The Ghost Dance - Native American Religion
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The Ghost Dance

Wovoka
Wovoka

By the late 1800s AD, the United States and Canadian armies had forced most of the people who had hunted buffalo on the Great Plains to move to reservations. The reservations were on terrible land, deserts with no water, and now that the buffalo had all been killed, people had no way to get food and many of them were sick or starving. The Cree, the Arapaho, the Blackfoot, the Ute, and the Sioux were among these people.


A descendant of Wovoka talks about his ancestor

Then in 1889, during an eclipse of the sun, Wovoka, a Paiute man, had a vision that told him that he was the Christian Messiah, sent to earth to prepare his people to go to Heaven. Soon their suffering would be ended and they would all be happy. Since they were all so unhappy now, this was a very popular idea, and soon many people came from all of the Plains nations to learn more about Wovoka's ideas.

Wovoka told everyone that he had a prophecy about the future. He said that in the next spring, the earth would be covered with tons of new dirt, which would bury all the white people and get rid of them forever. Great herds of buffalo and wild horses would come back. All the people who danced the Ghost Dance would rise up into the air while the dirt was coming down, and then they would land safely on top of the dirt afterwards, along with the ghosts of all their ancestors. They would all live together and be happy - only Native Americans and nobody else.

Ghost Dance dress
Ghost Dance dress

Many Sioux people, especially women, were dancing the Ghost Dance over and over until they collapsed. The United States soldiers were very nervous about all this dancing. Sitting Bull, a chief of the Sioux, wanted people to stop dancing, but another chief, Kicking Bear, told him that if people wore their Ghost Shirts while they were dancing no bullets could hit them. So people did keep dancing in their Ghost Shirts. The United States soldiers came to arrest Sitting Bull to try to stop the dancing, and Sitting Bull was shot to death in December of 1890.

When the Mormons heard about this new prophet, they came to see him to see whether he was really a holy man or not. The idea of the Ghost Shirt or Ghost Dress may come from Mormon ideas about sacred clothing that would protect you.

But after the death of Sitting Bull and other Sioux, who were not protected even though they were wearing their Ghost Shirts, Wovoka's movement became less popular.

More about the Sioux
More about the Mormons

Bibliography and further reading about the Ghost Dancers:

The Sioux
American religion
American History
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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