The Native American Ghost Dance and How it Inspired Fear Among White Americans During the Late 19th Century

By Katherine An, Jamie Lam, and Christine Mok (SMHS ‘20)

In our Honors US History class, we learned about the history of the Native American from 1491–2015.

When it comes to the time period 1865–1898, we specifically learned that:

  • The U.S. government violated treaties with American Indians and responded to resistance with military force, eventually confining American Indians to reservations and denying tribal sovereignty.
  • Many American Indians sought to preserve their cultures and tribal identities despite government policies promoting assimilation.

After having learned the above, the three of us, Kathryn An, Jamie Lam, and Christine Mok, decided to take our learning one step further and, in this regard, produced the Exploration into America’s Past appearing below.

This exploration is entitled The Ghost Dance and it describes one way in which numerous Native American tribes sought to unite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to Native American peoples throughout the region.


However, up to the start of the Civil War, Native Americans had been beaten into submission by the white settlers, their land reducing exponentially with every conflict.

Despite multiple attempts at revolting and demanding their rights, the American government never took any sustained action. Several forced relocations of Native Americans as well as massacres led to the dwindling of their population, which pushed many tribe leaders to turn to extreme measures in order to prevent these acts from continuing. Because forced assimilation contributed to the significant abandonment of Native American culture, many turned to establishing new spiritual traditions, such as the Ghost Dance, as a revitalization of their past glory.

The Ghost Dance was founded by the shaman Wovoka from the Northern Paiute tribe. A shaman is “a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits and someone who will typically enter a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing.

He claimed that he had a vision of God showing him land filled aplenty with love, and that the Ghost Dance would reunite all the tribes. Wovoka preached to Native Americans that they were suffering because they angered the gods by not practicing their customs.

According to one prophecy, the spirits’ power could only be used through battling with white men and their army. Among Wovoka’s prophecies, the most famous one was that white men would eventually be banished and the endangered buffalo would come back and bring with them, the permanent flourishment of Native American culture.

Customs and Rituals

Despite the vehement rejection of assimilation, the Ghost Dance closely aligned with both traditional Native American beliefs and Christian teachings. Every six weeks, the Paiute tradition of round dancing beside a fire was conducted for four to five days in an effort to invite dead ancestors and buffalo back. Wokova also combined many Christian doctrines within his teachings, instructing Indians to remain peaceful. As a result, the movement spread to Indians all over the United States: Some even referred to Wokova as Christ.

Gathering around, the Native Americans wore clothing of eagle feathers, claws, horns, called the ‘ghost shirts.’ These tribal attires were thought to protect the natives from bullets. In this ritual, all head ornaments were discarded, as pieces of it were made by white men. Then, the master of ceremonies addressed the crowd by reminding them of the message and guiding them through the process of the ceremony, including the direction of the dance, the chant, and the formation of the circle. After the address, all dancers gathered into a circle, standing with arms on the next’s shoulder. Then, the dance began, with swaying and dashing around. When members were too exhausted to continue, they were dragged on by others to continue. This continued on until all members were deprived of the energy to dance.

However, soon, the once peaceful movement would seem to take on a more violent approach to get its point across. Some natives inform Sitting Bull, the famed chief of the Lakota tribe, of a new prophecy: next spring, the earth will bury all the white men and all the Ghost Dance participants will be suspended and laid along with their ancestors. The message soon spread to American officials. Interpreted as a threat, government officials began to prepare for a potential conflict.

Wounded Knee

On December 29, 1890, conflict breaks out between representatives of the U.S. government and North American Indians. Because of the government’s growing concern over the threatening influence of the Ghost Dance, soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment were sent to South Dakota in efforts to mark the definitive end of Indian resistance. The regiment surrounded the Indian camp and and placed rapid fire Hotchkiss guns around the perimeter. As one Indian refused to surrender his rifle, a fight broke out and pandemonium ensued between the U.S. soldiers and Native Americans. The U.S. army soldiers opened fire on and massacred hundreds of Sioux men, women and children. This massacre of nearly 300 Native Americans that ended after less than an hour is now known as the Wounded Knee Massacre and took place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.

In the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, 300 Indians were found dead, half being women and children, while only 31 U.S. soldiers were found dead, another 33 were wounded. A very small number of Sioux survivors were able to flee the battle but were eventually either subdued or forcibly assimilated into white society. Despite their horrific actions against an innocent population, the 7th Cavalry was not only absolved, but rewarded with Medals of Honor. And yet, this was not the last armed conflict between the two sides, although it did mark the end of the Indian Wars and the resistance to white encroachment.


The widespread influence of the Ghost Dance and its capacity for rebellion instilled fear among white colonists. The spreading of this paranoia eventually led to massacres like the one at Wounded Knee. In the end, this movement symbolized the culmination of the clash of cultures. The Ghost Dance was a provisional answer to the subjugation of Native Americans. Indians were simply trying to find ways to cope with poverty and suppression, all while revitalizing traditional culture. Giving the natives false hope, the Ghost Dance was a turning point in the Indian Wars that marked the stop of nearly all opposition from the Native American side. After this movement, many reluctantly obeyed US restrictions, retreating to their reservations and suffering under economic and social oppression. The Ghost Dance was, in simplest terms, an unfulfilled promise of salvation.


APUSH Key Concept 1.1: As native populations migrated and settled across the vast expanse of North America over time, they developed distinct and increasingly complex societies by adapting

APUSH Key Concept 4.3: Frontier settlers tended to champion expansion efforts, while American Indian resistance led to a sequence of wars and federal efforts to control and relocate American Indian populations.

APUSH Key Concept 6.2: The U.S. government violated treaties with American Indians and responded to resistance with military force, eventually conning American Indians to reservations and denying tribal sovereignty.

APUSH Key Concept 8.2 (11B): Latino, American Indian, and Asian American movements continued to demand social and economic equality and a redress of past injustices.


  1. How do you think the Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee Massacre affect Native Americans today?
  2. Write a letter to Wokova expressing your views on his beliefs.


Costly, Andrew. “CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION:Bill of Rights in Action.”

Constitutional Rights Foundation: Bill of Rights in Action, Constitutional Rights



“Ghost Dance.” United States History. Douglas MacArthur,

“The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy,


“The Ghost Dance — A Promise of Fulfillment.” Legends of America. 18 Jan. 2019


In this activity, students discuss the ideals of the Ghost Dance and the government’s response.

  1. Form small groups to discuss whether or not the prophecy discussed in Culture and Rituals can be interpreted as a call for violence. In other words, was the U.S. Government in 1890 justifiably threatened by the practinioners of the Ghost Dance.
  2. The groups should then post their answers for the rest of the class to see.
  3. Hold a general class discussion and vote on a representative class decision.


We declare that this work is our own work and that we have correctly acknowledged the work of others. This work is in accordance with SMHS Academic Honesty Policy and its guidance on good academic conduct and how to avoid plagiarism and other assessment irregularities.

  • Katherine An
  • Jamie Lam
  • Christine Mok



High school APUSH teacher with much in-class and online teaching experience. Also a blogger, keynote speaker, editor, podcast host, and conference presenter.

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Peter Paccone

High school APUSH teacher with much in-class and online teaching experience. Also a blogger, keynote speaker, editor, podcast host, and conference presenter.