In the late 1800s the American Indian was already becoming a symbol of the past. Wild Bill Coty was taking his Buffalo show to the Eastern states and to Europe. His displayed reenactments of famous Indian Battles and had real Indians in his shows. The great Indian was now a circus sideshow.
The once great tribes that roamed throughout the continent were now suppressed to reservations that were more like a prison routine then a place to live. Tribes and nations that once roamed thousands of miles to follow herds were expected to maintain a docile lifestyle on less than 100 acres. Indians such as the Sioux whom occupied the entire northern plains states were forced to live in a reservation about the size of Connecticut. Not only were they forced to live in a small confined space, but many times this was under military rule.
“Tribes were deprived of the land base which had provided their economic, political, and military power and strength. To Native Americans the reservation was a prison, a reforms institution; the penitentiary aspect of reservations varied from large compounds where only moderate coercion and repression were applied to isolate military prisons with cellblocks” (The American Indian, Gibson).
Indians were detribalized. Tribes were forced to march thousands of miles to unknown lands in unknown states and to live on reservations which tribes that were different from them. They had to learn a new way of living to adapt to the new environment. Tribes that relied on fishing in the salt water marches, now had to learn how hunt small game on the reservation. That is if the land on the reservation could support the small game. Much of the land that was allotted to the Indians was substandard by any means. The Farming ability on the reservation could not support the people living on it.
With such harsh conditions and so much oppression by the Whites, it is no wonder that the American Indians searched for a new religion to deliver them from evil. Christianity was being pressed on many of the Indians and the Indians combined this religion with their native mystical religion to form new beliefs (much like modern day Voodoo). One of these new religions was the Ghost Dance Cult.
The Ghost Dance Cult originated with the messianic teachings of Tavibo, a Paiute Indian in Nevada. Tavibo taught that one giant earthquake would occur and the Earth would swallow up all of the White people allowing the Indians to live in peace again. However, after seeing that his message did not have many followers, he had a second message from God stating that the earth would swallow up both Whites and Indians and that the Indians would be resurrected. Still Tavibo did not have the following he expected and returned to the mountain to have a third vision that when the Earth swallowed the Whites and the Indians, only the Indians that believed in his teachings would be spared. The doubters, with the Whites would be condemned to eternal punishment.
After Tavibo’s death, his son Wovoka continued his fathers work as a preacher. “He refined Tavibo’s doctrine, added his own, and established a full-blown religious system that came to be called the Ghost Dance religion. Wovoka’s addition to Tavibo’s revelations included the claim of his death and ascension to heaven where he was designated the messenger for the new messianic cult” (The American Indian, Gibson). Wovoka claimed that since Christ had been given to the Earth and since the White men had killed him, Wovoka himself was the Christ on Earth on behalf of the Indians.
This made perfect sense to many of the Indians. It was a combination of Christianity that they had been taught by the Whites and the religion of their elders. It was a perfect combination not to mention the messianic, redemption quality. All one had to do is to follow the Ghost Dance religion and redemption would come. In many of today’s religion all one has to do is accept Christ as your savior and you can be redeemed. This is what was appealing to the Indians with the Ghost Dance. Also the extermination of the Whites for the evils that had committed attracted many followers. “Native Americans eagerly sought word of the messiah. Indians from reservations all over the west traveled to Nevada to learn of the new dispensation. They, like apostles from other faiths, questioned the messiah about various features of the new faith, and his answers had the force of revealed word” (The American Indian, Gibson).
When the Sioux learned of the Ghost Dance religion and embraced the religion, they did so with zealous. Sitting Bull became a follower of the Ghost Dance. The Sioux were in desperate times and they needed a form of redemption. The Sioux were in the middle of a strict drought and facing starvation. Their reservations were being reduced drastically. Local Sioux holy men changed the teaching of Wovoka’s doctrine by replacing the brother love with an advocacy of strident activism and insurgency against their keepers. Still activism does not mean violence. “Lakota acceptance of the ritual has been interpreted as a response to the stress caused by military defeat, the disappearance of the buffalo, and confinement on a reservation” (The Lakota Ghost Dance: An Ethnohistorical Account, Demallie). Dr. McGillycuddy, the former doctorial agent of Pine Ridge stated in 1891: “As for the Ghost Dance, too much attention has been paid to it. It was only the symptom or surface indication of deep-rooted, long existing difficulty…”
However, like most violent military acts, it initiated by ignorance. “Even Lakota nonbelievers accepted the religious motivation of the Ghost Dance. For the Whites, on the other hand, Indians dancing symbolized impending war. Similarly, Indians and Whites conceptions of Ghost were different. For the Lakotas, the Ghost Dance promised a reunion with the souls of their dead relations. For the whites it suggested that the Indians were expecting to die, caught up in a frenzy of reckless fatalism.” (The Lakota Ghost Dance: An Ethnohistorical Account, Demallie).
In 1890 the government agents on the Sioux reservation banned the Ghost Dance rituals. The Indians ignored the order and officials telegraphed for military intervention stating “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy” and an uprising was imminent. How ignorant to order a military act based on dancing. Police arrested numerous reservation personal including Sitting Bull, who was slain by reservation police.
An Indian Chief named Big Foot led many religious refugees into the Bad Lands . Troopers of the Seventh Calvary found the Indians in the Wounded Knee creek bed and slaughtered them. This included men, women and children as they hid or tried to escape from the Calvary. They were killed by fear from the US government because they were “Dancing too much”. The Ghost Dance religion never took the same hold on Indian society as it did before the massacre of Wounded Knee. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Indians believed that their clothing would stop the White mans bullets. They lost faith when they saw their fellow Indians die.
The White reaction to the Ghost Dance Religion is one of the many horrors in Indian History. Indians were massacred due to their religious beliefs and fear from the Whites. The very basic principal that this country was founded on; the freedom of religion, was violated due to our own ignorance.