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The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee

James Mooney was a fascinating person, having investigated all the Indian uprisings from the time of Pontiac to the infamous massacre of Wounded Knee. Because of this unique insight he had into the many nations of the Native American Tribes, he had a fascinating story to tell when he returned from his investigation into the Massacre of Wounded Knee. He shared a messianic prophecy which had been held and foretold by many tribes and Indian nations. But the cause for the Indian uprisings was much simpler than this; it came down to forced poverty and destitution.

The Wounded Knee Massacre

Wounded Knee is a day that will live on in American History as a defining moment in the historical genocide which took place in the United States against the Native American Peoples. A seemingly unprovoked attack which led to the slaughter of men, women and children by the scores, the Wounded Knee Massacre was instigated by a fear the American Government had of a resurgence of what was then known as ‘The Ghost Dance Religion.’

The Ghost Dance Religion

A grave misunderstanding still exists today as to the origin and meaning of the Ghost Dance. Although the Ghost Dance was originated by a Native American Prophet who lived among the Paiutes named Wovoka, it was Short Bull, the Lakota Holy Man who was involved at the time of the Wounded Knee Massacre.


James Mooney expressed disgust with the false reports about Wovoka, and Mooney was the only one who actually sought him and out spoke to him. When he did find him after a long search and ask him about the Ghost Dance, Wovoka stated that some of the Indians had disobeyed his original instructions and a lot of trouble had come about because of it.

Mooney discovered that the Native Americans revered Wovoka as a ‘dreamer.’ The doctrine of the Ghost Dance did entail a prophecy that there would come a time when the Indian race would one day be regenerated upon the earth. They would also at this time be reunited with all of their deceased loved, thus, the name Ghost Dance. But in order for this to come to pass, the believers in these prophecies had to abandon all warlike ways and practice such things as honesty, goodwill and peace. And this was required not only amongst themselves, but among all peoples including the whites.

The Great Misunderstanding about the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

Short Bull, a Lakota Holy Man, had traveled along with a delegation of Lakota leaders to visit Wovoka among the Paiute’s and learn of the Ghost Dance teachings from him. When they returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation where the fateful Wounded Knee massacre was soon to take place, they began teaching the people the various sacred songs and dances of the Ghost Dance.

The Government’s authorities and the white men panicked, because Short Bull had placed a focus on a prophecy he claimed to have received indicating that a new world was coming wherein the white people would vanish, the buffalo restored and the Indians who had lost their lives would all return to life.

James Mooney would state in his extensive anthropological study that the United States Government vastly overreacted to a very common messianic belief amongst the many Native American tribes

The Messianic Prophecy amongst the Native American Tribes

In the anthropological report for the government and now book, The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, By James Mooney, the anthropologist and author details hundreds of visions and messianic prophecies from scores of Native American Nations. Although each of them differs in their specific contents, the general theme was simple. Each of the prophecies encouraged the Native Americans to hold onto their ways and abandon the ways of the white man. They believed that an Indian Messiah was coming and that all of the Native American people would be resurrected.

Although many of the prophecies also included the disappearance of the white man, it was commonly believed that this would come about by the hand of the Great Spirit or God, not unlike all the messianic prophecies believed throughout time.

When the Jews living under the rule of the ancient Egyptians prophesied a deliverer, he came as Moses. When the Jews were held under Roman Rule, they prophesied a Messiah who would overthrow their captors.

But when Jesus of Nazareth came, who many held and still hold to be the Messiah, he did not teach about violent overthrow, but change that would come about through the changing of hearts.

The Real Cause of the Indian Uprising at Wounded Knee

According to James Mooney and many of his very well-informed sources, the real cause of the uprising at Pine Ridge Reservation which led to the Wounded Knee Massacre was not the Ghost Dance, but rather, the continual denial of the United States Government to fulfill the promises it had given to the people when they forced them to sign treaties and took their land. The people were starving, unable to fend for themselves or receive medical aid.

In the end, the Lakota Sioux faced a similar outcome to many other groups like the Cathars who had come before them whose religious views were grossly misunderstood resulting in their violent downfall.

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