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Native American Religion

The Ghost Dance, Religious Cult


By the 1880's the U.S. government had managed to confine almost all of the Indians on reservations which consisted of poor quality land. Rations and supplies that had been guaranteed to them by the treaties were also of poor quality and often times, they didn’t arrive.

By 1890 conditions were so bad on the reservations, nationwide, with starvation conditions existing in many places, that the situation was ripe for a major movement to rise among the Indians. This movement found its origin in a Paiute medicine man named Wovoka, who in 1887, had a vision where he met God. Wovoka was told that he must teach his people that they must love each other, live in peace with the white people, and must work hard and not lie or steal.
Ghost Dance

Wovoka was given a dance by God that had to be performed for five consecutive days. This involved the men holding hands in a circle and shuffling slowly to the left while singing special songs about how Native American life would be restored to its former order and balance. Wovoka claimed that performing this dance would also result in the return of the buffalo and prepare the Indians for their salvation.

News about Wovoka's teachings spread to other Native American tribes. The most enthusiastic supporters of this new cult was the Sioux. Soon, 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.

In early October of 1890, Kicking Bear, a Minneconjou, visited Sitting Bull at Standing Rock. He told him of the visit he and his brother-in-law, Short Bull, had made to Nevada to visit Wovoka. They told him of the great number of other Indians who were there as well. They referred to Wovoka as a savior and told of the Ghost Dance that they had learned. And they told him of the phophecy that, next spring, when the grass was high, the earth would be covered with new soil, burying all the white men. The new soil would be covered with sweet grass, running water and trees; 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 replaced there, with the ghosts of their ancestors, on the new earth. And, only Indians would live there then.

This new religion was being taught at all of the Sioux reservations now. Big Foot's band, which consisted mostly of women who had lost their husbands and/or other male relatives in battles with the government, would dance until they collapsed, hoping to guarantee the return of their dead warriors. Sitting Bull doubted that the dead would be be brought back to life but he had no objections to people dancing the Ghost Dance. However he had heard that the agents were getting nervous about the dancing, thinking it was a preparation for further hostilities. He did not want the soldiers to return to kill more of his people. Kicking Bear assured him that, if the dancers wore their Ghost Dance shirts, painted with magic symbols, the soldiers bullets would not strike them. Sitting Bull consented to Kicking Bear remaining at Standing Rock and teaching the Ghost Dance. This began a chain of events that lead to his death on December 15.


As the number of people involved in the Ghost Dance movement increased, the panic and hysteria of the Indian agents increased with it. Agent McLaughlin had Kicking Bear removed from Standing Rock, but this did not stop the movement there. McLaughlin telegraphed Washington, asking for troops and blaming Sitting Bull as the power behind this "pernicious system of religion." Panicky messages about Indians dancing in the snow, wild and crazy, were sent to Washington. One voice of sanity, the former agent, Valentine McGillycuddy, recommended allowing the dances to continue.

Nonetheless, on December 12, the order was received to arrest Sitting Bull. On December 15, 43 Indian police surrounded Sitting Bull's cabin before dawn. Three miles away they were backed up by a squadron of cavalry. When Lieutenant Bull Head entered the cabin, Sitting Bull was asleep. Upon awakening, he agreed to come with the police and asked that his horse be saddled while he dressed. When they left the cabin, a large group of Ghost Dancers, much larger than the police force, had assembled and challenged the police. One dancer, Catch-the-Bear, pulled out a rifle and shot Lieutenant Bull Head in the side. In an attempt to shoot back at his assailant, Bull Head instead accidentally shot Sitting Bull. Then another policeman, Red Tomahawk, shot Sitting Bull in the head. Many Indian policemen died that day before the cavalry arrived to quell the fighting.

This event then precipitated the events that were to follow at Wounded Knee which effectively brought an end to the Ghost Dance cult.

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