The Ghost Dance (1889-1891) was a dance that spread like wildfire among Native Americans in the western US in 1890. It came with Ghost Shirts and Ghost Songs. It was a last desperate attempt to end White rule. It led to a US military crackdown that was the end of all hopes.
It was started by Wovoka, a Paiute from Nevada, who lived not far from where the Transcontinental Railroad crossed into California, the railroad along which the Ghost Dance would later spread. In January 1889 the moon covered the sun and Wovoka had a vision. He saw all the dead coming back to life. The Creator showed him the dances and songs needed to bring it about.
The Red Messiah: Wovoka taught a way of peace. He had a scar on his wrist and face. They say he worked miracles. People came from near and far to see him. Many thought he was Christ come back to earth as a Red man to judge White men, the Christ-killers, to put things back the way they should be.
The Ghost Dance spread among the Paiutes, Shoshone, Arapahoes, Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux, but not among the Yankton and Santee Sioux, Navajos, Pueblos or Natives in California. In general, it spread among the most desperate, like those the US government was starving into submission.
It reached its height among the Lakota Sioux in the western Dakotas, who said the Ghost Shirts would protect them from guns, who said Whites would be destroyed. The Dance was big on the Standing Rock reservation (where the #NoDAPL protests are now taking place) and the newly established Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.
The dance: Thousands gathered. They made you go through a sweat lodge and then put on a shirt with a crow, fish, stars and other symbols on it. They put a magpie feather and an eagle feather in your hair. Then you joined a great circle of dancers, holding hands. It was not a glad time yet people were expecting something wonderful. They sang songs like:
Mother do come back!
Mother do come back!
My little brother is crying for you –
My father says so!
They danced and danced and danced, all day and deep into the night. You danced till you dropped, falling out of the circle. Then you had a vision. All the visions ended the same way: a great camp of all the Sioux who had ever lived joined together in joy, with plenty of bison to live on. But then you would wake up into the terrible, unhappy world and start wailing.
And then it got worse:
The US military cracked down, Sitting Bull was killed, the last leader capable of leading a Sioux uprising. And then, on the fourth day after Christmas, the 7th Cavalry, defeated 14 years before by the Sioux at Custer’s Last Stand, killed over 153 unarmed men, women and children – by the stream where Crazy Horses’s heart lay secretly buried: Wounded Knee.
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: mainly “Speaking of Indians” (1944) by Ella Deloria (has an eyewitness account); “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (1970) by Dee Brown; “Man’s Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America” (1968) by Peter Farb.