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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ghost Dance Songs

In 1871, Congress terminated the U.S. policy of making treaties with Native American tribes as sovereign nations, thus making the tribes subject to the will of Congress and the administrative rulings of the president. The pace of Anglo-American expansion and expropriation of Indian lands quickened, culminating within a decade in the destruction of the vast buffalo herds and the forcible confinement of many tribes to unproductive reservation land, where starvation threatened their lives and acculturation threatened their traditional cultures with extinction. The response of many Native American societies to threats to their way of life was a powerful apocalyptic dream of a future time when enemies would be overthrown and the world returned to the divine order established in the beginning.

The Ghost Dance, the most dramatic and widespread manifestation of this phenomenon, began when the Paiute prophet Wovoka experienced such a vision. He prophesied that the crow would bring whirlwinds and earthquakes to cleanse the earth and destroy the white invaders, and that the Indian dead (the "ghosts") and the slaughtered buffalo would return to reclaim their land. The vision and the trance-inducing round dance and songs accompanying it spread like wildfire among reservation communities from California to the Dakotas.

Among the Sioux, facing a desperate struggle for both physical and cultural survival, the Ghost Dance became especially powerful, catching up men like Sitting Bull in its fervor and persuading others of their invulnerability to the white man's bullets. Fear swept over whites living on and near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, provoking confrontations. In 1890, when Sitting Bull was killed while being arrested, others like Big Foot and his band saw no future and left the reservation. They made it into the Dakota Badlands as far as a place called Wounded Knee, where members of the U.S. cavalry armed with machine guns surrounded and searched them for weapons. A few shots were heard, then many from the machine guns. When silence settled, around 200 Native American men, women, and children were dead, and so was the hope awakened by Wovoka's dream. The Ghost Dance songs int the book should be read with the account of Charles Eastman, a Dakota trained in medicine, who returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation in time to witness the calamity at Wounded Knee.

Andrew O. Wiget
New Mexico State University

In the Heath Anthology

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Ghost Dance
Historical information and many relevant links.

MSNBC's Ghost Dance Site
A map, photos, and an audio format interview with Gabriel Horn on the Ghost Dance Songs.

The Ghost Dance Among the Lakota
Part of PBS's New Perspectives on the West project.

Wovoka and the Ghost Dance
Excerpts and images from I Wear The Morning Star: An Exhibition of American Indian Ghost Dance Objects.

Secondary Sources