The Ghost Dance - A Promise of Fulfillment
Dance (Natdia) is a spiritual movement that came about in the late
1880s when conditions were bad on Indian reservations and
Native Americans needed something to give them hope. This
movement found its origin in a Paiute
Wovoka, who announced that he was the messiah come to
earth to prepare the Indians for their salvation.
The Paiute tradition that led to the Ghost
Dance began in the 1870s in the Western Great Basin from the
visions of Wodziwob (Gray Hair) concerning earth renewal and the
reintroduction of the spirits of ancient Numu (Northern Paiute)
ancestors into the contemporary day to help them. Central to the Natdia religion was the dance itself - dancing in a circular pattern
continuously - which induced a state of religious ecstasy.
The movement began with a dream by
(named Jack Wilson in English), a Northern Paiute, during the solar
eclipse on January 1, 1889. He claimed that, in his dream, he was
taken into the spirit world and saw all Native Americans being taken up into the sky and the Earth opening
up to swallow all Whites and to revert back to its natural state. The
Native Americans, along with their ancestors, were put back upon
the earth to live in peace. He also claimed that he was shown that, by
dancing the round-dance continuously, the dream would become a reality
and the participants would enjoy the new Earth.
His teachings followed a previous Paiute
tradition predicting a Paiute renaissance. Varying somewhat, it
contained much Christian doctrine. He also told them to remain
peaceful and keep the reason for the dance secret from the Whites. Wovoka's message spread quickly to other Native American peoples and
soon many of them were fully dedicated to the movement.
Representatives from tribes all over the nation came to
Wovoka and learn to dance the Ghost
Dance and to sing Ghost
The dance as told by
went something like this: "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
The Natdia, it was
claimed, would bring about renewal of the native society and decline in
the influence of the Whites.
Affairs (BIA) agents grew disturbed when they became aware that so many
were coming together and participating in a new and unknown event.
In early October, 1890, Kicking Bear,
Sioux Indian, visited
Sitting Bull at Standing Rock
telling him of his visit to
They told him of the great
number of other Indians
who were there as well, referring to
Wovoka as the Christ.
And they told him of the
prophecy that the next spring, when the grass was high, the earth would be
covered with new soil and bury all the white men. The new soil would be
covered with sweet grass, running water and trees and the great herds of
buffalo and wild horses would return. All Indians
who danced the Ghost
would be taken up into the air and suspended there while the new earth was
being laid down. Then they would be returned to the earth along with the
ghosts of their ancestors.
When the dance spread to the Lakota,
the BIA agents became alarmed. They claimed that the Lakota
developed a militaristic approach to the dance and began making "ghost
shirts" they thought would protect them from bullets. They also spoke
openly about why they were dancing. The BIA agent in charge of the Lakota
eventually sent the tribal police to arrest Sitting Bull, a leader respected
among the Lakota, to force him to stop the dance. In the struggle that
followed, Sitting Bull was killed along
with a number of policemen. A small detachment of cavalry eventually
rescued the remaining policemen.
The Father Comes
There is the father coming,
There is the father coming.
The father says this as he comes,
The father says this as he comes,
"You shall live," he says as he comes,
"You shall live," 'he says as he comes.
Ghost Dance Song
Sitting Bull, the United States
sent the Seventh Cavalry to "disarm the
and take control." During the events that followed, now known as the
Massacre on December 29, 1890, 457 U.S. soldiers opened fire
upon the Sioux
killing more than 200 of them. The Ghost
reached its peak just before the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
When it became apparent
that ghost shirts did not protect from bullets and the expected
resurrection did not happen, most former believers quit the Ghost
Wovoka, disturbed by the death threats and disappointed with the many
reinterpretations of his vision, gave up his public speaking. However, he
remained well-respected among his followers and continued his religious
activities. He traveled and received visitors until the end of his life in
1932. There are still members of the religious movement today.
Believers in the Ghost
spirituality are convinced that performing the Ghost
will eventually reunite them with their ancestors coming by railway from
the spirit world. The ancestor spirits, including the spirit of Jesus, are
called upon to heal the sick and to help protect Mother Earth. Meanwhile,
the world will return to a primordial state of natural beauty, opening up
to swallow up all other people (those who do not have a strong
spirituality based upon the earth). The performers of the Ghost
theoretically will float in safety above with their ancestors, family, and
peoples of the world who follow the extensive spirituality.
Observation and Description of the Ghost Dance:
Mrs. Z.A. Parker
observed the Ghost Dance among the Lakota
at Pine Ridge Reservation,
Territory on June 20, 1890 and described it:
We drove to this spot
about 10:30 o’clock on a delightful October day. We came upon tents
scattered here and there in low, sheltered places long before reaching
the dance ground. Presently we saw over three hundred tents placed in
a circle, with a large pine tree in the center, which was covered with
strips of cloth of various colors, eagle feathers, stuffed birds,
claws, and horns-all offerings to the Great Spirit. The
ceremonies had just begun. In the center, around the tree, were
gathered their medicine-men; also those who had been so fortunate as
to have had visions and in them had seen and talked with friends who
had died. A company of fifteen had started a chant and were marching
abreast, others coming in behind as they marched. After marching
around the circle of tents they turned to the center, where many had
gathered and were seated on the ground.
I think they wore the ghost shirt or ghost
dress for the first time that day. I noticed that these were all new
and were worn by about seventy men and forty women. The wife of a man
called Return-from-scout had seen in a vision that her friends all
wore a similar robe, and on reviving from her trance she called the
women together and they made a great number of the sacred garments.
They were of white cotton cloth. The women's dress was cut like their
ordinary dress, a loose robe with wide, flowing sleeves, painted blue
in the neck, in the shape of a three-cornered handkerchief, with moon,
stars, birds, etc., interspersed with real feathers, painted on the
waists, letting them fall to within 3 inches of the ground, the fringe
at the bottom. In the hair, near the crown, a feather was tied. I
noticed an absence of any manner of head ornaments, and, as I knew
their vanity and fondness for them, wondered why it was. Upon making
inquiries I found they discarded everything they could which was made
by white men.
The ghost shirt for the men was made of
the same material-shirts and leggings painted in red. Some of the
leggings were painted in stripes running up and down, others running
around. The shirt was painted blue around the neck, and the whole
garment was fantastically sprinkled with figures of birds, bows and
arrows, sun, moon, and stars, and everything they saw in nature.
Down the outside of the sleeve were rows of feathers tied by the quill
ends and left to fly in the breeze, and also a row around the neck and
up and down the outside of the leggings. I noticed that a number had
stuffed birds, squirrel heads, etc., tied in their long hair. The
faces of all were painted red with a black half-moon on the forehead
or on one cheek.
the crowd gathered about the tree the high priest, or master of ceremonies, began his address, giving them directions as to the chant and
other matters. After he had spoken for about fifteen minutes they arose
and formed in a circle. As nearly as I could count, there were between
three and four hundred persons.
stood directly behind another, each with his hands on his neighbor's
shoulders. After walking about a few times, chanting, "Father, I come,"
they stopped marching, but remained in the circle, and set up the most
fearful, heart-piercing wails I ever heard-crying, moaning, groaning, and
shrieking out their grief, and naming over their departed friends and
relatives, at the same time taking up handfuls of dust at their feet,
washing their hands in it, and throwing it over their heads.
Finally, they raised
their eyes to heaven, their hands clasped high above their heads, and
stood straight and perfectly still, invoking the power of the Great Spirit
to allow them to see and talk with their people who had died. This
ceremony lasted about fifteen minutes, when they all sat down where they
were and listened to another address, which I did not understand, but
which I afterwards learned were words of encouragement and assurance of
the coming messiah.
When they arose again, they enlarged the circle by facing toward the
center, taking hold of hands, and moving around in the manner of school
children in their play of "needle's eye." And now the most intense
excitement began. They would go as fast as they could, their hands moving
from side to side, their bodies swaying, their arms, with hands gripped
tightly in their neighbors', swinging back and forth with all their might.
If one, more weak and frail, came near falling, he would be jerked up and
into position until tired nature gave way.
The ground had been
worked and worn by many feet, until the fine, flour-like dust lay light
and loose to the depth of two or three inches. The wind, which had
increased, would sometimes take it up, enveloping the dancers and hiding
them from view. In the ring were men, women, and children; the strong and
the robust, the weak consumptive, and those near to death's door. They
believed those who were sick would be cured by joining in the dance and
losing consciousness. From the beginning they chanted, to a monotonous
tune, the words:
Father, I come;
Mother, I come;
Brother, I come;
Father, give us back our
Ghost Dance, Wovoka, Illustration by James Mooney,
1893, courtesy National Anthropological Archives,
All of which they would
repeat over and over again until first one and then another would break
from the ring and stagger away and fall down. One woman fell a few feet
from me. She came toward us, her hair flying over her face, which was
purple, looking as if the blood would burst through; her hands and arms
moving wildly; every breath a pant and a groan; and she fell on her back,
and went down like a log. I stepped up to her as she lay there motionless,
but with every muscle twitching and quivering. She seemed to be perfectly
unconscious. Some of the men and a few of the women would run, stepping
high and pawing the air in a frightful manner. Some told me afterwards
that they had a sensation as if the ground were rising toward them and
would strike them in the face. Others would drop where they stood. One
woman fell directly into the ring, and her husband stepped out and stood
over her to prevent them from trampling upon her. No one ever disturbed
those who fell or took any notice of them except to keep the crowd away.
They kept up dancing
until fully 100 persons were lying unconscious. Then they stopped and
seated themselves in a circle, and as each recovered from his trance he
was brought to the center of the ring to relate his experience. Each told
his story to the medicine-man and he shouted it to the crowd. Not one in
ten claimed that he saw anything. I asked one Indian,
a tall, strong fellow, straight as an arrow-what his experience was. He
said he saw an eagle coming toward him. It flew round and round, drawing
nearer and nearer until he put out his hand to take it, when it was gone.
I asked him what he thought of it. "Big lie," he replied. I found by
talking to them that not one in twenty believed it. After resting for a
time they would go through the same performance, perhaps three times a
day. They practiced fasting, and every morning those who joined in the
dance were obliged to immerse themselves in the creek. - Z.A. Parker,
of America, updated May, 2016.
1898, Adolph F.Muhr
Native American Dances
American Rituals and Ceremonies