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understanding the ghost dance



black elk 1863 1950
Black Elk(1863-1950)
  • “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 along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still 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.”

Black Elk

Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) was a famous Wichasha Wakan (Holy Man) of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) who participated at the age of twelve in the Battle of Little Big Horn (1876) and was wounded in the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.

ghost dance websites
Ghost Dance Websites
  • http://php.indiana.edu/~tkavanag/visual5.html

James Mooney’s Account and Photographs

  • http://msnbc.com/onair/msnbc/TimeAndAgain/archive/wknee/ghost.asp?cp1=1

Connecting the Events of 1890 and 1973

  • http://www.150.si.edu/150trav/remember/r519.htm

Ghost Shirt, National Museum of the American Indian

  • http://www.dickshovel.com/wkup.html

Chronology of Events before Wounded Knee Massacre

  • http://www.sdpb.org/tv/oto/lostbird/

Story of Lost Bird

the paiute prophet wovoka jack wilson 1856 1932
The Paiute Prophet Wovoka (Jack Wilson)1856-1932

" I want my people to stay with me here. All the dead men will come to life again. Their spirits will come to their bodies again. We must wait here in the homes of our fathers and be ready to meet them in the bosom of our mother. "

-Wovoka, Paiute Prophet

origins of the ghost dance
Origins of the Ghost Dance
  • The Ghost Dance religion began with Wovoka's Great Revelation. On New Year's Day 1889, Wovoka had a religious revelation wherein he "died" and went to heaven.
  • God gave him a dance and a message of peace to share with all people. He was to stress brotherhood among all Indian people, and between the Indian and White.
  • Wovoka proclaimed his stirring message and taught his people the Ghost Dance, a round dance that lasted for five nights. Men and women, their fingers intertwined, shuffled sideways around a fire, dancing to the songs that Wovoka led.
sitting bull 1831 december 15 1890
Sitting Bull1831 – December 15, 1890

Sioux Medicine Man who led 1,200 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors against the US 7th Cavalry under George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25th, 1876. Though he did not participate personally in the battle, the chiefs were spurred on by a dream that Sitting Bull had in which a group of American soldiers tumbled into his encampment.

  • The once proud Sioux found their free-roaming life destroyed, the buffalo gone, themselves confined to reservations dependent on Indian Agents for their existence.
  • The Sioux version of the Ghost Dance differed from that of Wovoka and other Plains groups; Sioux believed that a tidal wave of new soil would cover the earth, bury the whites, and restore the prairie and the buffalo.
  • In a desperate attempt to return to the days of their glory, many believed that the Ghost Dance would hasten salvation. Many dancers wore brightly colored shirts emblazoned with images of eagles and buffaloes.
  • These "Ghost Shirts" they believed would protect them from the bluecoats' bullets. During the fall of 1890, the Ghost Dance spread through the Sioux villages of the Dakota reservations, revitalizing the Indians and bringing fear to the whites.
  • A desperate Indian Agent at Pine Ridge wired his superiors in Washington, "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy....We need protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done now."
  • The order went out to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull was killed in the attempt on December 15.
  • Chief Big Foot was next on the list.


Big Foot as a young man and dead at Wounded Knee

  • 1890 - The Ghost Dance religion sweeps across the Sioux reservation.
    • Sitting Bull is killed on December 15.
    • On December 29, Big Foot's band of Minneconjous, trying to reach Pine Ridge and the protection of Red Cloud after hearing of Sitting Bull's death, are massacred at
    • Wounded Knee Creek on December 29 by Custer's old outfit, the Seventh Cavalry.
a survivor lost bird 1890 1920
A SurvivorLost Bird (1890-1920)

To support herself she toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Lost Bird was adopted by Gen. Leonard Colby and his suffragist wife, Clara Bewick Colby. The baby’s original name died at Wounded Knee, along with her chance to grow up in her own culture. She became. literally and figuratively, Zintkala Nuni, the Lost Bird.

wounded knee today
Wounded Knee Today

Re-interment of Lost Bird’s remains at Pine Ridge Reservation


Ritual: Standardized activities that honor and influence deity.

  • “A collection of rituals, organized to reflect a cosmology, that mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of circumstances.”

Belief: Personal cosmology, symbolic behavior, and guiding principles.

  • “A set of symbolic forms and acts which relate humans to the ultimate conditions of their existence.”
role of religion
Role of Religion
  • reduces anxiety by explaining the unknown
  • provides comfort by assuring supernatural aid
  • provides a framework of right and wrong
  • sets standards for acceptable behavior
  • shifts burden of decision making from individuals to supernatural powers
  • helps maintain social solidarity
ritual specialists
Ritual Specialists
  • Those who perform religious activities (performances, offerings) on behalf of a group.

Mapuche (Argentina) ritual specialist


Indonesian ritual specialist

Orthodox Priests

revitalization movement
Revitalization Movement

Deliberate, conscious, organized efforts by members of a society to create a more satisfying culture.

Characterized by:

  • a remembered time of calm and prosperity
  • a period of collective stress, followed by
  • a period of revitalization and transformation, leading to
  • a new understanding and accommodation of conditions
characteristics of revitalization movements
Characteristics of Revitalization Movements
  • hopelessness, dire circumstances and degraded conditions, no recourse to ordinary channels (ex: legal, social)
  • charismatic leader (in contact with supernatural forces) who has a vision through an
  • altered state of consciousness (trance through stimulants, fatigue, etc)
  • mazeway reformulation (“born again” experience, see the world with new eyes)

the blending of indigenous and foreign symbols, rituals, and other traits to form a new system.

Design Elements: Catholic priest, stars and colors from the American flag, the turtle who brought soil for the World’s creation, and birds, messengers to the spirit world.

Ghost Dance Dress, Arapaho peoples, central plains states, about A.D. 1890

other historic revitalization movements
Other Historic Revitalization Movements
  • Judaism was created during the Exodus crisis when the Jews had to form their society anew after the flight form Egypt and Moses brought down the new vision from the mountain in the form of the ten commandments.
  • Christianity evolved in the context of Roman oppression of the Jews, with Christ as the charismatic leader who reformulated Judaism into the Christian philosophy.
  • Islam was formulated by Mohammed with elements from Judaism, Christianity, and the older pantheistic religion of the Arabian peninsula (represented by the sacred site of the Kabba).
  • Buddhism was formulated out of Hinduism by the charismatic leader, the Buddha.

People with different mazeways can find it almost impossible to communicate, so violent intercultural conflict is often a feature of revitalization movements and emerging religions.

the role of stress
The Role of Stress
  • At individual level (manifestations of malaise, underlying causes)
  • At group/societal level, when way of seeing the world “mazeway” (system of economics, values, etc) falters due to:
  • marginalization from larger society
  • severe privation (food, shelter, etc)
  • loss of hope for more mundane solution to problems
  • leads to family dysfunction and societal dysfunction
  • forms of resistance “weapons of the weak” such as work slowdowns, ‘mistakes’

Larger society’s response:

  • voluntary or forced acculturation (taking up characteristics of mainstream society)
  • assimilation (indistinguishability from larger society)
  • annhiliation (complete eradication of group, “ethnic cleansing”)
contemporary revitalization movements
Contemporary Revitalization Movements


  • Islamic Jihad
  • Charismatic Christianity

Charismatic Christianity among the Roma (Romania)

contemporary social movements
Contemporary Social Movements


  • Peace and Justice
  • Environment

How do they differ from Revitalization Movements?