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Sacagawea
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Wovoka
Young, Brigham

Photo of WovokaWovoka

Jack Wilson
(c.1856-1932)

Known as the messiah to his followers, Wovoka was the Paiute mystic whose religious pronouncements spread the Ghost Dance among many tribes across the American West. Wovoka was born in Western Nevada, in what is now Esmeralda County, in about 1856. Little is known about his early life, but at about age fourteen his father died, leaving Wovoka to be raised by the family of David Wilson, a nearby white rancher. Wovoka soon took the name Jack Wilson, by which he was broadly known among both neighboring whites and Indians, and worked on Wilson's ranch well into adulthood. He learned to speak English and apparently had a fair amount of contact with Christianity.

At around age thirty, Wovoka began to weave together various cultural strains into the Ghost Dance religion. He had a rich tradition of religious mysticism upon which to draw. Around 1870, a northern Paiute named Tävibo had prophesied that while all whites would be swallowed up by the earth, all dead Indians would emerge to enjoy a world free of their conquerors. He urged his followers to dance in circles, already a tradition in the Great Basin area, while singing religious songs. Tävibo's movement spread to parts of Nevada, California and Oregon.

Whether or not Tävibo was Wovoka's father, as many at the time assumed, in the late 1880's Wovoka began to make similar prophecies. His pronouncements heralded the dawning of a new age, in which whites would vanish, leaving Indians to live in a land of material abundance, spiritual renewal and immortal life. Like many millenarian visions, Wovoka's prophecies stressed the link between righteous behavior and imminent salvation. Salvation was not to be passively awaited but welcomed by a regime of ritual dancing and upright moral conduct. Despite the later association of the Ghost Dance with the Wounded Knee Massacre and unrest on the Lakota reservations, Wovoka charged his followers to "not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always... Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them."

While the Ghost Dance is sometimes seen today as an expression of Indian militancy and the desire to preserve traditional ways, Wovoka's pronouncements ironically bore the heavy mark of popular Christianity. His invocation of a "Supreme Being," immortality, pacifism and explicit mentions of Jesus (often referred to with such phrases as "the messiah who came once to live on earth with the white man but was killed by them") all speak of an infusion of Christian beliefs into Paiute mysticism.

The Ghost Dance spread throughout much of the West, especially among the more recently defeated Indians of the Great Plains. Local bands would adopt the core of the message to their own circumstances, writing their their own songs and dancing their own dances. In 1889 the Lakota sent a delegation to visit Wovoka. This group brought the Ghost Dance back to their reservations, where believers made sacred shirts -- said to be bullet-proof -- especially for the Dance.

The slaughter of Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890 was cruel proof that whites were not about to simply vanish, that the millennium was not at hand. Wovoka quickly lost his notoriety and lived as Jack Wilson until sometime in 1932. He left the Ghost Dance as evidence of a growing pan-Indian identity which drew upon elements of both white and Indian traditions.


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