The ghost dance is a ceremony for the regeneration of the earth, and, subsequently, the restoration of the earth’s caretakers to their former life of bliss. Not surprisingly, the religion experienced its height of popularity during the late 19th century, when devastation to the buffalo, the land, and its Native American guardians was at its peak. Between 1888 and 1890, various tribes sent emissaries to a man named Wovoka, who claimed to be a visionary, and who was hailed as a Messiah by many desperate Indian nations. Wovoka maintained that Spirits had shown him certain movements and songs after he had died for a short period of time. In a manner reminiscent of Christ, Wovoka preached non-violence, and most tribes abandoned their war-like ways in preparation for future happiness.
The dance quickly spread to various American Indian nations, and as it spread, it took on additional meanings. While performing the ceremonial dance, it was believed that you could visit relatives who had left their bodies. As so many Native Americans had lost friends and relatives, this aspect of the ceremony was particularly healing. The Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho expanded its meaning further after being told in dreams that wearing certain designs on clothing would protect them in battle. These beliefs served to ward off fears of imminent danger from suspicious and sometimes hostile white onlookers, but proved futile in the end.
The ritual dance unified Indian people, even tribes with a tradition of conflict. The solidarity of these groups frightened government officials, whose worst fears were realized years earlier when the Arapahoes, Cheyennes and Sioux came together to defeat Custer. As mentioned earlier, most ghost dancers did not embrace warlike behavior. Yet, the government reacted to this outburst of Indian behavior by gunning down ceremonial dancers at Wounded Knee during a peaceful ceremony. Even women and children were shot in the back as they were trying to escape. Many say this was in retaliation for the massacre at Little Big Horn, since the seventh cavalry was again involved.
Perhaps the government was also frightened of the dance’s spiritual power. According to a historian of that time, James Mooney, during one investigation of the ritual dance, U.S. troops reported seeing approximately 125 people at the beginning of the dance, and twice that number at the end, with no one new coming into the circle.
The native dance is indeed magical, according to Gabriel Horn, author of Native Heart: An American Indian Odyssey. Horn, also known as White Deer of Autumn, says the spirits of ghost dancers are ever present: "The Minneapolis Institute of Art put on the first and only exhibit of ghost dance shirts and dresses worn by men, women, and children. The room was black and the clothes were suspended in two circles. You could even see the bullet holes and the blood stains on the shirts from the slaughter of ghost dancers at Wounded Knee under the orders of the government.
"Several Native Americans went to the exhibit, elders as well as young people. The museum would keep it open at night, just for us. We would sit in a circle, surrounded by these ritual dance shirts and dresses, and pass a sacred pipe. We were listening to hear what we could hear, and watching to see what we could see. We wanted to get in touch with those people, those spirits, those ghosts of the past, to reconnect, and to show them that we still carry this love for the earth.
"I will never forget the night that an elderly Ojibwa, Old Man Bill, said to me, ‘There were only 14 of us when we went in to sit among the ghost dance shirts and dresses. Look at all the people now.’ I looked up and saw what he meant. An hour later, we were sitting down at a table, looking at each other. Who were all those other people? It became very crowded.
"Another time a student of mine came to the exhibit. She was crying by a ghost dance shirt. I looked in the shirt to tell her its story because each one told a story. The shirt wearer’s last name was there, and it turned out to be the shirt of her grandfather. There was no way she could have known that when she went in."
The ghost dance is practiced today, but privately. "It is performed for the same reasons," White Deer of Autumn says, "because we are losing a lot of our relatives to cancer and alcohol, and the earth is in dire need of healing."