As South Dakota headed into December of 1890 there was serious consternation among the colonists about a religious ceremony appearing on the Indian reservations called the Ghost Dance.
Shortly after allowing the ceremony to take place at his home on Standing Rock the great Lakota leader Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) was assassinated by the Tribal Police. A few days after his death the Bismarck Tribune wrote on December 19, 1890: “Another old-timer, Sitting Bull, is no more. To be sure Sitting Bull was only an Indian and the possessor of a bad record, yet there is something pathetic in the manner of his sudden disappearance from the cares of life.”
And as the ink was drying on that article the 7th Cavalry was loading Hotchkiss guns on wagons. The 1-pounder revolving Hotchkiss cannon had five 37 mm barrels, and was capable of firing 68 rounds per minute with an accuracy range of 2,000 yards (1,800 m). Each feed magazine held ten rounds and weighed approximately 18 pounds (8 kg). The first time these guns were used on human beings was against the Nez Perce in 1877. They would be used again on December 29, 1890 at Wounded Knee.
In the same December 19, 1890 edition of the Tribune a staff writer wrote: “Your correspondent interviewed a courier name Baptiste, a squaw man living on the Sioux Reservation and having an Indian wife and many children. He is called Big Bat by the Indians and has lived among them for 30 years and is intelligent, wealthy and of wide influence among them. Big Bat said, “The Indians have been dancing (Ghost Dance) but that does not signify that they want to murder the white settlers or fight soldiers. We are surrounded on all sides by settlers and soldiers. We have no provisions and would surely starve and our squaws and papooses would perish before our eyes.”
The Ghost Dance religion (or movement) was an answer to the subjugation of Native Americans by the U.S. government. It was an attempt to revitalize traditional culture and to find a way to face increasing poverty, hunger, and disease, all representing the reservation life of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people in the late nineteenth century.
According to historical records the Ghost Dance originated among the Paiute Indians around 1870. However, the tide of the movement came in 1889 with a Paiute shaman Wovoka (Jack Wilson). Wovoka had a vision during a sun eclipse in 1889. In this vision he saw the second coming of Christ and received warning about the evils of white man. The messianic religion promised an apocalypse that would destroy the earth and the white man. The earth then would be restored to the Native Americans. Salvation of individuals was to be achieved by purging oneself of the evil ways learned from the whites. The religion required frequent ceremonial cleansing, meditation, prayer, chanting and of course dancing the Ghost Dance. Each ceremony lasted for five successive days. The participants danced each night, on the last night the dance continued until morning. The ceremony was to be repeated every six weeks. Within a year, the new religion spread throughout the Indian camps in the West, giving Indian people the much needed hope.
White settlers reacted differently to the new religion. Some traveled to the reservations to observe the dancing, others feared the possibility of an Indian uprising. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) eventually banned the Ghost Dance, because the government believed it was a precursor to renewed Native American militancy and violent rebellion. The reaction of the BIA is somewhat ironic, since one of the goals of the agency was to convert the Natives to Christianity. The agency did not recognize that the Ghost Dance religion's fundamental principles were parallel with Christianity and brought many Indians to believe in one God.
Misunderstanding and ignorance were part of the BIA decision. Wovoka's message clearly promoted pacifism and warned before making any trouble with the whites or refusing to work for them. However, spreading rumors of Indian treachery ignited fear and panic. In November 1890, President Benjamin Harrison ordered the military to take control over Lakota Sioux reservations in South Dakota. What started as a peaceful religious movement in 1889, was brutally ended a year later by the U.S. military at Wounded Knee.
Next week I will write a summation on the Wounded Knee Massacre with excerpts from the writings of Sidney Byrd, a Dakota man who passed away last year in his late 90s. He spent a part of his childhood near the village of Wounded Knee and often listened to the elders talk about what happened there. Doksa ake’.
– Tim Giago is the founder of Indian Country Today and is currently Editor Emeritus of the Native Sun News Today. Contact him at