The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Creek

In many situations, people turn to religion to solve their problems. In desperate situations, with all other options seemingly gone, the prayers and rituals can become more frenzied as all hope is lost.

There are countless examples of desperate people hoping for supernatural intervention to help them. Some examples are during the Sack of Troy by the Greeks. King Priam was murdered while taking refuge at the altar of Zeus, while his virgin daughter, the priestess Cassandra, had to have her arms pried off of the statue of Athena by her rapist Ajax, before she was sold into sexual slavery to King Agamemnon. During the siege of the city of Beziers, France on July 22, 1209 much of the population fled into the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. The invading Crusader Christians dragged the doors off of the church and murdered 7,000 of their fellow Christians hiding inside (out of a total of 20,000 who were killed that day). The armies of Nazi Germany went to war with “Gott mit Uns” on their belt buckles, but when the war finally turned against them, and their prayers had failed, the government ordered a mass suicide of the entire population, which was thankfully ignored by most.

Less violent examples in modern times were Texas Governor Rick Perry’s days of Prayer for Rain (April 22-24, 2011) when he asked the entire state to prayer for rain. The drought actually got worse, and rain did not return in any quantity for 168 days, when the annual rainy season started. In April 2011, he gathered 30,000 followers in Houston’s Reliant Stadium for a 7 hour prayer session to ask for divine help with his presidential bid. Rick Perry dropped out of the presidential primary before the South Carolina voting started. Three candidates during that election told their followers that they had been personally assured by God of the presidency, but none of them succeded. During the current 2016 campaign, Rafael Cruz announced that God revealed that Cruz’s own son, Senator Rafael E. Cruz is the anointed one, destined to save his country as president. He is running second in his primary so far.

The Ghost Dance of 1890 was a similar desperate Native American religious movement, started by the Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka (shown in the picture).

in 1869, after a devastating typhoid epidemic two years earlier, Hawthorne Wodziwoh, a Paiute healer, announced that he had had a vision in which he traveled to the land of the dead. In the vision he was told that if the people would only dance the Circle Dance, the dead would return and and prosperity would return to the land. He traveled for 3 years spreading this message along with Hawthorne Wodziwob, the father of Wovoka.

For those unfamiliar with a Native American Circle Dance, the dancers hold hands in a large circle usually around a central leader. The dancers shuffle to their left often to the music of singers and or drummers. It is thought to represent the sun traveling through the sky. I have had the honor of participating in at least two circle dances in my life.

During a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, Wovoka (his white name was Jack Wilson), had a major vision. In the vision, he stood before God, who showed him a land of prosperity and wild game, and the message was that the people must love one another and not fight each other. Jesus would return to the earth in 1892, and that if people did as instructed the dead would return and it would be an end to war, disease, and old age. Wovoka would be God’s direct representative in the Western half of United States, and the American president would be God’s representative in the Eastern half.

If every Native American would participate in the 5 day long Ghost Dance, the prophesied events would happen sooner. Wokova’s message spread throughout the Western United States. The tribes sent representatives to meet with the holy man, and many came back convinced of his vision. Others, such as the Navajo, rejected it as foolish useless words. From the start, every Native American was not going to dance.

It is interesting to see the mix of Native and Christian religious themes in his vision. Its shows the tremendous influence American culture had already had on the native population.

In February 1890, the United States broke their treaty with the Lakota
Sioux by breaking up the Great Sioux Reservation of South Dakota into five smaller reservations, and selling much of the land to white settlers. The Lakota had been forced to give up their nomadic ways, and to farm and raise livestock while their children were sent to school where they were forced to adopt white names, culture, and religion. Food subsidies were cut, and a hot year and low rainfall meant a poor harvest.

The population turned to the Ghost Dance for help. Many added their own ideas to the prophecy, stating that the bison herds would return and the white man would disappear from the land. Some believed that a blessed garment would protect one from bullets.
The number of dancing Native Americans frightened the local settlers and Indian agents, and thousands of troops were called in. Sitting Bull was blamed for being the leader of this movement, although he had little to do with it.Sitting Bull had come to the reservation, but was refused his leadership role, and treated with scorn and contempt by the Indian agents. He made money off of his celebrity, but at times even this was denied to him. On December 15, 1890 agents surrounded his home, and violence soon erupted, with 8 men being killed on each side (16 total), including Sitting Bull.

Later that month, the US 7th Cavalry Regiment surrounded an encampment of the Lakota on Wounded Knee Creek. On December 29th, the troopers went in to disarm the Lakota. Most of the men piled their weapons in heaps. One deaf Lakota named Black Coyote did not understand and refused to give up his rifle. A scuffle broke out, and the troopers began to fire into the Lakota with rifles and cannon, killing men, women, and children. The Lakota grabbed their weapons from the piles and shot back, but were quickly outgunned. Some unarmed Lakota fled, only to be hunted down and shot, while others who were already wounded were killed by the troopers. Between 200-300 Lakota were killed, and 51 wounded survived that day, but some died later. 31 soldiers died and 33 were wounded, often shot by their own men or killed by artillery fire. 21 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions that day.

The incident at Wounded Knee had a chilling effect on the Ghost Dance. The prayers had failed, and the protective shirts were stained red with blood. The Ghost Dance all but disappeared, although it was still practiced by some, even today.

On February 27, 1973, 200 Lakota seized the town of Wounded Knee for a number of reasons, all dealing with frustrations and failed attempts. Others joined them and their numbers rose to around 300. They held out for 71 days. Government agents and massive amounts of National Guard equipment were deployed against them. Marlon Brando refused his Academy Award for “The Godfather” that year, and had Apache actress Sacheen Littlefeather go in his place to read out a letter of support to those at Wounded Knee. In the end, few were killed on each side, and the protesters gave up. The leaders were tried and acquitted.

“Bury My Heart at wounded Knee” is an excellent HBO film about the original incident. It won 6 Emmy awards.



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