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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Ghost Dance Songs

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

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.

Teaching Tips

  • In his book A Little Matter Called Genocide, American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Ward Churchill places images of stacked bodies from Wounded Knee next to images of bodies from German concentration camps in World War II. These images have some shocking similarities and force the question: was Wounded Knee a genocidal act? More importantly, what are the implications of calling it one? Ask your students to define the word “genocide” and then to debate when we should limit the use of the word.
  • Have your students read either Black Elk’s or Eastman’s description of the Ghost Dance movement before they read the Ghost Dance songs. Why were the whites in the area so scared? You may want to have your students read the sections surrounding the description so they know what led up to the incident.
  • Unlike the Chippewa songs included in this unit, the Ghost Dance songs were highly ritualistic and performative: they were intended to bring about the deeds they describe. If we take these songs seriously, this would be disastrous for many of their readers. What does it mean, then, to read these songs respectfully? Use this as a problem-solving activity for students. How can an audience respond to literature that may, at its heart, want to end that audience’s very existence? How does the text change when read by those who identify with the author, those who are targeted by the author, and those who are not directly implicated by the text? (Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” poems pose issues related to these questions.)

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is the purpose of the Ghost Dance songs? How did they aim to accomplish this goal? In what context were they first performed?
  2. Comprehension: According to the songs, what exactly is “approaching” or “coming”?
  3. Context: Repetition is an important part of most Native American rituals. It can, for example, emphasize ideas and strengthen the bonds of the community. What is the effect of the repetition in these songs? Given that the “message” of the words could be conveyed without the repetition, how would the songs be different without it?
  4. Context: Why do the songs evoke both imminent change in North American power structures and the details of traditional tribal ways of life (for example, the processing of meat)?
  5. Exploration: Mixed-blood critic Hertha Wong has argued that the pictographic writings of the Sioux and other Plains tribes tended, like works in the oral tradition, to tell stories about the self which might be more accurately described as “communo-bio-oratory” (community-life-speaking) rather than “auto-bio-graphical” (self-life-writing). In other words, they were about the person’s life in the context of his or her human, spiritual, and natural communities and the writings were intended to be part of an oral recitation, rather than stand on their own. How is Black Elk’s narrative “communo-bio-oratory”? Is Black Elk’s story community-centered? If so, how and who is his community? What is the role of the spoken word in his text?
  6. Exploration: Compare these songs with both Black Elk’s vision and the Book of Revelation. Keeping in mind that “apocalypse” is a transliteration of the Greek word for “revelation,” consider how the Ghost Dance’s vision of apocalypse compares to that in other works.

Selected Archive Items

[4219] Western Photograph Company, Gathering up the Dead at the Battle Field of Wounded Knee, South Dakota (1891),
courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
U.S. soldiers standing in front of a wagon full of dead Sioux. A blizzard delayed the burial of the dead. Eventually the Sioux were buried in a mass grave, with little effort made to identify the bodies.

[8102] Blackfeet Tribe, Shirt (c. 1890),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler. [86.126.32].
Shirts such as this one were worn by practitioners of the Ghost Dance religion. Clothing varied from tribe to tribe, but many believed that the shirts protected wearers from bullets and attack.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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