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Awaiting the Indian Messiah

Part three of a series

Native Americans performing ritual Ghost Dance. One standing woman is wearing a white dress, a special costume for the ritual dance, 1890. (Photo by James Mooney, an ethnologist with US Dept. of Interior)

Teachings about a Messiah that will come to save the human race from inevitable self-destruction and regenerate the earth, ushering in a time of peace and harmony with the creator and all creation is as ancient as the Bible itself.

So, during the late 1800’s when word of a messiah spread throughout Indian Country it found an eager audience as Indian people had lost more than any other race in the history of mankind. They lost their indigenous homelands on three continents, nearly half the land base of the entire world, they lost their food source that had sustained them for millennia, their population was nearly decimated due to disease, they were losing their languages, their religions and their identity.

Although this new religion was a hybrid religion, mixing ancient ceremonies with Christianity, it spread quickly throughout the tribes as Indians needed hope, they needed to believe something could change their stark dreadful reality. Because of the disheartening conditions amongst the Lakota Sioux, they readily adopted this new religion, incorporating many of the features of the Sun Dance ceremonies into the Ghost Dance.

This new religion made its way to the Hunkpapa Lakota in 1889, when Kicking Bear an Oglala Lakota brought word about the Ghost Dance and the prophesy of a coming “Indian Messiah” who would rid the world of the white man and bring back the buffalo and all the Indian dead. They need not fear reprisal from the U.S. Army if the dancers wore sacred garments, Ghost Shirts, painted with the sun, moon, stars, the eagle and the buffalo, because according to Kicking Bear they were bullet-proof.

Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, the Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Sitting Bull who was the most renowned of all the Lakota Chiefs at the time allowed the Ghost Dance to be practiced amongst his followers.

The prophesy of the impending arrival of the Indian Messiah is one of the most overlooked aspects of the Ghost Dance that lead to the Massacre at Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála (Wounded Knee Creek) in December of 1890.

Louis S. Warren writes in his book titled, “The Lakota Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee:

How the American drive to force Indian assimilation turned violent on the plains of South Dakota,” that

“The killing of Sitting Bull sent waves of panic and fear across the reservation. When Lakota Indians there and at other reservations heard the news, they began to crisscross the countryside looking for refuge from the troops.”

Warren makes it appear that the Hunkpapa Ghost Dancers were sent running willy nilly across the countryside trying to escape the troops. However, this is the farthest thing from the truth.

Stanley Vestal in his book “Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux” writes that in December of 1890, Sitting Bull received an invitation from Short Bull, the leader of the Oglala Ghost Dancers, who had a revelation that “the Messiah was to hasten His coming, since the whites were interfering too much. Now the time was at hand.” Short Bull believed that Sitting Bull as chief “ought to be on hand to greet the Indian Christ.”

Sitting Bull is said to have consulted his people “who voted that he ought by all means to go.” Sitting Bull said he would write a letter requesting a pass so he could witness the coming of the promised Messiah.

However, the next day the Indian Policeman Running Hawk handed Sitting Bull a letter from McLaughlin ordering Sitting Bull to tell all the Ghost Dancers to disburse and go home to their farms. Running Hawk also told Sitting Bull that the authorities planned to disarm them and take away their ponies.

Sitting Bull prompted his son-in-law Andrew Fox to write the letter to McLaughlin in spite of the threats in which he chastises the Indian Agent, “I wish to write a few lines today and let you know something. I held a meeting with all my Indians today, and am writing you this message [from them]. God made you – made all the white race and also made the Red race – and gave them both might and heart to know everything in the world, but gave the whites the advantage over the Indians.  Today God, our Father, is helping us Indians, so all we Indians believe.”

He told the Indian agent, “You should say nothing against our religion, for we said nothing against yours. You pray to God. So do all of us Indians, as well as the whites. We both pray to only one God, who made us all.”

He concludes his letter by telling McLaughlin he intends to honor Short Bulls invitation, “I am obliged to go to [ Pine Ridge Agency] and investigate this Ghost Dance. So, I write to let you know that.” (The words “Pine Ridge Agency” were interjected into the sentence by the author).

Bull Ghost delivers the letter to Mclaughlin, however the order to have Sitting Bull arrested came earlier that same day.

According to Attorney Mario Gonzalez, Short Bull was a close relative of Sitting Bull and was also part Hunkpapa and lived in the area that is now Pass Creek near the east end of the Badlands. Short Bull had traveled with Kicking Bear to Nevada to visit Wovoka the leader of the Ghost Dance movement.

To believe that this was Sitting Bull’s destination had he lived to travel and that the purpose of his travels would have been to witness the coming of the prophetic “Indian Messiah” is very plausible.

A contrary belief is that the Ghost Dancers who had fled South after Sitting Bull was killed, were traveling to consult with Red Cloud at his Agency. However, they would have been walking into a trap.

According to an article in WE”RE HISTORY titled “Midterms and Troops: The Bid to Save a Party that Led to the Wounded Knee Massacre” by Heather Cox Richardson, “In November of 1890 President Harrison had ordered 9,000 troops to South Dakota—the largest mobilization of the army since the Civil War—to protect settlers against an Indian “uprising.”

In 2018, Bradley C. Upton, fifth generation descendant of Major General James Forsyth who ordered the massacre of hundreds of Mniconjou and Hunkpapa men, women and children on December 29, 1890, at Chankpé Ópi Wakpála (Wounded Knee Creek) shared Forsythe’s diaries with Native Sun News Today.

According to Forsythe’s diary he along with the Seventh Cavalry Regiment had been camped at Red Cloud’s Agency for two weeks awaiting word of movement of the Ghost Dancers.

So, it is not too farfetched to believe that when the Hunkpapa Ghost Dancers fled south to seek refuge with their Mnicoujou relatives at Cherry Creek after Sitting Bull was killed and the subsequent movement of Hehaka Gleska (Spotted Elk) also known as Si Tanka (Big Foot) and his followers, who were also dancing, that it was their intension to reach the camp of Short Bull to witness the coming of the “Indian Christ.”

(By Ernestine Anunkasan Hupa at

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