Ghost Dance

New religious movements among Native Americans have at times taken on the character of crisis cults, which respond to cultural threat with emotional rituals. In 1889 a Paiute prophet named Wovoka foretold the imminent end of the current world order. Casting himself in a messianic role that seemed to be influenced by Christian imagery, Wovoka promised that if Native Americans would conduct a ceremony known as the Ghost Dance, depleted animal populations and deceased relatives would be restored. For several years, many indigenous peoples in the western part of North America performed the ceremony, even after United States Army troops massacred Sioux ghost dancers at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1890. Pan-Native American Movements Pan-Native American initiatives have helped spread many of the new religions of indigenous peoples, as parochial tribal identities have broadened in the face of common oppression. For example, the Ghost Dance of the 1880s spread among a number of tribes that were all undergoing similar upheavals, and indigenous peoples of the Great Plains shared in each other's Sun Dances. The preeminent pan-Native American religious development, however, has been Peyotism, a religious movement centering on the sacramental ingestion of a mildly hallucinogenic cactus. Peyotism spread from Mexico to the southern Plains peoples in the 19th century. By the early 20th century, despite vigorous opposition by the United States government, the use of peyote was widely established throughout North America. In 1918, Peyotism was formally incorporated as the Native American Church. The group's status as a religious organization enabled members to seek legal protection for the ritual use of peyote. In the mid-1990s, membership in the Native American Church was estimated to be 250,000. Contemporary Trends Between the l880s and l930s, the U.S. authorities attempted to ban Native American religious rituals, including the Ghost Dance, Sun Dance, and peyote cult. In Canada the same restrictive tendencies prevailed. In more recent years, however, governmental authorities have adopted a more supportive attitude toward the practice of native spirituality. In 1978 the Congress of the United States passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, an official expression of good will toward Native American spirituality. In the wake of this legislation, many religious practices once considered on the verge of disappearing were revived. These include pipe ceremonials, sweat lodges, vision quests, and Sun Dances. In an unforeseen consequence of the Native American religious revival, some non-Native American followers of the New Age Movement have adopted Native American beliefs and rituals. New Age enthusiasts have adopted such practices as sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, and the use of crystals and other natural objects traditionally believed to be charged with spiritual power. While some Native Americans have resented such borrowing of indigenous rituals, others have been pleased to see non-Native Americans taking an interest in native spiritual traditions.

Wounded Knee, unincorporated community in South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Wounded Knee was the site of two conflicts between the local Native American population and the United States government.

In the late 1880s the Sioux began practicing a religion taught by Wovoka, Wovoka, also called Jack Wilson (circa 1856-1932), a Paiute prophet, born in what is now Mineral County, Nevada.

He worked for a rancher, whose surname he acquired.

About 1888 Wovoka suffered a fever accompanied by delirium;

he claimed to have had a vision of God instructing him to teach his fellow Native Americans a certain dance ritual, which came to be known as the ghost dance.

He promised that performing the ritual ghost dance would result in the return of native lands, the rise of dead ancestors, the disappearance of the whites, and a future of eternal peace and prosperity.

The Plains peoples soon regarded him as their messiah.

Nearby white settlers, frightened by the rituals, called for federal intervention. The U.S. Army believed Chief Sitting Bull to be the instigator of an impending rebellion, and he was arrested in December 1890.

As he was being led away over the objections of his supporters, a gunfight erupted.

Thirteen people, including Sitting Bull, were killed. His followers then fled, some to the camp of Chief Big Foot.

The 7th Cavalry pursued the Sioux to an encampment near Wounded Knee Creek.

On December 29, 1890, a shot was fired within the camp and the army began shooting.

Accounts of the precise events and the death toll vary considerably but it is likely that the soldiers killed between 150 and 370 Sioux men, women, and children, the great majority of whom were unarmed bystanders.

Thirty-one U.S. soldiers were killed in action, many of them from fire by their own troops. Thereafter Wovoka's influence diminished.