In the 1800’s, the Native Americans were suffering at the hands of the Western world. On the reservations where they lived, the conditions were so bad that the people were starting to despair. That’s where Paiute prophet Wovoka came in, promising a return to the days when America was uncolonized.
He’d seen a vision, he said. The earth would return to its natural state, the white people would be gone, and Native Americans and their ancestors could live on the land in peace. If they danced the “round dance” for 5 days straight every six weeks, sang special songs, and bathed in a river afterwards, he promised these dreams of a renewed world would eventually become a reality.
It was a peaceful dance. Wovoka instructed everyone not to bring violence against white people into it, but also not to talk about its underlying meaning. The dance, after all, did have a controversial message. When it eventually was discovered, it was a message that the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) didn’t take kindly to.
The BIA was concerned that the Lakota had started to adopt the dance, and that their intentions were becoming warlike. The Lakota spread the message of why they performed the dance, and were making “ghost shirts” that they believed had the power to protect them from bullets. Fear of rebellion, and bloodshed, spurred what happened next. Unfortunately, fear of the very thing the BIA was trying to avoid ended up causing it.
An attempt was made to arrest Sitting Bull, a respected leader of the Lakota Tribe, and make him stop the dance ceremony. But there was a struggle, and sadly, Sitting Bull was killed, only adding fuel to the fire of combat.
The United States government at the time sent troops to control the uprising of the Lakota, and opened fire on them, killing over 200 people. This was known as the Wounded Knee Massacre, a name that’s now very well known in history books today. Once the resurrection of the new earth didn’t happen, most people stopped believing in the power of the Ghost Dance.
The story of the Ghost Dance is a lesson in what fear of the unknown, and perceived threats, can do to harm groups of people. There was mistrust, created by a long, painful history that understandably made both Native Americans and U.S. settlers afraid and angry. I think the saddest part of the story, for me personally, is that something that stood for hope and a return to the Native Americans’ old way of life was snuffed out.
The dance was supposed to be a peaceful one, regardless of its message, and things spiraled out of control. Maybe, with the way Native American and white relations were in those times, there was no stopping what happened, but I do believe we’re on our way to mending things now. We’re slowly learning what it is to look at other cultures and not be afraid. That inspires a great deal of hope in me, a sort of Ghost Dance that lives on, in many cultures and many different ways.