The dust rose from the ground as hundreds of Lakota tribesmen and women danced around a pine tree, lifting their voices to the heavens. Adorned with robes that displayed birds, the moon and other nature scenes, they went on for hours before collapsing. The scene repeated itself for days on end. They danced to the point of exhaustion, sometimes even death. Which was fitting, because to the Lakota tribe and their brethren, their very existence was on the line.
The Ghost Dance, of the late 19th century, was an act of desperation and faith. While the federal government saw it as revolutionary, the result was simply tragedy. Introduced by a Paiute prophet named Wovoka, aka Jack Wilson to whites, the dance saw Native American followers of Wovoka — who claimed to have had a vision during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889 — dance around a tree in a trance. Why? To wipe out evil and bring about the restoration of the Natives and the buffalo while getting rid of the white settlers. A tall order for a mere dance, and to help, the believers wore special shirts they said could repel bullets. If all Native Americans danced in unison, some thought, they could be saved.
The most influential Lakota leader was the legendary Sitting Bull, who helped lead a short-lived military triumph against Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876. He and his compatriots were now confined to Standing Rock Reservation. With the bison decimated and little rainfall on unfamiliar land, starvation loomed. “These guys come up with the Ghost Dance, and it’s completely an alien thing to Sitting Bull,” says Ernie Lapointe, Sitting Bull’s great-grandson and biographer. “But he allowed it to be practiced among his people because they had to have some kind of hope for survival.”
Dancing in a circle spread like wildfire, and federal agents in the region grew alarmed by the craze. They saw it as an apocalyptic cult — a precursor to insurrection — even though the reality was quite peaceful. “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” an agent at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation telegrammed Washington in late 1890. “We need protection and we need it now.”
President Benjamin Harrison sent the Army to head off a revolt, and Maj. James McLaughlin — the agent for Standing Rock — concluded that removing Sitting Bull was key to ending the craze. Sitting Bull wasn’t planning a fight; in fact, he tried getting his people to stop dancing because he saw things were getting out of hand. He planned to travel to Pine Ridge to consult with leaders there about how to end the Ghost Dance. But before he could do so, McLaughlin sent in a cadre of Indian police officers to arrest Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890. The 56-year-old leader, spurred on by a supportive crowd, stood his ground. A supporter of the holy man shot policeman Lt. Bull Head, who wheeled around and shot Sitting Bull. A shoot-out ensued, killing eight Native Americans, including Sitting Bull, and six police officers.
“This conflict, which cost so many lives, is much to be regretted,” McLaughlin later wrote, concluding, “yet the good resulting therefrom can scarcely be overestimated, as it has effectually eradicated all seeds of disaffection sown by the Messiah Craze.”
And the death toll from that encounter was soon to be dwarfed, when Big Foot, another Lakota leader, fled with a traveling party toward Pine Ridge. Amid Ghost Dance–inflamed tensions, the Army intercepted them, and while trying to disarm the Natives at a cavalry camp along Wounded Knee Creek, several of them started to dance. When a Lakota refused to give up his rifle and a shot went off, the soldiers responded by massacring as many as 300 men, women and children.
Lapointe says the story about his people being defeated at Wounded Knee is false. The Lakota are still there, he says, and will remain on the land after the whites have gone. Last year, Standing Rock once again was at the center of a standoff, as protests against an oil pipeline just outside its borders secured a temporary halt to construction. But oil now courses through the Dakota Access Pipeline, and under waterways that the Lakotafear will be contaminated.
In Lapointe’s eyes, the pipeline is just an extension of what the government has done to his people for centuries — and a reflection of the settlers’ lack of humility and respect for the land. “They’ve always had this fear of Native people because of our spiritual way of life,” Lapointe says. “They are always fearing everything — even today.”