Everywhere the Ghost Dance spread it became something distinctive and different as Native communities imbued it with particularized meanings and, in some cases, unique traits in relation to their own traditions and contemporary circumstances. That was certainly the case among the Lakota on the northern Plains.
In the context of the Lakota, there is a very specific perspective on why it was that the Ghost Dance was so appealing to American Indians. Sociologists use the term anomie to describe a feeling of disempowerment and purposelessness that is created when people can no longer attain accepted societal goals through accepted societal means. And that’s what was happening on reservations.
Native people could no longer provide for themselves as they once had. They couldn’t practice the ways of life that the creator had given them. In 1883, the Lakota held their last buffalo hunt, which was, of course, as much about reinforcing and enacting a sense of personhood and peoplehood as it was about procuring food.
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The Last Sun Dance
In 1884, the Lakota held their last Sun Dance, which oppressive federal agents had outlawed. Anthropologist Raymond DeMallie explains that the Sun Dance brought all Lakota together, where they courted and had fun. The Sun Dance also served as a time for other rituals, including, in his words:
The acting out of visions, dances by groups of people with shared vision experiences, demonstrations of the powers of medicine men or healers, the piercing of babies’ ears essential for identity as a Lakota, and lavish giveaways.
“The Sun Dance,” in other words, “was a real affirmation of Lakota identity and power, in both physical and spiritual senses.” By outlawing the Sun Dance, then, federal agents intentionally ripped the very fabric of Lakota personhood and nationhood.
Learn more about last Indian wars.
Prohibiting the Use of Ritual Bundles
In 1888, the Indian Bureau agent at Pine Ridge expanded the assault on Lakota identity by prohibiting the use of ritual bundles. The Lakota made ritual bundles when a person died. The deceased person’s hair was cut and placed in the bundle for a year.
In this way, their spirit remained with the people until it was released during a giveaway ceremony held in their honor. Now, federal agents had made even grieving and the caring for the spirits of loved ones a punishable offense. Short Bull, a Lakota dance leader, explained the impact of the assault:
The white people made war on the Lakotas to keep them from practicing their religion. Now the white people wish to make us cause the spirits of our dead to be ashamed. They wish us to be a stingy people and send our spirits to the spirit world as if they had been conquered and robbed by the enemy. They wish us to send our spirits on the spirit trail with nothing so that when they come to the spirit world, they will be like beggars.
Weekly Ration Ticket
The advent of ration days reinforced the same feelings for the living. On these days, Lakotas gathered at the agency, sometimes forming a large circle around the federal agents and the commodities like beef, corn, flour, salt, coffee, and the like—that were to be distributed to them.
Oglala people would have to present a weekly ration ticket to agency personnel. And even though they sought ways to take ownership of these markers of dependency through the addition of beadwork, quillwork, and tin ornaments and by crafting beautiful leather carrying pouches—the disheartening message ration tickets conveyed was unavoidable.
A Reminder of Lost Freedom
The practice of releasing cattle in agency corrals and letting Lakota men ride their horses in to gun them down may have been a substitute for bison hunting to some Lakota. If so, it was a reminder of the freedom that had been lost to others. So too was another reason for issuing live cattle—it reduced the likelihood of getting old, spoiled, or otherwise unsuitable beef as annuity rations from unscrupulous suppliers. Dependency, then—cut deep.
The passage of an act in the spring of 1889 to further subdivide the Great Sioux Reservation into six smaller ones, thus opening still more land to non-Indians and making life more precarious for Lakotas, added insult to injury.
This was the context into which the Ghost Dance was fitted and why its message was so appealing to Lakotas. They had seen the loss of autonomy and power. They had lost loved ones to disease and malnutrition. They’d been attacked physically, culturally, and spiritually by soldiers, federal agents, and missionaries.
So, when in the late summer and early fall of 1890, Lakota emissaries such as Kicking Bear and Short Bull carried their own versions of Wovoka’s teachings back to the Standing Rock and Rosebud Reservations and Big Foot emerged as a central figure in the Ghost Dance movement at Cheyenne River—Lakotas were ready to listen.
As Wovoka promised, the Ghost Dance offered the Lakota peace, the restoration of balance, and joy. It affirmed the continuing integrity of Lakota lifeways. And what is more, even as it represented something new, it was consistent with Lakota notions of power, or wakan, and religious expression.
Learn more about the Chiricahua Apache struggle to maintain independence.
The Return of the Bison
The Lakota also added their own elements to the Ghost Dance. For them, the restoration of human life depended on the restoration of animal populations, especially the bison.
Indeed, many Lakota believed that humans and bison originally emerged from below the earth and that the bison had migrated back due to offenses given to them by non-Indians. The Ghost Dance was also appealing, then because it served as a ritual means of securing the return of the bison and, by extension, the health of the people.
Common Questions about the Ghost Dance: Affirming the Lakota Way of Life
The Sun Dance was a real affirmation of Lakota identity and power, in both physical and spiritual senses. It brought all Lakota together, where they courted and had fun.
The Ghost Dance offered the Lakota peace, the restoration of balance, and joy. It affirmed the continuing integrity of Lakota lifeways.
The Ghost Dance was so appealing to the Lakota people because it served as a ritual means of securing the return of the bison and, by extension, the health of the people.