In a time when Western Native American tribes needed something to give them hope, they turned to the Ghost Dance.

Their lands had been overrun by white settlers. The buffalo had been slaughtered, and government agents often withheld food allotments.

Their way of life was disappearing, and they longed to return to an earlier time. And so they danced, in hopes of making that happen, speaker Larry Williams said Saturday at the Yellowstone County Museum.

“They didn’t have weapons, they didn’t want to go to war,” Williams said in the first of four talks he gave. “They wanted to do the dance till the Earth got better.”

Williams’ talks were done in conjunction with the grand opening of the “Waiting for the Earth to Move, the 1890 Ghost Dance” exhibit. Visitors took advantage of the day’s free admission at the museum near the Billings Logan International Airport.

Williams, a Billings native who now lives in St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has spent 20 years assembling an extensive collection of Ghost Dance artifacts. The collection is on display in the museum basement, with explanations of the Ghost Dance and the individual pieces.

Several examples of the Ghost Dance regalia sit in a case along one wall. In a quick tour before his first talk, Williams pointed to a shirt in the front that has special meaning.

The painted shirt, decorated with fringe, was owned by one of Sitting Bull’s sons, Louis.

“Sitting Bull had several sons and Louis was one of his favorites,” Williams said. “Not all of them were ghost dancers, but Louis was.”

The shirt hasn’t been seen in public for nearly 50 years, and Williams was pleased to buy it so it could be put on display.

He also pointed out a red-tinged drum made of buffalo hide from the mid-1800s.

“The Ghost Dance began with a man named Smohalla in the Walla Walla, Washington, area about 1830 or 1840 and this drum is from that era and that tribe,” Williams said. “It’s incredibly rare, I’m so fortunate to have gotten that.”

During his talk, Williams talked about Smohalla’s dream, that “if we do the dances, if we live correctly and live in tune with the earth, the earth would have an upheaval and the good people will survive.”

Eventually the message was taken up by Jack Wilson, half-Paiute, half-American also known as a prophet or a medicine man named Wovoka, in Nevada.

"He became a huge prophet for the Ghost Dance," Williams said. "He was a huge promoter. He said the buffalo would return as well." 

When the Ghost Dance movement really took off it spread across the prairie like wildfire, Williams said. People traveled to hear Wovoka’s story and he gave them reddish clay they could put on their shirts and moccasins themselves.

They thought the garments, painted with stars and moons, butterflies, fireflies and birds, would protect them from bullets. Most of the shirts were made from muslin, though some were made of buckskin or leather.

The dance itself involved men, women and children dancing together for long periods in order to go into a trance and connect with their dead ancestors. If the dance was successful, it would lead to an eruption of the earth, eliminate the white men and “create conditions where their life would go back to the way it was,” Williams said.

It was a nonviolent movement, he said, but government agents misconstrued the frenzied dancing as Indians preparing for war. And newspapers fueled fear among people who saw the spreading religious movement as threatening to their well-being.

In 1890, the government sought to put an end to the movement. The Seventh Cavalry was dispatched to the Lakota tribe in South Dakota to stop what was perceived as an increasingly militaristic movement.

The final result was the massacre at Wounded Knee, in which more than 200 members of the Sioux Tribe died.

“That was about the end of the Ghost Dance movement,” Williams said.

Though it ended in tragedy, Williams is glad to have been able to gather remnants from that important era to share with others, including the decorated regalia.

“I hope you enjoy the beauty of what these people did,” Williams said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.