Ghost Dances are key ceremonies within a broader Indigenous religious movement that developed in the late nineteenth century in response to the brutal conquest of Native American nations by the US government and white settlers. By that time, most federally recognized tribes in Colorado lived on reservations outside of the state. The dances are performed to activate the movement’s prophecy of a return to traditional Native American ways of life. The Nuche, or Ute people, were one of the first groups to learn of the Ghost Dance teachings, which then spread through Colorado, over the mountains, and onto the plains in an attempt to create spiritual unity between the scattered Native American groups.
Culture, Contact, and Conflict
Events such as the Louisiana Purchase, development of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Colorado Gold Rush, and Civil War propelled a wave of whites onto Indian lands. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, clashes between Native Americans and white settlers escalated, resulting in the so-called Indian Wars. Several treaties hoped to settle the unrest, but often the US government did not uphold them and tribes did not agree with them. The government focused their efforts toward the reservation system and tried to integrate Native Americans into a western education system and introduce them to agriculture.
Recognizing threats to their traditional ways, Native Americans throughout the American west turned to “religious” movements hoping to bring an end to their struggle. One of these movements was the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance movement includes two episodes, the first in 1870 and the second in 1890. Both events began in Paiute country, near the Walker River Reservation in Nevada. The ideas between the two episodes blended traditional Native American beliefs with the Christian idea of a messiah.
The 1870 Ghost Dance
In the late 1860s, a Paviotso man named Wodziwob fell into a trance in which he spoke of dead Indians coming back to life, eternal life and earthly paradise for all Indians, and all white people disappearing. The ceremony amongst the Paviotso resembled a round dance, but as the dance spread to western Nevada, California, and Oregon, the ceremony changed from tribe to tribe as different groups added new songs and elements. The 1870 Ghost Dance seemingly ended in the mid-1870s, though movements with ties to other teachings—such as the Big Head Cult and Bole-Maru religion—have continued into recent times. Scholars interpret the end of the dance as a result of the US government forcing tribes to stop, responding to the fears of those white settlers who saw it as a threat and tribes losing interest as the prophecies were not coming to pass.
Reservations and Allotments
The tensions between the US government and Native Americans continued to rise with changes in policy toward the end of the nineteenth century. Congressman Henry Dawes of Massachusetts wrote the bill for the General Allotment Act (also known as the Dawes Severalty Act or simply the Dawes Act), which passed in 1887. In contrast to the reservation system that forced tribes into areas as a group, the Dawes Act created a system of private land ownership amongst the tribes. Individuals could receive land allotments up to 160 acres in addition to full US citizenship. Not all tribes bought into the program, because they saw how it conflicted with the social organization of many groups, which emphasized communal ownership and respect for the land.
Chief Ignacio of the Southern Ute tribe actively refused to accept the allotment system. The chief and his followers (including most of the Weeminuche Ute) consolidated in protest on the western portion of the Ute reservation at the foot of Sleeping Ute Mountain in southwest Colorado. This area would eventually become the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. After all those who agreed to the allotment program bought land, the government considered the remaining plots a surplus for white settlers to purchase. As a result of the allotment system, Native Americans lost 90 million acres of land from 1887 to 1934.
The 1890 Ghost Dance
On January 1, 1889, Wovoka (also known as Jack Wilson) had a vision similar to Wodziwob’s while he was in Mason Valley, Nevada, near the Walker River Reservation. Wovoka, the son of a disciple of Wodziwob’s, said he learned in his vision that he needed to tell his people they must love each other and do this dance for five consecutive days so that the sickness and death would cease and return dead Indians to this world. Wovoka took an active role in spreading his message by making trips to other tribes and preaching it, inviting others to come listen to him preach as well as shipping items to individuals to help them with the dance. By 1890, word of Wovoka’s Ghost Dance spread west through Nevada and California, but more prominently it spread east through the Rocky Mountains to the plains from southern Canada to what is today Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle.
As in the 1870 movement, details of the dance changed from tribe to tribe with different songs, garments, duration of the dance, and specific calling by the participants. This variety likely occurred because tribes would incorporate the message of the Ghost Dance into an existing dance. One commonality is that the dance occurred in a circle. Some tribes, most notably the Lakota, adopted the use of the “Ghost Dance shirt.” The dancers believed the shirt to be bulletproof. James Mooney, an ethnographer, suggested that the shirts represented influence of Mormon missionaries.
Colorado Ghost Dances
James Mooney described the dances in his report to the Bureau of Ethnology, noting differences between tribes east and west of the Rocky Mountains. Because of the Utes’ geographic proximity and relationship to the Paiute, they participated in dances and spread word to other tribes. Mooney suggests that the Southern Utes did not believe Wovoka’s prophecy and likely did not participate in dances. According to Robert McPherson’s ethnographic account of the White Mesa Ute, Edward Dutchie reported that a dance secretly called the Ghost Dance occurred in Towaoc and Ignacio. McPherson also noted that the Nuche preferred to call them “Worship Dances.” White Mesa elders recalling the Worship Dances noted the use of white garments and dancing around a tree.
The narrative behind the Ute dances follows a wolf-and-coyote structure typical of Numic cultures: the wolf represents the wise older brother, and the coyote represents the imitating younger brother who causes problems, serving as a metaphor for the pattern of the people. In particular, Coyote causes problems with Bear, which results in the murder of Wolf. Coyote then must conduct a series of tasks in hopes to bring back his brother so they may be reunited and live happily together. The story of resurrection parallels the teachings of Wovoka, thus strengthening the connection between the Ute Worship Dance and the Ghost Dances as a whole.
End of the Ghost Dance Movement
As tensions continued to rise between Euro-American settlers acquiring leftover allotment lands, confusion arose around the Ghost Dance. Lakota were particularly thought of as violent Ghost Dancers, and skirmishes developed regularly in the areas adjacent to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. In December 1890, a dance group fled from the Cheyenne River Reservation to the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Seventh Cavalry intercepted the party along Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. On December 29, 1890, as the Cavalry proceeded to disarm members of the tribe, a deaf man became confused and refused to hand over his gun. The gun went off, prompting the Cavalry to open fire. The Ghost Dance movement in many respects ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre. Most tribes stopped dances but kept aspects of the teachings alive, such as a hand game amongst the Assiniboine. Disciples also continued to visit Wovoka for a number of years. The events coincided with Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” which declared the frontier to be officially conquered by white Americans and thus closed.
Impact of the Ghost Dance Movement
Many scholars refer to the Ghost Dance movement as a reaction to the pressures of the reservation system and a way to cope. Other scholars describe the movement as a matter of creating the universal identity of “Indian” as opposed to individual tribal membership because American Indians’ lives drastically changed when they lived together on reservations and allotted lands.
According to elders at White Mesa, Utes continued Worship Dances until the 1960s, with the last being for Anson Cantsee, as reported by his granddaughter, Adoline Eyetoo. McPherson reports in his ethnography that Jack Cantsee, Sr. (the son of Anson) continues to perform Worship Dances in places such as Towaoc and Ignacio. Other movements and dances such as the Sun Dance, Bear Dance, Peyote Religion, and Native American Church share aspects of the Ghost Dances, such as foretelling a better time and guiding Indians to a better life. The Ghost Dance movement inspired literature such as Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and several works by Native American authors such as Sherman Alexie. Both historical fiction and documentaries about the American West highlight the dances. The Ghost Dance continues to be a symbol of American Indians’ attempts to preserve their heritage.