Sidenote: Ties into Episode 8 of Season 3 in the Bag of Bones Podcast
As far as back as I could find, the Ghost Dance seemed to originate from the Paiute community from the Nevada regions. They were nomadic hunter/gatherers and fiercely spiritual.
In 1867 a bout of typhoid fever tore through the area killing one tenth of the Walker River Paiutes.. The next spring, 25 Paiutes, the majority being children, died of measles. This type of tragedy caused unending grief for the survivors but in a practical sense, it disrupted their way of life and economy.
They were unable to travel the way the once had and were convinced to settle at a mining town in Virginia City.
In 1869, the healer of the tribe, Wodziwob organized a series of dances. He instructed his people that they would be dances of celebration; that they would be filled with a new vision. He requested they, “ornament themselves with paint as they usually did for festivals and to dance the common round dance.”
He told the people he’d fallen into a trance and had seen the dead happy and walking about. He claimed they spoke of a time they would be returned to live among their loved ones, perhaps in three or four years…
Ranchers began distupting the flow of water by cutting irrigation ditches in the valley, the fish the River Walkers so heavily relied on became scarce. Wodziwob’s prophecy had not come to fruition. He apologized and believed that he was fooled and mocked by the evil witch owl that brought darkness to his people.
But the Ghost Dance spread… and the idea and hope that they would be reunited with their ancestors who had passed before them continued to fuel the religion. With the invasion of white settlers and disease and conflict and malnutrition, the tribes in Nevada and beyond were clinging to hope.
One such man would be responsible for marrying the Ghost Dance to the Christian religion, Taivo.
He followed the practices of Wodziwob and he boiled it down to practices and traditions, some of which are still followed today in the Paiute culture.
Taivo’s son Wovoka was fascinated with the belief of the Christian Messiah and how the two religions seemed to go hand in hand.
When he was around 20 years old, Wovoka would meet up with a prophet called Smohalla. He was preaching that the spirits had warned him not to follow the white invaders’ ways. “Cease to plow and mine the earth; they should take only the resources freely given on the earth’s surface and in the waters.” His followers recalled that this was their way of life before the invasions and in those days, “they had not suffered such fighting, hunger and disease as now beset them.”
Wovoka had witnessed the Native American harassments and illness and how the people were forced onto reservations or face death. They were forced to give up their way of life a told to learn to farm, even though they had no provisions or knowledge to do so.
General Miles sent this telegram from Rapid City to General John Schofield in Washington, D.C., on December 19, 1890:
"The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing."
"They understood that ample provision would be made for their support; instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures."
"The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyennes have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses."
In 1889 there was a solar eclipse and on that day Wovoka was suffering from an illness, but through his fevered state, he had vision. His soul had been taken to heaven and God gave him a mission… that he should go amongst his people and preach a gospel of peace.
He took his mission and not only was he accepted as a prophet of the people, he carried it out as well. He would preach to the Paiute but that wasn’t enough, he would dictate letters and have them sent out to other tribes who wanted to hear his word. In the spring of 1889, Shoshoni and Arapaho healers came from the Colorado area to hear him preach and to learn under his instruction so they could take it back to their tribes. They returned the circle dances done in Wodziwob’s time .
Fast Forward to 1890...
Fast forward to 1890…
The Native American Sioux tribes are in turmoil. Their life has no resemblance of the life they used to have, raising their children, hunting and celebrating their traditions. They were desperate for a sign.
Wovoka’s vision told him that the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ would return to earth, but in the form of a Native American. He spread the word that if they were faithful, the Messiah would make the white invaders disappear from Indigenous lands, because the lands were going to rumble and swallow them up. The buffalo and other animals would return in abundance. And the ghosts of their ancestors who had already passed, would return to earth and all would live in peace.
The Ghost Dance, in its slow and steady solemn pace done with only the sound of a beating drum would be used to call out to the Messiah and create a magical robe of protection around the people as they waited for the miracle to arrive.
“The spread of news in the Indian country is one of those things not understandable of the white man, and the coming of the Messiah was spread among the Indians with the speed of the telegraph.”
“It appeared one day among the Shoshones and the Arapahoes in Wyoming; with a personal Messiah up in the mountains in some inaccessible place; the next day it was talked of in OK, NE, ND and SD- the Indians of widely distant localities coming simultaneously to the knowledge of the impending emancipation of the red man.”
Huh… almost as if it’s supernatural… spiritual, almost.
Sitting Bull, was the respected healer of the Lakota. He had heard of Wovoka and wanted to know more about him. He had requested to leave the reservation, but McLaughlin continued to deny his requests. He would write,
“I was repeatedly compelled to refuse Sitting Bull permission to visit the Cheyenne River reservation. Some reports had come to us of the introduction of the ‘Ghost Dancing’ religion in the southern reservations, and I declined to allow Sitting Bull to leave his home.”
So he sent his nephew and one other to speak with Kicking Bear, one who had trained under Wovoka and invite him to come to Standing Rock.
Although Wovoka preached nonviolence, whites feared that the movement would spark a great Indian rebellion.
J.McLaughlin wrote in his book, My friend the Indian (I can’t even type that without rolling my eyes). “Sitting Bull had heard of Kicking Bear. That individual had been absent from (his) home for about a year, and had begun preaching the new religion on his return. Finding that he could not get away himself, Sitting Bull sent six of his young men to Cherry Creek, on the Cheyenne River reservation with an invitation to Kicking Bear to make Sitting bull a visit.”
“It was in early fall of 1890 that Kicking Bear, a half-crazed fanatic of the Minniconjou band came up from the Cheyenne River reservation and imparted to Sitting Bull the secrets of the new religion which would bring the Indian into the inheritance of the earth. … It took a tremendous hold upon those who became at all infected with the new belief. It looked like an inspired outbreak of religious zeal.”
According to One Bull (Sitting Bull’s nephew), his interpretation of Kicking Bull’s preaching, quote “My brothers, I bring to you the promise of a day in which there will be no white man to lay his hand on the bridle of the Indian’s horse; when the red man of the prairie will rule the world and not be turned from the hunting-grounds by any man. I bring you word from your fathers, the ghosts, that they are now marching to join you, led by the Messiah who came once to live on the earth with the whitem men, but was cast out and killed by them. I have seen the wonders of the spirit-land and have talked with the ghosts. I traveled far and am sent back with a message to tell you to make ready for the coming of the Messiah and return of the ghosts in the spring.
“In my tepee on the Cheyenne reservation I arose after the corn-planting, 16 moons ago and prepared for my journey. I had seen many things and had been told by a voice to go forth and meet the ghosts, for they were to return and inhabit the earth. I traveled far on the cars of the white men, until I came to the place where the railroad stopped. There I met two men, Indians, whom I had never seen before, but who greeted me as a brother and gave me meat and bread.
“On the evening of the 4th day, when we were weak and faint from our journey, we looked for a camping place, and were met by a man dressed like an Indian but whose hair was long and glistening like the yellow money of the white man. His face was very beautiful to see, and when he spoke, my heart was glad and I forgot my hunger and the toil I had gone through. He said, “How my children. You have done well to make this long journey and come to me. Leave your horses and follow me.’ And our hearts sang in our brests and we were glad. He led the way up a great ladder of small clouds and we followed him up through an opening in the sky.
“Then, from an opening in the sky we were shone all the countries of the earth… all were there… the tepees, the ghosts of our fathers, great herds of buffalo and a country that smiled because it was rich and the white man was not there. Then he whom we had followed showed us his hands and feet, and there were wounds in them which had been made by the whites when he went to them and they crucified him. He told us he was going to come again on earth…
In the Standing Rock’s Indian Agent’s mind as McLaughlin wrote, “The first thing to be done was to get rid of Kicking Bear.”
“I sent a party of 13 policemen, under the command of Crazy Walking, a man in whom I had the most complete faith with orders to arrest Kicking Bear and eject him from the reservation. So impressed was the officer in charge of the police detachment with the dance and the wonderful stories that he was turned from his purpose and returned with Sitting Bull’s promise that Kicking Bear would leave the following day.
“I immediately sent Chatka, second lieutenant of the police force to eject Kicking Bear. I knew the medicine of Kicking Bear would be wasted on him. The LT pushed his way through the dancers, notified Kicking Bear and 6 men who were with him, to leave the Standing Rock reservation, forthwith, which they proceeded to do. That night Sitting Bull broke the peace-pipe which he had kept since his surrender at Ft. Buford in 1881. … The people understood this to mean that he would stand against the whites to the death…
“After that day, there was a menace in the attitude of Sitting Bull that he could only be met by summary treatment. Sitting Bull became insolent to the Indian police, and arrogant through being left unmolested. I recommended to the Department, urgently, the necessity of removing him, with his few mischief-making supporters, from the reservation to some remote military prison.
“He kept his people madly engage in the new dance, adding absurdities to it from time to time as he observed interest and enthusiasm among them lagging. His conduct and attitude for some weeks, with further fact that his immediate followers were uncommunicative and sullen, made it plainly evident that he was secretly preparing for some rash movement.”
The Ghost Dance had Standing Rock all in a tizzy. They also believed that if the people would wear special Ghost Dance shirts, they would be bullet proof. Chief Black Elk saw this in a vision, that bullets would disappear into a powder or bounce off them completely.
Fear began to spread throughout the various Indian Agencies about the “Messiah Craze”, so they thought the best thing to do was to take away the leaders of the tribes to hopefully subdue the trend. They decided to start with Sitting Bull.
McLaughlin was fearful he would lose control, even though in his writings, he would say he was under complete control, he just needed his supervisors to get rid of the troublesome people.
In his mind… this was first and foremost, Sitting Bull.
He writes, “He (Sitting Bull) was not removed and became bolder in his work of spreading the ghost-dance propaganda”
Sitting Bull was an intimidating figure, he had been around skirmishes and war almost his entire life. Since his teen years, his Lakota tribes have been embroiled in battle after battle to save every inch of the land that was theirs. The land he grew up on. The land he wanted to raise his children on. And for that reason, he has led several war parties against the Americans. McLaughlin had every reason to be concerned.
He writes that Sitting Bull is “Crafty, avaricious, mendacious and ambitious, Sitting Bull possessed all the faults of an Indian and none of the nobler attributes which have gone far to redeem some of his people from their deeds of guilt.”
Over his years of influence, he had gathered a following of over 10,000. Warriors and their families untied under his banner. Sitting Bull gave aid to those who needed help and regularly scouted for tribes that could grow their cause.
McLaughlin adds, “He had no single quality that would serve to draw his people to him, yet he was by far the most influential man of his nation for many years. Neither Gall, Spotted Tail nor Red Cloud, all greater men in every sense, exerting the power he did. I never knew him to display a single trait that might command admiration or respect, and I knew him well in the later years of his life.”
And yet, it was Sitting Bull that spearheaded what would ultimately be the “beginning of the end”, the last war cry… Battle of Little Big Horn.
Sitting Bull’s band of followers, under the leadership of Crazy Horse, planned and executed an attack against General George Custer and the 7th Cavalry, coming away as the victors. Short-lived as it may be, Sitting Bull was the mastermind.
Following the humiliating defeat at Little Big Horn, the US had the Lakota in their sites and every effort was directed at bringing the massive tribes to heal.
Sitting Bull put it off as long as he could, but his family and followers had dwindled to less than 200. He finally surrendered for the sake of his people who were starving because there was very little game any more. On July 19, 1881, Sitting Bull Surrenders. He would say to the Commanding officerMajor David H. Brotherton, "I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifleMany saw the spread of the news and the compliance of the tribes by initiating the dance and the prayers that there would be an insurrection… an impending war between the Indian and the whites.
Daniel Royer, who arrived as the new agent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in August of 1890. Royer was convinced that the Ghost Dancers were warriors and dance was a threat to rally others to destroy the U.S. government’s treatment of the Lakota.
He believed it to be a war dance and requested troops from President Benjamin Harrison on November 15th of that same year. His telegram read: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. We need protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted and this should be done now.
October 17, McLaughlin doubles down the concern with Ghost Dancers at his agency, quote, “Desiring to exhaust all reasonable means before resorting to extremes, I have sent a message to Sitting Bull, that I want to see him at the agency, and I feel quite confident that I shall succeed in the allaying the present excitement and put a stop to this absurd craze for the present at least; but I would respectfully recommend the removal from the reservation and confinement in some military prison at a distance from the Sioux country of Sitting Bull and the parties named in my letter of June 18 last.” End quote.
His letter was answered with advice to offer a stern talking to to Sitting Bull making sure he was aware that the Secretary of the Interior was quote, “greatly displeased with their conduct” and he would be held to a strict accountability for the misconduct of any of his followers.
A telegraph arrived from Washington, on Nov. 14, 1890:
The President has directed the Secretary of War to assume a military responsibility for the suppression of any threatened outbreak among the Sioux Indians and that an officer of rand be sent to investigate the situation among them. He suggests that the agents separate the well-diposed from the ill-disposed Indians and while maintaining their control and discipline, so far as possible to avoid forcing any issue that will result in an outbreak. You will exercise wise discretion in carrying out the President’s suggestion, carefully observing the caution he directs and avoiding publicity in these instructions. Signed R. V. Belt; “Acting Commissioner”
Eventually, after several conversations,Harrison relinquished military assistance. President Harrison granted the request and sent in James Forsyth in with his troops on November 20th with the orders to arrest several Sioux leaders.
McLaughlin writes, quote, “If it had developed a war it could only have been a war of self-sacrifice, resulting in extermination of the Indians involved, as it could not have gone further than outbreaks in certain sections of the country… An outbreak might have been disastrous if the Indians were permitted to mass, after defying the agency authorities, but only sparsely settled districts would be involved.
A plan was set in motion at the Standing Rock Agency as well. They had reached out to Buffalo Bill Cody who had developed a friendship with Sitting Bull during the time he participated in Cody’s Wild West Show in the 1880s. Cody agreed to come and help work through things as peaceably as possible.
McLaughlin, decided otherwise. He sent over 40 police officers lead by Lt. Henry Bullhead to arrest the Lakota leader. Instead of arresting him and putting him a wagon, Bullhead meant to make an example of the chief by forcing him to mount on a horse and be led from the home. Oddly enough, Sitting Bull did not want to be arrested and the Lakota people came to his aid.
Around 5:30 a.m. on December 15, the police officers came to Sitting Bull's house. Bullhead told Sitting Bull that he was under arrest and that James McLaughlin wished to speak with him He then instructed that he was to leave quietly and get on his horse.
Sitting Bull, since his return from his Wild West Show days was increasingly wary of McLaughlin and didn’t trust the henchmen who had come to fetch him.
When the policemen attempted to use force to remove Sitting Bull from his home, his supporters were furious.
Catch-the-Bear, one of Sitting Bull’s loyal followers, pointed his gun and shot Bullhead, who,instead of firing at the person who shot him, fired his revolver into the chest of Sitting Bull. Another police officer, Red Tomahawk, shot Sitting Bull in the head. Sitting Bull dropped to the ground, dying several hours later.
A close-quarters fight erupted, ending several police and Lakota dead.
JM’s response was quote, “At this late day I am frank to say that I feared military interference with the Indians, not that I doubted the capacity of the military, but because I was convinced that a military demonstration would precipitate a collision and bloodshed, which might be avoided.”
But that’s not what happened… as was covered in the episode Wounded Knee Massacre (S3E8) the people did not revolt… they fled. The end result being so much worse…
After his death, more than 200 members of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Lakota band were terrified they would be next, fled the Standing Rock Agency. They were heading south to join Chief Spotted Elk’s band of Miniconjou at the Cheyenne River Reservation.
Chief Spotted Elk and his band left the Cheyenne River Reservation on the 23rd of December to combine with Chief Red Cloud’s tribe at the Pine Ridge Reservation. This is where our story meets up with Major Samuel M. Whitside and the 7th Cavalry.
If you haven’t heard the story that follows the death of Sitting Bull, be sure to listen to the Bag of Bones Podcast, Season 3, Episode 8.
Click here to listen on Apple Podcast
Click here to listen on Spotify
Death of a Prophet
Wovoka, also known by his English name, Jack Wilson who lifted people’s spirits as well as healing their ails.In 1894 he was invited to appear at the San Francisco Midwinter Fair.
“Mason Valley Paiutes appreciated Jack Wilson’s leadership in so many facets of life. They felt lucky that so great a doctor was a Tovusi-dokado, and addressed him as Father, to denote respect, obedience to his wise leadership, and gratitude for his paternal concern. They listened to his inspiring preaching and sang the prayers he taught them, because his counsel and his personal conduct justified their faith.” - The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization by Alice Beck Kehoe
He prophesied his own death and promised he would announce his arrival in heaven, not to return, by shaking the earth. September 20, 1932, Jack Wilson, the Paiute Prophet would die of nephritis- kidney disease. As promised, an earthquake in December of the same year told the people, his soul had found a home in heaven, don’t wait up, he was gone for good.
Here are some suggestions if you'd like to take your search deeper. I used these books in creating this blog and the podcast episode!
Also note: If you purchase from these links, we will receive a small commission.
Thank you in advance for your support!
A History Blog
This is a great way to connect over all things American history! Comment on podcast episodes, read quick pieces and extra segments that couldn't make a full episode!