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Arapaho - Ghost Dance

Black Coyote, a Southern Arapaho leader, traveled to Wyoming to learn the Ghost Dance ritual from the Northern Arapaho. The tribe was desperate for relief from the death, broken promises from the United States, and the near extinction of the bison. Black Coyote returned to Oklahoma Territory in the spring of 1890 and started to lead Ghost Dance ceremonies. A Southern Arapaho who had lived with the Northern Arapaho, Sitting Bull, came to the reservation in Oklahoma Territory that fall. Sitting Bull was able to bring devotees into a great trance where they could see their dead kin in another realm where the bison still roamed and traditional Arapaho life endured. The Ghost Dance sparked a new religion that created a cultural renaissance for the tribe.

The Ghost Dance religion gave the tribe hope. The belief in an Arapaho utopia within reach even influenced tribal politics. Some leaders consulted Sitting Bull before negotiating with the United States. The Southern Arapaho ardently believed through the Ghost Dance religion that a new and better world was emerging, but after it failed to arrive, belief in the Ghost Dance declined. Ghost Dances became more of a social and cultural event than a religious ritual by the 1920s. 

Persecution and Discrimination

New policies of forced assimilation required the Arapaho to separate their communities and also banned assembly of the tribe, participation in traditional ceremonies, sharing rations with the hungry, visiting other Arapaho families, and Arapaho marriages in 1895. Any Arapaho who did not comply faced a prison sentence, and his or her family no longer received rations. While the Cheyenne fought such policies and met resistance, the Arapaho accommodated and eventually negotiated for some lenience. During World War I the Arapaho held traditional dances to support the Red Cross. The federal officials could not stop the traditional dance if it interfered with support of the war effort. The Southern Arapaho were resilient in the face of the government’s attempts to destroy their culture and break their wills. The strategy of accommodating protest proved relatively successful.

Euro-Americans living near the Southern Arapaho shot any Indians on sight during the 1890s. Without adequate land and facing the new assimilation policy restrictions, many tribal members were forced into extreme poverty. Euro-Americans started raiding Indian allotments and stealing supplies and livestock. Territorial officials ignored all crimes against Indians during this time period. The differential execution of justice on the basis of ethnicity was not by chance, but rather by design to further the goal of ending Indian culture.

Loans to Indians had such high and unregulated interest rates that a debt crisis ensued, and many Indians had their property repossessed. Socioeconomic challenges and judicial neglect hurt the Arapaho, but the tribe refused to surrender its identity. The United States realized that the assimilation policies failed and instituted more strict policies in the 20th century. They ceased all government rations and implemented a policy where the tribes could farm or starve to death. With very small plots of low quality land and no funds or equipment, the tribes could not survive by farming. They had no choice but to lease the land to non-Indians and hope that the income would help them afford enough food. The government saw the leasing of Indian lands as a sign of laziness and pressured the sale of the plots.

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Entry: Arapaho - Ghost Dance

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2015

Date Modified: December 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.