American Indian Ghost Dance Songs, 1894

In the summer of 1894 James Mooney, a scholar of American Indian culture and language, made recordings of songs of the Ghost Dance in several languages.  The James Money Recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance Songs have recently been updated and are part of the presentation, Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry. It is likely that these recordings were sung by Mooney himself. This was not unusual, as the common practice of the time was for ethnographers to memorize songs and stories from the people they studied, performing them back to the people helping them to learn the songs so that they had as accurate a performance as possible. In this way human memory was the “recording” before actual recording technology was widely available. Even today ethnographers often learn to reproduce songs and stories from the cultures they study as part of participant/observation and because much can be learned by memorizing and repeating them.

The Ghost Dance was a spiritual movement that arose among Western American Indians. It began among the Paiute in about 1869 with a series of visions of an elder, Wodziwob. These visions foresaw renewal of the Earth and help for the Paiute peoples as promised by their ancestors. This followed a period when many people had died as a result of contact with European diseases. A typhoid epidemic in 1867 may also have influenced the birth of this movement. Initially Wodziwob said that he saw some great cataclysm removing all the Europeans leaving behind only Indians, but in later visions he saw an event that removed all people from the continent, after which those who faithfully practiced the spirituality of their ancestors would be miraculously returned. Later still, his vision no longer predicted the destruction of Europeans, but an immortal and peaceful life for those who practiced his spiritual teachings. A ceremony that featured a communal circle dance was central to the spiritual practice suggested by these visions. Wodziwob passed away in 1872.

On January 1, 1889, a Northern Paiute named Wovoka (born Quoitze Owalso, he also took the name Jack Wilson) had a dream during the eclipse of the sun.  His prophesy was similar to that of Wodziwob. He said that he saw the European settlers leaving or disappearing, the buffalo returning, and the land restored to Indian peoples all across the continent. In this vision, ancestors would be brought back to life and all would live in peace. Wovoka had been raised by the European American family of David Wilson after the death of his father. His teachings emphasized maintaining a peaceful relationship with white Americans. He had had some exposure to Christianity and so it is not surprising that there are mentions of Jesus or a messiah in his teachings. He said that by practicing the circle dance ceremony his vision of a peaceful world would be made to come about.

Hearing of the new prophet among the Paiute, representatives from many different tribes traveled to speak with him. Letters were sent by leaders of the movement to other Indian peoples to explain the vision and the ceremony that would help bring about the transformation of the Earth. Leaders of the movement also visited various Indian nations to help teach them about the vision and the dance.

Dancing  is common among many Indian spiritual practices. The Ghost Dance was based on the round dance that is common to many Indian peoples, used as a social dance as well as for healing practices. Participants hold hands and dance around in a circle with a shuffling side to side step, swaying to the rhythm of the songs they sing. In a traditional round dance there is a drum played in the center of the circle. But the Ghost Dance ceremony did not typically use a drum. Instead there was often a pole or a tree in the center of the circle, or sometimes nothing at all. The details of the dance varied somewhat among the peoples who performed it.

According to Mooney, the dance induced an hypnotic state in some dancers, with some making an effort to achieve a trance. To help this process, someone would stand in the circle waving a feather or a cloth for dancers to watch. Songs with a faster rhythm were sung to help the dancers wishing to achieve a trance and perhaps experience visions. Those experiencing a trance might leave the circle of dancers and dance on their own or lie on the ground.[1] In the print by Frederic Remington at the top of this article, the circle of dancers are in the background. In the foreground are people who have dropped out of the dancing as Mooney described.

The Ghost Dance songs had a common pattern of a line repeated twice, then another line repeated twice, and so on. According to Judith Gray, the American Folklife Center’s expert on American Indian music and song, this pattern was common among the Paiute and other peoples of the Northwest Plateau, but was not used among the Plains Indians or many of the other peoples who took up the Ghost Dance. But the people adopted this song form that was new to them and used it as they made Ghost Dance songs in their own languages.

The Ghost Dance ceremony to spread rapidly to many different Indian peoples, mainly in Western states. This interaction between Indians distant from each other and the spread of the dance became alarming to European Americans and so became a concern for the United States Army.

While many European Americans were alarmed by the Ghost Dance and saw it as a militant and warlike movement, it was quite the opposite — an emergence of a peaceful resistance movement based on Indian beliefs. It was also a movement of desperation, as existing treaties had been violated and Indians in the West were forced onto reservations. For the Plains Indians, this was a period of starvation as the buffalo were slaughtered, destroying their way of life and main source of food. From an Indian point of view, Europeans were not only destroying the way of life of Indian peoples, but destroying the natural resources of the plains to an extent that would make it impossible for anyone to live there. European Americans often saw the Ghost Dance as irrational. From an Indian point of view, what was being done to them and their way of life was irrational.

James Mooney wrote a book about the Ghost Dance, hoping it would help to counter newspaper articles about it that were inaccurate and promoted prejudice toward the Indians. His research was first published as part of a report in 1890, then enlarged as a book in 1896. The press encouraged popular belief that the dance was dangerous and possibly a prelude to an Indian uprising. Mooney emphatically explained that it was peaceful. In his introduction he describes several fieldwork trips between 1890-1894 that “occupied twenty-two months,  involving nearly 32,000 miles of travel, and more or less time spent with about twenty tribes.” [2] As a participant/observer he sang and danced with the Arapaho and Cheyenne, consulted with participants in the new religion, and also took photographs. One reason for the excitement about the Ghost Dance among ethnographers at that time was that the researchers of American Indians were seeing the emergence of a new religion developing in a surprisingly short time and crossing culture and language barriers. This was an extremely rare event.

Mooney traced the beliefs of the Ghost Dance movement to earlier spiritual prophesies among many Indian groups that predicted a restoration of their land and the return of life as it was lived before Europeans settled the Americas. These emerged not long after the first settlements were established and conflicts between Europeans and Indians began.[3]  So although the Ghost Dance seemed to emerge suddenly, the ideas found in it had a long history among many different Indian groups.

The Ghost Dance was associated with one of the great tragedies of American history. In December 15, 1890, during a dispute about a Ghost Dance ceremony, police killed Chief Sitting Bull at Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota. After this, a group of over 300 Miniconjou Lakota men, women, and children led by Chief Spotted Elk (also called Big Foot) left the Standing Rock Reservation to try and reach the relative safety of the Pine Ridge Reservation. They were detained by United States Army at a creek called Wounded Knee and held at gunpoint, including Hotchkiss guns, an early type of machine gun. The men were separated from the women and children and as the soldiers confiscated weapons from the men, something happened and shooting began. According to some accounts one man, who may have been deaf, refused to give up his rifle. The number of dead is among many things about this incident that are disputed, but between 150 and 300 Indians were killed, many of them unarmed women and children. The larger figures given by historians include those died of exposure and their wounds after the battle, including small children whose mothers had been killed. Spotted Elk, who was unarmed and suffering from pneumonia, was shot as he lay on the ground. The Army lost 25 men.

Mooney gives a detailed account of the events leading up to the conflict, the conflict, and its aftermath. He includes first-hand accounts of the conflict and accounts from Indians who went to the site of the conflict shortly after to look for survivors. He attributes the differing figures on the number of people who died in a failure to account for the people who did not die at once in the battle. He estimates that about 300 people were killed, died later of their wounds, or died of exposure.[4]

In atmosphere of the fear of the Ghost Dance of these times, this event was called a battle, the soldiers were called heroes, and they received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Today the incident is called the Wounded Knee Massacre. The change of view came about in 1971 with the publication of the history Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown and the rise of the Indian civil rights movement. At last the Indian side of history was being told. I remember this moment because I was just finishing high school and I was upset by the way my history books and history teachers portrayed American Indians. I had already read Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. My mother had bought and read Dee Brown’s new book and she gave it to me saying only “Here, you need to read this.”

It was two years after the terrible events at Wounded Knee that Mooney first published his research. He intended to calm fears that might lead to further violence. He did newspaper interviews and became the leading expert on the Ghost Dance. His recordings of Ghost Dance songs were also an attempt to preserve something about the reality of the Ghost Dance. But in the popular ideas of the time, the Ghost Dance was a threat to America that ended 1890 in the snow in South Dakota during that massacre. Some histories of these events still say so. The Bureau of Indian Affairs attempted to ban the Ghost Dance, also contributing to the idea that it had ended. But in fact the Ghost Dance ceremony continued to be performed into the early 20th century and some of the songs are preserved in the traditions of Indians today. Examples of Ghost Dance songs sung by Indians in various languages can be found in the collections of the American Folklife Center (available on site only). Researchers in our archive and others should know that some collectors described these as “new religion songs” rather than Ghost Dance songs.

In 1973 a protest by the Lakota Sioux took place at Wounded Knee as part of the Indian rights movement, showing the importance that the events there continue to hold for Native Americans. I think some aspects of the ideas in Ghost Dance spirituality exist in Indian rights expressions even today — the idea of peaceful resistance to prejudice and oppression, for example.

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