Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)

Degree Level





Elliott West

Committee Member

Patrick G. Williams

Second Committee Member

Patrick G. Williams


Philosophy, religion and theology, Social sciences, American indian history, American religious history, Communication, Ghost dance, Native american history, Pan-indian


During the 1880s, western Native Americans created networks of communication threaded together through postal correspondence and intertribal visitation among reservations. Through this network native groups cultivated intertribal relationships and exchanged ideas despite attempts by the United States government to separate, contain, and Americanize them. Frequent visits to other reservations, often over long distances, gave men and women a chance to share news and information, exchange religious and cultural traditions, and forge new intertribal bonds. Many Indians also used letter-writing to communicate with the world outside of their reserves in ways unanticipated by government policy makers. Thousands of Native Americans learned to read and write during the 1880s and then used this literacy, meant as a tool of assimilation, to strengthen their own cultures, preserve a measure of sovereignty, and express their thoughts outside of white control.

In 1889 and 1890 these intertribal connections facilitated the spread of the ghost dance, a Native American religious movement, among dozens of tribes scattered across 800,000 square miles. Visitations and correspondence brought news of the dance out of the Great Basin, through the Rocky Mountains, and into northern and southern plains reservations. Tribes sent investigators, often on railroads, to determine the truth, and some proponents of the movement wrote or traveled to spread the news. Others wrote simply to inform their friends or relatives of what they knew about it all. Government officials tried to slow the dissemination of the movement by tightening visitation, arresting those traveling without permission, and eventually by censoring the mail, but communications and the spread of the movement continued. Following the massacre of Lakotas at Wounded Knee, communication among tribes continued, partly as a continuing effort to assess the ghost dance and partly to evaluate Indians’ place in the new arrangement of power.

By examining in detail these emerging systems of communication and exchange, this dissertation reveals the beginnings of a Pan-Indian sense of common concerns as well as the shrewd use of both government programs, notably education, and the mechanisms of modernization, notably the railroads and postal system, to protect and preserve basic elements of traditional life.