American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Wovoka

Numu (northern Paiute) seer, holy man, and prophet of the 1890 Ghost Dance movement. After experiencing a vision, Wovoka (Jack Wilson, ca. 1858–1932) began preaching to the local Numu on the Walker River Reservation. Word of his teachings spread rapidly to reservations as far east as Oklahoma, and the Ghost Dance of 1890 became one of the most widespread and famous pan-Indian religious movements of the nineteenth century.

Wovoka (the [wood] cutter) was born sometime between 1856 and 1863 in either the Smith or Mason Valleys of western Nevada. His father was named Numutibo'o ("Northern Paiute White Man"), and Wovoka had at least two younger brothers. As a child of about eight, he began working on the Mason Valley ranch of David and Abigail Wilson. There he acquired the name by which he was more commonly known by local whites and Indians alike: Jack Wilson. The Wilsons were devout United Presbyterians, and it is reasonable to suspect that this early exposure to Christianity influenced the development of the Ghost Dance doctrine. Wovoka and his wife Mary (who by various accounts was Numu or Bannock) had a number of children but only three daughters survived to adulthood.

Wovoka grew up in a spiritual tradition based in shamanism and prophecy. Two decades before his vision, a previous version of the Ghost Dance had emerged from Walker River. James Mooney, the first to study the religion, believed that Wovoka's father was the 1870 Ghost Dance prophet, but subsequent scholarship has determined that the prophet was a Fish Lake Valley Paiute named Wodziwob. Wovoka's father may have had some involvement with the earlier Ghost Dance but the details remain obscure. Wovoka demonstrated his power to followers in ways common for Numu shamans—weather control and invulnerability. Although he was not practicing as a shaman when he experienced his visions, he later became a noted healer.

Wovoka experienced his first vision on New Year's Day 1889. He reported traveling to heaven and meeting God. He was instructed to return to Earth and tell the people to lead good and loving lives and to follow a ritual that, if faithfully observed, would reunite them with their deceased loved ones and friends in a world without "death or sickness or old age." The basic ceremony in 1890 was identical to that of 1870—the Great Basin Round Dance. Within the circle, men, women, and children alternated sexes, interlocked fingers, and shuffled slowly to the left, all the while singing the numerous songs revealed to individual dancers in visions. The first dances probably took place early in 1889, and by the time of the second dances later that spring Indians from across the Great Basin were already in attendance.

Wovoka's doctrine was similar to the 1870 movement but exhibited some very important differences. The only written version of Wovoka's doctrine recorded by a Native person was the Messiah Letter, written by the Caspar Edson (Arapaho) in August 1891. On one level the intent of the 1890 Ghost Dance was to bring a radical transformation of the existing order—a renewal of the earth and reunification of all people—but on another its effect was redemptive. Wovoka preached a gospel of peace, love, and accommodation that, by eliminating many of the causes of internal discord, served to strengthen Indian communities. Wovoka's message was flexible and allowed room for individual and cultural interpretation. He told his followers to live at peace with the whites: "Do not fight. Do always right." On the other hand his words could also be interpreted to suggest that whites would not survive the coming cataclysm. His doctrine also exhibited far greater Christian influence than the earlier movement. Wovoka reportedly claimed he was Jesus and allegedly showed the stigmata of crucifixion to a number of Native seekers, including the Cheyenne holy man Porcupine.

The massacre of Lakota Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee in December of 1890 did not end the practice of the religion, as is popularly believed. Wovoka continued to be a renowned healer and spiritual leader into the twentieth century. Individual Indians and delegations corresponded with and visited him until his death in September 1932. He was buried beside his wife Mary in the Walker River Reservation cemetery.

Gregory E. Smoak


Further Reading
Hittman, Michael. Wovoka and the Ghost Dance, expanded ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.; Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Reprint ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
 

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