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Ghost Dance shirt decorated with morning stars, a crescent shape and a thunderbird | Donald Ellis Gallery

Ghost Dance Cape

Apache / Comanche / Arapaho
Southern Plains

ca. 1860-80

hide, paint

width: 36"

Inventory # CP4311-152



Charles Derby collection, Northhampton, MA
Donald Ellis Gallery, 2001


"Eye of the Angel: Selections from the Derby Collection", White Star Press, 1990
Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2001, pg. 11

The convention of establishing fixed cultural attributions in the field of historical Native American art is complicated by the persistent cultural exchange and displacement of human populations in the rapidly changing world of the 19th century. The cut and construction of this garment suggest a Southern Plains origin, perhaps Apache or Comanche. The cape bears a striking resemblance to a woman's upper garment collected by Jean Louis Berlandier from the Comanche in 1828 (see: Ewers, John C. The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture, 1969, pl. 20, figs. 36,37). The painted imagery, however, can be attributed to the Arapaho, and is closely associated with the Ghost Dance (see: Conn, Richard. Circles of the world: Traditional art of the Plains Indians, Denver Art Museum, 1982, pg. 116).

The Ghost Dance movement emerged in direct response to Euro-American westward expansion into the Plains, following a vision of the revered Paiute leader Wodziwob in 1869. A distinctly modern interpretation of the Lakota idea of the renewed Earth, its followers believed that the spirits of the deceased could be invoked to return and wash all evil away from their land. From the 1890’s, the Ghost Dance became a flourishing messianic movement in the Western United States with the Paiute preacher Wovoka. At a time of sweeping epidemics, intercultural wars, forced relocation and acculturation programs, Wovoka’s ideas of universal love and an end of Euro-American expansion spread widely, and ultimately contributed to cross-cultural collaboration between Native nations.

Men’s shirts, as well as women’s dresses, developed from the Ghost Dance typically depict Maltese crosses, five-pointed stars and crescent moons, as well as crows and/or magpies, believed to be messengers of the spirit world. This remarkable cape undoubtedly predates the Ghost Dance movement by at least two decades. We know the Apache did not participate in the movement, and the Comanche only on a small scale (Mooney 1991, pgs. 926-27). Was the garment made by an Arapaho or Comanche woman in the mid 19th century and subsequently painted by an Arapaho artist decades later? Is this a prototype of Ghost Dance iconography to follow? We may never know. What is certain is that this hauntingly beautiful cape contains within it stories of cultural exchange and relocation, and of the sweeping and irreversible changes to life on the Great Plains in the 19th century.

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