Film History Essentials: Sioux Ghost Dance (1894)

What it’s about:

A group of about 8-9 men stand lined up across the frame facing the camera, with 2 children standing in front of them. After a moment, they all begin to dance together, raising and lowering their feet in unison. The rightmost dancer crosses to the far left, with each adjacent person following until the men are dancing in a small circle. Some of the men spin place, and as the film ends the children seem to have begun weaving in and out of the circle in the opposite direction from the other dancers. In the bottom right corner of the frame, a sign is visible with the words “Buffalo Bill” inscribed on it.

Why it’s essential:

In late September of 1894, a group from “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” touring nearby in Brooklyn, paid the first of a series of visits to the Black Maria. This is one of two Native American dances performed for the camera that day. The potential value of the new technology to anthropologists must have been evident immediately, and this is one of several examples of Edison’s early kinetoscope shorts that highlights a diverse range of cultural subjects. But of course it’s much more complicated than that. A lot of these films exoticize their subjects, and you won’t see non-white performers presented in any but stereotypical roles.

It’s significant, for example, that these first appearances by Native Americans in a film establish a mode of portrayal that was rarely if ever broken for many decades. The film’s description claims authenticity in both its subjects and their dance, and that’s likely true as far as it goes. But what is this dance, and who are the people performing it? Records suggest these were Lakota Sioux from the Oglala and Brulé sub-tribes, and they were also, of course, “Wild Westers.”

Sitting Bull, one of the most famous “Wild Westers,” alongside Buffalo Bill

“Wild Westing” was a term referring to Native Americans embarking on tour with traveling shows, most famously alongside Buffalo Bill. At a time when many white Americans believed that Native Americans were a “vanishing race,” Wild Westing exploited a surge of interest in Native American culture. In doing so, it created welcome financial opportunities for members of some tribes who were struggling to survive after decades of punishing warfare and one-sided treaties with the United States. But of course, in exchange, white audiences wanted to see a portrayal that matched their own expectations and preconceptions, and the resulting perpetuation of stereotypes was not looked upon kindly by all native groups.

However, there’s an even more troubling subtext to this film in particular. The “Ghost Dance,” as it had come to be known, was a label applied to two successive 19th-century religious movements among various tribes throughout the western half of the United States. The second was begun by a man named Wovoka (see below), a Paiute religious leader living in northwestern Nevada. In 1889, Wovoka had a supernatural vision of a future where American tribes would be reunited with their resurrected dead, and of an end to the occupation of western lands by white settlers and their influence. To see this vision realized, Wovoka called for virtuous living, an end to inter-tribal conflict, and observance of certain rituals and ceremonies, in particular a traditional circle dance.

This practice, and Wovoka’s message, spread rapidly throughout many tribes of the American West during the next several months, with each tribe incorporating it in different ways into their own already-existing beliefs. The message was quick to find purchase among groups of Lakota Sioux in South Dakota who were in a critical situation after years of encroachment by white settlers backed by the American military had forced them off their lands and into ever-smaller reservations. With once-plentiful herds of bison devastated through overhunting by white settlers, these tribes had been expected to feed themselves by farming the land they had been allotted. However, drought conditions in 1890 failed to produce sufficient crops. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) blamed “laziness” and severely cut the rations they had been providing to the Lakota. Starvation seemed like a real possibility.

Their desperation intensified their observance of the ceremony that was translated as the “Ghost Dance,” and although Wovoka’s message was strictly a non-violent one, the version of it adopted by the Lakota had elements that came across as more apocalyptic and militaristic. Their practice of the ritual alarmed skittish white settlers and BIA agents. Local officials decided to arrest several prominent tribal leaders in an effort to end the practice, and an altercation during one such attempt led to the killing of Chief Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890, which of course only enflamed the situation further.

Photos of the aftermath of the massacre exist, but this image is from a 1913 reenactment.

Cooler heads who counseled a conciliatory approach were ignored. Two weeks after Sitting Bull’s death, around 500 US cavalry surrounded a Lakota encampment of 350, around a third of them women and children. The soldiers moved in to disarm the men of the tribe, but one man, who was deaf and was also in possession of a rifle that was particularly precious to him, briefly resisted. Reportedly, before anyone around could intervene to explain the situation, the soldiers scuffled with him and the gun fired into the air. Immediately, the commander of the cavalry unit ordered his men to open fire on the mostly-disarmed populace. Nearly half of the encampment was killed, including 60 women and children, in an atrocity that became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

All of this took place not even four years before members of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” arrived in New Jersey to perform a dance for Edison’s kinetograph. One of the child dancers who appears in this film was a survivor of the massacre. His name was Johnny Burke No Neck, and he was 7 years old when the US Army murdered his parents in front of him. He is 10 or 11 years old here. I’m not sure whether it’s known that the dance in this film is actually an excerpt of the Ghost Dance (does it sound like something that would be performed on command for just anyone?), but you can see how it would be marketable to call it that, exciting curiosity among white viewers to see something that had created such a stir as part of recent events.

And lest there be any ambiguity about how white people saw this film at the time that it was made, the following day’s New York Herald had this to say:


A party of Indians in full war paint invaded the Edison laboratory at West Orange yesterday and faced unflinchingly the unerring rapid fire of the kinetograph. It was indeed a memorable engagement, no less so than the battle of Wounded Knee, still fresh in the minds of the warriors. It was probably more effective in demonstrating to the red men the power and supremacy of the white man, for savagery and the most advanced science stood face to face, and there was an absolute triumph for one without the spilling of a single drop of blood.

quoted by Scott Simmon in The Invention of the Western Film, pp. 6-7

Why you should see it:

I don’t think this history makes Sioux Ghost Dance any less of an important document. If anything, it becomes more important. But I’d argue that an awareness of this film’s context is vital to viewing it. The dancers in this film appear a bit cramped, their movements confined by the small square of space that the camera requires them to occupy for the convenience of the viewer. As a metaphor, that’s perhaps a bit on the nose, and not a particularly cheery note to conclude on. So I’ll just add that, despite contemporary assumptions about Native American tribes as a “vanishing race,” their story does not end with the “Wild West” and the closing of the frontier.


~ by Jared on January 30, 2023.

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