Oklahoma Ghost Dancers

Wovoka

Wovoka

In 1890, the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation were participating in Ghost Dance ceremonies, which according to the Piute Messiah, Wovoka, would turn the world into a Native American utopia. The dancers painted their bodies black and white and danced in a circle all night long. They wore special shirts that were supposed to protect them from bullets. To the U.S. Army it looked like they were preparing for war.

It’s easy to understand the soldiers’ mistake. They expected some kind of reprisal from the Lakota since the government had recently broken their treaty once again. Lakota reservations were reduced to tiny islands in the poorest regions of South Dakota and Nebraska, tribal land was converted into into personal allotments. The Lakota were a warrior culture with several impressive victories over the U.S. Army. It was difficult to believe they

Southern Plains Ghost Dance

Southern Plains Ghost Dance

would be satisfied to dance in circles and wait for God to eliminate the white man. When the disturbance at Wounded Knee was over, about three hundred Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them women and children.

The Southern (Oklahoma) Cheyenne and their long time allies, the Southern Arapaho heard about the Ghost Dance from their northern relatives and started organizing ceremonies in the summer of 1890 (a few months before the disaster at Wounded Knee). Almost every

Southern Plains Ghost Dance Shirt

Southern Plains Ghost Dance Shirt

camp along the Canadian and Washita Rivers held all night dances two or three times a week.

A Southern Arapaho man named Sitting Bull added a unique feature to the southern plains Ghost Dance. After the ceremony had been underway for several days he stepped into the circle, made hypnotic passes with an eagle feather in front of participants. Hundreds of them went into trances. People who had been in this trance told (through the medium of song) of being transported to a different world.

Newspapers in El Reno, Oklahoma City, and Guthrie terrified white residents with articles warnings of an impending Indian uprising. They called upon the U.S. government send troops to protect defenseless whites. It looked like a military confrontation was eminent, but fortunately the War Department sent Lieutenant H.L. Scott of the 7th Cavalry to assess the danger.

 

Southern Plains Ghost Dance Dress

Southern Plains Ghost Dance Dress

The lieutenant visited Cheyenne and Arapaho camps from December, 1890 (when the Wounded Knee Massacre took place) through February 1891. He concluded that the Ghost Dance Ceremony was a harmless religious activity and posed no danger to white settlers. If this young soldier hadn’t exercised wisdom and restraint, Oklahoma could have had a Wounded Knee Massacre of its own.

In the spring and summer of 1891, the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho sent delegations to visit the prophet Wovoka and brought back some “sacred medicine paint” and specific instructions for conducting the ceremony. The dances weren’t held as frequently as before and attendance dropped off, but they were still attracting a large numbers.

In October 1892 they sent another delegation to visit the messiah. Wovoka astounded them by saying he was tired of so many visitors and they should go back home and tell their people to stop dancing. At first the Oklahoma Ghost Dancers refused to believe the message from Wovoka was genuine, but when he refused to correspond with them the ceremony’s popularity declined. A form of the dance was incorporated into the Native American Church and is still performed today as a ceremony of cultural restoration but the tribes no longer expect the white man to disappear or the dead to rise again, or the buffalo to come back in large numbers.

Ghost Dance

Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson)

Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson)

A Paiute shaman named Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) came down with a high fever in 1888. While he was delirious, he had a vision that would keep him front and center on the stage of American History for the next few years. His soul was transported to a higher plain, which was the spirit home of all the Indian ancestors of all the tribes that had been killed by the white man. The animals the tribes hunted were there too. The white men were conspicuously absent.

Early in 1899 he had a second revelation during a total

Wovoka

Wovoka

eclipse of the sun. All those dead ancestors and all the animals were coming back. The white man would be swallowed by the earth. God was angry because he had sent his son to bring blessings to the world and the white man had killed him. God planned to give the Indians a fresh start in a Euro-Free planet if Wovoka would teach all the tribes a variation of the traditional Paiute Round Dance. Video available here.

 A Northern Paiute shaman, Wodziwob (Grey Hair) had made similar prophesies in the 1870’s, although he limited the Indian Renaissance to his tribe and didn’t include the Christian

"Bullet Proof" Ghost Dance shirt.

“Bullet Proof” Ghost Dance shirt.

crucifixion element.  Unlike Wodziwob, Wovoka was well acquainted with Christian theology. The Golden Rule was an essential element of his prophesies. He urged his followers to live impeccable lives, refrain from drinking alcohol, and to make no trouble for the white man.

What is truly amazing is how quickly the Ghost Dance religion spread through so many tribes and across so much geography by word of mouth. Wovoka’s prophesy became a pan-Indian movement without him leaving Paiute lands even once.

Ghost Dance Shirt

Ghost Dance Shirt

Like most large scale religious movements, believers modified the details to suit their purposes. The Lakota added a militaristic element. They can hardly be blamed for that. Their messianic leader, Crazy Horse, had been bayonetted by a military guard while resisting arrest in 1877. They were forcibly held on reservations and were dependent on rations from the U.S. government that came irregularly when they came at all.

Aftermath of Wounded Knee Massacre.

Aftermath of Wounded Knee Massacre.

Hundreds of Lakota gathered on South Dakota Reservations to try and dance the white man away. They wore what appeared to be war paint, and “bullet proof” Ghost Shirts while they danced all night in circles. The white population including the local Indian Agent were certain there would be an uprising and asked the Army to suppress it.

 The order went out to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation. He was killed in the attempt on

Mass Grave for Lakota  massacred at Wounded Knee

Mass Grave for Lakota massacred at Wounded Knee

December 15, 1890.

When Chief Big Foot heard of Sitting Bull’s death, he tried to head off disaster by seeking protection at the Pine Ridge Reservation. The army intercepted his band on December 28 and brought them to the edge of the Wounded Knee to camp, where things quickly went wrong.

During the process of disarming the Lakota (according to one version of events), a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle. A scuffle escalated and a shot was fired which resulted in the

Wovoka's grave

Wovoka’s grave

7th Cavalry’s opening fire indiscriminately from all sides. The Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking soldiers, who quickly suppressed their fire. The surviving Lakota fled, but U.S. cavalrymen hunted them down. When the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped, approximately 300 Sioux were dead.

The Southern Cheyenne continued Ghost Dances in Oklahoma until Wovoka himself sent word that they should stop. He told a delegation he was tired of so many visitors and they should return home and tell their people to stop dancing. Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) died in 1932 and was buried on Paiute land. People still leave flowers on his grave.

Mysticism is an important element of any story that deals with Native America, whether those stories happened a hundred years ago, or yesterday, or even a hundred years in the future. In my fiction that mysticism takes the form of Magic Realism. If you are interested in seeing my approach to Magic Realism, check out my free short story collection Southwest Gothic Tales, my Kindle single, “Messages”, and my first novel, Owl Dreams. My second novel, Magic Popsicle Sticks, is in the capable hands of Pen-L Publishing, and will be available later this year.