American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

The Beauty and Meaning of Ghost Dance Shirts

Many of the American Indian tribes that participated in the Ghost Dances in the late 1800s created special shirts and dresses for that purpose and infused them with meaning and power.

In “Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses,” Colleen Cutschall wrote:

“Both buckskin and cloth Ghost Dance dresses were painted with highly charged symbols of nature and the elements and emblems of feminine identity.”


Those symbols include the thunderbird and new moon — which “speak to a hoped-for reversal of desperate conditions and the beginning of a new life” — the sacred pipe, holy cedar tree, morning star and turtle, which represents protection of women and long life.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s website notes that the symbols on shirts and dresses include messengers to the heavens in the form of crows, eagles and magpies.

According to Cutschall:

“Through painted signs of power, the universe was being called upon to rescue [the Indians] from cultural genocide. When this new movement was unable to fulfill the promise of restored land, animals and deceased relatives, it dissolved. Dressmakers returned to time-honored quill and bead decoration. The short-lived explosion of new painted dress designs ended, never to be revived.”

But Peter Nabokov in “The Native Americans: An Illustrated History” wrote that revitalization movements like the Ghost Dance still survive. And others say the dance was performed during the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, to honor the ancestors who had died there.

southern-arapaho-ghost-dance-shirt_buffalo-bill-centerThe Denver Art Museum’s website says a pair of painted and beaded moccasins in its collection were created by a Southern Cheyenne artist for use in the Ghost Dance and later embellished by a Kiowa artist, who added beads:

“The Kiowa also danced the Ghost Dance during the same two-year span [1889-1890], but later brought it back in a different form and danced a revised version from 1894 to 1916.”

The Ghost Dance movement among the Plains Indian tribes was not the first of its kind. Twenty years earlier, tribes in north-central California were seeing their way of life destroyed by the influx of white settlers, who brought mining, ranching and deadly diseases. American Indian spiritual leaders “began preaching apocalyptic messages of redemption,” Nabokov wrote.

Around the same time, Smohalla, a Wanapum spiritual leader in Washington Territory, founded the Dreamer religion and advocated a spiritual uprising based on the rejection of farming and white man’s wares.


And in 1881, Apache medicine man Noch-ay-del-klinne held dances and promised better days for his people. His message was much the same as the Plains Indians’ Ghost Dance religion: Whites would disappear and slain chiefs would rise from the dead. When the Army tried to arrest him for being a troublemaker, fighting broke out between the soldiers and his followers, with the Army’s Apache scouts siding with their tribesmen. Noch-ay-del-klinne was killed in the crossfire.

Many of the beautiful Ghost Dance shirts and dresses were scattered in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee. In “The West: An Illustrated History,” a nurse who tended to the survivors was quoted as saying:

“A young girl…who had a ghost shirt on underneath her clothes [said,] ‘They told me if I put this on the bullets would not go through and I believed them. Now see where we are.’”

The girl asked the nurse to get rid of the shirt.

According to an article by Mark Hirsch, on the battlefield:

“Looters quickly stripped the bodies of Ghost Dance shirts and other possessions, which were sold to collectors and museums. Photographers canvassed the corpse-ridden fields, and sold their photos as postcards. Advertisements said they were ‘just the thing to send to your friends back east.’”


Twenty-seven Ghost Dance leaders were initially imprisoned “then released into the custody of Buffalo Bill Cody, who featured them in his Wild West show. By agreeing to go on tour, the Ghost Dancers were spared lengthy prison terms,” Hirsch wrote.

However, in some respects, the power of Ghost Dance clothing never waned. In 1892, a museum in Glasgow, Scotland, acquired a Ghost Dance shirt from a member of Buffalo Bill’s show. More than 100 years later, in 1999, the shirt was returned to the Lakota tribe in a special ceremony. At the time, Marcella LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, said, “This will bring about a sense of closure to a sad and horrible event. Now healing can begin.”

Footnote: I read a book as a child about the Ghost Dance and Indian agent James McLaughlin’s efforts to stifle it. The book was geared toward young readers and spared them none of the tragedy of the situation. It made an indelible impression on me, and I still remember puzzling over how to pronounce McLaughlin’s unfamiliar name — it had “laugh” in it, yet there was no humor or lightness to the story or the man. (I think the book might have been Barbara Bonham’s “The Battle of Wounded Knee: The Ghost Dance Uprising,” published in 1970.)

Photos are of Ghost Dance shirts and dresses at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Remembering the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D.

It’s a bit overwhelming to write a post about Wounded Knee, both because of the complexity of the events leading up to the massacre and the enormity of the heartbreak, but I wanted to note the date—126 years ago today.

What was originally called a battle and now widely acknowledged as a massacre happened two weeks after Sitting Bull was killed. Wounded Knee marked the end of the Indian wars by crushing the last vestige of the Plains Indians’ resistance. It still resonates as a shocking tale of cruelty and wanton disregard for life.

In the immediate aftermath of Sitting Bull’s death during a botched arrest, bands of Sioux panicked and fled. Some joined up with Miniconjou Lakota Chief Big Foot and his people, who were on their way to procure rations at the Indian agency near Fort Bennett in South Dakota. They were intercepted by the 8th Cavalry, which had orders to arrest Big Foot because U.S. authorities believed he was a troublemaker. The Indians went with the soldiers toward Camp Cheyenne, but when they got close to their village, they refused to go any further. During the night, amid reports of more troops coming from the east, the Indians fled toward the Badlands.

Another cavalry unit caught up with them on December 28 and demanded that they surrender, which the Indians did, being in no condition to fight the Army. The troops hurried them to Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians set up camp as the soldiers took up positions around them.

More soldiers arrived in the morning, bringing the military escort to 470 for some 350 hungry, tired Indian men, women and children led by a chief who was suffering from pneumonia.

On the morning of December 29, Col. James Forsyth sought to disarm the Indians first voluntarily then by force. Soldiers tore through the tipis in the hunt for weapons then tried to search the warriors themselves. In the confusion, a young Indian fired wildly. “Instantly, the soldiers retaliated with a point-blank volley which cut down nearly half the warriors,” according to Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs.” “The rest of them drew concealed weapons and charged the soldiers.”

The Army’s rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns shredded the tipis and set them on fire, mowing down women and children as they and a few warriors fled into a ravine. The soldiers repositioned the Hotchkiss guns to “sweep the ravine and cut down anything that moved.”

Chief Big Foot’s frozen body lays in the snow at Wounded Knee.

Big Foot was shot and killed as he tried to rise from his sickbed. Some of the wounded managed to run two miles from the camp before being killed by cavalry members who rode after them, while other soldiers finished off the wounded in the camp, including children coaxed from their hiding places.

The Army suffered 25 killed and 39 wounded. But because the Indians had few guns and the troops were firing from all sides at once, the soldiers likely caused many of their own casualties. To add insult to injury, 20 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions.

burial_party_wounded_knee-640Some 300 dead Indians were left where they fell for three days as a blizzard swept through. On New Year’s Day 1891, a burial party was sent to retrieve the bodies. Civilians were paid $2 per body to drag the Indians from under the snow and dump them into a mass grave.

According to Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs”:

“Four babies were discovered still alive, wrapped in their dead mothers’ shawls. Most of the other children were dead. ‘It was a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone,’ said one member of the burial party, ‘to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit.’”

In “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Brown writes that only four Indian men and 47 women and children survived the massacre. Soldiers loaded them onto wagons and took them to the Pine Ridge Indian agency.

The last words of Brown’s book fittingly belong to Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota leader born in 1863:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”