1870 ghost dance

The 1870 Ghost Dance

368 pages 24 illustrations, map, table, index



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1870 ghost dance

Wovoka and the Ghost Dance

1870 ghost dance

The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

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  • ghost dance in A Dictionary of World History (2 ed.)
  • Ghost dance in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1 rev ed.)
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  • Publishing Information
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Ghost Dance

Omer C. Stewart

Ghost Dance .  

The Ghost Dance of 1870 and 1890 was a Native American world-renewal religion. The religion took many forms, but its principal ideas were that the spirits of the dead would be raised, the buffalo would return, and European settlers would be driven away. A dance was the central focus of the ritual.

Precursors of the Ghost Dance may date back to Aztec religion. The languages of the Aztec and Northern Paiute are related and the latter are the originators of the Ghost Dance. Preceding the Ghost Dance, however, and coming from Nevada to the Plains, was the widespread Sun Dance—a painful, trance-inducing ordeal, with dancing under the hot sun from dawn to dusk. The Cheyenne emphasized that the ritual performance of the Sun Dance would reanimate the earth and its life—that is, renew the world.

The tribes of the northwestern plateau between the Rocky and Cascade ranges believed in the impending destruction and renewal of the world, when the dead were to return. Dance ceremonies would hasten the advent of that day. Leslie Spier, who in the 1930s designated such a ceremony the Prophet Dance, believed that it was this dance that gave rise to both the 1870 and the 1890 Ghost Dance of the Northern Paiute.

The Ghost Dance of 1870 was developed by a Northern Paiute medicine man, usually referred to as Wodsiwob, of Walker Lake Reservation, Nevada. The dance spread east to the Ute of Utah and the Shoshone of Idaho but was more important in Oregon and northern California. The 1870 Ghost Dance persisted through one generation to contribute to the rise of the 1890 Ghost Dance. The form of the dance—men and women holding hands and circling by stepping sideways—is both the ancient and the modern form of Northern Paiute social dancing.

Various factors contributed to the development of the Ghost Dance. One was based on ancient Northern Paiute (or Paviotso) shamanism, in which an individual gained power and knowledge through personal visions. [See Shamanism .] The Paiute were acquainted with the messianic hope and resurrection of the dead taught by Christianity; the consecrated undergarments worn by Mormons in the area to ward off harm may have inspired Ghost Dance shirts, to which similar power was attributed. Transportation by horse and then railroad, and communication by the U.S. postal service, facilitated the spread of ideas. The increasing domination of Native Americans by European settlers, with the accompanying destruction of the aboriginal ways of life, was the context in which the Ghost Dance developed.

The Ghost Dance of 1890 became more renowned than that of 1870 because it spread to the Great Plains and the warrior tribes of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and others. The ritual comprised two types of dances. In the general dance, all participants held hands and moved in a circle by means of simple sidesteps. The stately steps were performed in unison, fairly slowly. Wovoka or John Wilson, the teacher of the Ghost Dance of 1890, announced that the God of the Christian Bible had instructed him, during a trance, to use the Paiute Round Dance as part of the sacred ceremony to help Him renew the world. In the second dance type, a frenzied twisting, turning, and gazing at the sun ended with the participant falling into a trance. Such individuals were seeking special communication with God, in imitation of the original vision reported by Wovoka after his trances in 1889.

The two types of dancing represent variations in leadership and in membership. The priest who had learned the proper rules and procedures directed sedate and orderly worship. The converts who were seeking to have personal encounters with supernatural powers tried to enlarge and broaden their religious teachings by receiving direct supernatural instruction under the new revelation. Most devotees failed in their attempts to modify the original instructions of the prophet Wovoka, so for the most part the Ghost Dance remained an orderly, slow circle dance accompanied by group singing and praying.

The U.S. government tried to ban the Ghost Dance, believing that it would lead to an uprising. Sioux Ghost Dancers, trusting that their Ghost Dance shirts would protect them from enemy bullets, were massacred by the army at Wounded Knee Creek, in South Dakota, on 29 December 1890. Although it is commonly believed that the movement ended at that time, large crowds continued to dance the Ghost Dance in Oklahoma after 1908, and small groups of believers persisted in South Dakota for decades.

See also Native American Dance .

Barney, Garold D. Mormons, Indians, and the Ghost Dance Religion of 1890 . Lanham, Md., 1986. Find this resource:

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Du Bois, Cora Alice. The 1870 Ghost Dance . Berkeley, 1939. Find this resource:

Kroeber, A.L., and E. W. Gifford. World Renewal: A Cult System of Native Northwestern California . Berkeley, 1949. Find this resource:

Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 . Washington, D.C., 1896. Find this resource:

Osterreich, Shelley Anne. The American Indian Ghost Dance, 1870 and 1890: An Annotated Bibliography . New York, 1991. Find this resource:

Spier, Leslie. The Prophet Dance of the Northwest and Its Derivatives . Menasha, Wis., 1935. Find this resource:

Stewart, Omer C. The Ghost Dance. In Anthropology on the Great Plains , edited by W. Raymond Wood and Margot Liberty. Lincoln, Neb., 1980. Find this resource:

Vaillant, George C. The Aztecs of Mexico . New York, 1956. Find this resource:

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  • The 1870 Ghost Dance

In this Book

The 1870 Ghost Dance

  • Cora Du Bois
  • Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Table of Contents

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  • Title Page, Copyright
  • Illustrations
  • Introduction to the Nebraska Edition
  • pp. ix-xxiii
  • pp. xxv-xxviii
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Nevada and the Klamath Drainage
  • Part Two: Western Oregon
  • Part Three: North-Central California
  • Part Four: Big Head Cult
  • pp. 271-295
  • Summary of Chronology
  • pp. 297-299
  • Summary of Contents
  • pp. 301-311
  • Conclusions and Speculations
  • pp. 313-322
  • Appendix: Informants
  • pp. 323-333
  • pp. 335-350
  • pp. 351-375

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Teaching American History

Letter Regarding the Ghost Dance Doctrine

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During a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, Wovoka (c. 1856–1932), a Paiute also known as Jack Wilson, either fell into a coma brought on by scarlet fever or died, depending on which version of his story one chooses to believe. While in a coma or dead, he claimed to have met the Christian God and Jesus and received a vision. Indians were to perform a prescribed dance. If they did so faithfully, whites would be swept from the continent, all the ancestors who had died since their coming would be resurrected, the earth would renew itself, and buffalo would again be plentiful. This was the fourth and last in the chain of “raising-up” movements that began with Pontiac and continued with Tecumseh (See Speech of Tenskwatawa and Address to the Osage ). The third in the chain was the Ghost Dance of 1870.

Wovoka’s Ghost Dance movement swept through the western tribes, demoralized by confinement to reservations, like wildfire. His message traveled in two ways. Delegations visited the prophet to hear him preach. To those tribal nations who did not send embassies, he sent letters. The so-called Messiah Letter, as reported by noted ethnographer James Mooney, appears below in three versions: one sent to the Arapaho, one to the Cheyenne, and a “free rendering.”

Although Wovoka’s teachings were pacifistic, whites feared that the movement might unite Indians and lead to military conflict. This misunderstanding started a chain of events that led to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.

James Mooney, “The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,” in J. W. Powell, Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1896), 780–781, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Ghost_dance_Religion_and_the_Sioux_O/KOYNAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0 . All bracketed text is in the source.

The Messiah Letter (Arapaho Version)

What you get home you make dance, and will give you the same. when you dance four days and in night one day, dance day time, five days and then fifth, will wash five for every body. He likes you folk you give him good many things, he heart been satting feel good. After you get home, will give good cloud, and give you chance to make you feel good. and he give you good spirit. and he give you all a good paint.

You folks want you to come in three [months] here, any tribs from there. There will be good bit snow this year. Sometimes rain’s, in fall, this year some rain, never give you anything like that. grandfather said when he die never no cry. no hurt anybody. no fight, good behave always, it will give you satisfaction, this young man, he is a good Father and mother, dont tell no white man. Jesus was on ground, he just like cloud. Every body is alive again, I dont know when they will [be] here, may be this fall or in spring.

Every body never get sick, be young again—(if young fellow no sick any more), work for white men never trouble with him until you leave, when it shake the earth dont be afraid no harm any body.

You make dance for six weeks night, and put you foot [food?] in dance to eat for every body and wash in the water. that is all to tell, I am in to you. and you will received a good words from him some time, Dont tell lie.

The Messiah Letter (Cheyenne Version)

When you get home you have to make dance. You must dance four nights and one day time. You will take bath in the morning before you go to yours homes, for every body, and give you all the same as this. Jackson Wilson likes you all, he is glad to get good many things. His heart satting fully of gladness, after you get home, I will give you a good cloud and give you chance to make you feel good. I give you a good spirit, and give you all good paint, I want you people to come here again, want them in three months any tribes of you from there. There will be a good deal snow this year. Some time rains, in fall this year some rain, never give you any thing like that, grandfather, 1 said, when they were die never cry, no hurt any body, do any harm for it, not to fight. Be a good behave always. It will give a satisfaction in your life. This young man is a good father and mother. Do not tell the white people about this, Jesus is on the ground, he just like cloud. Every body is a live again. I don’t know when he will be here, may be will be this fall or in spring. When it happen it may be this. There will be no sickness and return to young again. Do not refuse to work for white man or do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes do not be afraid it will not hurt you. I want you to make dance for six weeks. Eat and wash good clean yourselves [The rest of the letter had been erased].

The Messiah Letter (Free Rendering)

When you get home you must make a dance to continue five days. Dance four successive nights, and the last night keep up the dance until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then disperse to their homes. You must all do in the same way.

I, Jack Wilson, love you all, and my heart is full of gladness for the gifts you have brought me. When you get home I shall give you a good cloud [rain?] which will make you feel good. I give you a good spirit and give you all good paint. I want you to come again in three months, some from each tribe there [the Indian Territory].

There will be a good deal of snow this year and some rain. In the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before.

Grandfather [a universal title of reverence among Indians and here meaning the messiah] says, when your friends die you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. This young man has a good father and mother. [Possibly this refers to Casper Edson, the young Arapaho who wrote down this message of Wovoka for the delegation].

Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are all alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.

Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes [at the coming of the new world] do not be afraid. It will not hurt you.

I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words again from me some time. Do not tell lies.

  • 1. See explanation in bracketed text in the free rendering version below.

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1870 ghost dance

1870: First Ghost Dance movement seeks revival of cultures

The Ghost Dance is a Native spiritual movement of hope and renewal that originates with Wodziwob, a Paiute man in Nevada. It seeks to bring about the departure of whites, and the return of lands, natural resources, and dead ancestors, which will revive traditional ways that have been lost since European colonization. The dance gains popularity among western tribes in California and Oregon.

Painting by Mary I Wright of Ghost Dance Circle; Five Women Dancing; All in Native Dress 1893

Ghost Dance Circle , Oklahoma Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation, painting by Mary I. Wright, 1893

Courtesy National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

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1870 ghost dance

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The 1870 Ghost Dance Paperback – Illustrated, July 1, 2007

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  • Print length 368 pages
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  • Publisher Bison Books
  • Publication date July 1, 2007
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  • ISBN-10 0803266626
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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Bison Books; Illustrated edition (July 1, 2007)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 368 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0803266626
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0803266629
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.2 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6.4 x 0.84 x 8.94 inches
  • #5,021 in Native American Demographic Studies
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