The Mormons and the Ghost Dance: A Literature Review

By August 5, 2011

On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Seventh Cavalry surrounded a group of ninety Minneconjou Lakota men just west of Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. The wives and children of the Lakota warriors were camped a few yards to the south of the council ground. The Cavalry was engaged in disarming the warriors, who military leaders believed were part of a wide-ranging indigenous conspiracy to push back white settlement. The Lakota men were known to be adherents of the Ghost Dance, a religious phenomenon that originated with the Paiute prophet Wovoka in Nevada and had spread from the Great Basin to the Plains in 1889-1890. During the disarming, a struggle ensued between the troopers and a young Lakota who thought he could hide his rifle under his blanket, and a shot fired into the air. Chaos?and death?followed, as the five hundred members of the Seventh Cavalry proceeded to slaughter not only the by-then largely disarmed men but also the women and children as they fled the scene. Although exact numbers are unknown, perhaps as many as three hundred Lakotas died. It was shown in the aftermath of Wounded Knee that the Ghost Dance was not a broad-based scheme to overthrow U.S. authority, and, more to the point, that most if not all of the Lakotas who lost their lives on December 29, 1890 had died innocently after surrendering without resistance.[1] Although Latter-day Saints had nothing to do with the massacre at Wounded Knee, since 1890 commentators have speculated that Mormons were somehow connected and even the primary movers behind the Ghost Dance movement.

Such speculations were first voiced by government and military officials in their investigations of the Ghost Dance and the spread of Wovoka’s message. Tapping into public associations between Mormons and Native Americans that stretched back to the church’s 1830 mission to the Indians, Brigham Young’s administration of Indian Affairs in the 1850s, Mountain Meadows, and the ?Corinne Scare? of the 1870s, these officials claimed that white men, most likely Mormon missionaries, had worked the Indians into a frenzy.[2] The most thorough and scholarly account of the Ghost Dance in the years immediately after 1890, ethnologist James Mooney’s The Ghost Dance Religion of 1890, departed somewhat from the earlier speculations when he concluded that the Ghost Dance was primarily an indigenous movement. Based on interviews with Wovoka and other Ghost Dancers, Mooney described the Ghost Dance as a revitalization movement, with dreams of returning Indian ancestors, a resurgent buffalo population, and the supernatural disappearance of the white colonizers. But rather than achieve this vision through violence, Wovoka taught his followers to love each other, to live in harmony with whites, and above all, to dance. Mooney found little direct evidence of a Mormon conspiracy; however, he did include a brief discussion of possible Mormon influences, most notably the Lakota innovation of a Ghost Shirt that promised invulnerability (although Wovoka claimed invincibility, he didn’t use a shirt), which Mooney speculated could have been based loosely on Mormon temple robes.[3]

In subsequent decades, little if any new evidence surfaced to either affirm or disprove the Mormon-Ghost Dance hypothesis formulated in the 1890s, although some writers, such as Paul Bailey expanded on the earlier theories in his fictionalized 1957 biography, Wovoka: The Indian Messiah. It was not until 1985–when BYU-Idaho professor Lawrence G. Coates published the results of his extensive research in the Church’s archives–that serious scholarship appeared on the subject. Coates’ strong affiliation with the church doubtless guided his research, assumptions, and conclusions, yet his close attention to detail and the archival record set the standard for subsequent research. His article primarily analyzed the evidence adduced by Mooney. First, the ethnologist had relied primarily on an anonymous 1892 pamphlet published in Salt Lake City that criticized the mainstream church for abandoning the Law of Consecration and for not recognizing that the Savior had appeared to the Natives at Walker Lake, Nevada, in March 1890, where he ordained twelve disciples. Coates faulted Mooney for not realizing that this was a dissident voice among the Saints, and therefore was not an accurate representation of the views of most Mormons. Second, Mooney used Fanny Stenhouse’s Tell It All for his description of the temple robe–“a long, loose, flowing garment, made of white linen or bleached muslin, reaching to the ankle”–without realizing that Mormons believed that the garment, not the robe as described by Stenhouse, could provide protection to the wearer. This may seem nitpicky to some observers, especially those outside the faith, but Coates proceeded to more solid ground by identifying all known Native recipients of the endowment prior to 1890 and arguing that no evidence existed to show that these endowed Indians were Ghost Dancers or had Ghost Dancer relatives. Furthermore, although Wilford Woodruff entertained the idea that the Three Nephites were working among the Indians in 1890, he instructed various Mormon Native inquirers to avoid the Ghost Dance, especially in the wake of Wounded Knee, given the rumors of Mormon involvement.[4]

In the years that followed, others wrote on potential Mormon connections to the Ghost Dance, but none of the publications substantially challenged Coates’ conclusions or surpassed his archival research. A year following the publication of Coates’ article, University of Utah graduate student (and current professor at the U) Gregory E. Smoak published an article on the subject in South Dakota History. Although Smoak mentioned Coates’ article in the footnote, he made little effort to engage Coates’ arguments. Smoak was more interested in exploring why non-Mormons were so open to believing the rumors of Mormon involvement, pointing to Latter-day Saint doctrines on Lamanites, the millennium (including the significance of 1890-91), Mormon proselyting and conversions among the Indians in Idaho, and Mountain Meadows. Occasionally, Smoak strayed from analyzing non-Mormon perceptions of the Saints to speculate that Wovoka may have learned of Mormon teachings from missionaries in Nevada, but Smoak offered no concrete evidence for the claim. Smoak later fleshed out his ideas in a booklength treatment of the Ghost Dance among Idaho Natives, but he essentially affirmed his previous conclusions.[5]

Also in 1986, Garold D. Barney published Mormons, Indians, and the Ghost Dance Religion of 1890, the only booklength analysis of the subject to date. Barney conducted no original research and relied entirely on secondary sources, most of which (both on the Ghost Dance and the Mormons) were several decades old when Barney’s book was first published. Things did not improve with the second edition, which appeared in late 2010 (all subsequent page numbers from the second edition).[6] Although he was aware of and cited an unpublished version of Coates’ article, Barney seemed much more interested in providing strained comparisons between Mormon and Native ideas than establishing an empirical link between the two groups. For example, Barney began by stating that the Ghost Dance and Mormonism were both products of the ?American Revivalist? movement that swept ?the New World in the 19th Century? (9). Scholars of the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1800-1830) will be surprised to know that the Ghost Dance of 1890 was part of the same movement. In claiming that both Mormons and Indians had similar ideas about invulnerability, and that by implication the Mormons were the source of the Ghost Shirts, Barney cited John C. Bennett’s service as brigadier general of the Invincible Dragoons (23). Such an argument relies on broad similarities while ingoring any differences. And although he acknowledged that no evidence supported the claim that Mormonism influenced Wovoka (132), Barney then proceeded to quote Paul Bailey’s biography of Wovoka to heavily imply that there was such a connection, without telling readers that Bailey’s book was a novel (136-37). Examples of such shoddy scholarship could be multiplied and multiplied and multiplied again from the text. Whatever revisions and improvements were made for the second edition, it did not engage any of the solid scholarship that has appeared on the Ghost Dance or the Mormons since 1986 (Barney even continued to cite Coates’ article as though it were unpublished).

So where does scholarship go from here? It’s been over twenty-five years since Coates’ article appeared in print, so one possible avenue would be for someone to return to the archives and look for additional clues in the documents. Another route that is more in tune with the times would be to follow in the vein first explored in detail in Smoak’s 1986 article and examine the broader cultural phenomenon that associated Mormons with Indians in the public mind. What did it mean for non-Mormons when they saw a group of Americans of European descent apparently siding not with the American nation’s manifest destiny to possess the land, but with the ?savage? original inhabitants that Euro-Americans had long been intent on displacing and replacing as the true inheritors of the continent (either through warfare or assimilation programs)? In short, despite Mormon claims of loyalty to the Constitution, non-Mormons did not see the Saints as being “on the same team.” A second avenue of inquiry would examine the other side of this coin, by asking how Mormon ideas regarding Indians and the future of the American continent fit into the broader cultural landscape. A notable omission from all of the previous scholarship (Coates, Smoak, etc.) has been an understanding of what I have elsewhere called the Lamanite Great Reversal. Most secondary sources note that Mormons saw Indians as part of the House of Israel, but few explore the implications of the Book of Mormon’s teachings of the Lamanites wiping out Gentile (that is, white) settlement and building a new sovereignty, the New Jerusalem, in the Americas, with the help of converted Gentiles. Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation on the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s Zion nationalism opens up new vistas for exploring how these ideas were received and interpreted in subsequent decades. Such research would need to carefully balance the reception history of these ideas with contradictory evidence that Mormons also taught Indians to adopt farming and live in peace with whites, but the existence of contradictory ideas should encourage nuanced readings of the data, such as a possible application of James C. Scott’s theory of hidden and public transcripts. Looking at how non-Mormons viewed Mormon ideas on Indians and situating those Mormon ideas within broader frameworks should move us beyond simply asking whether there was or was not a direct connection between Mormons and Ghost Dancers (an odd form of reverse-parallelomania) and point us toward the bigger question of how Latter-day Saints and their views of Indians both reinforced and reacted against the American settler colonial project.


[1] For the best recent scholarship on Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance, see Jeffrey Ostler, The Plains Sioux Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee, Heather Cox Richardson, Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre, and Rani-Henrik Andersson, The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890.

[2] For an analysis of these early speculations, see Gregory E. Smoak, ?The Mormons and the Ghost Dance of 1890,? South Dakota History 16 (1986): 269-94.

[3] James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie. DeMallie is the leading contemporary anthropologist specialist on the Ghost Dance. For a recent scholarly work on Wovoka, see anthropologist Michael Hittman’s Wovoka and the Ghost Dance.

[4] Coates, ?The Mormons and the Ghost Dance,? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Winter 1985): 89-111.

[5] Smoak, ?The Mormosn and the Ghost Dance of 1890?; Smoak, Ghost Dance and Identity: Prophetic Religion and Ethnogensis in the Nineteenth Century (2006). Between the publication of the article and the completion of the book, Smoak’s interests had moved more toward understanding how the Bannock and Shoshones used the Ghost Dance to construct an ?Indian? identity in the face of American pressures to assimilate. While Mormons and their connections with these tribes remained a key element in his narrative, it was not the primary focus.

[6] Garold D. Barney, Mormons, Indians, and the Ghost Dance Religion of 1890, second edition (Boulder: Bauu Press, 2010). The first edition was published by the University Press of America, which isn’t the most respected press out there, but it gave some academic credibility to the work. One interesting thing that Barney contributes is that apparently Wovoka’s stepdaughter and grandson were baptized Mormons (84).

Pictures of the burial of the Lakota dead and of Wovoka from Wikipedia.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Comparative Mormon Studies Historiography Race


  1. Have scholars proposed influence by other Christians on the Ghost Dance?

    Any possibility of an extensive study on the history of Mormon/Native American interactions in your future, David?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 5, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  2. Steve, yeah, I should have been more explicit on that in the post. Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, was partially raised by the Wilson family, who were Presbyterians. Others have noted some Shaker influences, although I know less about those.

    As to your other question, perhaps. Right now I’m just trying to keep abreast of the scholarship on Mormons and Indians. Assuming my dissertation is well received and I get a job somewhere teaching Indian/Western history, then I might start doing more extensive research on the subject.

    Comment by David G. — August 5, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

  3. This is absolutely fantastic, David. I wish I had more to add or questions to ask.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 5, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

  4. Excellent essay, David, and a hearty amen to your last paragraph.

    Comment by Jared T — August 5, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

  5. How does one write a book length treatment on such a topic and only rely on secondary material?

    A number of years ago, I saw a Ghost Dance presentation at Pipe Springs, and consequently thought there must have been some interaction, but Paul Reeve later indicated to me that the movement hadn’t been in those parts.

    I’ve seem to remember some refs. around 1888 to a potential native deliverence from Edmunds-Tucker as the Battle Axe of the Lord.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 5, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  6. Thanks for the thorough write-up, David. This helps make sense of things more for me. And I second Steve’s suggestion that you pursue a fuller study of Mormon-Native interaction down the road.

    Comment by Christopher — August 5, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

  7. re fn [6]: University Press of America is not associated with any university and is widely considered a vanity press, especially prior to its 1988 acquisition by Rowman & Littlefield.

    Comment by D. Martin — August 5, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

  8. Thanks, all.

    J., I’d love to see those 1888 quotes if you remember where they are.

    D. Martin, thanks for the info. I think I was confusing University Press of America with University Press of New England, which is associated with the University of Vermont but isn’t all that well respected.

    Comment by David G. — August 6, 2011 @ 9:44 am

  9. David, Well done. Major General Nelson A. Miles after “investigating” the “Ghost Dance craze” filed a report, part of which appeared in various newspapers: ?I cannot state positively, but it is my belief that the Mormons are the prime movers in it. This is not a hard statement to believe, for there are 200,000 Mormons and they themselves claim to believe in prophets and spiritual manifestations, and they even now claim to hold intercourse with the spirit of Joe Smith. Besides, they have had missionaries at work among the Indians for many years and have made many converts.?

    The guilt by association idea is prevalent in the 19th century, a consistent charge that sometimes turns Mormons into “white Indians” and in other constructions makes them more “savage” than the “savages.” Frequently it has the Mormons joining with Indians to kill “pale faces,” suggesting that Mormons and Indians are consistently conspiring against white people, the true Americans.

    Like Jared, I especially like your last paragraph regarding future directions this scholarship can take. I’m attempting to address your suggested avenues one and two a la Smoak in my chapter, “Red, White, and Mormon” in my whiteness book. I attempt to explore how Mormons are conflated with and constructed as Indians by outsiders and then how Mormons respond by attempting to claim whiteness for themselves.

    What I’ve noticed is that the Mormon message on who the Indians are tends to be audience specific. If there is a national political figure present, then the Mormon story is that of the Mormons fulfilling Jefferson’s agrarian dream in an inhospitable region surrounded by degraded “savages.” I haven’t found the “battle axe of the Lord” to be a very prevalent view, but it crops up occasionally (just found it in 1890 being suggested that Mexicans would convert and become the battle axe of the Lord). The BY correspondence has largely been ignored as a source base here and it yields important ideas. Much of the correspondence uses “Indian” more than any other descriptor, Lamanite much less frequently, and “red brothers” and “savage” regularly. One gets a different sense from the letters than from the sermons, in other words. And then there are the Gadianton constructions too. It’s complicated, shifting, and hardly consistent and it varies from person to person. I’m now very skeptical of a monolithic and unified vision from Mormons as to who the Indians were or what it meant to be an Indian in the Mormon mind and it has to be considered within a context of Mormons attempting to claim whiteness for themselves. But I’m only treating the subject in a chapter. A book length, more wide reaching study of Mormon-Indian relations is surely in order.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — August 6, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  10. Thanks for stopping by, Paul, and giving us a sneak preview of your chapter. To what degree does the Mormon claim to “settlers rights” (or the argument that since the Saints had “subdued the wilderness” and redeemed the West from “savages” they should enjoy more respect and self-government) play into your analysis of ways that Mormons claimed whiteness? Craig Yirush’s recent Settlers, Liberty, and Empire: The Roots of Early American Political Theory, 1675-1775 analyzes the ways that early Americans claimed settlers rights in their debates with colonial bureaucrats in the century before the revolution. Although Yirush doesn’t directly engage whiteness theory, I think that there’s definitely a racial issue at play here. And as you know, the Saints embraced their historical association with the frontier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, arguing that they had played a key role in “civilizing the West” and bringing progress to the nation more generally through their settlement. In many ways, this narrative is still played out in Pioneer Day celebrations, although the progress highlighted isn’t necessarily American expansion but rather the spiritual growth of the church.

    Comment by David G. — August 7, 2011 @ 2:05 am

  11. David,
    I was not aware of Yirush’s book, but the point you make is absolutely a part of what I think is taking place. Mormons are essentially suggesting that in settling an inhospitable region, they are performing a fundamental American rite, which should in turn earn them the privileges of citizenship and whiteness. They were “performing” whiteness, in other words, in distinction from the degraded savages who led nomadic existences. And race was something that 19th century Americans understood as something that one “performs.” Problem was, Mormons were “performing” race in the minds of outsiders in ways that suggested they were NOT white. Settler’s rights, in this regard, did not trump polygamy.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — August 8, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  12. David,
    I wish I had read your post earlier today. I just reviewed a manuscript by a BYU undergraduate for a student journal, and the student referred to Mooney’s book as the source for the claim that Wovoka was influenced by Mormon doctrines. I questioned the claim, but your post (combined with Paul’s comments) would have given me more up-to-date information.

    Comment by Brian Cannon — August 8, 2011 @ 8:58 pm


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