The Lakota Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee

It is almost impossible to overstate how vehement officials and other Americans eventually became over the need to break up the dances. Of all the features of the new ritual that garnered commentary, the physical excitement of the dancers received the most attention. The central feature of the Ghost Dance everywhere was a ring of people holding hands and turning in a clockwise direction—“men, women, and children; the strong and the robust, the weak consumptive, and those near to death’s door,” as one observer described them. Lakotas had grafted onto the Ghost Dance some symbols of their primary religious ritual, the Sun Dance. Thus, Sioux believers felled a tree, often a young cottonwood, and re-erected it at the center of their dance circle. On it they hung offerings to the spirits, including colored ribbons and sometimes an American flag. Near the tree stood the holy men, supervising the event and assembling the believers, who began by taking a seat in the circle around the tree. There was a prayer, and sometimes a sacred potion was passed for participants to drink. Then dancers might together utter “a sort of plaintive cry, which is pretty well calculated to arrest the ear of the sympathetic.” Once these preliminaries were completed, the dancers rose and started singing—unaccompanied, without drums or other instruments—and the circle began to turn. …

To most white Americans, the dance itself was proof that assimilation had failed to dampen the savage impulse and that America’s irresistible conquest might prove resistible after all. In this light, the dances in South Dakota were more than just dances, and more than another Indian uprising. For Americans, something more, much more, was on the line.

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