The Ghost Dance gradually replaced the Sun Dance which was being banned by a joint effort of the federal government and missioners, at times both seemed the same, because of the apparent self-torture elements involved. This was in the mid-1870s. This forced tribes to perform Sun Dances in secrecy which destroyed the effectiveness of a ceremony that required the participation through observation of hundreds even thousands onlookers.
During this time the life of the Plains Indian was dismal. The stable of his life, the buffalo, was being slaughtered and destroyed right before his eyes by white men and there was nothing he could do to stop this slaughter. The buffalo not only was food for the Indians, the hides served for shelter in making tipis, clothing was made from dressed skins, and the animal also provided religious support and paraphernalia.
Earlier in 1870 the Kiowas held a ceremony to bring the buffalo back, which entailed hanging a red blanket over a great black rock and begging the buffalo to come out from under it. Needless to say the ceremony failed disastrously. It was based on the Kiowa emergence myth of their trickster-hero Sayney who had brought the buffalo forth from just such a rock.
The Ghost Dance, however, was slow in spreading. Some record the first Ghost Dance as being performed on the Walker Lake reservation in Nevada in 1870. Its initiator was Wodziwob, “Gray Hair,” who claimed to have experienced visions the previous decade. In a trance he had gone to another world where he was told that an Indian resistance was at hand. This would restore the former Indian way of life and the traditional animal, namely the buffalo, which had been hunted. To expedite these events the Indians were to perform certain round dances at night.
Another promoter was Jack Wilson, or Wovoka, a Paiute Indian of Nevada. Jack Wilson was the name given to him by David Wilson, a farmer who took the boy in. His proper name was Wovoka, “The Cutter,” and he was the son of Travibo, “White Man,” who was not a preacher, but was a capila, from the Spanish capitan, or petty chief, and was a dreamer and invulnerable. He was often said to be a half-blood because of a misconception between his father’s name of “White Man” and his give white-man name. His followers in his own and other tribes frequently called him “our father,” and he was referred to as a messiah by Indians and whites. He spoke the Paiute language and knew some English.
When he was twenty he married and continued working for Wilson. He had given the dance to his people about four years earlier, but had received a great revelation two years previously. This occurred on an occasion when “the sun died,” as he described it (solar eclipse) when he fell asleep in the daytime and was taken up to the other world. Others say it happened when Wonoka was very sick. There he saw God, and all the people who had died long ago engaging in their old-time sports and occupations, all happy and forever young. After being shown this, God told him he must go and tell his people that they must be good and love one another, have no quarreling among themselves, and live peacefully with the whites. There were more instructions that God delivered and some pertained to the dance. Specifically these were that this dance was to be performed at intervals, for five consecutive days each. The dances would secure happiness for the Indian people and hasten the event which God promised; the reunion to friends in the other world, where there was no death, sickness, or old age. Finally God gave him control over the elements so he could make it rain, snow, or be dry at will; and finally God appointed him his deputy to take charge over things in the west; while “Governor Harrison” would attend to matters in the east, and he, God, would look after the world above.
As best as it could be determined the sun eclipse that Wovoka spoke of occurred January 1, 1889. So his “Governor Harrison” was President Benjamin Harrison. After this he said God had summoned him twice more. He disclaimed any responsibility for the “ghost shirt” which became prevalent among the Sioux. He also said the dance contained not trance, to which there were several eyewitnesses, and earnestly expressed that there was no hostility intended toward white men, but all were to live peacefully.
To some Wovoka and his people seemed sincere in what they claimed, even though others knew it was not possible. But as the dance spread to other tribes it gradually took on more menacing overtones. At first the purpose of the dance was to hasten the reunion of the dead with the living and bring back the buffalo, all of which was to coincide with peaceful living with the white man which God would bring about in his due time. But as some contend, the more war-like Sioux were restless from old and recent grievances, as well as being on the verge of starvation. They wanted the return of the ghosts-a time when the white man would be annihilated and the Indian would be supreme. No one actually knows when all of these events were to occur, but the best estimate is in the summer, late July or early August, when the Sun Dance used to be held.
The ghost shirt, as previously mentioned, was distinctly the Sioux’s contribution to the Ghost Dance. It was made of cloth and cut and ornamented in Indian fashion; during the dance it was worn outside but at other times under ordinary clothing. In some cases the supposedly sacred red blood of the messiah was painted on the shirt; this, it was believed made it impenetrable or “bullet-proof.” When one woman was shot in the Wounded Knee massacre and told by the authorities that they would have to take her shirt, she shouted, “Yes; take it off. They told me a bullet would not go through. Now I don’t want it any more.”
Originally the Ghost Dance was performed in the traditional shamanistic style of western Nevada dancing in a circle around a pole, which perhaps resembled the tree, mostly cottonwood representing the Great Provider, that was an important part of the Sun Dance. People first danced and sang circling it while clasping hands or rattles. It was later that the hypnotic power or trance entered the dance.
The more warlike Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes armed themselves secretly in preparation for the Ghost Dance uprising. Underground messengers were sent from tribe to tribe spreading the word that on a certain day all tribes in unison would rise up against the whites. This, however, never occurred because of squabbles among Indian leaders, betrayal, the tragedy of Wounded Knee, and the killing of Sitting Bull in 1890 by Indian police.
Not all Indian tribes fell under the influence of the Ghost Dance. The Comanche Chief Quanah Parker did not believe Wovoka’s promise of invincibility to the white man’s bullets because he had listened to a similar prophecy sixteen years which was included in the incantations of Esa-tai, the Wolf Prophet. He had believed Esa-tai in 1874, but not now, because it was clear to him that the return of the buffalo and the former way of life was not going to occur no matter how desperately Wovoka and his disciples throughout the many tribes hoped for their vision. Quanah’s counseling against the Ghost Dance prevented the Comanche from experiencing a similar tragedy as those at Wounded Knee.
Those living at the start of the twenty-first century are likely to say that the Ghost Dance never had a ghost-of-a-chance, pardon the pun, of succeeding, and might wonder how so many nineteenth century Native Americans hoped and thought it would. But before being too critical of these ancestors, their circumstances must be considered and compared. The American Indian had been stripped of his land almost since white Europeans had first come ashore on this continent. By the nineteenth century, and much earlier, many had been forcibly moved onto reservations where their movement would be confined and their native tongues and religion taken from them. Then and later, early twentieth century, they, especially children, were taken into boarding homes where they were strictly forbidden to speak their native language and indoctrinated into Christianity. These people were being deprived of their life, being rounded up like animals; yes, they eventually sought to do away with their capturers and return to a life they enjoyed before these capturers came. This was the appeal of the Ghost Dance, the hope for a starving and defenseless people.
The promises of Wovoka read like an Indian version of Biblical scripture. This is a certain indication that the Indian had been exposed to Christianity and their thinking was influenced by it. Some said Wovoka was inspired by observing the religious Shakers of eastern Washington and Oregon, not to be confused with the Shakers of New York and Pennsylvania. Perhaps the Wilson family that he lived with was members of a sect of these people danced in a circle until falling exhaustedly into a trance, and when emerging from it told of seeing Jesus coming with their relatives who had passed on and spoke with them. In comparison is there much difference between the belief in the promise of the Ghost Dance and the belief in the second coming of Jesus?
Yes, it is true the vision of the Ghost Dance could never be realized; but it offered hope. The Indians could not muster the superhuman faith or strength required to fight the white government; their ghost shirts only offered false invulnerability. The man who knew this and the inevitable outcome was Quanah Parker, and others like him, who lived both as an Indian and white man, and knew the white man’s ways, even then he just could stay out of harm’s way. He foresaw that his people would become dependent on the government. However, to show appreciation for his counsel to his people concerning the Ghost Dance Indian, Agent P. B. Hunt, serving from 1878 to 1885, hired a Texas attorney to try to establish Quanah’s rights to his mother’s land which Cynthia Ann Parker never confirmed her title to and her son was denied ownership. A.G.H.
Ghost Dance. <http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/ghostdance.htm#profile>.
Marriott, Alice, Carol K. Rachlin. Peyote. New York. Thomas Y. Crowell, Co. 1971. pp. 20-23
Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee. New York. Dover Publications. 1978. pp. 772-774, 788-790
Neeley, Bill. The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker. New York. Johm Wiley & Sons. 1995. pp. 150-160