Commemoration ceremony at the Wounded Knee Massacre site, near the cemetery. Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos.

An Ode to Ghost Dancing

Words by Ruth H. Hopkins

December marks three somber anniversaries for Oceti Sakowin people. One of them is the killing of Sitting Bull, who propagated the ritual of ghost dancing that promises to reunite us with the spirits of our ancestors.

December is a hard month for the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) because it holds three somber anniversaries for us, including the assassination of Tatanka Iyotanka—Sitting Bull. On December 15, 1890, a federal agent ordered his arrest, sending 39 policemen to get him. The Reservation agent and the government he represented were afraid of Sitting Bull’s power and influence, and the ghost dance movement he embodied. The Hunkpapa Lakota Chief, Statesman and Holyman was shot dead at his own home, by law enforcement. It is said that the wailing of those mourning his tragic passing could be heard for miles.


December 26 is the anniversary of the largest mass execution in American history. On that day in 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, under orders signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The hangings were the result of the Dakota War, which occurred after the federal government unilaterally breached treaties it had forged with the Dakota people. The government was not only stealing our land, but starving us to death. Two additional Dakota leaders, Shakopee (Little Six) and Medicine Bottle, were later captured and hanged as well. None of the executed received a fair trial. They were forbidden to mention treaties, even though the breach of treaties by the government was the basis for the uprising, and most could not speak English and did not have access to translators or legal representation. Many of those hanged were believed to be innocent of wrongdoing. Some were even minors or mentally disabled and one was a case of mistaken identity. After the hangings, the Dakota people were exiled from their ancestral homelands, including my great, great, great grandfather, Chief Wabasha III. The Governor of Minnesota put a bounty on the heads of every Dakota man, woman and child.


Then on December 29, 1890, the seventh cavalry surrounded a peaceful encampment of Lakota ghost dancers with Hotchkiss guns and slaughtered more than 300 of them, mostly women and children. The soldiers weren’t satisfied with just gunning down those at the camp, either. They chased down Lakota who escaped too, including small children and elders. Some ran through the night, in the freezing weather with bullet wounds, for hundreds of miles, all the way back to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Those killed were led by Mniconjou Lakota Chief Spotted Elk, also called Bigfoot. Many were also followers of Chief Sitting Bull, who was assassinated at Standing Rock just 14 days before.

I choose to believe that us Oceti Sakowin who live today carry the dream with us in our spiritual DNA.

Ruth H. Hopkins

Those massacred at Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, had been invited there to seek refuge by Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud. When they arrived, they were cold, tired, and hungry. Chief Spotted Elk was actually very ill at the time, and was likely suffering from pneumonia. Charles Eastman, the first western educated Oceti Sakowin Dakota physician, was there when the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred. He never recovered from the horrors he witnessed that day. The massacre happened right after Christmas, and so a banner hanging over Eastman’s injured patients read “Peace on Earth.” Soldiers who were awarded Medals of Honor for their grisly deeds at Wounded Knee posed proudly with the corpses. The dead were callously thrown into a mass grave.


The renowned Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk once said that the dream died with the Wounded Knee Massacre, but I refuse to believe that. Instead, I choose to believe that us Oceti Sakowin who live today carry the dream with us—in our spiritual DNA—and that as dreamers, we hold the key to fulfilling the prophecy that the sacred hoop that binds all humanity and presences and principalities that inhabit and make up our Universe that was severed, will be mended.


Sitting Bull wasn’t just a leader, an exemplary warrior who was a sash wearer and a member of the Kit Fox Society and the Midnight Strongheart Society who earned a warbonnet, or simply a medicine man. He was also a prophet. The Battle of Little Bighorn, or as it is called by the Lakota people, the Battle of Greasy Grass, occurred right after wiwang wacipi (sundance) in mid-June. During that sacred rite immediately preceding Custer’s historic ass whooping, Sitting Bull went without water for two days and two nights, and offered 100 pieces of flesh from his own body. There, at Deer Medicine, he received a vision. In his vision, Sitting Bull saw the long knives riding on horseback, falling into his camp. They fell like grasshoppers, Sitting Bull said. It was then that a voice told him: I give these to you because they have no ears. To him, and other Lakota, this vision meant they would have a great victory over the bluecoats. Sitting Bull’s vision prophesized the Lakota’s victory over the seventh cavalry at the Battle at Greasy Grass just two weeks later.

Sitting Bull, saw the promise ghost dancing held for all people, in not just the dance itself, but its ability to mend the sacred hoop of all nations.

Ruth H. Hopkins

Sitting Bull traveled quite a bit outside of Oceti Sakowin territory. His trips to Canada are fairly well known, as are his adventures with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, but few have heard that he once trekked to Nevada to meet with Wovoka, the Paiute spiritual leader who founded the Ghost Dance. There, past the prying eyes of colonizers, he buried a medicine bundle. It remains in that territory today.


The Ghost Dance was a ritual that promised to reunite those of us who live today with the spirits of our ancestors. Once united, we would fight as one to end the poison that is colonization and bring peace and prosperity to humanity.


Under the guidance of Sitting Bull, many Lakota became ghost dancers. The government, and settlers in general, were terrified of the Ghost Dance Movement. They didn’t understand the spirituality behind it, so instead of listening to Native leaders, they dismissed it as hocus pocus or devil worship. But what really scared the government about the Ghost Dance was that it was a practice that transcended Tribal division. There were people of all Native Nations taking up the ritual, and gathering strength from it. Uncle Sam was afraid of a unity they hadn’t seen among the Tribes of North America since Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, who was also a prophet, called for it.


Sitting Bull, saw the promise ghost dancing held for all people, in not just the dance itself, but its ability to mend the sacred hoop of all nations and reconnect us to each other, and all that moves, the ancestors, and the Source.

We are all needed. Your attendance and participation are required. Our planet calls upon us to cease the destruction wrought by an evil unsustainable system of greed and hate.

Ruth H. Hopkins

An elder once told me that the greatest mistake the invading colonizers made was in leaving even just one of us alive, because we are still ghost dancing, just below the surface, in our hearts. We’ve never stopped dancing and our victory is that we, like Mother Earth, will remain. It is good to remember what we’ve survived, and to commemorate the anniversaries of when those who died so that we might live were so brutally and viciously ripped away from us. As an Oceti Sakowin woman, I remember the Dakota 38+2 and those slaughtered during the Wounded Knee Massacre at this time, but I also keep Sitting Bull’s visions of hope alive and vow to never stop dreaming and working toward the fulfillment of prophecy, because it is we, the modern day ghost dancers, the new ancestors, who will see it come to pass through our unity and our willingness to sacrifice for the good of all. Just as he stood guard for the next seven generations, we are charged with doing the same from those yet to come.


We are all needed. Your attendance and participation are required. Our planet calls upon us now to cease the death and destruction wrought by an evil unsustainable system of greed and hate that promises to destroy all life on Mother Earth. All life cries out to us, beckoning us to save ourselves.


Keep ghost dancing.


Mitakuye Oyasin.

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