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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.