The premise of the ghost dance religion, or “Messiah craze,” as it was sometimes called, was the belief in an imminent apocalypse — a belief that the end of the world was near and that goodness would be restored and evil destroyed. Apocalyptic beliefs often occur among people who are living in duress, as the Sioux were, or among people who fear they might be. (The reader might consider the fright that often attends the turn of a century.) The best defenses of the Sioux seemed ineffective against the overwhelmingly destructive onslaughts of the whites. They are left with making a grand appeal to divine power and hoping against hope that their present world will come to an end, returning them to their original state of happiness and prosperity.
The appropriation of tribal lands, the relocation of the population to reservations, the eradication of the bison herd, and the shocking decrease in the Indian population (from an estimated 5 million in the sixteenth century to about 210,000 in 1910) substantiates the Sioux’s fear that life as they know it has come to an end. The Dawes Act of 1887 had established reservations and the allotment of land to individual Indians, but the principle of allotment was ignored in many places and the land opened to homesteaders. When the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the frontier closed in 1890, it was announcing the fact that there was no longer any territory in the United States that was not under the control of whites.
Messiah a professed or accepted leader of some hope or cause.