Ghost Dance: A Native American Ceremony

The Ghost Dance was a nineteenth century religious movement and belief system embraced by numerous Native American tribes that happened at a time when the U.S. government threatened to erase their culture. Native Americans believed that the practice of the dance would end westward expansion and that the dead spirits of the Native American would reunite with the living and fight on their behalf. In addition, they thought the dance would bring peace, prosperity, and unity to their people and rid them of the white man, who was making their lives difficult.*

An article from Wisconsin’s Kenosha News in 1897 explained the idea of the Ghost Dance further:

“The great underlying principles of the ghost dance doctrine is that the time will come when the whole Indian race, living or dead, will be reunited upon a regenerated earth, to live a life of aboriginal happiness, forever free from death, disease and misery. On this each tribute has built a structure from its own mythology. All of this is to be brought about, not through war, but by an overruling spiritual power.”[1]

Beginnings of the Ghost Dance happened around 1869 when Hawthorne Wodziwob, a Paiute healer, experienced several visions while on a mountain top. He then organized a series of community dances to announce his vision to the people. He claimed he had taken a journey to the land of the dead and that he had received promises from souls of the recently departed that they would return to their loved ones within a period of three to four years.

Wodziwob’s vision was accepted partly because of his healer status and because community events centered on the observance of seasonal ceremonies. Wodziwob also urged people in his tribe to dance the common and customary circle dance† as he continued to preach his vision. In this zeal to spread his message he was aided by the local “weather doctor” named Tavibo, who was father to the Paiute’s spiritual prophet, Wovoka, renamed Jack Wilson.

Ghost dance creator Wovoka

Wovoka or Jack Wilson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wilson had experienced visions too, but perhaps his most important vision happened in 1889, the same year that Mark Twain published his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Wilson’s vision on 1 January 1889 took place during a solar eclipse and he claimed that despite his young age, he was better able than Wodziwob to share his vision and he began preaching the Ghost Dance. A few years later, in 1892, when anthropologist James Mooney interviewed him, Wilson stated that in his vision he had been given the Ghost Dance and that he had been commanded to take it back to his people.

Because Native Americans were enduring difficult times, the message Wilson shared with his Paiute brethren resonated with them. Wilson promised that if the five-day dance was performed properly, Native Americans would secure their happiness and hasten the reunion of the living and deceased. Furthermore, Wilson was convinced that if every Indian in the West danced the new dance it would “hasten the event” and all evil in the world would be swept away, including many white people. He also promised that Native Americans would enjoy a renewed Earth filled with food, love, and faith.

Those who heard Wilson quickly accepted his vision and his ideas spread rapidly among various Native American tribes, such as “Paiute, Shoshoni, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Caddo, and Pawnee, [in the case of] … the Comanche, only a small minority ever engaged [and] only about one-half of the 26,000 Sioux took an active part in it.”[2] These tribes dubbed this new religious practice “Dance In A Circle.” However, because the first European contact with the practice originated with the Lakota, their expression “Spirit Dance” was adopted as a descriptive title for all such practices, which was then subsequently translated to “Ghost Dance.”

Writer E.N. Yates wrote about the Ghost Dance for McMaster’s Magazine in the late 1800s. His observations about how and why the dance was practiced was summarized in an article published in Kansas’s Wichita Eagle in January of 1900. It stated:

“The largest Ghost Dance of the Southwest Tribes was held near the Cheyenne and Arapahoe agency under the direction of Sitting Bull, September 1890. There were present about 3,000 Indians, most of the Southwestern tribes being represented. They danced almost every night until daylight for four weeks, from 600 to 800 joining in the dance circle at a time, and the religious frenzy was so intense that as many as a hundred were stretched out on the ground at the same time, wrapping in hypnotic sleep or overcome by exhaustion, while others would stand rigid, tense and immovable in one position for hours. …

The Ghost Dance songs were a remarkable feature of the ceremonials. Those used in the beginning originate with the Messiah and were claimed … to have been received with the dance and formed a part of … that strange religion. But afterward there was no limit to these strange, weird chants, as most every trance subject awoke with a song. There were special songs for opening and closing. No musical instruments in use among the Indians were used. The songs of the Arapahoe are said to have been the most beautiful and sentimental.

In preparation for the dance the ground was first consecrated by prayer and the ceremony of beating the earth.

The decoration of the face with the sacred paint was one of the important observances. Designs were suggested by trance inspirations, and were for the most part stars, crosses, crescents, hearts and birds, especially of the eagle or magpie, which were held sacred. The petition the Great Father, by the subject to be painted, would be: ‘My Father, I have come to be painted, so that I may see my dead relatives and friends; have pity on me and paint me.’

The dance usually began at sundown and lasted until morning. When ready to begin the dance they joined hands facing inward, forming a circle. No fires were allowed to be built within the circle. The trance subjects were never disturbed; they would lie for hours wherever they chanced to fall or would stand upright and rigid until consciousness returned. Their souls were believed to be in the spirit world communing with their departed loves ones and when ready to return the immortal part would re-inhabit their bodies.”[3]

Ghost Dance by the Oglala Lakota

The Ghost Dance of 1889–1891 by the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Ghost Dance movement quickly became a craze among many Native American tribes.‡ This of course created great fear among white settlers who saw the practice as a threat to their safety and well-being. Moreover, they claimed that such teachings were causing the Native American Indians to embrace “debauchery and crime” and supervising agents at the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized that the Ghost Dance was often held shortly before a battle that encouraged more fear. Fears may have also been stoked by newspapers reporting on the movement, such as the one published in November 1890 by the San Francisco Examiner:

“The prophesy at the ghost dances is that the white man’s world is coming to an end, and that when the white troops come to break up their encampments and drive them back to the reservations their rifles will fall apart after the manner of Rip Van Winkle’s at the end of his long sleep.

They assure their followers, too, that disease has swept away a vast number of white people, and that when they engage in combat with the Indian warriors, they will be annihilated by a deluge of boiling mud, mingled with red-hot stones. This idea was probably suggested by the geysers [in Yellowstone] …

The whole country, they say, is to be buried thirty feet deep with the boiling mud. But only the white people will be destroyed, so the prophets tell them. The red men will in some miraculous manner come up through it unharmed to the surface of the new world, where they will find themselves under a new heaven, and all about them luxuriant buffalo grass will cover the face of the earth, while herds of antelope, deer, buffalo, and wild horses will cover the plains.”[4]

Ghost Dance by the Sioux

The Ghost Dance by the Sioux. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Because of the fears held by settlers and authorities at the Bureau of Indian Affairs the U.S. government decided to force Native American tribes to give up the practice. However, the United States Indian Agent in South Dakota, Daniel F. Royer, noted that the Cheyenne tribes were unwilling to cooperate with the government, and he maintained that they continued practicing the Ghost Dance. He noted this in a report dated 8 November 1890 written to Thomas Jefferson Morgan, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.:

“This ghost craze has grown since the first day of its introduction, and is growing today. There are now four large organizations on this agency ― one on the White Clay Creek, without about 600 members … one on Wounded Knee Creek, with about 250 members … one on Porcupine Creek, with about 150 members … one on Medicine Root Creek, with about 500 members, under the management of Little Wound, who is considered one of the most influential chiefs among the Sioux of this agency, and is the most stubborn, headstrong, self-willed, unruly Indian on the reservation. He has been ordained high priest over all the ghost dances, and in consequence of his elevated position he openly defies all law and orders issued by your office. During the visit of the Cheyenne Commission a few weeks ago Little Wound spoke in council to General Miles and the commission on the subject of ghost dances, and in the course of his talk he said it was the purpose of the Indians to keep the dances up as long as they pleased, and he wished what he had said taken down and sent to the Great Father at Washington, and that he wanted his people to be Indians and live like Indians, and not try to live and act like white people; that the rules of the ghost dances, if strictly complied with, would in a short time accomplish the end he desired. …

There are two factions among the Indians here, ‘the non-progressive’ and the ‘progressive.’ The non-progressive, led by little Wound and his followers (the ghost dancers), who have been and are now hostile to the Department’s wishes … The progressive as those who have always stood by the agent and persisted in carrying out the orders of your Department …

The ghost dance matter has resolved itself into just two propositions; the first is, will the Government stop this most outrageous practice, and by so doing encourage and stimulate the good Indians to do what is right and bring back those that will come into the fold of right, or will it be permitted to continue and tear down what has been built up in the past. I have used every means at my command to persuade the chiefs to give this ghost dance up, but all in vain. …

I called in all the most prominent chiefs and talked with them in argument and persuasion, telling them that in the end they would be the ones that would suffer for perpetuating this most heathenish custom, and they simply laughed and said that they would keep it up as long as they pleased. The matter has assumed such large proportion that it is entirely beyond the control of the agent and police force, and if your Department desires to put a stop to it you can do so by sending a sufficient numbers of troops to arrest the leaders and place them in prison under guard, and then disarm the balance of the Indians on the reservation. I will be pleased to carry into effect any order you may issue.”[5]

Because Native Americans were resistant to giving up the Ghost Dance and because the US Army began to occupy the Lakota Sioux reservations, it created fear, confusion, and increased resistance among the Lakota. This eventually resulted in the Ghost Dance War and brought about the Wounded Knee Massacre that occurred on 29 December 1890 when the United States 7th Cavalry murdered between 150 to 300 men, women, and children, who were being relocated to the Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge. Most historians agree the Ghost Dance War ended when the Lakota Ghost-Dancing leader Kicking Bear met with U.S. officials, and they reached an agreement.

Mass grave for the Lakota dead after the Wound Knee Massacre. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the Ghost Dance then went underground and became a clandestine or private affair, Wilson, Kicking Bear, Short Bull, and other spiritual leaders continued to share the message. Threats from the U.S. Government continued, and anyone caught participating in the dance was punished. That along with the fact that Native Americans began to realize that Wilson’s prophecies were not coming true, caused the Ghost Dance to be discontinued.

*Disease and epidemics swept through Native American tribes in the 19th century causing widespread psychological and emotional trauma, which in turn disrupted their economic and social systems and ended their nomadic lifestyle. Then between 1830 and 1850 the U. S. Government began to initiate series of forced displacements of approximately 60,000 Native American Indians of the “Five Civilized Tribes” (the Cherokee, Muscogee “Creek,” Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations) that became known as the Trail of Tears. More trauma was experienced by Native Americans when the U.S. government regularly broke treaties and they had to face continual encroachment by the white man along with westward expansion, known as Manifest Destiny, which caused their lands to be swallowed up by the white man. Moreover, because of ethnocentricity there was a desire to end Native American tribal relationships and civilize Native American children, which meant children were sent to boarding schools with the purpose of learning and adopting the white man’s ways.
†A circle or round dance is a circular community dance held usually around an individual who leads the ceremony where dancers join hands to form a large circle and where participants seek trance, exhortations and prophecy.
‡The Navajos never joined the Ghost Dance movement partly because they were more satisfied economically and socially at the time, and they had an inculcated fear of ghosts and spirits.


  • [1] Kenosha News, “Weird Ghost Dances,” August 9, 1897, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] The Wichita Eagle, “The Strange Craze,” January 14, 1900, p. 10.
  • [4] The San Francisco Examiner, “Crazed by Fanaticism,” November 24, 1890, p. 2.
  • [5] The Executive Documents of the Senate of the United States for the Second Session of the Fifty-first Congress 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1891), p. 14–15.

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