The Ghost 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 Indian named 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 Wovoka (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 Nevada to meet with Wovoka and learn to dance the Ghost Dance and to sing Ghost Dance songs.
The dance as told by Wovoka 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 eat.”
The Natdia, it was claimed, would bring about renewal of the native society and decline in the influence of the Whites.
Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents grew disturbed when they became aware that so many Indians were coming together and participating in a new and unknown event.
In early October, 1890, Kicking Bear, a Minneconjou Sioux Indian, visited Sitting Bull at Standing Rock telling him of his visit to Wovoka. 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 Dance 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.
Following the killing of Sitting Bull, the United States sent the Seventh Cavalry to “disarm the Lakota and take control.” During the events that followed, now known as the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890, 457 U.S. soldiers opened fire upon the Sioux killing more than 200 of them. The Ghost Dance 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 Dance. 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 Dance spirituality are convinced that performing the Ghost Dance 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 Dance theoretically will float in safety above with their ancestors, family, and peoples of the world who follow the extensive spirituality.
1890 Observation and Description of the Ghost Dance:
Mrs. Z.A. Parker observed the Ghost Dance among the Lakota at Pine Ridge Reservation, Dakota 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.