Ghost Dance

Ghost Dance is a Native American religious movement that arose in the mid-19th century in the plains and western portion of the United States in opposition to the oppression of whites. The Ghost Dance envisioned the end of white civilization, a paradisal new world order for Native Americans in which they would have eternal life free of suffering, and the return of Native dead to enjoy the new world along with the living.

The Ghost Dance religion took its name from the Ghost Dance, a circle dance during which dancers experienced mystical visions of the dead and the new world to come. The dance was intended to facilitate the return of the dead.

Although aimed at the white enemies, the Ghost Dance movement was an expression of an old Native myth about the end of the world, its renewal, and the return of the dead to coexist with the living. As animosity against the whites increased, however, various Native prophets specifically addressed the end of white civilization. The movement began to spread in the 1850s. Such prophecies figured prominently in the Nez Percé War of 1877, which the whites won.

One of the primary prophets of the Ghost Dance was Wowoka, the son of a Paiute mystic, who began preaching in 1886. He advocated pure and harmonious living, nonviolence against whites, and a cessation of mourning for the dead, since they were due for imminent return. The Ghost Dance movement was quick to find followers. The dance was celebrated in elaborate rites that would span four or five days. Entranced dancers spoke of glorious visions of their dead ancestors coming back to the world, and of heavenlike fields and enormous herds of buffalo.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic of Ghost Dance followers were the fierce Sioux, who defeated General Custer at Little Big Horn and rejected the tenet of nonviolence. The Sioux began Ghost Dancing in earnest in the summer of 1890. Dancers wore magical shirts that supposedly would stop bullets. Whites took this as a sign of building hostilities, and banned the dance on all Sioux reservations in November 1890. The Sioux continued to dance.

The whites responded with a military presence on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota. In fighting, some Native leaders were killed (Chief Sitting Bull among them) and others were arrested. Those who surrendered were ordered to camp at Wounded Knee Creek. On December 29, 1890 fighting broke out when a gun went off (it is uncertain which side fired the shot), and the result was a tragic massacre of Native Americans. The Wounded Knee massacre effectively ended the Ghost Dance movement, and also brought to a close the frontier wars.


  • Hultkrantz, Ake. Native Religions of North America. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • LeBarre, Weston. The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion. New York: Dell, 1972.
  • Miller, David Humphreys. Ghost Dance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1985. Underhill, Ruth M. Red Man’s Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007