Place  /  Digital History

Native Networks and the Spread of the Ghost Dance

A digital companion to "We Do Not Want the Gates Closed Between Us," telling the story of Native American resistance to forced resettlement on reservations.

In the 1860s and 1870s, after years of resistance, most western Native Americans were forced to settle onto ever-shrinking pieces of land created by the United States government to relocate, contain, and separate them. Native Americans were colonized peoples living on reservations, which, the US government hoped, would keep them away from each other and from the white populations coursing through the Plains. Despite this colonial control and confinement, Native Americans were able to remain mobile in the late nineteenth century. This tenacious mobility, defined not only as the freedom of geographic movement but also the ability to share ideas and information widely, allowed western Native Americans to create vast networks of communication that traversed the boundaries of the US government’s reservations. These intertribal networks, threaded together in the 1870s and 1880s by intertribal visiting and letter writing, facilitated the dissemination of important information and ideas to Natives on a continental scale, often in opposition to US colonialism, including religious knowledge and practices like the Ghost Dance.

Networks of Visitation

Natives throughout the West, particularly those living great distances apart, visited continuously, some more than ever before, in part because of the growing networks of intertribal correspondence and the transportation provided by new western railroads. Intertribal visits were made for social, economic, political, and religious reasons. Men and women from different backgrounds shared knowledge (often anticolonial in nature), related experiences, and exchanged aspects of their cultures. But intertribal visiting persisted only because Natives demanded it. Office of Indian Affairs agents tried to limit the movement of men and women across agency boundaries, but visiting was never outright banned. Those who could not or did not care to obtain permission to visit other reservations often traveled anyway, despite the threats of punishment that might result.

Networks of Correspondence

The written language, passed along in letters through the US Postal Service, bridged the gaps among reservations, allowing men and women to communicate efficiently across the vast distances that separated them. With their own words, distant contacts could share news and express their thoughts and beliefs outside of colonial control, accelerating the development of larger intertribal communities. Natives used the US government’s suppressive education to communicate for their own purposes, to limit colonial control, direct their own lives, and expand their cultures. By 1889, nearly 12,000 Lakotas, Santees, Yanktons, Yanktonais, Mandans, Assiniboines, Gros Ventres, Utes, Paiutes, Shoshones, Bannocks, Arapahos, Cheyennes, Kiowas, Comanches, Apaches, Wichitas, Poncas, Pawnees, Otoes, Sac and Foxes, Nez Perces, Blackfeet, Crows, Omahas, Ho-Chunks, and others could read in English or their Native language. Only nine years earlier, fewer than 3,500 had been able to read. Four percent of the individuals from those tribes could read in 1880, but by 1889, the number reached 18 percent.