The Sioux Indian Ghost Dance

The manifestations of a new religious idea always have about them something of the mysterious. We who have noted the sudden waves of religious fervor which spread over our own race only to subside as quickly as they come, need not wonder at the rapid growth of the Messiah craze of 1890 among the Sioux Indians.

After their five lean years in the Canadian forests, Sitting Bull and his people chose surrender to starvation, and returned to the United States where rations awaited them. Held as prisoners of war for a year and a half at Fort Randall, Dakota, they were in May, 1883, released from the jurisdiction of the army and sent to the Standing Rock agency. Here they found many of their former fellows in hostility, together with a large body of Sioux who had remained friendly throughout the agitations of the Seventies.

Chief Gall was here, settling down to the life and state of a farmer, and many a late hostile was learning to “walk the white man’s road.” This was little to the taste of Sitting Bull, for down in his unreconciled heart be carried a burden of grievances. He was astute enough, however, to give apparent acquiescence to the new scheme of things and bide his time.

The Messianic movement, arising among a people “who lived beyond the Yellow Faces to the west of the Ute,” or, in other words, among the Paiutes of western Nevada, spread rapidly over the Indian country in 1888 and 1889. the prophets of this movement reported visions of the world of spirits from which they brought back golden promise for the world of red men. In this realm of ghosts they had learned the songs and steps of the “ghost dance.” Six days and nights the believing Indians should dance, at each new moon; and when by their continued dancing they had made the way ready for the fulfillment of prophecy, the Great Spirit would reward them. The race of white men would be blotted out-given over to the will of the Evil Spirit. New soil should cover the face of the earth; the seas should be filled up so that no longer might ships come to bring intruders upon the country; the buffalo, the elk and the deer should be restored, and the Indians who had believed and danced should live again the life of the old days.

Sitting Bull sent some of his young men to invite Kicking Bear, the prophet of the Cheyenne River reservation to the south, to bring the new belief up to Standing Rock. The band of recalcitrants was quick to adopt the faith. Although they numbered no more than a tenth of the Indians of this jurisdiction, they indulged in the new ceremonials so madly, and held such mysterious night sessions to which only the firmest adherents of the cult were admitted, that a feeling of portent began to spread.

The regimen of the ghost dancer was a severe one, and those who followed it piously grew thinner from day to day. The morning began with vapor baths in the sweat lodges that had been built closely for the purpose, and filled with steam produced by throwing water upon heated stones. When the bather succumbed to the steam he was dragged forth to be anointed by the medicine man; then as sufficient strength returned he joined in the dance, which went on throughout the day.

Robed in the white garments they believed impervious to bullets, stripped of the beloved bead ornaments and other things of white man origin, alternation a loud monotonous chant with wild wails that called upon the spirits of the dead to return to them, they would circle around the sacrificial pine tree covered with offerings to the Great Spirit. Hand in hand they would go, faster and faster, wilder and wilder, until one or many would fall in a trance, when the crazed circling would cease for a time, that they might hear the medicine man interpret the visions their ecstasy had created and promise them the fulfillment of their hopes, the doom of the white man and the restoration of the Indian to his own.

It was before such an assemblage s this that Sitting Bull broke the peace-pipe-the pipe which he had smoked on his surrender in 1881 and had kept sacredly during the nine years between. It was a dramatic and telling bit of action, and had wide effect upon his credulous followers. It was a profession of willingness to die for their new religion.

Other causes of trouble were at work at the same time. The Indians were not the only people who were subject to hallucinations, exaggerated fears and anticipations. Rumors of coming uprisings began to terrorize the white population; the newspapers took up the hue and cry with fervor. There had indeed been some evidence of secret communications from one disaffected group to another, and the attitude of the ghost dancers had undoubtedly been belligerent at the different Sioux agencies; but the number of malcontents was a very small proportion of the people as a who. A spark of dissension was kindling a remarkably large blaze of sensation and alarm.

At some of the agencies the need for protection for the employees was felt. This led to intervention by the military, and the appearance of soldiers fanned the fire into a consuming flame. At Standing Rock the commanding officer decreed the arrest of Sitting Bull, as the source of disaffection.

The agent at Standing Rock, Major McLaughlin, telling the story twenty years later, wrote:

“It was becoming very certain that Sitting Bull was going to attempt to leave the reservation, and his escape had to be guarded against. In the Bad Lands there was gathered a considerable mass of Indians, eighteen hundred having stampeded from their homes when General Brook arrived at Pine Ridge with five companies of infantry and three troops of cavalry. Big Foot and his band escaped after arrest by the military on the Cheyenne River reservation. Obviously it would not do to allow so cunning and malignant a leader as Sitting Bull to put himself at the head of these frightened or desperate people.”

Sitting Bull had made preparations for departure to join the group in the Bad Lands when on the morning of December 14th, 1890 a number of Indian police entered the log house where he sat with his two wives and his seventeen year old son, Crow Foot. They told him that he was under arrest and must report to the agency, forty miles away. Sitting Bull made no demur, but was most leisurely in his preparations for departure, dressing with extreme care and calling for his best horse. While he made ready, a hundred and sixty of his ghost dancers crowded around the house in great excitement, far outnumbering the group of Indian police, thirty-nine regulars and four specials.

It was Crow Foot who set the match to the fuel piled about them. Angered at the sight of his father making ready to mount his horse, he shouted a taunt that Sitting Bull was a coward to go quietly with the “Indians in blue uniforms.”

The older man was stung to response. He screamed out the order to attack, and on the instant two of his adherents shot and mortally wounded the two leaders of the police party. Lieutenant Bull Head and Sergeant Shave Head. But as he fell, Bull Head wheeled about and shot Sitting Bull. Three bodies went down at the same moment, and Sitting Bull would never again make medicine for his band.

During the hot two hours that followed, the little group of blue-coated Indians fought off their assailants, prevented their seizure of the horses that had been gathered in the corral to take the dancers away to the Bad Lands and held their position until the cavalry arrived on the scene. Of the white man’s share in the event there is less to be said in pride, for coming when the fight was all over and the dancers fled and in hiding, the sent shots in the direction of the loyal police and were restrained only by a messenger with a flag of truce.

Nor is the sequel one that the white man can read without shame. A detachment of Custer’s old command made up a part of the troops sent to the Pine Ridge jurisdiction, and the slaughter on the Little big Horn fourteen years before had been kept green in their memories. They acted to the full on the military adage that there is no good Indian but a dead Indian.

Two weeks after the fall of Sitting Bull, Big Foot’s band came out under a flag of truce from the Bad Lands and being refused a parley, surrendered unconditionally. They were reluctant, however, to give up their weapons, and a search was begun.

“According to the reports of military officers, the Indians attacked the troops as soon as disarmament commenced. The Indians claim that “the first shot was fired by a half crazy, irresponsible Indian.” At any rate, a short, sharp, indiscriminate fight immediately followed, and, during the fighting and the subsequent flight and pursuit of the Indians, the troops lost twenty-five killed and thirty-five wounded; and of the Indians, eighty-four men and boys, forty-four women and eighteen children were killed and at least thirty-three were wounded, many of them fatally. Most of the men, including Big Foot, were killed around his tent where he lay sick. The bodies of women and children were scattered along a distance of two miles from the scene of the encounter.”

Between the lines of this report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs one reads the story of a hideous revenge for the “Massacre” of fourteen years before; a story of relentless brutality which earns the designation of savage no matter what race may perpetrate it. Officially, Commissioner Morgan must restrain his comment on this pursuit of fleeing women and children for two miles in order to slay them.


Seymour, Flora Warren. The Story of the Sioux Indians. Haldeman-Julius Company. 1924.

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