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Course: US history > Unit 6
- The Gold Rush
- The Homestead Act and the exodusters
- The reservation system
- The Dawes Act
- Chinese immigrants and Mexican Americans in the age of westward expansion
- The Indian Wars and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee
- Westward expansion: economic development
- Westward expansion: social and cultural development
- The American West
- By the end of the nineteenth century, due to a series of forced removals and brutal massacres at the hands of white settlers and the US Army, the native population of North America had dwindled to a mere fraction of what it had once been.
- Because forced assimilation had nearly destroyed Native American culture, some tribal leaders attempted to reassert their sovereignty and invent new spiritual traditions. The most significant of these was the Ghost Dance, pioneered by Wovoka, a shaman of the Northern Paiute tribe.
- The massacre at Wounded Knee, during which soldiers of the US Army 7th Cavalry Regiment indiscriminately slaughtered hundreds of Sioux men, women, and children, marked the definitive end of Indian resistance to the encroachments of white settlers.
The Ghost Dance
Clash of cultures: white europeans and native americans, the massacre at wounded knee, what do you think, want to join the conversation.
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The Native American Ghost Dance, a Symbol of Defiance
Religious Ritual Became a Symbol of Defiance By Native Americans
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The ghost dance was a religious movement that swept across Native American populations in the West in the late 19th century. What started as a mystical ritual soon became something of a political movement and a symbol of Native American resistance to a way of life imposed by the U.S. government.
A Dark Moment in History
As the ghost dance spread through western Native American reservations , the federal government moved aggressively to stop the activity. The dancing and the religious teachings associated with it became issues of public concern widely reported in newspapers.
As the 1890s began, the emergence of the ghost dance movement was viewed by white Americans as a credible threat. The American public was, by that time, used to the idea that Native Americans had been pacified, moved onto reservations, and essentially converted to living in the style of white farmers or settlers.
The efforts to eliminate the practice of ghost dancing on reservations led to heightened tensions which had profound effects. The legendary Sitting Bull was murdered in a violent altercation sparked by the crackdown on ghost dancing. Two weeks later, the confrontations prompted by the ghost dance crackdown led to the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre .
The horrific bloodshed at Wounded Knee marked the end of the Plains Indian Wars . The ghost dance movement was effectively ended, though it continued as a religious ritual in some places well into the 20th century. The ghost dance took a place at the end of a long chapter in American history, as it seemed to mark the end of Native American resistance to white rule.
Origins of the Ghost Dance
The story of the ghost dance began with Wovoka, a member of the Paiute tribe in Nevada. Wovoka, who was born about 1856, was the son of a medicine man. Growing up, Wovoka lived for a time with a family of white Presbyterian farmers, from whom he picked up the habit of reading the Bible every day.
Wovoka developed a wide-ranging interest in religions. He was said to be familiar with Mormonism and various religious traditions of native tribes in Nevada and California. In late 1888, he became quite ill with scarlet fever and may have gone into a coma.
During his illness, he claimed to have religious visions. The depth of his illness coincided with a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, which was seen as a special sign. When Wovoka regained his health, he began to preach of knowledge which God had imparted to him.
According to Wovoka, a new age would dawn in 1891. The dead of his people would be restored to life. Game which had been hunted nearly to extinction would return. And the white people would vanish and stop afflicting the indigenous peoples.
Wovoka also said a ritual dance which had been taught to him in his visions must be practiced by native populations. This "ghost dance," which was similar to traditional round dances, was taught to his followers.
Decades earlier, in the late 1860s , during a time of privation among western tribes, there had been a version of the ghost dance which spread through the West. That dance also prophesied positive changes to come to the lives of Native Americans. The earlier ghost dance spread through Nevada and California, but when the prophecies did not come true, the beliefs and accompanying dance rituals were abandoned.
However, Wovoka's teachings based on his visions took hold throughout early 1889. His idea quickly spread along travel routes, and became widely known among the western tribes.
At the time, the Native American population was demoralized. The nomadic way of life had been curtailed by the U.S. government, forcing the tribes onto reservations. Wovoka's preaching seemed to offer some hope.
Representatives of various western tribes began to visit Wovoka to learn about his visions, and especially about what was becoming widely known as the ghost dance. Before long, the ritual was being performed across Native American communities, which were generally located on reservations administered by the federal government.
Fear of the Ghost Dance
In 1890, the ghost dance had become widespread among the western tribes. The dances became well-attended rituals, generally taking place over a span of four nights and the morning of the fifth day.
Among the Sioux, who were led by the legendary Sitting Bull , the dance became extremely popular. The belief took hold that someone wearing a shirt that was worn during the ghost dance would become invulnerable to any injury.
Rumors of the ghost dance began to instill fear among white settlers in South Dakota, in the region of the Indian reservation at Pine Ridge. Word began to spread that the Lakota Sioux were finding a fairly dangerous message in Wovoka's visions. His talk of a new age without whites began to be seen as a call to eliminate the white settlers from the region.
And part of Wovoka's vision was that the various tribes would all unite. So the ghost dancers began to be seen as a dangerous movement that could lead to widespread attacks on white settlers across the entire West.
The spreading fear of the ghost dance movement was picked up by newspapers, in an era when publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were beginning to champion sensational news. In November 1890, a number of newspaper headlines across America linked the ghost dance to alleged plots against white settlers and U.S. Army troops.
An example of how white society viewed the ghost dance appeared in the form of a lengthy story in the New York Times with the subheadline, "How the Indians Work Themselves Up to a Fighting Pitch." The article explains how a reporter, led by friendly Indian guides, trekked overland to a Sioux camp. "The trip was extremely hazardous, owing to the frenzy of the hostiles." The article described the dance, which the reporter claimed to have observed from a hill overlooking the camp. 182 "bucks and squaws" participated in the dance, which took place in a large circle around a tree. The reporter described the scene:
"The dancers held on another's hands and moved slowly around the tree. They did not raise their feet as high as they do in the sun dance, most of the time it looked as though their ragged moccasins did not leave the ground, and the only idea of dancing the spectators could gain from the motion of the fanatics was the weary bending of the knees. Round and round the dancers went, with their eyes closed and their heads bent toward the ground. The chant was incessant and monotonous. 'I see my father, I see my mother, I see my brother, I see my sister," was Half Eye's translation of the chant, as the squaw and warrior moved laboriously about the tree. "The spectacle was as ghastly as it could be: it showed the Sioux to be insanely religious. The white figures bobbing between pained and naked warriors and the shrill yelping noise of the squaws as they tottered in grim endeavor to outdo the bucks, made a picture in the early morning which has not yet been painted or accurately described. Half Eyes says the dance which the spectators were then witnessing had been going on all night."
On the following day the other side of the country, the front-page story "A Devilish Plot" claimed that Indians on the Pine Ridge reservation planned to hold a ghost dance in a narrow valley. The plotters, the newspaper claimed, would then lure soldiers into the valley to stop the ghost dance, at which point they would be massacred.
In "It Looks More Like War," the New York Times claimed that Little Wound, one of the leaders at the Pine Ridge reservation, "the great camp of the ghost dancers," asserted that the Indians would defy orders to cease the dancing rituals. The article said the Sioux were "choosing their fighting ground," and preparing for a major conflict with the U.S. Army.
Role of Sitting Bull
Most Americans in the late 1800s were familiar with Sitting Bull, a medicine man of the Hunkpapa Sioux who was closely associated with the Plains Wars of the 1870s. Sitting Bull did not directly participate in the massacre of Custer in 1876, though he was in the vicinity, and his followers attacked Custer and his men.
Following the demise of Custer, Sitting Bull led his people into safety in Canada. After being offered amnesty, he eventually returned to the United States in 1881. In the mid-1880s, he toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, alongside performers like Annie Oakley.
By 1890, Sitting Bull was back in South Dakota. He became sympathetic to the movement, encouraged young Native Americans to embrace the spirituality espoused by Wovoka, and apparently urged them to take part in the ghost dance rituals.
The endorsement of the movement by Sitting Bull did not go unnoticed. As the fear of the ghost dance spread, what appeared to be his involvement only heightened tensions. The federal authorities decided to arrest Sitting Bull, as it was suspected he was about to lead a major uprising among the Sioux.
On December 15, 1890, a detachment of U.S. Army troops, along with Native Americans who worked as police officers on a reservation, rode out to where Sitting Bull, his family, and some followers were camped. The soldiers stayed at a distance while the police sought to arrest Sitting Bull.
According to news accounts at the time, Sitting Bull was cooperative and agreed to leave with the reservation police, but young Native Americans attacked the police. A shoot-out occurred, and in the gun battle, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.
The death of Sitting Bull was major news in the East. The New York Times published a story about the circumstances of his death on its front page, with subheadlines described him as an "old medicine man" and a "wily old plotter."
The ghost dance movement came to a bloody end at the massacre at Wounded Knee on the morning of December 29, 1890. A detachment of the 7th Cavalry approached an encampment of natives led by a chief named Big Foot and demanded that everyone surrender their weapons.
Gunfire broke out, and within an hour approximately 300 Native men, women, and children were killed. The treatment of the native peoples and the massacre at Wounded Knee signify a dark episode in American history . After the massacre at Wounded Knee, the ghost dance movement was essentially broken. While some scattered resistance to white rule arose in the following decades, the battles between Native Americans and whites in the West had ended.
Resources and Further Reading
- “ The Death of Sitting Bull .” New York Times , 17 Dec. 1890.
- “ It Looks More Like War .” New York Times , 23 Nov. 1890.
- “ The Ghost Dance .” New York Times , 22 Nov. 1890.
- “ A Devilish Plot .” Los Angeles Herald , 23 Nov. 1890.
- History of the Wounded Knee Massacre
- Timeline from 1890 to 1900
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Definition of Ghost Dance
Examples of ghost dance in a sentence.
These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'Ghost Dance.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.
1876, in the meaning defined above
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“Ghost Dance.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Ghost%20Dance. Accessed 19 Oct. 2023.
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"When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat."
As news of Wounded Knee spread throughout the Native nations, the Ghost Dance died quickly. Wovoka's prophecies were empty; the land would not be returned from the white man through divine intervention. When it became obvious that ghost shirts did not protect their wearers from bullets, and the expected resurrection of the dead had not occurred, most believers quit the dance. With the suddenness of its birth, Ghost Dance disappeared. The Wounded Knee massacre put an end to the Ghost Dance as a widespread phenomenon. It was continued in several isolated places, but the expectation of the imminent return of the dead and of traditional culture was minimized. The last known Ghost Dances were held in the 1950s among the Shoshone. See Indian Wars Time Table .
Legends of America
Traveling through american history, destinations & legends since 2003., the ghost dance – a promise of fulfillment.
Ghost Dance of the Sioux, Illustrated in London News, 1891
The Ghost Dance (Natdia) is a spiritual movement that came about in the late 1880s when conditions were bad on Indian reservations and Native Americans needed something to give them hope. This movement found its origin in a Paiute Indian named Wovoka , who announced that he was the messiah come to earth to prepare the Indians for their salvation.
The Paiute tradition that led to the Ghost Dance began in the 1870s in the Western Great Basin from the visions of Wodziwob (Gray Hair) concerning earth renewal and the reintroduction of the spirits of ancient Numu (Northern Paiute) ancestors into the contemporary day to help them. Central to the Natdia religion was the dance itself – dancing in a circular pattern continuously – which induced a state of religious ecstasy.
The movement began with a dream by Wovoka (named Jack Wilson in English), a Northern Paiute, during the solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. He claimed that, in his dream, he was taken into the spirit world and saw all Native Americans being taken up into the sky and the Earth opening up to swallow all Whites and to revert back to its natural state. The Native Americans, along with their ancestors, were put back upon the earth to live in peace. He also claimed that he was shown that, by dancing the round-dance continuously, the dream would become a reality and the participants would enjoy the new Earth.
His teachings followed a previous Paiute tradition predicting a Paiute renaissance. Varying somewhat, it contained much Christian doctrine. He also told them to remain peaceful and keep the reason for the dance secret from the Whites. Wovoka’s message spread quickly to other Native American peoples and soon many of them were fully dedicated to the movement. Representatives from tribes all over the nation came to Nevada to meet with Wovoka and learn to dance the Ghost Dance and to sing Ghost Dance songs.
The dance as told by Wovoka went something like this: “When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. …I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat.”
The Natdia, it was claimed, would bring about the renewal of the native society and decline in the influence of the Whites.
Paiute Ghost Dance
Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents grew disturbed when they became aware that so many Indians were coming together and participating in a new and unknown event.
In early October 1890, Kicking Bear, a Minneconjou Sioux Indian, visited Sitting Bull at Standing Rock telling him of his visit to Wovoka. They told him of the great number of other Indians who were there as well, referring to Wovoka as the Christ.
And they told him of the prophecy that the next spring when the grass was high, the earth would be covered with new soil and bury all the white men. The new soil would be covered with sweetgrass, running water and trees and the great herds of buffalo and wild horses would return. All Indians who danced the Ghost Dance would be taken up into the air and suspended there while the new earth was being laid down. Then they would be returned to the earth along with the ghosts of their ancestors.
When the dance spread to the Lakota, the BIA agents became alarmed. They claimed that the Lakota developed a militaristic approach to the dance and began making “ghost shirts” they thought would protect them from bullets. They also spoke openly about why they were dancing. The BIA agent in charge of the Lakota eventually sent the tribal police to arrest Sitting Bull, a leader respected among the Lakota, to force him to stop the dance. In the struggle that followed, Sitting Bull was killed along with a number of policemen. A small detachment of cavalry eventually rescued the remaining policemen.
Wounded Knee Massacre
Following the killing of Sitting Bull, the United States sent the Seventh Cavalry to “disarm the Lakota and take control.” During the events that followed, now known as the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890, 457 U.S. soldiers opened fire upon the Sioux killing more than 200 of them. The Ghost Dance reached its peak just before the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
When it became apparent that ghost shirts did not protect from bullets and the expected resurrection did not happen, most former believers quit the Ghost Dance. Wovoka, disturbed by the death threats and disappointed with the many reinterpretations of his vision, gave up his public speaking. However, he remained well-respected among his followers and continued his religious activities. He traveled and received visitors until the end of his life in 1932. There are still members of the religious movement today.
Believers in the Ghost Dance spirituality are convinced that performing the Ghost Dance will eventually reunite them with their ancestors coming by railway from the spirit world. The ancestor spirits, including the spirit of Jesus, are called upon to heal the sick and to help protect Mother Earth. Meanwhile, the world will return to a primordial state of natural beauty, opening up to swallow up all other people (those who do not have a strong spirituality based upon the earth). The performers of the Ghost Dance theoretically will float in safety above with their ancestors, family, and peoples of the world who follow the extensive spirituality.
1890 Observation and Description of the Ghost Dance:
Mrs. Z.A. Parker observed the Ghost Dance among the Lakota at Pine Ridge Reservation, Dakota Territory on June 20, 1890, and described it:
Ghost Dance Painting
We drove to this spot at about 10:30 o’clock on a delightful October day. We came upon tents scattered here and there in low, sheltered places long before reaching the dance ground. Presently we saw over three hundred tents placed in a circle, with a large pine tree in the center, which was covered with strips of cloth of various colors, eagle feathers, stuffed birds, claws, and horns-all offerings to the Great Spirit. The ceremonies had just begun. In the center, around the tree, were gathered their medicine-men; also those who had been so fortunate as to have had visions and in them had seen and talked with friends who had died. A company of 15 had started a chant and were marching abreast, others coming in behind as they marched. After marching around the circle of tents they turned to the center, where many had gathered and were seated on the ground.
I think they wore the ghost shirt or ghost dress for the first time that day. I noticed that these were all new and were worn by about seventy men and forty women. The wife of a man called Return-from-scout had seen in a vision that her friends all wore a similar robe, and on reviving from her trance she called the women together and they made a great number of the sacred garments. They were of white cotton cloth. The women’s dress was cut like their ordinary dress, a loose robe with wide, flowing sleeves, painted blue in the neck, in the shape of a three-cornered handkerchief, with moon, stars, birds, etc., interspersed with real feathers, painted on the waists, letting them fall to within three inches of the ground, the fringe at the bottom. In the hair, near the crown, a feather was tied. I noticed an absence of any manner of head ornaments, and, as I knew their vanity and fondness for them, wondered why it was. Upon making inquiries I found they discarded everything they could which was made by white men.
The ghost shirt for the men was made of the same material-shirts and leggings painted in red. Some of the leggings were painted in stripes running up and down, others running around. The shirt was painted blue around the neck, and the whole garment was fantastically sprinkled with figures of birds, bows and arrows, sun, moon, and stars, and everything they saw in nature.
Down the outside of the sleeve were rows of feathers tied by the quill ends and left to fly in the breeze, and also a row around the neck and up and down the outside of the leggings. I noticed that a number had stuffed birds, squirrel heads, etc., tied in their long hair. The faces of all were painted red with a black half-moon on the forehead or on one cheek.
As the crowd gathered about the tree the high priest, or master of ceremonies, began his address, giving them directions as to the chant and other matters. After he had spoken for about fifteen minutes they arose and formed in a circle. As nearly as I could count, there were between three and four hundred persons.
One stood directly behind another, each with his hands on his neighbor’s shoulders. After walking about a few times, chanting, “Father, I come,” they stopped marching, but remained in the circle, and set up the most fearful, heart-piercing wails I ever heard-crying, moaning, groaning, and shrieking out their grief, and naming over their departed friends and relatives, at the same time taking up handfuls of dust at their feet, washing their hands in it, and throwing it over their heads.
Finally, they raised their eyes to heaven, their hands clasped high above their heads, and stood straight and perfectly still, invoking the power of the Great Spirit to allow them to see and talk with their people who had died. This ceremony lasted about fifteen minutes, when they all sat down where they were and listened to another address, which I did not understand, but which I afterward learned were words of encouragement and assurance of the coming messiah.
When they arose again, they enlarged the circle by facing toward the center, taking hold of hands, and moving around in the manner of school children in their play of “needle’s eye.” And now the most intense excitement began. They would go as fast as they could, their hands moving from side to side, their bodies swaying, their arms, with hands gripped tightly in their neighbors’, swinging back and forth with all their might. If one, more weak and frail, came near falling, he would be jerked up and into position until tired nature gave way.
The ground had been worked and worn by many feet until the fine, flour-like dust lay light and loose to the depth of two or three inches. The wind, which had increased, would sometimes take it up, enveloping the dancers and hiding them from view. In the ring were men, women, and children; the strong and the robust, the weak consumptive, and those near to death’s door. They believed those who were sick would be cured by joining in the dance and losing consciousness. From the beginning they chanted, to a monotonous tune, the words:Father, I come;
Mother, I come;
Brother, I come;
Father, give us back our arrows.
All of which they would repeat over and over again until first one and then another would break from the ring and stagger away and fall down. One woman fell a few feet from me. She came toward us, her hair flying over her face, which was purple, looking as if the blood would burst through; her hands and arms moving wildly; every breath a pant and a groan; and she fell on her back, and went down like a log. I stepped up to her as she lay there motionless, but with every muscle twitching and quivering. She seemed to be perfectly unconscious. Some of the men and a few of the women would run, stepping high and pawing the air in a frightful manner. Some told me afterward that they had a sensation as if the ground were rising toward them and would strike them in the face. Others would drop where they stood. One woman fell directly into the ring, and her husband stepped out and stood over her to prevent them from trampling upon her. No one ever disturbed those who fell or took any notice of them except to keep the crowd away.
They kept up dancing until fully 100 persons were lying unconscious. Then they stopped and seated themselves in a circle, and as each recovered from his trance he was brought to the center of the ring to relate his experience. Each told his story to the medicine-man and he shouted it to the crowd. Not one in ten claimed that he saw anything. I asked one Indian, a tall, strong fellow, straight as an arrow-what his experience was. He said he saw an eagle coming toward him. It flew around and around, drawing nearer and nearer until he put out his hand to take it when it was gone. I asked him what he thought of it. “Big lie,” he replied. I found by talking to them that not one in 20 believed it. After resting for a time they would go through the same performance, perhaps three times a day. They practiced fasting, and every morning those who joined in the dance were obliged to immerse themselves in the creek. – Z.A. Parker, 1890.
Ghost Dance of the Cheyenne and Arapaho
© Kathy Weiser / Legends of America , updated February 2020.
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There is the father coming, There is the father coming. The father says this as he comes, The father says this as he comes, “You shall live,” he says as he comes, “You shall live,” ‘he says as he comes .
– Sioux Ghost Dance Song
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Tag Archives: Ghost Dance
Misinterpretation in the ghost dance of 1890.
Historically, most Americans lack a thorough appreciation of Native American culture. One way we can begin to understand this rich culture is through a study of Native American music, which often closely relates to culture and religion. One example is the Ghost Dance, a religious ceremony in which tribal members sing and dance on four consecutive nights. The songs include repeated chants (usually an a-a-b-b phrase) while members of the tribe dance enthusiastically in a circle. Included here is an example of a Ghost Dance song from a tribe in the western Great Plains. It was recorded as part of James Mooney’s recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance Songs in 1894.
Although specifics rituals and song patterns differ depending on the region or tribe, each Ghost Dance represents an intensely cultural experience during which “communal performance of song and dance” is the center piece of [the] religion” (Vander 113).
We now know and understand the elements of this dance, but there were (and still are) gross misconceptions about the meaning of the Ghost Dance. One letter from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota highlights this lack of appreciation for Native American culture. The letter , written in 1890, by John M. Sweeney, a white schoolteacher, is addressed to a U.S. Indian responsible for implementing federal policies on reservations. Sweeney echoes Chief Little Wound’s sentiments that the Ghost Dance is not a threat, and that U.S. troops are encroaching on the reservation with no justification. His letter asserts that the Dance will continue until Spring no matter the consequences.
Letter Excerpt #1 – John M. Sweeney dictating words of Chief Little Wound
At first, it appears that Sweeney is sympathetic towards the Native Americans, yet he later comments on the stubbornness of those who continue to dance. He notes that those who lead the ceremony are also those who refused to sign the Sioux Bill, a government-forced bill that reduced Sioux Reservation land mass, broke up tribes, and placed further restrictions on Native American groups (North Dakota Studies).
Letter Excerpt #2 – John M. Sweeney reflecting on Native American stubbornness
In fact, Sweeney speculates that this Ghost Dance was indicative of the Native Americans’ plan to revolt. He shows a blatant disregard for Native American culture. It acts as a real-life example of how tensions plagued relationships between the Native Americans and European immigrants. U.S. government fear that the Ghost Dance in 1890 was a threat led to the Battle at Wounded Knee, where approximately 300 Native Americans were murdered. This widespread misunderstanding ultimately carried forward through the recording of U.S. history.
The Ghost dance by the Ogallala Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency … Dakota / Frederic Remington, Pine Ridge, S. Dak.
Through the Ghost Dance, Native Americans connected to nature with expressive song and dance, hopeful that their spirits would restore prosperity and the Indian way of life. Historians now understand the cultural importance of musical ceremonies like the Ghost Dance. There is much to glean from this culture that can, hopefully, create a new understanding of ways in which historical biases have caused harm, and restore an appreciation for the rich culture of Native American peoples.
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Ghost Dance: the True Meaning of the Americas
“Before you are an old man, the birds of the jungle will no longer blaze like fire across the sky. Mountains of ice at the top of the world will melt and the sea will rise and fall, poisoning its waters and claiming its shores. You did not see because you have not yet learned to see. Your kind, the Two-Legged Ones, have been tricked into destroying your strand in the weave of nature, but I have come to help you.”
This warning of impending global environmental destruction was given in 1972 by Desheto , the spirit of an endangered psychedelic mushroom that only grows in the cloud forests of central Mexico, to Michael Stuart Ani, author of The Ghost Dance: An Untold History of the Americas . Published in 2016, the book is a captivating account of a hidden history of the Americas that traces a thread of connections to a single ancient Indigenous ritual: the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance, according to Ani, was a ritual that spread throughout the pre-Columbian Americas, renamed and reinterpreted by various cultures as far back as the Olmecs. However, at its heart, the Ghost Dance was a ritual designed to save humanity from environmental self-destruction today.
The book does not easily fit into established genres. Its unique narrative methodology interweaves vivid depictions of historical events, Indigenous mythology, and the author’s experiences with sacred psychedelic plants. Sometimes it is difficult to gauge if the events described in the book can be fully corroborated with historical evidence, or whether this is even important. To begin with, records of Indigenous history are often so sparse, unclear, and distorted by centuries-long ignorance and racist cultural suppression that corroboration is simply unfeasible. Ani gives the example of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, whom he says was actually an Indigenous medicine man — an identity and concept too “foreign” at the time to make it into Western history books.
Another aspect of pre-Columbian Indigenous American cultures that is not commonly known is the extent to which they were connected. The Indigenous people of North, Central, and South America were not separated by arbitrary national borders like today; they shared many rituals, myths, cultural concepts, languageｓ and goods. Through extensive personal experience living with Indigenous people across the Americas, Ani is able to portray an underrepresented pan-Amerindian mythology. The story of the Ghost Dance offers a rare, integrated sense of meaning to the history of the Americas, as well as providing a broader sense of significance to today’s global environmental crisis.
Michael Stuart Ani, a self-described jungle guide, has lived his whole life in the cause and company of Indigenous people. He has been involved and active in Indigenous causes since the late ’60s. I identify with the author in some ways because, like him, I grew up as a non-Native American within a Native American context. My mother is German, my father is an ethnic Mongolian from China, but my mother eventually remarried and I spent my formative years growing up in Arizona with my San Carlos Apache step-father and sisters. It is a unique experience to have, as not many outsiders get to experience both the deep beauty and heartbreaking darkness of the Indigenous American experience. The years living with my step father were not easy, but the experience left me with the recognition, I share with Ani, of the urgency of the Indigenous message for ecological reciprocity today. The message at the heart of the Ghost Dance.
Ani’s journey began as a young man when he befriended John Fire Lame Deer , an old Lakota sage from whom he first learned of the Ghost Dance. Lame Deer told him that its steps and history had been lost. Lame Deer led Ani on a peyote vision quest ceremony in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado in 1969. It was during this experience that Ani understood he would have to follow the “rope of the dead” to Mexico in search of the lost steps of the Ghost Dance.
Ani arrived in Oaxaca that same year where he lived with the Indigenous Mazatecan people. There he began a relationship with a sacred psychedelic mushroom known as Desheto, a species of mushroom that had been kept secret from Westerners. He lived under the supervision of a powerful Mazatecan Che-ney (healer), Jose Martinez, but Ani emphasizes that the commonly understood shaman/pupil relationship as depicted by Carlos Castaneda, who was also hanging around at the time, was false, and that the teachings came from the plants directly with minimal intervention from the shaman. Ani was the only outsider who was ever let into this world.
Today, Desheto is on the brink of extinction, threatened by climate change and human incursions, as it only grows in the delicately balanced cloud forest ecosystem of the Sierra Mazateca. This mushroom is a different species than the Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms commonly known in the West today as magic mushrooms. According to Ani, the cubensis mushrooms, which grew on cow patties and sugar cane fields, were themselves not used by the Mazatecan people, but only sold to Westerners as a way of generating some income for the impoverished locals; which also served to hide their true sacrament, Desheto, the “Prince of Plants.”
Through many ceremonies, over the span of thirty years, Desheto revealed to Ani the full story of the Ghost Dance, an ancient ritual that lay at the core of Indigenous American mythology. The Ghost Dance had spread throughout the Americas over the course of millennia and was reinterpreted from culture to culture, by the Lakota, the Paiute, the Hopi, the Huichol, the Aztecs, the Toltecs, and finally, back to its original source, with the ancient Olmecs in central Mexico. Despite regional variations, the essence of the dance has remained the same: the Ghost Dance is the ritual that calls upon the Ancestors for help in maintaining humanity's relationship to nature.
The original Olmec ritual told the story of a struggle between two gods, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, created civilization; his brother Tezcatlipoca, the lord of the witches, foresaw that humanity’s flourishing would inevitably lead to ecological destruction and thus cast a veil of illusion over civilization, inverting its values and leading humankind towards self-destruction before killing off mother-nature entirely. This mythology is an example of how, unlike in Western religions, concern for nature is embedded at the very core of Indigenous religions and cultures throughout the world.
The Ghost Dance was not only independently performed in local times and contexts, but also as a ritual cycle taking place over centuries, with different acts playing out throughout history. Some readers may be familiar with the Ghost Dance as a ritual performed by North American tribes during the tail end of the American-Indian wars in the 1890s, as a last-ditch effort to expel the white man from the Americas. The ritual frightened the white settlers so much that the American government immediately outlawed the ceremony and deployed the army to enforce the ban. In 1890, during a gathering for the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee, the U.S. Army massacred 250 unarmed Lakota men, women, and children. The massacre at Wounded Knee was later commemorated by an armed standoff between the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the U.S. federal government in 1973, for which Stuart Ani helped organize supplies. The Ghost Dance ultimately remained illegal in the United States until 1978.
The ceremony itself involves the consumption of sacred psychedelic plants, like peyote, mushrooms, or ayahuasca. Ani’s book describes it as the “ritual that would teach humans to interpret the wisdom of the Fruit of Knowledge.” Essentially it is a practice through which the phenomena of psychedelic experiences can be properly interpreted and received. Only by consuming entheogenic plants can the veil of illusion be broken.
In the book, when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519, he was invited to attend the local version of the Ghost Dance, known as the Miccailhuitontli (“Lady of the Dead Ceremony”). The Spaniards judged the mushroom-consuming ritual as devil worship and proceeded to massacre their hosts. Later, when the Spanish crown and the Vatican were firmly in control of Tenochtitlan, present day Mexico City, they tried to outlaw the Ghost Dance, which provoked a popular revolt. Instead of outlawing it altogether, the Spanish government decided to change the date of the ritual, moving it from late July, when the mushroom is in season, to November and replacing the sacrament with alcohol. This practice evolved into the Mexican holiday known today as Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.
At the heart of many Indigenous and shamanistic cultures is the use of psychedelic plants, which are used as medicine and psycho-spiritual technologies and activate alternate brain functions for novel information processing and problem-solving. The study of psychedelics has been gaining prominence in Western medicine in recent years, as their usage appears to correlate with strong benefits to mental health and psychological well-being. They are the only medicines empirically shown to be able to effectively heal treatment-resistant forms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches, and even end of life anxiety. Both psilocybin and MDMA have been designated special “Breakthrough Therapy” status by the American Federal Drug Administration. Studies have shown that psychedelics can shift people’s political attitudes in an anti-authoritarian direction and also increase self-reported scores of “nature relatedness.” As one study participant describes it: “Before I enjoyed nature, now I feel part of it. Before I was looking at it as a thing, like a TV or a painting... [But now I see] there’s no separation or distinction, you are it.” These results, however, are only scratching the surface in comparison to the knowledge of plant medicines held by Indigenous people. While Western science has only begun to understand the effects of psychedelics, the usage of plant medicines like ayahuasca, for example, stretches back at least four millennia among the cultures of the Amazon basin.
In 1972, Desheto sent Ani to South America to continue his journey along “the rope of the dead” of the Ghost Dance. There, deep in the remote rainforests of Venezuela, Columbia, and Brazil, he lived with the Yanomami and other uncontacted tribes still hidden in the jungles. For more than two decades, he helped them fight epidemics, wildfires, and the incursions of missionaries, miners, and loggers that brought disease, sex trafficking, and violence. Ani started the Amazonia Foundation in 1992 as a vehicle for his pandemic relief efforts.
Ani says he first came to understand the specific relationship between the destruction of nature and disease from an experience with the Piaroa tribe in 1988. The Piaroa took him three days into the jungle and showed him many different plants and animals, despite having no common language between them. Then, during an ayahuasca ceremony, the many plants and animals that had been shown to him suddenly fell together in his mind like the pieces of an ornate puzzle; Ani was able to see and understand the complex interrelations of ecosystems, as well as their relationship to disease, for the first time. Since this experience, Ani has warned of increasing occurrences of epidemics escaping from the wilderness because of ecological destruction.
When I first read the book in the fall of 2019, the looming threat of a global pandemic seemed abstract and distant. Needless to say, I was surprised when COVID-19, likely a zoonotic transmission resulting from environmental destruction and biodiversity loss, arrived on the world stage not three months later. At one point, Desheto tells Ani, “The Two-Legged Ones think plants are helpless and at their mercy but they are wrong; humans are at our mercy. I called upon the Mother of All Plagues [the goddess of diseases] to cull the human herd.”
The complex interrelated consequences of environmental destruction and disease, of health and biodiversity, is something Indigenous people have implicitly understood for centuries, and which they have warned Westerners about. Western science has only caught on within recent decades. Scientists used to think that zoonotic viruses and contagions simply existed out in the wilderness and that only random contact and transmission could lead to outbreaks. But they are beginning to understand now that the degradation of finely tuned ecosystems and the resultant stressors on organisms provide the conditions for the production of viruses in the first place. Destroying habitats and biodiversity not only releases disease, it creates disease. A more holistic conception of health, in which the organism cannot be separated from the environment, is direly needed.
Indigenous cultures throughout the world place the metaphor of the interconnected fabric of ecology at the core of their cultures and religions, whereas Western agricultural religions shaped European culture to consider nature and land only in terms of resources, property, and sovereignty, leading to today’s ecological crisis. Indigenous peoples make up only 6% of the global population while protecting 80% of the biodiversity of the planet. “Indigenous people are the key to all of our survival … it is not us who must save them, but it is them who must save us,” says Ani in a video on his Instagram account (@theghostdance). “My hope is with the Indigenous people, holding the line of Western environmental destruction, long enough to give nature the time to heal herself.”
Artist Timur Si-Qin’s interests in contemporary philosophy, the evolution of culture, and the dynamics of cognition take form in branded ecosystems and installations of 3D printed sculptures, light-boxes, and VR. Si-Qin’s works seek to think beyond the anthropocentric dualisms at the center of western consciousness.
Si-Qin’s long term project is the proposal of a new secular faith in the face of climate change called New Peace. Drawing from disparate disciplines like the Evolution of Religion, Marketing Psychology, and Object Oriented Ontology, Si-Qin understands spiritualities as cultural softwares capable of deep behavioral and political intervention. New Peace is thus a new protocol for the necessary renegotiation of our conceptual and spiritual relationship with the non-human. New Peace is an artwork, a brand, a sect, and self propagating memetic machine.
Si-Qin is a New York-based artist of German and Mongolian-Chinese descent who grew up in Berlin, Beijing, and in the American Southwest. Recent exhibitions include Magician Space, Beijing, The Highline, NY, Kaleidoscope/ Spazio Maiocchi, Milan, Art Basel - Hong Kong, the 5th Ural Industrial Biennale of Contemporary Art and the 2019 Asian Art Biennale.
Yanomami at the riverbank (courtesy of Ani)
John Fire Lame Deer marching with Martin Luther King Jr. (source unknown)
Drawing of Tezcatlipoca in the Codex Borgia (public domain/wikipedia)
Desheto (courtesy of Michael Stuart Ani)
Amazon (courtesy of Ani)
The author’s Instagram account (@theghostdance)
Ghost Dance - Religious and Spiritual Dance
Since the dawn of modern history, dancing has always been in close contact with religious movements. This tight bond was nowhere as close as it was during the years when numerous American Indian tribes started practicing the religious “Ghost Dance” routine, originally used as a religious and spiritual dance that was supposed to signify the prophecy of end of the suffering of Native American folk, the end of the domination of the white settlers from Europe and restoration of the world to the natural state. The height of the popularity of Ghost Dance happened during the last years of 19th century during which the plight of Native American tribes reached its height with numerous European diseases decimated the tenth of their entire population, devastation of buffalo herds damaged their ability to gather food and aggressive expansion of European settlers caused military conflict that forced many tribes to leave their homelands. After the initial popularity of Ghost Dance which has spread to all corners of North America by early 1900s, many cultures morphed the Ghost Dance into their version, synthesizing the aspects of the dance and its ritual into their beliefs.
While the tradition of “circle dancing” was present in the Native American people since prehistoric times, its modern version of “Ghost Dancing” happened in two waves – first by the prophet and dreamer Hawthorne Wodziwob in 1871-1873 who promoted vision of the better world for Native tribes and then several years later by Wodziwob pupil Wovoka (born as Jack Wilson) who promoted much more radical vision of the future.
First examples of Ghost Dance that were organized by famous healer Hawthorne Wodziwob were centered on his visions, in which he spoke of the promises made to him by the souls of the dead (which even included promise that some of them will return to the life for the people of three to four years) and the ways the deceased travel to the land of the dead. These ritual dances and sharing of visions were quickly accepted by Wodziwobs peers, and the new tradition of organized “circle dances” started spreading across North American tribes. During the height of the popularity of this type of religious dance, Wodziwob had help from local “weather doctor" named Tavibo who was the father of the Jack Wilson, a pupil of Wodziwob that would become even more famous prophet Wovoka.
Jack Wilson's prophetic visions covered everything from weather forecasts to the healing, promotion of universal love to the visions of death world. His most important message that he tried to pass to the tribes of Native American people that were stricken by constant warfare, spreading plagues and the disappearance of nomadic lifestyle was the vision of perfect peace. This peace and renewal of natural resources, love and faith, would be achieved only on the day when every Indian in the West danced his dance, with all evil being washed away. Initially accepted under the name “Dance In A Circle”, many other tribes started dancing it and calling it under names Spirit Dance and Ghost Dance. Many western tribes of Indians sent representatives to inspect personally message and life of Wovoka, which caused quick spreading of Ghost Dance across much of West.
Hamas Seeds Violent Videos on Sites With Little Moderation
The strategy mirrors efforts by extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in years past.
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By Sheera Frenkel and Steven Lee Myers
A video of a Hamas gunman firing his assault rifle at a car full of Israeli civilians was viewed more than one million times on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, since it was uploaded Sunday.
A photograph of dead Israeli civilians, strewn across the side of a road in an Israeli kibbutz near the Gaza Strip, has been shared more than 20,000 times on X.
And an audio recording of a young Israeli woman’s desperate cries for help as she was being kidnapped from her home has been shared nearly 50,000 times on the platform.
Since Hamas launched a deadly cross-border attack into Israel over the weekend, violent videos and graphic images have flooded social media . Many of the posts have been seeded by Hamas to terrorize civilians and take advantage of the lack of content moderation on some social media sites — particularly X and Telegram — according to a Hamas official and social media experts interviewed by The New York Times.
The strategy mirrors efforts by extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which took advantage of the lack of guardrails at social media companies years ago to upload graphic footage to the internet. Social media companies reacted then by removing and banning accounts tied to those groups.
The issue has sprouted anew in the past week, particularly on X, where safety and content moderation teams have largely disbanded under Elon Musk’s ownership, and on Telegram, the messaging platform which does virtually no content moderation.
Israeli groups who monitor social media for hate speech and disinformation said graphic imagery often starts on Telegram. It then moves to X before finding its way to other social media sites.
“Twitter, or X as they are now called, has become a war zone with no ethics,” said Achiya Schatz, director of FakeReporter, an Israeli organization that monitors disinformation and hate speech. “In the information war being fought, it is now a place where you just go and do whatever you want.”
In the past, his group reported fake accounts or violent content to X, which removed the post if it violated its rules, Mr. Schatz said. Now, he added, there is no one at the company to talk to.
“Everyone we once worked with is gone. There is no one to reach at that company,” he said. “The information war on Twitter is gone, lost. There is nothing left to fight there.”
He added that platforms like Facebook, YouTube and TikTok had been responsive about removing graphic images and misinformation, although the companies were being inundated with requests.
Telegram and X did not respond to a request for comment. Over the weekend, X’s safety team posted an update to its policies, stating that it was removing Hamas-affiliated accounts and had taken action on tens of thousands of posts.
Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at Free Press, a media advocacy group, said the state of discourse on X during the conflict was “the terrible but natural consequence of 11 months of misguided Musk decisions.”
She cited the rollback of policies against toxic content, cuts in staff and the priority given to subscription accounts, which “now allows, even begs for, controversial and incendiary content to thrive.”
Some of those subscription accounts have also been posting fake or doctored images, said Alex Goldenberg, the lead intelligence analyst at the Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University.
Researchers have identified images from video games that were posted on TikTok as actual footage. Old images from the civil war in Syria and a propaganda video from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant organization, have been circulated as new.
“It’s a problem across social media,” Mr. Goldenberg said.
Mr. Schatz said his organization on Sunday identified a video of children in cages that had been viewed millions of times on X, amid claims that the children were Israeli hostages of Hamas. While the origins of the video aren’t clear, Mr. Schatz found versions posted weeks ago on TikTok, and other researchers have discovered versions of the video on YouTube and Instagram claiming it was from Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
“We reported that the video was fake, and definitely not a current video from Gaza, but nobody at X responded,” Mr. Schatz said. “The real videos are bad enough without people sharing these fake ones.”
The effect of the videos has been stark. Some Israelis have begun avoiding social media for fear of seeing missing loved ones featured in graphic footage.
Dr. Sol Adelsky, an American-born child psychiatrist who has been living in Israel since 2018, said many parents had been advised to keep their children off social media apps.
“We are really trying to limit how much stuff they are seeing,” he said. “Schools are also giving guidance for kids to be off certain social media apps.” Some schools in the United States have also encouraged parents to tell their children to delete the apps.
Dr. Adelsky added that even with the guidance, a lot of unverified claims and frightening messages had made their way to people through messaging apps like WhatsApp, which are popular among Israelis.
The fear and confusion are part of the strategy, according to a Hamas official who would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
The official, who used to be responsible for creating social media content for Hamas on Twitter and other platforms, said the group wanted to establish its own narratives and seek support from allies through social media.
When ISIS published videos of beheadings on social media, he said, the footage served as a rallying cry for extremists to join its cause, and as psychological warfare on its targets. While he stopped short of saying Hamas was following a playbook laid out by ISIS, he called its social media strategy successful.
Sheera Frenkel is a reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area, covering the ways technology impacts everyday lives with a focus on social media companies, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp. More about Sheera Frenkel
Steven Lee Myers covers misinformation for The Times. He has worked in Washington, Moscow, Baghdad and Beijing, where he contributed to the articles that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2021. He is also the author of “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin.” More about Steven Lee Myers
Our Coverage of the Israel-Hamas War
Netanyahu’s All-Out War: In his 15 years as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted major military entanglements. That is now changing .
Evacuation of Gaza: As Israel prepared to invade the Gaza Strip , it told 1.1 million people in the northern part of the territory to head south for their own safety . But with strikes later intensifying in southern cities, few safe options remain .
Spreading Terror: Since attacking Israel, Hamas has deployed a new war tactic: seizing the social media accounts of kidnapped Israelis and using them to issue death threats and calls for violence.
Hezbollah: Could the Lebanese Shiite group launch its own military campaign against Israel in response to the country’s expected offensive against Hamas?
The Conflict’s Global Reach
Biden’s Trip to Israel: The president visited Israel at a volatile moment in war looking to ease tensions and avoid a broader conflict.
Fury in the Middle East: Biden’s staunch support for Israel has stoked accusations of American hypocrisy by Arab critics, as grief and fury toward Israel mount in the region.
International Arms Sales: Israel’s conflict with Hamas, is contributing to a boom for weapons makers and a chance for Washington to build closer military ties to other countries.
Turning to a Longtime Mediator: The United States is joining forces with Qatar , a tiny nation with extensive ties to militant groups, in a diplomatic effort to save hostages held by Hamas.