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date: 03 December 2023

Ghost Dance

The International Encyclopedia of Dance

Omer C. Stewart

Ghost Dance. 

The Ghost Dance of 1870 and 1890 was a Native American world-renewal religion. The religion took many forms, but its principal ideas were that the spirits of the dead would be raised, the buffalo would return, and European settlers would be driven away. A dance was the central focus of the ritual.

Precursors of the Ghost Dance may date back to Aztec religion. The languages of the Aztec and Northern Paiute are related and the latter are the originators of the Ghost Dance. Preceding the Ghost Dance, however, and coming from Nevada to the Plains, was the widespread Sun Dance—a painful, trance-inducing ordeal, with dancing under the hot sun from dawn to dusk. The Cheyenne emphasized that the ritual performance of the Sun Dance would reanimate the earth and its life—that is, renew the world.

The tribes of the northwestern plateau between the Rocky and Cascade ranges believed in the impending destruction and renewal of the world, when the dead were to return. Dance ceremonies would hasten the advent of that day. Leslie Spier, who in the 1930s designated such a ceremony the Prophet Dance, believed that it was this dance that gave rise to both the 1870 and the 1890 Ghost Dance of the Northern Paiute.

The Ghost Dance of 1870 was developed by a Northern Paiute medicine man, usually referred to as Wodsiwob, of Walker Lake Reservation, Nevada. The dance spread east to the Ute of Utah and the Shoshone of Idaho but was more important in Oregon and northern California. The 1870 Ghost Dance persisted through one generation to contribute to the rise of the 1890 Ghost Dance. The form of the dance—men and women holding hands and circling by stepping sideways—is both the ancient and the modern form of Northern Paiute social dancing.

Various factors contributed to the development of the Ghost Dance. One was based on ancient Northern Paiute (or Paviotso) shamanism, in which an individual gained power and knowledge through personal visions. [See Shamanism.] The Paiute were acquainted with the messianic hope and resurrection of the dead taught by Christianity; the consecrated undergarments worn by Mormons in the area to ward off harm may have inspired Ghost Dance shirts, to which similar power was attributed. Transportation by horse and then railroad, and communication by the U.S. postal service, facilitated the spread of ideas. The increasing domination of Native Americans by European settlers, with the accompanying destruction of the aboriginal ways of life, was the context in which the Ghost Dance developed.

The Ghost Dance of 1890 became more renowned than that of 1870 because it spread to the Great Plains and the warrior tribes of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and others. The ritual comprised two types of dances. In the general dance, all participants held hands and moved in a circle by means of simple sidesteps. The stately steps were performed in unison, fairly slowly. Wovoka or John Wilson, the teacher of the Ghost Dance of 1890, announced that the God of the Christian Bible had instructed him, during a trance, to use the Paiute Round Dance as part of the sacred ceremony to help Him renew the world. In the second dance type, a frenzied twisting, turning, and gazing at the sun ended with the participant falling into a trance. Such individuals were seeking special communication with God, in imitation of the original vision reported by Wovoka after his trances in 1889.

The two types of dancing represent variations in leadership and in membership. The priest who had learned the proper rules and procedures directed sedate and orderly worship. The converts who were seeking to have personal encounters with supernatural powers tried to enlarge and broaden their religious teachings by receiving direct supernatural instruction under the new revelation. Most devotees failed in their attempts to modify the original instructions of the prophet Wovoka, so for the most part the Ghost Dance remained an orderly, slow circle dance accompanied by group singing and praying.

The U.S. government tried to ban the Ghost Dance, believing that it would lead to an uprising. Sioux Ghost Dancers, trusting that their Ghost Dance shirts would protect them from enemy bullets, were massacred by the army at Wounded Knee Creek, in South Dakota, on 29 December 1890. Although it is commonly believed that the movement ended at that time, large crowds continued to dance the Ghost Dance in Oklahoma after 1908, and small groups of believers persisted in South Dakota for decades.

See also Native American Dance.


Barney, Garold D. Mormons, Indians, and the Ghost Dance Religion of 1890. Lanham, Md., 1986.Find this resource:

Du Bois, Cora Alice. The 1870 Ghost Dance. Berkeley, 1939.Find this resource:

Kroeber, A.L., and E. W. Gifford. World Renewal: A Cult System of Native Northwestern California. Berkeley, 1949.Find this resource:

Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Washington, D.C., 1896.Find this resource:

Osterreich, Shelley Anne. The American Indian Ghost Dance, 1870 and 1890: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1991.Find this resource:

Spier, Leslie. The Prophet Dance of the Northwest and Its Derivatives. Menasha, Wis., 1935.Find this resource:

Stewart, Omer C. The Ghost Dance. In Anthropology on the Great Plains, edited by W. Raymond Wood and Margot Liberty. Lincoln, Neb., 1980.Find this resource:

Vaillant, George C. The Aztecs of Mexico. New York, 1956.Find this resource:

Omer C. Stewart