By combining their strength, the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians were able to crush General George Custer’s elite 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn in 1876. That victory was to prove as ill-fated to the Indian cultures as to Custer and his men.
The United States government threw its might into destroying the Indians. Buffalo hunters slaughtered the bison, nearly exterminating the species. The Indians were hunted and harried and, by 1881, the last Plains Indians had been driven onto the harsh, unproductive lands set aside as reservations. There, pestilence and privation decimated their numbers and the Indian culture wane.
As a result, the Ghost Dance religion swept the Great Plains like wildfire. The Indians’ culture had been destroyed by the white man and the Indians were ready to grasp at any straw that would promise a return to the old ways. By 1890, most tribes were practicing the religion, which prophesied that all the buffalo would reappear, the white man would vanish and all the Indian dead would come back to life.
It was said that the Ghost Dance shirts and dresses would protect the wearer from white man’s bullets but at the Wounded Knee massacre, the Indians discovered that the garments gave no protection. After that tragedy, they last hope was destroyed and they lost heart.