Thursday, June 13, 2013

Native American Ghost Dance

For Native Americans the word “ghost” has a negative connotation. A ghost is considered evil and this word is not spoken. They believe that a ghost is a corrupted personality and is infectious. If a ghost is nearby they can make a living person ill. 

The word “spirit” in contrast has a positive connotation. Native Americans believe spirits surround them at all times. They believe spirits are everywhere, for instance, nature has spirits. They believe that life has continence so when a person passes their spirit lives on. One exception to the use of the word “ghost” came during the 19th century Ghost Dance movement.

The Ghost Dance was a new religious movement that spread quickly through the western part of the United States and into the plains. This movement was incorporated into various existing Native American belief systems. 

In the late 1880s a Paiute prophet Jack Wilson in Nevada known as “Wovoka” was a medicine man and a Christian. He taught that if the people followed the “proper practice” this dance would reunite them with the spirits of the dead and bring peace, prosperity and unity to native peoples across the region. Above all else he taught tolerance and kindness among all cultures and all people.

The basis for his Ghost Dance was the Circle Dance a traditional ritual, which had been practiced since prehistoric times. The people would dance and sing in small to very large circles. The Ghost Dance had 100’s to 1000’s of Native Americans holding hands and dancing in the same circle. Ghost shirts and dresses were worn with specific symbols and markings upon them. The Ghost Dance and songs that were sung called upon the "ancestors" for help.

Within the dance 7 directions were observed: the traditional north, south, east, west plus up and down. But the most important direction was inward. Meaning if you look within yourself the ancestors will always be there to help you. The dancers would dance until exhaustion--going into trancelike states.

As this dance became widespread it became an integral part of each Native American society that adopted it often changing the group or tribe that practiced it. As the popularity of the dance spread to the plains Indians they felt it was a chance to see deceased relatives once more. They also danced because they felt strongly that it would help replenish the buffalo to their beloved land and restore their sovereignty over the continent. 

But the Ghost Dance's popularity  alarmed U.S. officials who became frightened the it would encourage a revival of the warrior tradition which might result in an Indian revolution to take back their land.

As a result of this thinking, the Ghost Dance was outlawed by the United States government. If a group was found practicing it they were persecuted by the U.S. Army. * 

The most tragic example of this is the Battle of Wounded Knee that took place in December of 1890 on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Spotted Elk, the U.S. soldiers called him Big Foot, led the Lakota Ghost Dancers. This battle took hundreds of Indian lives--men, women and children. In contrast, only 33 US soldiers died.

The bodies of the dead Lakota were thrown frozen into a mass grave. One Lakota descendant states:

“At Wounded Knee a group of Ghost Dancers that were following Big Foot were massacred by the 7th Cavalry that were brought there specifically to the battlefield to avenge Custer’s Massacre. A very bloody incident in American History-- -the Ghost Dancers were all laid red in the white snows.”

“We lost so many of our young talented people due to the U.S. government that we have a lot of spirits that left the earth--but the spirits of our ancestors are always with us--we talk to, respect the spirits that have been before us that have given their lives for the betterment of the people, for the tribe, for the group.”

*  A former Pine Ridge Indian Agent Valentine T. McGillycuddy felt the cause of the battle wasn’t the Ghost Dance as much as the result of the unreasonable enforcement of disarming the friendly, peaceful Indians in Kansas, Iowa and Dakota. General Nelson A. Miles sent a telegram to Washington D.C. ten days before the battle on December 19, 1890 that stated:

“The difficult Indian problem cannot be solved permanently at this end of the line. It requires the fulfillment of Congress of the treaty obligations that the Indians were entreated and coerced into signing. They signed away a valuable portion of their reservation, and it is now occupied by white people, for which they have received nothing.”

They understood that ample provisions would be made for their support, instead, their supplies have been reduced, and much of the time they have been living on half and two-thirds rations. Their crops, as well as the crops of the white people, for two years have been almost total failures.

The dissatisfaction is wide spread, especially among the Sioux, while the Cheyenne have been on the verge of starvation, and were forced to commit depredations to sustain life. These facts are beyond question, and the evidence is positive and sustained by thousands of witnesses.”

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