Ghost Dance

Encyclopedia Article


The Ghost Dance was a spiritual tradition that was adopted by various Native American groups around North America in the late 1800s. The dance was based in the teachings of the Northern Paiute leader Wovoka, who had envisioned an end to white occupation and expansion, accompanied by the restoration of peace, harmony, and prosperity for all native peoples. Wovoka's teachings focused on good conduct, honesty, and communal cooperation, and the dance itself was a circle dance performed to the beat of drums, with singing and intermittent phases of trance or prophesying. The Ghost Dance movement, which carried the promise of hope to Native communities that were diminishing and suffering as removal to reservations, disease, and starvation were taking their toll, spread rapidly among many tribes across the U.S. Although a peaceful practice, the Ghost Dance was perceived by the U.S. government as a threatening force that might instigate united indigenous resistance. In some cases, like the breaking of the treaty with the Lakota in 1890 and the ensuing massacre at Wounded Knee, the government’s reaction to the perceived threat was unreasonable and extreme, resulting in the death of large numbers of Native Americans, many of them women and children, who had gathered to participate in the dance in an endeavor to promote peace.

The term “ghost dance” as it appears in Tony Hillerman’s 1980 novel People of Darkness, however, may not be related to the actual historical tradition. It may be a colloquial reference to a generalized Native American ritual of protection.

Photo Credit: 

"Arapaho Ghost Dance, 1900, artwork based on photographs by James Mooney" by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is licensed under Public Domain.

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