By the 1880s, starvation, disease, warfare with the United States Army, and the mass slaughter of buffalo and other big game had devastated the Native American population. Less than 300,000 Indians remained in North America, compared to a native population of approximately 2.5 million at the time of Christopher Columbus. Many Plains Indians sought relief from suffering and fear through religion. In 1870 Tavibo, a Paiute shaman in Western Nevada, proclaimed that while meditating he received a vision from “The Great Holy Force Above” that promised Native Americans salvation from hunger, want, and the persecution of whites. A world-shaking earthquake, Tavibo promised, would soon swallow American soldiers, missionaries, railroad builders, ranchers and all others who had tried to destroy Indian civilization. Native Americans alone would survive and their old way of life would return.
Initially met with scorn from other Native Americans, Tavibo began to preach that the Great Holy Force Above allowed Native Americans to suffer and die because they had abandoned their religious traditions, lost respect for virtue, and imitated the ways of the white man. Both whites and unbelieving Indians would perish soon in a great earthquake, Tavibo prophesized, and endure eternal punishment in the afterlife.
This message finally resonated with a wider audience, and Tavibo gained followers among not just the Paiutes, but also the Shoshone, Ute, and Bannock peoples. When Tavibo suddenly died, the prophetic mantle fell upon his son Wovoka, who received his own revelations beginning in 1889. Wovoka, called “Jack Wilson” by whites, said that spirits had visited him. He told his audience that he had suffered a fever as a solar eclipse unfolded in the heavens. The spirits showed him a coming paradise in which Indian warriors slain in battle and their women would return to life, grass would spring abundantly from the plains, and buffalo would once again roam the land unimpeded.
Wovoka said that God had turned against white men because they had killed Him when He came to Earth as Jesus Christ. Wovoka told his audiences that he was the Second Coming of Jesus and that he would lead the native people to salvation. Wovoka’s followers began meditating, praying, chanting, and performing “Ghost Dances” in rituals lasting five consecutive days. Although the dance varied some by tribe and by location, all involved dancing in a circle. Dancers often went into a hypnotic trance; some dropped from sheer exhaustion.
The Ghost Dance religion, with its promise of future redemption, lifted Indians out of despair. Ghost dances were organized in Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas and the Oklahoma Territories by tribes as diverse as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Pawnee. Ghost Dances generally were non-violent, with the faithful waiting for the intervention of the Great Spirit to end white oppression. Among the Sioux, however, especially the Oglala, Blackfeet, and Hunkpapa, the dances had a more militant tone. Sioux disciples of the movement taught that wearing white ghost shirts would make Indians immune to the bullets of white soldiers.
One Sioux, Tatanka Yotanka (called Sitting Bull by whites) emerged as political leader among the Plains Indians as the Ghost Dance swept the Plains. Nearing his sixties, the charismatic Sitting Bull helped destroy General George Custer’s forces at the famous Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Held prisoner by the United States Army for two years, he was a featured attraction for a brief time in Buffalo Bill Cody’s circus-like “Wild West” show as it toured the Eastern United States. Cody dressed his Native American performers in brightly colored war bonnets and face paint, with men like Sitting Bull mounted on horses and acting out frontier battles. Feeling humiliated by the experience, Sitting Bull became a bitter critic of white society. “The love of possessions is a disease with them,” he bitterly observed. “They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away.”
As the Ghost Dances spread, terror gripped whites living in the Plains. James McLaughlin, an Indian agent, refused to acknowledge how much the new Native faith derived from Christianity. “A more pernicious system of religion could not have been offered to a people who stood on the threshold of civilization,” McLaughlin said with disgust. “Our religion seems foolish to you, but so does yours to me,” Sitting Bull retorted.
Army personnel became alarmed that the movement might lead to an uprising and that the Ghost Dance rituals whipped the Indians into a bloodthirsty frenzy. "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy," a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota wrote frantically to President Benjamin Harrison in 1889. Several thousand federal troops were dispatched to the Sioux reservations to crush any rebellion.
In December 1889 when Sitting Bull sought permission to go on the Pine Ridge Reservation to meet with Wovoka, the local Indian agent set a trap for him, and soldiers fatally shot the Sioux leader. Sitting Bull’s entourage fled the scene, only to be apprehended near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, by the Seventh Cavalry, Custer's old regiment. The Indians laid down their arms on December 29, 1890. Indians surrendered, but after a rifle accidentally discharged, nervous soldiers opened fire. In the following battle, Indian warriors killed 30 soldiers, but they were badly outgunned. Indian men, women and children were mowed down in minutes by the army's new Hotchkiss machine guns. More than 200 Sioux lay dead or dying in the snow. Even nursing babies numbered among the victims.
Jules Sandoz, a settler, inspected the scene the day after the massacre. "Here in ten minutes an entire community was as the buffalo that bleached on the plains," he later wrote. "There was something loose that hated joy and happiness as it hated brightness and color, reducing everything to drab agony and gray." Some of the wounded Indians were carried to a church at nearby Pine Ridge. As they were carried, they passed under a Christmas banner that read, “PEACE ON EARTH. GOOD WILL TOWARDS MEN.”
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.