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
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
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.
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.