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The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

By 1900, there were fewer than 250,000 remaining Native Americans.


  • By the end of the nineteenth century, due to a series of forced removals and brutal massacres at the hands of white settlers and the US Army, the native population of North America had dwindled to a mere fraction of what it had once been.
  • Because forced assimilation had nearly destroyed Native American culture, some tribal leaders attempted to reassert their sovereignty and invent new spiritual traditions. The most significant of these was the Ghost Dance, pioneered by Wovoka, a shaman of the Northern Paiute tribe.
  • The massacre at Wounded Knee, during which soldiers of the US Army 7th Cavalry Regiment indiscriminately slaughtered hundreds of Sioux men, women, and children, marked the definitive end of Indian resistance to the encroachments of white settlers.

The Ghost Dance

During a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, Wovoka, a shaman of the Northern Paiute tribe, had a vision. Claiming that God had appeared to him in the guise of a Native American and had revealed to him a bountiful land of love and peace, Wovoka founded a spiritual movement called the Ghost Dance. He prophesied the reuniting of the remaining Indian tribes of the West and Southwest and the banishment of all evil from the world.
Painting of Arapahos performing the Ghost Dance. Men and women stand in a large circle while some people look on and others dance in the center of the circle.
Painting of the Ghost Dance as performed by Arapahos, 1900. Image courtesy National Archives.
According to the teachings of Wovoka, the Ghost Dance ceremony would reunite the spirits of the dead with those of the living, and the power of these spirits could be harnessed in battle with white settlers and the US Army. Though the practice of the Ghost Dance originated with the Paiute tribe of Nevada, it quickly spread to other Indian tribes in the Southwest. Wovoka’s most influential prophecy was that the white man would be forever banished from the land, and that the buffalo, which had been hunted to near-extinction by white settlers, would return and bring with it a lasting revival of the Native American way of life.1

Clash of cultures: white Europeans and Native Americans

From the earliest days of colonial contact between white Europeans and Native American Indians, certain key assumptions informed their interactions. Most native tribes did not adhere to the European view of land as property. For most Indians, land was communal, and its resources were to be protected and shared. This was in direct contradiction to European notions of land as individual property. As white settlers pushed ever westward, guided by the ideology of Manifest Destiny, they forced Native Americans off of their ancestral lands and onto reservations. Many Indian tribes resisted, unleashing a series of violent conflicts known as the Indian Wars.2
Although the Battle of the Little Bighorn marked the beginning of the end of the Indian Wars, Wovoka and his Ghost Dance triggered one last wave of resistance to the encroachments of white settlers and their way of life. Chief Sitting Bull, who had led the Sioux to victory over the US Army 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, embraced the Ghost Dance and helped facilitate its spread throughout the Sioux Reservation. On December 15, 1890, police officers who feared that Sitting Bull was about to flee the reservation with adherents of the Ghost Dance shot and killed Sitting Bull.3

The massacre at Wounded Knee

A mere two weeks later, on December 29, 1890, the US 7th Cavalry Regiment surrounded an encampment of Sioux Indians near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. While attempting to disarm the Sioux, a shot was fired and a scuffle ensued. The US army soldiers opened fire on the Sioux, indiscriminately massacring hundreds of men, women, and children. The few Sioux survivors of the battle fled. In the aftermath of the massacre, an official Army inquiry not only exonerated the 7th Cavalry, but awarded Medals of Honor to twenty soldiers. US public opinion of the massacre was generally favorable.
Photograph of the aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee. The bodies of Sioux who lost their lives are visible in the foreground and along the ridge. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Though the massacre at Wounded Knee was not the last armed conflict between Native Americans and the US Army, it marked the definitive end of the Indian Wars. After Wounded Knee, the remaining Indian tribes were either subdued or forcibly assimilated into mainstream white US society. Estimates of the pre-European contact native population range widely, from a low of 2 million to a high of 18 million. By 1900, the native population had been reduced to approximately 237,000 individuals.4
Since then, the Native American population has recovered from the nadir of 1900. As of the 2010 US Census report, 2.9 million individuals identified as American Indian or Alaska Native.5

What do you think?

What do you see as the most significant difference between the culture and society of white European-Americans and those of Native American Indians?
Why do you think Wovoka and his Ghost Dance became so popular among Indian tribes in the Southwest?
What is the significance of the massacre at Wounded Knee?

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