The Ghost Dance movement that swept through the western Indian tribes in the late 1800s formed a tragic trajectory from Sitting Bull’s death to the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890.
After the U.S. government corralled Indians onto reservations, Congress promptly cut appropriations, drastically reducing rations for Indians at a time when crops were failing. A wave of epidemics followed, and Indians watched helplessly as their children starved or died of disease.
In explaining the appeal of the Ghost Dance shortly after the Wounded Knee massacre, Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud said: “We were faint with hunger and maddened by despair.”
In 1889, the Paiute shaman Wovoka began preaching about a great renewal that was coming in the spring of 1891. Mixing elements of Christianity and Indian beliefs, he promised tribes that Indians who had died at the hands of white men or their diseases would return, along with the buffalo that had nearly been exterminated by whites as part of their effort to subdue the Indians. And the white men would disappear.
Until then, Indians could visit that paradise by participating in what curious whites dubbed Ghost Dancing. But first they had to undergo purification and could not engage in fighting, drinking alcohol, lying, stealing or cruelty. Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs” describes it this way:
“The ritual dance was the essence of simplicity: the worshippers—each of them painted with a sacred red pigment—shuffled counterclockwise in a circle, moving slowly at first but then picking up tempo while singing songs acclaiming the resurrection. Many participants succeeded in their quest for a trance and awoke to tell marvelous tales of meeting with dead kinsmen and seeing the hosts of the past marching into the present.”
Wovoka’s vision was spread through letters written by boarding-school trained Indians and personal pilgrimages, like the one undertaken by Kicking Bear and several other Lakota who traveled to Nevada to hear Wovoka preach. Kicking Bear came to Sitting Bull in the fall of 1890 with news of the Ghost Dance. Sitting Bull tried the dance but experienced no vision and remained skeptical, saying dead men don’t come back to life. But he did not discourage interested Lakota from dancing.
In a move that would prove disastrous, Kicking Bear added his own touch, saying special ghost shirts would make the dancers impervious to bullets and hinting that the Lakota might hasten the prophecy about the whites vanishing from the Earth.
People began to dance at all the Lakota agencies (the forerunners of today’s reservations). An unnamed Pine Ridge pupil quoted in “The West: An Illustrated History” said, “To think I should see my dead mother, grandmother, brothers, and sisters again!” He traveled 30 miles with his classmates to join thousands of Lakota Ghost Dancers at Porcupine Creek:
“Occasionally, someone…fell unconscious into the center and lay there ‘dead.’ After a while, many lay about in that condition. They were now ‘dead’ and seeing their dear ones. As each one came to, she, or he, slowly sat up and looked about, bewildered, and then began wailing inconsolably.”
All that activity, in particular the wearing of “bulletproof” shirts, made whites nervous. The politically appointed agent at Pine Ridge, Daniel Royer, pleaded with the government to send troops to take the Ghost Dancers to a military prison. (Royer was so easily alarmed that the Lakota called him Young Man Afraid of Indians.)
The Army obliged by sending troops, prompting the dancers to flee from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud agencies to a plateau surrounded by cliffs that whites began calling “the Stronghold.”
Former agent Valentine McGillycuddy argued that the government was overreacting and issued a prescient warning:
“If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare the ascension robes for the Second Coming of the Savior, the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege? If the troops remain, trouble is sure to come.”
Sitting Bull, who had come to value the dancing because it represented a return to the old ways, sent word to Indian agent James McLaughlin seeking permission to travel from Standing Rock to join the Indians at the Stronghold near Pine Ridge.
Instead, McLaughlin sent 43 Indian policemen, backed by two troops of cavalry, to arrest Sitting Bull. Things quickly went awry. Indian policeman Lt. Bull Head was shot and, firing his pistol as he fell, struck Sitting Bull in the chest. In the same moment, another policeman named Red Tomahawk shot the chief in the head, killing him.
After Sitting Bull’s death, Chief Big Foot, who had lost faith in the Ghost Dance, began leading his band of 120 men and 230 women and children toward Pine Ridge seeking rations and protection from Chief Red Cloud. But the Army misinterpreted the action and intercepted them.
The next day, at Wounded Knee Creek, the soldiers began taking guns, knives and any kind of weapon they could find from Big Foot’s people. Troops surrounded the camp, and cannons were trained on the increasingly nervous Indians. Charles W. Allen, a Nebraska newspaperman who was at the scene, wrote that a medicine man began dancing and telling the Lakota that their ghost shirts would protect them:
“He was an orator of the first water. I remarked to some troopers nearby that if the man were an ordained minister of some Christian church he would convert the world.”
Allen said the medicine man threw a handful of dirt in the air, raised his arms to heaven and implored the Great Spirit to scatter the soldiers like the dirt. At the same time, the soldiers struggled with an Indian who initially refused to give up his gun. Someone fired a shot, and all hell broke loose. When it was over, some 300 Indians were dead.
Afterward, the last 4,000 Ghost Dancers came together in one village, which the Army surrounded. Finally, on January 15, 1891, the dancers surrendered. Kicking Bear was reportedly one of the last to turn in his rifle. It was the end of the Plains Indians’ armed resistance in the West.
According to Dee Brown in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” when the shots were fired that killed Sitting Bull:
“The old show horse that Buffalo Bill had presented to Sitting Bull began to go through his tricks. He sat upright, raised one hoof, and it seemed to those who watched that he was performing the Dance of the Ghosts.”