Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee: Definition & Ceremony

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  • 0:01 Ghost Dance History
  • 0:44 Ghost Dance Process
  • 1:42 Misunderstanding
  • 2:16 Wounded Knee
  • 4:25 End of the Ghost Dance
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Native American tribes often gather for large prayer ceremonies with dancing and feasts. In this lesson, we'll talk about the Ghost Dance, which was one of these prayer ceremonies, and its importance in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Ghost Dance History

The Ghost Dance was a religious ceremony introduced by the Paiute tribe in an area that is now present-day Nevada. The Ghost Dance ritual started in the 1870s, but grew in popularity after a Paiute religious man named Wovoka had a vision.

Wovoka was a self-proclaimed prophet who believed he was sent to prepare all Native Americans for their salvation. He experienced a dream during a solar eclipse, on January 1, 1889, in which all Native Americans were taken into the sky. In the dream, the earth destroyed the whites to prepare for the return of the Native American way of life. There were a series of events necessary for this dream to take place.

Ghost Dance Process

The Ghost Dance was meant to last for five consecutive days. All Native Americans were supposed to leave behind all things brought to them by the white man. Clothes, rifles, language, and anything else considered 'white' were not to be used or practiced during the Ghost Dance.

During the ceremony, participants would meditate in order to speak to their ancestors and Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, to ask for spiritual renewal. The participants also received a ceremonial cleansing by water to open prayer time and enjoy the feast, in addition to performing a series of chants.

Each night, the ceremony would end with the Native Americans dancing in a large circle around a fire. On the fifth night of the ceremony, they were to dance all night until sunrise. At sunrise, all participants were to bathe in a river. The ceremony was to be repeated every six weeks.


The Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A) believed the Sioux at Pine Ridge were turning the Ghost Dance into a warring dance. The B.I.A. grew more worried when large numbers of Sioux started gathering for the ceremony. They consequently reported that the Sioux were making Ghost Shirts that they believed would protect them from bullets. When they learned the ceremony included the idea of whites disappearing, this became enough to lead to an arrest. An overzealous agent of the B.I.A. wired Washington to to ask for immediate protection and the arrest and confinement of the group's leaders.

Wounded Knee

When Sitting Bull, a revered Sioux chief, joined the Ghost Dance movement, the B.I.A. quickly removed him from a leadership position and tried to make him stop the ceremony at Standing Rock Agency near Fort Yates, North Dakota. During the arrest, a fight broke out in which Sitting Bull was shot and killed. Within days, the U.S. military sent the 7th Cavalry 300 miles south of Fort Yates to disarm participants in the Ghost Dance at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. On December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry met with the Sioux Chief Big Foot at Wounded Knee Creek.

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