It was New Years Day, 1889. A Paiute man, ill with fever was watching a solar eclipse and praying when, in his own words:
"When the Sun died, I went up to Heaven and saw God and all the people who had died a long time ago. God told me to come back and tell my people they must be good and love one another, and not fight, or steal or lie. He gave me this dance to give to my people."
This dream or vision, and the actions of the man who had it, started one of the most interesting spiritual movements ever, that of the Ghost Dance. The man was Wovoka.
Wovoka was born Western Nevada, in what is now Esmeralda County, in about 1856. Some say his father was a northern Paiute named Tävibo, who around 1870, had prophesied that all whites would be swallowed up by the earth, and all dead Indians would emerge to enjoy a world free of their conquerors. Tävibo 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 his father was a mystic, Wovoka was orphaned at age 14, and went to live with a nearby white rancher, David Wilson. There, Wovoka took the name Jack Wilson and worked on the Wilson ranch until he reached adulthood. He learned to speak English and apparently had a fair amount of contact with Christianity.
Then Wovoka had his dream. After his New Year's Day experience, 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. His prophecies and talks 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. 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." His belief in 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. Wovoka traveled extensively, taking his word to many tribes, and others traveled to him, or sent envoys to hear his message. 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.
According to a monument erected at the Yerington Indian Colony in Nevada, Wovoka was also given the power to control the weather. The inscription on the marker reads: "he was given power by the Great Father to control the natural elements. There were several instances when Wovoka demonstrated his power, one of which occurred at a place called Circle in Smith Valley. Several men pitching hay for a local rancher saw him coming and began yelling and taunting him, "There goes the rain maker. Make it rain." Wovoka made the rain fall only on the spot where the men were haying. He also caused it to rain during droughts. Another demonstration of his power was when he caused ice to float down the river during the summer."
The heyday of the Ghost Dance religion
was short lived, however. The idea of the Indians gathering and dancing and singing for five days frightened the whites, who mistakenly believed that the dances were war-dances. The U.S. Calvary
was instructed to break up and prevent Ghost Dances from taking place. 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 time for Indian rebirth was not at hand. Wovoka quickly lost his appeal as a spiritual leader and lived as Jack Wilson until sometime in 1932. The Ghost Dance
, however, never did die, and remains alive in Indian communities today.
Note: Some info taken from http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/wovoka.htm