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

  • 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.

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.

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.


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


  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.”


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



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Peter Paccone

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.