10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People

Larry Holzwarth - February 21, 2018

From the first landings of the Europeans on the shores of North America through the early twentieth century, relations between the American Indian tribes and the descendants of the European settlers were tenuous. Uneasy peace was broken by war time after time, and though the push westward was one cause, it was not the only one. Those tribes who chose to befriend the arriving Europeans, the French in New France, the English in New England and Virginia, and the Spaniards to the south, found themselves enlisted in the European struggle for empire. They fought the enemies of their friends and often their own ancient enemies as well.

As the Americans pushed westward, the American Indians, though they claimed to have no concept of land ownership, fought to retain what they believed to be their lands. Treaties were made and broken by both sides. Gradually the tribes withdrew across the continent or were assimilated within the settlements of the whites. Both sides committed atrocities against the other. It is a complicated story, made more so by racial hatred, long-standing myth, and often romantic nonsense. For one side it was a war on terror across the frontier, for the other it was a fight to retain a dying way of life.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
Conflicts with the natives found by exploring Europeans began long before settlement. Wikimedia

Here are ten American Indian leaders who fought to prevent the white settlement of the North American continent.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
A drawing of the death of King Philip, which appeared in a 1900 history of the North American Indian Wars. Wikimedia

King Philip

Metacomet was a son of the famed Wampanoag leader of The Pilgrim’s Progress fame, Massasoit. As the second of Massasoit’s sons he was not to have inherited the tribal leadership from his father. That honor went to his elder brother, Wamsutta, known to the English settlers as King Alexander. Metacomet became chief on his brother’s death. Metacomet was called King Philip by the English, who gave his name to a war conducted between the English and the Wampanoag. King Philip was well known to the English and vice versa, and as the leader of the Wampanoag King Philip went so far as to dress in English clothing.

King Philip had more to deal with than the continually growing English settlements. To the north and west of the Wampanoag lands, the powerful Iroquois confederation were pushing the more peaceful tribes towards the English settlements in a series of raids, the point of contention being control of the lands which were rich in beaver and other pelts, valuable in trade with the French. In 1671, motivated by the rising strength of the English, King Philip signed a treaty which placed the Wampanoag under English authority and law. He also surrendered most of his tribe’s firearms.

Under English law, in 1675 three Wampanoags were hanged for the murder of one John Sassamon, an Indian who had converted to Christianity. That summer raids by several of the New England tribes against the English settlements began with a vengeance. Several tribes cross New England, including the Mohican and the Pequot, sided with the English. Others, such as the once powerful Narragansett, the Podunk, and others, determined to destroy the English settlements. King Philip and his tribe were with the latter. By the time what became King Philip’s War broke out there were over 80,000 English settlers throughout New England.

In late 1675 King Philip attempted to obtain an alliance with the Mohawk, despite the long-standing enmity between the Mohawk and the Algonquian tribes, of which the Wampanoag were one. Instead the Mohawk attacked the Wampanoag, so crippling King Philip’s band that they withdrew to the Massachusetts swamps. Throughout 1676 the Indians raided the English settlements as the colonists and their allies continued to organize military actions which would eliminate the threat.

King Philip was killed, ironically by a converted Christian Indian rather than an Englishman, in July 1676, after most of his followers had surrendered to the English, and the colonists were using rangers to locate the ringleaders of the rebellion. He was treated as a criminal under English law, rather than as a warrior, and his corpse was beheaded, drawn, and quartered. In southern New England there followed a period of relative peace, while in Maine and New Hampshire, periodic violence continued for more than seventy years, with annual raids of frontier settlements and six named wars or conflicts between English and Indians.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
A portrait of Joseph Brant done from life by George Romney. Wikimedia

Joseph Brant

Thayendanegea was the name given to the Mohawk who became famous to the English and French rivals for control of the New World as Joseph Brant. Under that name he became likely the most widely known American Indian of his day, and he fought against the French during the French and Indian War, and against the American’s during the American Revolutionary War two decades later. Through the intervention of William Johnson, the English supervisor of Indian Affairs in New York (and the common law husband of Brant’s sister) Joseph was educated in Connecticut, at a charity school which one day became Dartmouth College.

He was to have gone on to study at King’s College in New York, today’s Columbia University, but Pontiac’s Rebellion interfered and in 1764, Joseph was again at war on the side of the English. The alliance Pontiac had formed considered the war to be one of annihilation of the white race, an attitude quickly adopted by their enemies towards the members of the alliance. Joseph engaged in raids against Lenape villages. Pontiac’s Rebellion ended in a treaty which included an acknowledgement by the English that the Indian tribes had rights to the land they occupied and restricted colonial settlement beyond the Alleghenies and in the Ohio Country.

During the years preceding the American Revolution Brant owned a farm of eighty acres, adopted the colonist’s dress, and worked at translating English manuscripts. The Mohawk were a matrilineal nation which believed farming to be women’s work, and it is likely that Brant hired women to work his farm and care for his crops. Brant became war chief of the Mohawk under the urging of William Johnson, who pointed out that Brant spoke most, if not all, of the languages of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, as well as English, and his courage in war was well proven.

In the fall of 1775 Brant accompanied William Johnson’s successor, Guy Johnson, to London. Brant was a celebrity in London, dressing in his Mohawk garb for public appearances, and was accepted into Freemasonry, receiving his apron from the hand of King George III. Returning to America with British promises of Iroquois lands in Canada in return for their alliance against the revolutionaries, Brant served in several campaigns of the Revolution, in upper New York, and as far west as Detroit. Following the war he traveled to meet with the Western Confederacy of tribes which were determined to prevent American settlement of the Ohio Valley.

Joseph Brant lived until 1807, spending much of his later life in Canada, although he did make another trip to England in the 1780s and made several trips to Philadelphia, where he met President George Washington and other dignitaries. He was largely dismissed by the Western Confederacy when he refused to go to war in their support during the Northwest Indian War. He began to train the men of the Six Nations to adopt the skills of the white settlers over those traditional to the Iroquois, such as blacksmithing, surveying, and even the practice of law. Ultimately, his efforts to unite the varying tribes failed in his lifetime, but another would arise to try it again, a Shawnee named Tecumseh.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
The site of a former Shawnee town destroyed during George Rogers Clark during his 1780 campaign. Wikimedia

Blue Jacket

Contrary to a widespread belief, the Shawnee war chief Blue Jacket was not a white man adopted by the Shawnee. This story gained credence in several novels written by Allan Eckert about the settlement of the Ohio River Valley, but DNA testing has disproven the hypothesis. Blue Jacket’s Shawnee name was Wayapiersenah, and he was likely born in the mid-1740s, a period when the Shawnee were defending their lands against the Six Nations. During the slow withdrawal of the Iroquois to Canada, the Shawnee were repopulating the lands which became Ohio.

In the 1760s, the Shawnee began conducting raids on the western Virginia settlements to obtain armaments and other supplies depleted by the fighting against the Iroquois and allied tribes, leading to a conflict which became known as Lord Dunmore’s War. Fought against the settlements in what is now West Virginia and Kentucky, then both part of Virginia, the war cost the Shawnee their hunting rights in Kentucky, and despite a treaty which officially ended the war militant Shawnee continued to raid settlements south of the Ohio River. Blue Jacket figured prominently in these raids.

During the Revolutionary War the Shawnee gained the support of the British in Detroit, in the form of weapons and supplies, and the raids intensified. The British loss in the war led to American possession of the Ohio Country, and settlers began to pour downriver to the newly opened lands. Shawnee attacks intensified and Blue Jacket became a leading Shawnee war leader. In 1790 and 1792 the Legion of the United States was dispatched to put an end to the Shawnee threat. The Shawnee, supported by allies such as the Miami led by Little Turtle, crushed the American’s at the Battle of the Wabash.

The Battle of the Wabash was the worst defeat inflicted upon American arms by the Indians in the history of the nation. The US government responded with another legion and a superior commander, Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne. Wayne destroyed the Indian alliance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near the Maumee River. In addition to the Shawnee and the Miami, there were warriors from the Wyandot, Mingo, and Ottawa tribes, as well as others. There was also a contingent of British support. Following the battle Wayne imposed the Treaty of Greenville, and Shawnee control of the Ohio Country was at an end.

Blue Jacket withdrew to a Shawnee village near Wapakoneta, Ohio. There the former war chief ran a small farm and trade store, doing business with both whites and Indians, and supplemented his income with hunting and trapping. The alliance of the tribes from the Northwest Territory would have a further incarnation when a young warrior with whom Blue Jacket was familiar, Tecumseh, would revisit it prior and during the War of 1812. After 1805, when he was a signatory to the Treaty of Fort Industry, little is known of Blue Jacket. It is believed that he died shortly after.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
The Shawnee warrior Tecumseh was one of many who tried to build confederations of tribes to resist the expansion onto their lands. Wikimedia


Tecumseh was born in 1768, in one of the Shawnee villages in Ohio named Chillicothe, of which there were several, including along the Great Miami River, the Little Miami River, and the Scioto River, site of present day Chillicothe. His father was killed during Lord Dunmore’s War and Tecumseh and his family took shelter with a band of defiant Shawnee who refused to accept the treaty ending that war, denying them the hunting grounds of Kentucky, led by Chief Blackfish. Blackfish’s band captured both Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton during Tecumseh’s stay with him, meaning the young warrior likely knew both frontiersmen.

After the Kentucky militia attacked Blackfish’s village, Tecumseh and his family fled to another Shawnee village, then another, both destroyed by the campaigns of George Rogers Clark. When the war was over Tecumseh, having been driven from several homes by white campaigns, joined the bands of Shawnee who attacked parties of hunters and settlers traveling down river on the Ohio and up its many tributaries. Tecumseh roamed from the Ohio region to Tennessee, and west to the Illinois Country during the years between the end of the American Revolution and the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in which he took part.

By then Tecumseh was the leader of a small but growing band of Shawnee and allied warriors, assisted by his brother, Tenskwatawa (The Prophet). A religious leader with a reputation for harsh treatment of those who opposed him, The Prophet established a village on the Wabash, near its joining the Tippecanoe River, in 1808. The American’s called the settlement Prophetstown, and about 14 different tribal groups were recognized among its inhabitants by 1810. Tecumseh railed at the chiefs to support his confederation for war against the whites while The Prophet foretold events, impressing the chiefs and their warriors.

When the Treaty of Fort Wayne ceded most of the Indian lands in Indiana and Illinois to the United States, Tecumseh and the Prophet resisted. Tecumseh confronted Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison by resurrecting the ideas presented years earlier by Joseph Brant. He claimed the lands occupied by the Indians were common to all, and could not be sold. Tecumseh continued to recruit additional tribes and warriors to join his confederation. Many speeches have been attributed to him during this time period, most are doubted by modern scholars.

Tecumseh’s confederation was met by Harrison’s army and supporting militia at the Battle of Tippecanoe, a defeat for the Indians which launched Harrison to the presidency years later. Tecumseh’s War became a part of the larger War of 1812, and Tecumseh and his followers were present at the siege of Detroit, a disaster for the Americans. After the Battle of Fort Meigs, Tecumseh’s followers were involved in the massacre of prisoners, for which he placed the blame with the British. Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
A drawing depicting the often told story of Osceola stabbing a treaty with his knife. Wikimedia


While many Indians were given an Indian name at birth and became known to the Americans under an anglicized version, Osceola was the opposite. He was given the name Billy Powell when he was born near what is Tallassee, Alabama, in a Creek village. His father was an American of Welsh ancestry. Osceola was raised as a Creek of the Red Stick faction which was crushed at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend by American forces under Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. Many of the Creek chose to surrender to Jackson, others fled to the lands of the Seminole. Osceola was of the latter.

In 1819 and 1821 a pair of treaties transferred Spanish Florida to the United States and American settlers soon poured into the newly acquired lands. The Seminole pushed back against the loss of their territory and there were several raids and skirmishes against settlers, military, and Seminole villages. In 1823 the Treaty of Moultrie Creek brought an end to this conflict and established the boundaries of the Seminole lands in central Florida. Osceola was by then a prominent warrior and tribal leader, and he moved his family into the Seminole Territory.

For the rest of the decade and into the next there was a drive among the settlers to remove the Seminole from Florida to the Indian Territory established west of the Mississippi. The Seminole resisted this movement and withdrew their settlements deeper into the swamps. In 1832 several Seminole chiefs accepted the lands set aside for them west of the Mississippi in exchange for their Florida lands. Osceola did not accept the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in which the agreement was set down, though there is no evidence that he stabbed the treaty with his knife as legend suggests.

In all, five Seminole leaders refused to accept the treaty and Wiley Thompson, the Supervisor of Indian Affairs, briefly placed Osceola in custody in response to the defiance. Osceola was released when he promised that he would abide by the treaty, along with his followers. Instead, in December 1835, Osceola attacked and killed Thompson and his party while other bands of Seminole simultaneously attacked US troops elsewhere. The Second Seminole War thus initiated would rage for the next seven years, and it would be the longest of all the Indian Wars fought on the North American continent by Americans.

Osceola would not live to see its end. In the fall of 1837 he went to St. Augustine to take part in peace talks and he was arrested and imprisoned. Though there was public outcry against the violation of a flag of truce the army ignored the criticism and sent the prisoner to Fort Moultrie, outside Charleston, South Carolina. The transfer was done, in part, to prevent a raid attempting a rescue. While in Fort Moultrie Osceola developed quinsy, a throat infection easily treatable with antibiotics which did not exist at the time. He died from the infection in January 1838, and was buried at Fort Moultrie.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
A portrait of Red Cloud in which he is entitled Chief of the Sioux Nations. National Archives

Red Cloud

Mahpiya Luta was an Oglala Lakota warrior who fought in Red Cloud’s War and then tried unsuccessfully to prevent the Great Sioux War in the mid and late nineteenth century. He was an ally of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and an important member of the Lakota sect of the Sioux nation. As a military leader he frustrated the United States Army troops sent against him, and he inflicted upon the US Army the worst defeat it would suffer in the Plains Wars at a battle known as the Fetterman Fight, until it was surpassed by the Custer debacle at Little Big Horn.

After his military activities were behind him Red Cloud proved to be an important ally to the United States while transitioning the Lakota people to life on a reservation. Red Cloud led a group of Lakota to Washington DC before the campaign in which Custer was killed in an attempt to prevent miners from continuing to intrude on the sacred lands (to the Sioux) of the Black Hills. Although unsuccessful in his attempts to find peace due to what he saw as American government intransigence, he did not take part in the ensuing war.

During Red Cloud’s War he led his followers into battle in December 1866. An American detachment of troops accompanied by two civilians were lured by Red Cloud’s ally and protégé, Crazy Horse, to disobey orders and pursue what the Americans believed to be a band of raiders. Crazy Horse led the Americans into a trap set and sprung by Red Cloud, and the entire American command was wiped out. Americans called it the Fetterman Massacre. More than 2,000 Indians participated in the brief engagement, which caused outrage among the American population and led to peace talks with the Arapaho, Sioux, and Cheyenne.

The peace talks led to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which created the Great Sioux Reservation covering parts of Nebraska and the Dakota Territory in what would become South Dakota in 1868. In 1870 Red Cloud made his first visit to Washington, meeting with President U.S. Grant and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. This visit, in which Red Cloud frankly presented the needs of the Sioux on the reservation resulted in the creation of the Red Cloud Agency, to distribute goods and other necessities, and Red Cloud took led his followers there, near the Platte River below Fort Laramie.

Many of the Lakota fled the reservation during the Great Sioux War, to join Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in their campaign against the United States, which while initially successful against Custer ultimately failed. Red Cloud continued to oppose measures by the government which he deemed to be too much of a change for his people and their way of life, such as the breakup of communal land into privately held parcels, and he lobbied for better care and better quality supplies for the Lakota. He died in 1909, having outlived nearly all of the participants of the Plains Wars.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
An 1877 photograph of Touch the Clouds taken at the Spotted Tail Agency. Wikimedia

Touch the Clouds

Touch the Clouds was a Minneconjou Lakota who stood nearly seven feet tall and was reported to have weighed 280 pounds in his prime. This was at a time when the average American cavalryman stood about 5’6′ and weighed about 140 pounds. During his youth he developed his reputation as a warrior in battle against the Crow, and as a leader when he led parties to steal horses from enemy tribes, army corrals, and crossing wagon trains. During the 1860s Touch the Clouds and other members of his group were sent to the Cheyenne River Agency, a reservation established for the Lakota on the Missouri River.

They remained there during the beginning of the Great Sioux War and following the defeat of Custer Touch the Clouds attempted to negotiate with the agency authorities, hoping to avoid repercussions directed by angry American troops towards his peaceful Lakota. When it became evident to Touch the Clouds that there would be reprisals against his people he led them off the reservation. They joined forces with those of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, as well as those of other well-known Sioux leaders such as Spotted Elk, and took part in several skirmishes.

Touch the Clouds and others of the Lakota tried to slow the pace of the war and the raids, urging caution and a negotiated peace, but Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, as well as other more war leaning chiefs, realized that the United States Army would demand harsh terms in the wake of the disaster which had befallen Custer and his men. This rift between leaders caused the Sioux band to split up, with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull leaving with their followers to pursue further raids. Touch the Clouds approached the Americans with the idea of negotiating a peace.

Touch the Clouds and his followers went to the Spotted Tail Agency in Nebraska, remaining there until August 1877 (Crazy Horse was held there at the same time) and he witnessed the death of Crazy Horse. After a trip to Washington Touch the Clouds returned to the Cheyenne River Agency with his band. By the early 1880s all of the remaining Minneconjou bands were gathered at the Cheyenne River Agency, and Touch the Clouds was designated to be chief of all of the remaining Minneconjou, a position which had once been held by his father.

For the rest of his life Touch the Clouds traveled to several cities as an advocate for the people on the reservation. He worked with government officials and churchmen to do whatever he could to ensure that they had adequate provisions, medical care, schools, and all that had been promised them when they agreed to give up their previous way of life and remain on the reservation. He died in 1905, while visiting in South Dakota.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
Black Elk (left) and Elk in costume as grass dancers, taken in London in 1887. Wikimedia

Black Elk

In its heyday of producing movies set in the west it was customary for Hollywood to portray Indians as measuring time by the passage of summers, or full moons for shorter periods. In fact the Sioux measured the years by the passage of winters, and Black Elk, according to Lakota tradition, was born in the winter when the “four Crows were killed on the Tongue River.” The Crows referred to are not birds, but members of the Crow tribe, traditional enemies of the Lakota. The winter refers to the winter of 1863, and Black Elk was likely born in what is now Wyoming.

He was both a mystic, what was known as a medicine man, and a warrior. Black Elk was prone to having visions beginning as a young boy, and throughout his life these visions would shape his opinions of what was best for the Lakota and for the rest of the Sioux nation. As a healer and medicine man Black Elk’s influence among the Sioux was strong among the warriors and children, but less so with the tribal leaders, including Crazy Horse, who was often dismissive of the visions described by Black Elk. Black Elk was present at the Little Big Horn, but not engaged as a warrior, and his later descriptions of the battle changed over time.

Black Elk traveled to Canada with Sitting Bull’s followers, later returning to American territory and the Pine Ridge reservation in 1881. In 1886 he joined Buffalo Bill’s Travelling Wild West Show on a trip to England after some appearances in the United States. He was back at Pine Ridge by 1889, and joined the Ghost Shirt movement espoused by Sitting Bull. The Ghost Shirts believed that their rituals would create a spiritual force which would drive the whites off the Sioux lands, and when concerned US authorities moved to arrest some of the movement’s leaders it led to the death of Sitting Bull. Two weeks following his death Black Elk was injured trying to retaliate following the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Black Elk surrendered for the final time shortly after and returned to Pine Ridge, where he converted to Catholicism, under the name of Nicholas Black Elk. His first wife was a Catholic but Black Elk did not convert to Catholicism until after her death in 1903. He remarried in 1905, to a widow with two children with whom he had three more children. Between his two marriages he was the father of six, and stepfather of two. In the 1930s he began producing a show along the lines of those presented by Buffalo Bill. It was held in the Black Hills, and presented the peaceful culture of the Lakota, rather than the warrior culture depicted elsewhere.

Late in life Black Elk dictated many of his visions and his interpretations of them to several writers, the most prominent result of which is the book Black Elk Speaks written by John Neihardt, although Black Elk’s words were interpreted by Black Elk’s son and recorded and edited by Neihardt’s daughter. Black Elk could not correct the final result. The book has been frequently cited as a source for studying and understanding the spirituality of the Sioux and the American Indian generally, particularly by proponents of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Black Elk died in 1950.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
The participants of a treaty conference pose for a photograph. Black Kettle is seated third from the left, peering over a hat. Wikimedia

Black Kettle

Black Kettle was a Cheyenne who was a member of the central council of the Cheyenne, known as the Council of 44. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie set aside lands of the Cheyenne for their use, but white expansion into the Great Plains continued unchecked, and both Cheyenne land and their main supply of food and furs, the American Bison, was reduced steadily. Armed conflict was inevitable. Black Kettle recognized that open warfare with the US Army was tantamount to suicide, and led his people to the Sand Creek reservation under a treaty which he believed would protect them, the Treaty of Fort Wise.

The Sand Creek region was depleted of game, particularly bison, and many of the Cheyenne strayed from the reservation, attacking the troops sent to pursue them. A group of Cheyenne known as the Dog Soldiers were particularly hostile to the Americans, and their attacks were attributed to the Cheyenne as a whole, despite some evidence of Black Kettle’s opposition to them. Although there were treaties to protect the Cheyenne at Sand Creek, evidence that many attacks on settlers and troops emanated from there led to an attack on the reservation by US Army troops in November 1864, with over 150 Cheyenne killed.

Black Kettle fled during the attack, returning afterwards to aid his wounded wife, whom he had left behind. Following the attack the remaining Cheyenne allied with Arapaho and Kiowa to wage war. Black Kettle entered into further negotiations with US authorities which resulted in the Treaty of Little Arkansas River, granting the Cheyenne lands in the Indian Territory which is now in Oklahoma. Black Kettle and his shrinking band of followers went to the Indian Territory, but continued to hold hostages taken by the Dog Soldiers.

The taking and holding of hostages by the Cheyenne meant either Black Kettle was in violation of the treaty or he no longer held sway over his band of followers. Whichever is correct remains disputed. Meanwhile raids against troops and the massacre of civilians continued, conducted by the Dog Soldiers and other warriors from Black Kettle’s band. In November of 1868, the US Army launched a reprisal expedition against the Cheyenne in their winter camps. Black Kettle and his followers were then in camp along the Washita River when they were attacked by the US Seventh Cavalry led by George Armstrong Custer.

Black Kettle, his wife, and over 100 Cheyenne and members of other tribes were killed in the attack, and the encampment was destroyed. Black Kettle is today considered to have worked for peace, but either he was unable to control the warriors allegedly under his authority, or he turned a blind eye to their activities. It is possible he supported those activities. Clearly there were violations of the treaties he negotiated by both sides of the conflict.

10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People
Sioux performing the Ghost Dance at Pine Ridge.


Wovoka was a Paiute who in his formative years worked for a rancher named David Wilson in Nevada, who gave the young man the name Jack Wilson, and taught him Christianity. It may be that David Wilson was a member of the Christian sect known as the Shakers, as Wovoka later taught his followers a dance which contained similarities to those of the Shakers. It became known as the Ghost Dance and Wovoka taught his followers that done properly it would destroy the whites occupying Indian lands by resurrecting the dead of all the Indian tribes.

January 1 1889 featured a full solar eclipse, and Wovoka claimed to have had a vision during the event. “When the sun died, I went up to heaven and saw God and all the people who had died a long time ago. God told me to come back and tell my people they must be good and love one another and not fight, or steal or lie. He gave me this dance to give to my people,” said Wovoka. Other aspects of his vision contained similarities to the New Testament Book of Revelations, one of the often referenced and studied works by the Shakers.

Wovoka proclaimed himself to be the messiah promised to the Christian whites, and the dance which he taught to his followers spread rapidly among the tribes of the west, most of which by that time had been placed in reservations. Wovoka taught his followers that the Ghost Dance would bring spirits that would drive the whites from the lands of the various tribes in divine retribution. Among those who learned the dance from Wovoka were two Lakota from the Pine Ridge reservation, Kicking Bear and Short Bull.

When Kicking Bear and Short Bull took the dance back to Pine Ridge, it was with the interpretation that the Ghost Shirts worn during the dance would protect them from bullets. They also informed the reservation authorities of the dance’s meaning and purpose, and announced the Indian messiah. Wovoka had convinced them that the dance would lead to the elimination of the whites, a fact which they also shared with the authorities. The practice of the Ghost Dance led to the death during his arrest of Sitting Bull and the following Battle of Wounded Knee.

Wovoka had earlier made an offer to the authorities in which he would control the Lakota and prevent any military influence by the Ghost Dance on them in return for money and food, for himself and his people. His offer was ignored, largely because the leader of the Sioux at Pine Ridge, Sitting Bull, was unimpressed with the dance and distrustful of its message. He was reluctant at first to allow its performance. Following the Battle of Wounded Knee Wovoka’s followers left him rapidly, and he lived the rest of his life in relative obscurity. Wovoka died in Nevada in 1932.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“King Philip”, entry at Brittanica.com

“The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution”, by Alan Taylor

“The Frontiersman”, by Allan Eckert

“That Dark and Bloody River”, by Allan Eckert

“Biography of Black Kettle”. Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. NPS.org

“Sand Creek Massacre”. Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. NPS.org

“The Heart of Everything That Is” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

“Wovoka”, entry PBS.org

“Black Elk”, entry Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. plainshumanities.unl.edu