Wounded Knee

Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance:



In the aftermath of the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, various cultural items and artifacts were stripped from the bodies of the deceased. A number of these objects ended up at museums in Glasgow, Scotland, where in recent years, claims for repatriation have been made advocating the return of objects to the Native American tribes to which they belong.  One of the most notable cases involved a “Ghost Shirt”, a shirt worn by Ghost Dancers as a vital part of the Native American Ghost Dance Religion. The Ghost Shirt, belonging to the Lakota Sioux tribe, along with other artefacts, arrived in Glasgow during the early 1890s, entering the city with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West traveling show.  Soon thereafter, the Ghost Shirt was passed onto the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where it would remain until it was repatriated to the Lakota in 1998.


The Ghost Dance was an integral act undertaken by those of the Ghost Dance Religion.  The religion itself prophesied that the white man would disappear, along with their unwanted influence.  In addition, dead friends and family members would return.  It was said that they would all live together traditionally with plentiful food source if they were to live peacefully, work hard, remain honest, and perform the Ghost Dance ritual.  The religion was born out of struggle, as the Lakota Nation was at a low point in their existence.  Their cattle were diminished by disease, crops were failing in successive years, and the bison herds were dwindling.  Starvation and epidemics, coupled with the United States government breaking treaties, would result in land being lost as well as a much scarcer food supply. The religion offered an outlet of hope during a time of suffering and devastation. Despite the positivity in the new social movement, not everybody was a fan. More specifically, the American government were not supporters of the Ghost Dance.  They sent in a great number of troops and cavalry in an effort to put a stop to the dancing.  Ghost Dancers who had fled were arrested and taken to Wounded Knee Creek, where the infantry had set up camp.  It was here that the massacre of 300 people would occur, as a result of the Indian resistance towards the American soldiers who were attempting to strip them of their weapons.

ghost shirt

Negotiations for the return of the shirt took place in April 1995 in Scotland.  The case was based upon legal and ethical reasons.  Legally, according to NAGPRA, and therefore under US law, the shirt belonged to the descendants and tribes of the victims. The man who donated the shirt, George Crager, was never actually a rightful owner, and it was said that he had no real right to donate the shirt in the first place. On the ethical side, the Lakota believed that the shirt should be returned as it was the honourable thing to do.  They argued that the item had been stolen from a dead body, that of somebody who was killed as part of the brutal massacre. The claims held true on the part of the Lakota, who believed the shirt was rightfully theirs.

Their persistence for its return would ultimately meet a positive result, much different compared to the initial reaction from Glasgow. In 1998, it was decided that the Ghost Dance Shirt be returned to America. The campaign by members of the Lakota tribe won the support of Glasgow City Council, where it was decided that the shirt be repatriated. Less than a year later, in 1999, the shirt was returned to the descendants of the Wounded Knee massacre victims at a ceremony in South Dakota. The ceremony brought an end to what was a four-year campaign advocating the return of the Ghost Dress back to the United States. For the Lakota Sioux, it was said to have brought a sense of closure. In addition, a strong bond was hatched between Glasgow and the Lakota, both sides now part of historical repatriation, in this case, of a cultural object which held so much significance to the tribe to which it rightfully belonged.


BBC. “Ghost Shirt Dances Back.” BBC News. February 8, 1999. Accessed November 1, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/409876.stm

BBC. “Sioux Set to Reclaim Ghost Shirt.” BBC News. November 30, 1998. Accessed November 1, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/217816.stm

Maddra, Sam. “The Wounded Knee Ghost Dance Shirt.” Journal of Ethnography 8 (1996): 41-58

Images courtesy of BBC and Rampant Scotland.

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An Ongoing Struggle

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