Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


A Resolution on "the Indian Question"

The Vision of Wovoka

By the year 1889, Sioux Indians living in North and South Dakota had reason for discontent. The size of their reservations at Pine Ridge and Rosebud had been reduced. They had been forced by the U.S. Government to adapt from a nomadic to an agricultural lifestyle, and in 1889 their crops had failed. The Government had been slow in supplying needed money and rations. Above all, the U.S. Army had intruded further on their lands. Given all these pressures, it is no wonder that members of the tribe who had been exposed to the Ghost Dance religion were eager to bring its message of inspiration and promise to their downtrodden people.

That same year, Wovoka, a Paiute sheepherder and prophet well known to the Indians of the region, had a vision in which he went to heaven and returned to earth as the Messiah. According to Wovoka, the earth would rise and push white men from it, restoring the prairies and buffalo herds the Indians had once known. All Indians would be reunited, and the life the Indians had known before the white man arrived would be restored. To achieve this earthly paradise, God required Indians to abandon war, a difficult requirement for some warlike tribes, and to live lives of industry and honesty. The price for a reunited Indian nation was peacefulness and virtue.

The celebration of the Ghost Dance was the central ritual of Wovoka’s religion. Lasting for many hours, the dance promised its participants a temporary "death" that brought them to heaven to be reunited with other Indians and their lost tribal practices. Other tribes that adopted the new religion absorbed the Ghost Dance into their own mythologies.

The Sioux and the Ghost Dance

The Sioux, led by Sitting Bull, used the Ghost Dance to vent their hatred against the white man. Although they accepted Wovoka’s vision of paradise, they rejected his passive means of finding it. They believed that the dancers would be immune to bullets and that the forces of the white man could not prevail against them. Wovoka’s peaceful religion, as interpreted by Sitting Bull and his followers, became militant.

The death of Sitting Bull and the incident at Wounded Knee on the Sioux Reservations in December 1890 were consequences of the inevitable clash between the Ghost Dance followers and the U.S. Army. Excerpts from the Sixtieth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of Interior, 1891, reflect the position of the Government at the time. From the Standing Rock Agent: "[Sioux] cling tenaciously to the old Indian ways and are slow to accept the better order of things." From a listing in the report of the causes of the Sioux troubles: "A feeling of unrest and apprehension in the mind of the Indians has naturally grown out of the rapid advance of civilization."

Click the image to view a larger version

The letter reproduced here is found in File 39135, Box 2, Special Case 188, "Ghost Dance," in Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75.

Suggestions for Teaching

Student Activity

1. Carefully read the letter. Record the information in the document, such as the date, author, addressee, and any other elements you think important.

2. Examine the letterhead closely. What clues does it give you about the nature of The Universal Peace Union?

3. Why do you think the letter was addressed to the Secretary of the Interior?

4. What problem does the letter consider?

5. What solution to this problem is proposed?

6. What irony exists in the proposed solution? Consider the use of phrases such as "Indian question," "true civilization," and "if thine enemy hunger, feed him."

7. Why do you think this letter was written?

8. Compare and contrast the letter with the excerpts from the Commissioner’s Report. What conflicts of values existed among whites toward the Indians?

Note: The Universal Peace Union separated from the American Peace Party in 1866. The Peace Union claimed a membership of 10,000. Its chief concerns included international disarmament, an end to imperialism, arbitration of labor disputes, and the "unity of the races." It was an active Washington lobbying group.

For Further Research

1. Investigate other incidents related to the clash of white and Indian cultures. What basic values were in conflict?

2. Investigate the status of several other American ethnic groups in the 1880s and 1890s. Rewrite The Universal Peace Union letter to reflect the status of one of those groups.


Download Options

Title: Teaching With Documents, Volume 1

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Teaching With Documents, Volume 1

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "A Resolution on the Indian Question," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 66–68. Original Sources, accessed December 9, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YTWD5DY4HQLI8A8.

MLA: . "A Resolution on "the Indian Question"." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 66–68. Original Sources. 9 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YTWD5DY4HQLI8A8.

Harvard: , 'A Resolution on "the Indian Question"' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.66–68. Original Sources, retrieved 9 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YTWD5DY4HQLI8A8.