• Notes From The Frontier

Ghost Dance Shirts: A Spectacular (and Heartbreaking) Art



The aboriginal cultures of North America were built on thousands of years of communion and harmony with Nature. Tribes hearkened to Nature, to heaven and earth, in their hopes and dreams. It is not surprising that the Ghost Dance, one of the last vestiges of their traditional lifestyle, sought the power of Nature to help them. It represents a beautiful and heartbreaking ritual of human struggle.


Historians agree unequivocally that over several centuries, Native American civilization experienced a holocaust brought by European disease, war, genocide, imprisonment, an institutional attack on their family units, loss of land, decimation of the natural species that they depended upon for survival, and even annihilation of their language and religion.



By the 1880s, Native Americans had reached the low point of their civilizations. All tribes had been defeated and imprisoned on reservations, the majority of their populations killed by disease, warfare, or genocide, their elders were dying, and their children were taken away and put in white boarding schools. All semblance of their former lifestyles and traditions had been destroyed. From these ashes of defeat and despair, came a last gasp of hope, of resilience, in the form of the Ghost Dance.


The concept of the Ghost Dance found it birth first in the vision--generally thought to be in the late 1880s--of a Paiute medicine man named Wovoka in Nevada territory. Wovoka claimed to have seen a prophecy that native people would again rise, that their honored dead would return, that whites would be removed from their land, and that the buffalo would again roam the Plains. Wovoka foretold that this would be achieved through living righteously and peaceably and performing a traditional round dance known as the Ghost Dance to conjure the spirits.


James Mooney was an ethnographer hired by the Smithsonian Institution to study Native American rituals, especially the Ghost Dance. He wrote in 1896:


The great underlying principle of the Ghost Dance Doctrine is that the time will come when the whole Indian race, living and dead, will be reunited upon a regenerated earth, to live in aboriginal happiness, forever free from death, disease and misery.  The white race, being alien and secondary and hardly real, will be left behind . . . And cease entirely to exist.


The Ghost Dance movement swept across reservations in 1889 and 1890, especially to the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and many other Plains tribes. Special decorative shirts and dresses were created by Native artisans, evoking the spirits of Nature and of the tribes fallen dead. These garments represented the pinnacle of Native craft and artistry, as the rituals of creating such garments were considered as sacred as wearing them, and the effort and artistry devoted to the shirt was part of harkening the spirits. The meaning of the symbols used and the natural materials utilized in the making of such garments fed into the power of the shirts. Indeed, the shirts were said to embody supernatural powers and were considered sacred.



Many of these coveted shirts were saved through the generations and many exist today in museum collections, Native American and Western museums, and among collectors. But one Ghost Shirt in particular became internationally famous and a lightning rod for contemporary Native cultures reclaiming their proud legacy.


The Ghost Dance movement lasted only a couple of years and saw a violent and tragic end at the Massacre of Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. There, nearly 3,000 Lakota had gathered to perform the Ghost Dance. And, there, more than 300 Lakota were gunned down, most of them women and children, and most unarmed during the Ghost Dance. In addition, 45 soldiers were killed (mostly by their own friendly fire of their Hotchkiss cannons).



Eyewitness accounts, both Native and white, addressed the strange power of the shirts the dancers wore and the stridency of their dance as invoking fear among the cavalry soldiers watching the ritual. An account written by Mrs. Z. A. Parker who observed the Ghost Dance on the Pine Ridge Reservation in June of 1890, six months before Wounded Knee, described the phantasmagoric imagery of the Ghost Dance garments:


The ghost shirt [was] a flowing robe with wide, flowing sleeves, shirts and leggings painted in red. Some of the leggings were painted in stripes running up and down, others running around. The shirt was painted blue around the neck, and the whole garment was fantastically sprinkled with figures of birds, bows and arrows, sun, moon, and stars, and everything they saw in nature. Down the outside of the sleeve were rows of feathers tied by the quill ends and left to fly in the breeze, and also a row around the neck and up and down the outside of the leggings. I noticed that a number had stuffed birds, squirrel heads, etc., tied in their long hair. The faces of all were painted red with a black half-moon on the forehead or on one cheek.



The dancers believed their garments were like a layer of protective skin, garnering all the power of Nature and its creatures, and that the wearers would be protected against white soldiers. The Lakota Sioux leader, Short Bull, told Ghost Dance participants:


If soldiers surround you four deep, three of you, on whom I have put holy shirts, will sing a song, which I have taught you, around them, when some of them will drop dead. Then the rest will start to run, but their horses will sink into the earth.


At the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee, the Lakota were surrounded by Cavalry soldiers, who were ordered to enter all the Native tents and collect any weapons. Tensions were high and resentment strong among the Native dancers. One chief rallied the dancers, saying the blue soldiers would become weak and powerless and that their bullets would be unavailing against the sacred ghost shirts.


According to commanding General Nelson Miles at Wounded Knee, a “scuffle occurred between a deaf [Lakota} warrior with a rifle in his hands and two soldiers. The rifle discharged and a battle occurred.” Soldiers began firing their rifles in a frenzy upon the unarmed dancers. Then other soldiers began firing the Hotchkiss mountain cannons. Most of the soldier fatalities were actually from their own friendly fire. The officers lost all control of the their men and soldiers hunted down even women and children and the wounded and killed them in a melee.


Later, Private W. H. Prather with the 9th Cavalry at Wounded Knee wrote a ballad about the incident, focusing especially on the shirts of the dancers:


The Red Skins left their Agency, the Soldiers left their Post, All on the strength of an Indian tale about Messiah's ghost Got up by savage chieftains to lead their tribes astray; But Uncle Sam wouldn't have it so, for he ain't built that way. They swore that this Messiah came to them in visions sleep, And promised to restore their game and Buffalos a heap, So they must start a big ghost dance, then all would join their land, And may be so we lead the way into the great Bad Land.

They claimed the shirt Messiah gave, no bullet could go through, But when the Soldiers fired at them they saw this was not true. The Medicine man supplied them with their great Messiah's grace, And he, too, pulled his freight and swore the 7th hard to face.


The Lakota victims were dumped in a mass grave and covered unceremoniously. Twenty soldiers would be given the Medal of Honor for their part at the Wounded Knee Massacre. It would not be until a full century later that the United States would issue a formal apology for the genocide when, in 1990, both Houses of Congress passed a resolution expressing “deep regret” for the massacre.


But that is not the end of the story. One of the Lakota dancers wearing a sacred ghost shirt had been killed as he danced. Before his body was thrown in the mass burial pit, his ghost shirt—bearing several bullet holes and his dried blood—was removed. And, somehow, that shirt ended up in the hands of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West traveling show. That show traveled to Scotland, where the shirt was sold to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1891. And there it remained in a glass and wooden display case until more than a century later, when it was repatriated back to the Lakota tribe in 1998. An American visitor named John Earl had discovered the shirt in the Glasgow museum in 1991 and notified the Sioux nation of the find. Through negotiations, the Glasgow City Council agreed to return the sacred shirt to the tribe.


The shirt not only symbolizes a sacred ritual of the Lakota Sioux and a very significant historical event in Native civilization, but embodies their tribal diaspora through genocide, loss of their traditional ways, and generations of struggle to survive in white society.


The Oglala Sioux Holy Man, Black Elk, who became famous through the book Black Elks Speaks, published in 1932, had been at both the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Wounded Knee Massacre. He wrote of that day in 1890 when he was saw so many of his brethren cut down:


"I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. and I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream."


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