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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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1. Native Voices   

1. Native Voices

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Chippewa Songs
- Louise Erdrich
- Ghost Dance Songs
- Thomas Harriot
- Black Elk & John G. Neihardt
- Simon J. Ortiz
- Leslie Marmon Silko
- Stories of the Beginning of the World
- Luci Tapahonso
- Roger Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Ghost Dance Songs

Gathering Up the Dead at the Battlefield of Wounded Knee, South Dakota (1891)
[4219] Western Photograph Company, Gathering Up the Dead at the Battlefield of Wounded Knee, South Dakota (1891), courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Ghost Dance Songs Activities
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One of the most tragic events in Native American history was the massacre of some two hundred Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge reservation, on December 15, 1890. The slaughter of the Sioux was provoked in part by the Seventh Cavalry's reaction to a multiday ceremony known as the Ghost Dance. A combination of traditional native religion and Christianity, the Ghost Dance religion had begun when a Paiute man, Wovoka, also called Jack Wilson, had a vision in 1889 shortly after a solar eclipse. After collapsing with severe scarlet fever, Wovoka found himself spiritually transported to a village where all the ancestors lived peacefully, surrounded by the old environment and engaging in the old activities. This precontact world would be soon restored to the indigenous people, God told Wovoka, so they should prepare themselves for its coming: they should live in peace, work, not lie or steal, and dance a Ghost Dance that would hasten the return of the old world: the buffalo would again be plentiful and the Europeans would be swept away.

When Wovoka emerged from his fever, he began to spread this prophecy, which traveled widely among Plains Indians (as it had on a smaller scale in California in the early 1870s); before long 20,000 Sioux had begun to engage in the dance. Because this spiritual movement foretold the imminent destruction of the European invaders, it made U.S. officials extremely uneasy, and tensions reached the breaking point at Wounded Knee. By 1889, American Indians had already experienced several hundred years of physical and cultural violence, including the 1871 Congressional termination of treaties with native nations which opened the door even wider for decimation of the land, destruction of the buffalo, and starvation of the people. The Ghost Dance offered a hope for a new world, in the form of the old world of the ancestors, but that hope largely vanished after the Wounded Knee massacre. The Ghost Dance songs accompanied the dance itself, which was a version of the communal dance form long present in North America. The songs generally involved apocalyptic visions experienced by the Ghost Dancers, but they also incorporated native customs and images, as well as aspects of the daily life of the tribe. In its syncretism (its combining of different spiritual traditions), the Ghost Dance thus illustrates the American Indian value of keeping rituals currently relevant to the life of the tribe.

Like most traditional Native American songs, the Ghost Dance songs were never meant to be written down, but were intended to be experienced in an oral, ritual setting as an accompaniment to physical movement. Here literature is meant to act on the community, to affect the world in which it is performed, rather than to be passively consumed by individual audience members. Records of the Ghost Dance Movement and of Wounded Knee appear in Black Elk Speaks and in Charles Alexander Eastman's From the Deep Woods to Civilization, as well as in James Mooney's The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890.

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