (Berkley: University of California Press, 2006)

Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1970, 2007)

Black Elk and John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life of a Holy Man of the Ogalala Sioux (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996)

Matthew Taylor, “Contagious Emotions and the Ghost Dance Religion: Mooney’s Science, Black Elk’s Fever,” ELH 81 (Fall 2014), p. 1055-1082

Michael Elliott, “Ethnography, Reform, and the Problem of the Real: James Mooney’s “Ghost Dance Religion,” American Quarterly 50 (June 1998), 201-233.

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Daniel · March 1, 2020 at 9:46 am

It is very curious to note that roughly about the same time, and in response to the start of European colonialism, there were other similar movements in Africa and the one which most closely resembles the Ghost Dance was called the “Maji Maji” rebellion, about which you can read from many online sources.

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Averill Earls · March 1, 2020 at 10:01 am

Indeed! I discuss the Maji Maji in my World History classes. Thanks for listening!

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"When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat."

As news of Wounded Knee spread throughout the Native nations, the Ghost Dance died quickly. Wovoka's prophecies were empty; the land would not be returned from the white man through divine intervention. When it became obvious that ghost shirts did not protect their wearers from bullets, and the expected resurrection of the dead had not occurred, most believers quit the dance. With the suddenness of its birth, Ghost Dance disappeared. The Wounded Knee massacre put an end to the Ghost Dance as a widespread phenomenon. It was continued in several isolated places, but the expectation of the imminent return of the dead and of traditional culture was minimized. The last known Ghost Dances were held in the 1950s among the Shoshone. See Indian Wars Time Table .


Wounded Knee Massacre: December 29, 1890

Wounded Knee Massacre

What was the Wounded Knee Massacre?

Throughout 1890, the U.S. government worried about the increasing influence at Pine Ridge of the Ghost Dance spiritual movement, which taught that Indians had been defeated and confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs. Many Sioux believed that if they practiced the Ghost Dance and rejected the ways of the white man, the gods would create the world anew and destroy all non-believers, including non-Indians. On December 15, 1890, reservation police tried to arrest Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux chief, who they mistakenly believed was a Ghost Dancer, and killed him in the process, increasing the tensions at Pine Ridge.

On December 29, the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under Big Foot, a Lakota Sioux chief, near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, a fight broke out between an Indian and a U.S. soldier, and a shot was fired, although it’s unclear from which side. A brutal massacre followed, in which it’s estimated 150 Indians were killed (some historians put this number at twice as high), nearly half of them women and children. The cavalry lost 25 men.   Continue Reading from  The History Channel

Learn More about the Wounded Knee Massacre Online

  • Remembering the Wounded Knee Massacre  ( Th e History Channel )
  • Wounded Knee Massacre: Topics in Chronicling America ( The Library of Congress )
  • Wounded Knee Massacre ( Encyclopaedia Britannica )
  • U.S. Army massacres Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee ( Th e  History Channel )
  • Wounded Knee: Healing the Wounds of the Past  ( The National Museum of the American Indian )

Books about the Wounded Knee Massacre

Immediately following the massacre, Forsyth ordered the transportation of 51 wounded Miniconjou to the Pine Ridge Agency. Hundreds of Lakota who lived there fled the area in horror; some even ambushed the 7th Cavalry in retaliation, prompting Miles to dispatch more troops to the area to quell further resistance. On January 2, 1891, a band of Lakota went to the site of the massacre and rescued a few survivors from the snow. The following day the U.S. Army unceremoniously buried 146 Miniconjou in a mass grave where the Hotchkiss guns had been placed, a location today known as Cemetery Hill. Many of the corpses were naked. Modern scholars estimate that between 250 and 300 Miniconjou were killed in total, almost half of whom were women and children. At least 25 U.S. soldiers also died, many likely fallen to friendly fire.   Continue reading from Encyclopaedia Britannica

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