The Ghost Dance

Ghost dance. A ceremonial religious dance connected with the messiah doctrine, which originated among the Paviotso in Nevada about 1888, and spread rapidly among other tribes until it numbered among its adherents nearly all the Indians of the interior basin, from Missouri river to or beyond the Rockies. The prophet of the religion was a young Paiute Indian, at that time not yet 35 years of age, known among his own people as Wovoka (‘Cutter’), and ‘commonly called by the whites Jack Wilson, from having worked in the family of a ranchman named Wilson. Wovoka seems already to have established his reputation as a medicine-man when, about the close of 1888, he was attacked by a dangerous fever. While he was ill an eclipse spread excitement among the Indians, with the result that Wovoka became delirious and imagined that he had been taken into the spirit world, and there received a direct revelation from the God of the Indians. Briefly stated, the revelation was to the effect that a new dispensation was close at hand by which the Indians would be restored to their inheritance and reunited with their departed friends, and that they must prepare for the event by practicing the songs and dance ceremonies which the prophet gave them. Within a very short time the dance spread to the tribes east of the mountains, where it became known commonly only as the Spirit or Ghost dance. The dancers, men and women together, held hands, and moved slowly around in a circle, facing toward the center, keeping time to songs that were sung without any instrumental accompaniment. Hypnotic trances were a common feature of the dance. Among the Sioux in Dakota the excitement, aggravated by local grievances, led to an outbreak in the winter of 1890-91. The principal events in this connection were the killing of Sitting Bull, Dec. 15, 1890, and the massacre at Wounded Knee, Dec. 29. The doctrine has now faded out, and the dance exists only as an occasional social function. In the Crow dance of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, a later development from the Ghost dance proper, the drum is used, and many of the ordinary tribal dances have incorporated Ghost-dance features, including even the hypnotic trances.

The belief in the coming of a messiah, or deliverer, who shall restore his people to a condition of primitive simplicity and happiness, is probably as universal as the human race, and takes on special emphasis among peoples that have been long subjected to alien domination. In some cases the idea seems to have originated from a myth, but in general it play safely be assumed that it springs from a natural human longing. Both the Quichua of Peru and the Aztec of Mexico, as well as more cultured races, had elaborate messiah traditions, of which the first Spanish invaders were quick to take advantage, representing themselves as the long-expected restorers of ancient happiness. Within the United States nearly every great tribal movement originated in the teaching of some messianic prophet. This is notably true of the Pontiac conspiracy in 1763-64, and of the combination organized by Tecumseh and his brother, the prophet Tenskwatawa, shortly before the War of 1812. Of similar nature in more recent times is the doctrine formulated on Columbia river by Smohalla.

See Dance, Mythology, Religion.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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