- The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890
Although numerous Native American tribes across the North American West practiced the Ghost Dance religion during the latter half of the nineteenth century, most literature focuses on the Lakota Sioux ghost dance of 1890. The allure of the Lakotas’ dance certainly stems from the two major events that occurred, Sitting Bull’s death and the Wounded Knee Massacre. Rani-Henrik Andersson enters this scholarly landscape attempting to produce the most inclusive history to date. He places the dance in the context of Lakota culture.
An intricate web of misunderstandings and diverse viewpoints surrounded the Ghost Dance. To examine the many different ghost dance interpretations, Andersson divides the chapters among the main historical actors; the Lakotas, Indian agents, U.S. Army, missionaries, newspapers, and U.S. Congress each occupy a chapter. The introduction provides helpful background by discussing Lakota history, U.S. Indian policy, and the origins of Wovoka’s Ghost Dance.
Andersson suggests that if not for the cut in rations along with drought and subsequent famine in 1890 Lakotas may have never taken up the Ghost Dance. The dire situation even pushed several [End Page 87] less-traditional Lakotas to dance, though exact numbers are impossible to determine. In addition, many Lakotas were upset with the Sioux Act of 1889, which broke up the Great Sioux Reservation, and blamed those Lakotas who signed it for the reservation’s grim condition. The reservation system and Ghost Dance divided Lakotas, which created disorder. Many scholars, Andersson contends, have misinterpreted this disorder as rising Indian hostility toward whites.
For Lakotas, the Ghost Dance was a very familiar form of religious practice. The dance evolved through experiences, visions, and the influx of Lakota beliefs. Like a couple of previous scholars, Andersson argues that the dance was not a call for violence against whites. (See Jeffrey Ostler’s The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wound Knee and William S. E. Coleman’s Voices of Wounded Knee.) Dancers became hostile only after whites and even fellow Lakotas who opposed the religion tried to interfere or stop the dance. Ghost shirts did not promote war; rather, they reflected traditional Lakota culture, and the imagined bulletproof characteristic appears to have emerged after the army arrived. Whites, however, did not recognize the dance as a religious phenomenon but as a warlike gesture.
From the beginning, Indian agents demanded that Lakotas discontinue dancing and argued for the dance leaders’ arrest. Yet in the fall of 1890, anxiety increased when a new presidential administration appointed inexperienced Indian agents on all Lakota reservations except Standing Rock. The agents at Cheyenne River, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge reservations called for military assistance. Andersson stresses that although the agent at Standing Rock wanted the dancing to end, his biggest concern was Sitting Bull’s influence. The agent used the dance as an excuse to remove Sitting Bull and gain control of the reservation. Sitting Bull did not participate in the Ghost Dance, but he believed his followers could practice any religion they wished. Surprisingly, Standing Rock had the lowest numbers of ghost dancers, yet it saw the first bloodshed during Sitting Bull’s failed arrest. Additionally, 150 of Sitting Bull’s followers fled in the aftermath, and a few later died at Wounded Knee. [End Page 88]
The chapter on the U.S. Army’s involvement is intriguing. Army officers’ investigations revealed that an uprising was unlikely. They believed Lakotas would stop dancing if given rations. Nevertheless, the calls from Indian agents along with public worries pushed the government to prepare for an outbreak and mass troops on the reservations. Once there, General Nelson Miles decided to use the dance to gain power over the Department of the Interior. The Army and Department of the Interior had long struggled over control of Indian affairs. Miles publicly stated alarmist tones about an outbreak, and he got what he wanted when the government put the army in control of the Lakota reservations. The army seemed to...