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The Paiute Messiah promoted peace, but also yearned for a return to tradition.
Photo: David Robert (Wovoka's gravesite in Schurz)
On January 1, 1889, Wovoka looked up and saw the sun disappear from the sky. Total solar eclipses are rare events, and this vanishing sun caused turmoil in the Paiute community near Walker Lake.
Women cried; men shot their guns in the air to frighten away the evil that was swallowing the sun. In the sudden darkness, Wovoka fell asleep and had a vision. God led Wovoka to see a land free of white settlers, where the Paiute people lived on their traditional lands and led their traditional lives of hunting and fishing. Their attempts at farming were abandoned, and the people lived off the abundance of the land.
Then God showed Wovoka a sacred dance, the Ghost Dance, and told him to take this dance back to his people. This dance, he said, would bring about the vision he had seen. The Ghost Dance would remove the white people and return to the Paiute their ancient lands, where they could live in peace.
Wovoka awoke and told his neighbors of his vision. The story spread quickly, beyond Walker Lake in Mason Valley. The Ghost Dance reached tribes all over the west—Paiutes in Oregon, California, and Utah; Shoshones, Utes, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The Lakota people, recently forced onto reservations in the Dakotas, sent representatives to the man who was being called the Paiute Messiah. He gave all the people who came to him the gift of the Ghost Dance, and they took the dance back to their homes. When the Lakota learned the Ghost Dance, they saw it as a way to escape the reservation. The Lakota women wove sacred shirts, which would protect their men from the white man’s bullets.
While there was tension between all tribes and the U.S. Government, the relationship with the Lakota was most troublesome. It was 23 years after the routing of Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn River. The Great Sioux War, also known as the Black Hills War, had ended in 1877, and the Lakota ceded the Black Hills, along with the gold in those hills, to the United States. Some Lakota fled into Canada, but most were forced onto reservations. Tensions remained high, however.
When the Lakota and Sioux people learned the Ghost Dance, their fervency frightened the Americans living nearby and the U.S. Army. They feared the religious intensity and the belief among the Lakota that their sacred shirts would protect them in battle. The army also worried that Sitting Bull, the famous Lakota chief, would lead the Ghost Dancers into battle once again. The Army ordered Sitting Bull to end the Ghost Dance. When the dancing continued, U.S. Tribal Agents attempted to arrest Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890. Sitting Bull was killed in the attempt, along with seven members of his tribe and eight tribal agents.
Fearing that new violence would erupt, U.S. officials ordered tribal agents to collect all guns belonging to a band of Lakota people who had been relocated to the Standing Ridge Agency, on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. On December 28, 1890, less than two years after Wovoka’s vision, U.S. soldiers and tribal agents attempted to disarm the group.
Reports say that one Lakota, a deaf man, either did not understand the order to surrender his gun or refused to do so. A struggle began, and someone fired a shot. The U.S. commander gave the order to open fire, and 153 Lakota men, women, and children were killed. Twenty-five soldiers were killed as well, many by friendly fire. It was a tragedy that brought grief and outrage to Americans and Native Americans alike.
Following the events at Wounded Knee, the Ghost Dance faded. Wovoka continued to live in Mason Valley. He was a peaceful man, who never advocated violence. Wovoka’s vision of the Ghost Dance, which earned him the title of the Paiute Messiah, had spread quickly, and seemed to die quickly.
He sometimes appeared at county fairs and exhibitions, to an audience curious to see him, and worked for a time as an extra in early Hollywood silent films. Wovoka died in Mason Valley on September 20, 1932, and was buried in the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s cemetery in nearby Schurz (see photo at top). In the 1970s, however, a renaissance began among Native Americans, and Wovoka’s legacy was celebrated anew.
Wovoka’s life seemed to encapsulate the transition of the Paiute people. He was born around 1856. His name, Wovoka, translates to “Cutter” in English. His father may have been Tavibo, a spiritual teacher among the Paiute of Mason Valley. Tavibo’s name, which means “White Man” in English, led many people to incorrectly assume that Wovoka was half-white.
Many of Wovoka’s teachings might have come from his father, who taught that a great event, possibly an earthquake, would destroy the whites and their cities. The Paiute could then return to their homes and traditional lives. Tavibo died in 1870, and a local white farmer named David Wilson took in Wovoka. Wovoka was given the name Jack Wilson, by which he was known to local whites.
Wovoka seemed to adjust well to his new home. By all accounts he was industrious and well respected. He learned to farm from his adopted father and learned the story of Christianity as well. His experience with Christianity clearly influenced his later teachings. Wovoka married when he was about 20 and continued to live on the Wilson farm with his wife and children. He had some local fame as a teacher, like his father, but it wasn’t until his vision in 1889, when Wovoka was about 30, that his reputation extended beyond Mason Valley.
Following the tragedy at Wounded Knee, anthropologist James Mooney visited Wovoka. He found Wovoka to be a humble man, still living with his wife and children in Mason Valley. Wovoka related the story of his vision to Mooney, who wrote of it in his book, The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee:
On this occasion, “the sun died” (was eclipsed), and he fell asleep in the daytime and was taken up to the other world. Here he saw God, with all the people who had died long ago engaged in their old-time sports and occupations, all happy and young forever. It was a pleasant land and full of game. After showing him all, God told him he must go back and tell his people they must be good and love one another, have no quarreling, and live in peace with the whites; that they must work, and not lie or steal; that they must put away all the old practices that savored of war; that if they faithfully obeyed his instructions they would at last be reunited with their friends in this other world, where there would be no more death or sickness or old age. He was then given the dance, which he was commanded to bring back to his people.
Wovoka clearly adopted Christian imagery in his vision of his heavenly world. Though he was known as the Paiute Messiah, reports differ on whether Wovoka declared himself to be the Messiah, or a reincarnation of Christ. He is reported to have said many times, “Christ has already returned.” While the Christian teachings apparent in Wovoka’s vision—to be good and love another, to live in peace and not to lie, steal, or practice war—are obvious, the thrust of Wovoka’s message was not to adopt the ways of the whites. Rather he saw a world where the Paiute and other tribes could return to their traditional ways, free of oppression by the whites.
And, though Wovoka was adopted by a farmer and learned to farm, his spirit rebelled at the idea of farming. Tilling the soil was not a spiritual life for his people, who had always lived by hunting and fishing and gathering the wild fruits of the land. Some of his most poignant teachings condemn the agricultural life that was forced on them:
“My young men shall never farm. Men who work the soil cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams. You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stones? Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men, but how dare I cut my mother’s hair.”
Wovoka’s life spanned years of freedom and oppression for the Native American tribes of Nevada and the Western United States. He urged his people to live in peace in their new circumstances, but never abandoned his hope for a return to the old ways. His teachings captured at once the longing for traditional spirituality he learned from his father and his Paiute tribe and the Christian teachings he learned from his adopted father and the white community. He was at home in both worlds and respected in both for his honesty and wisdom. His vision of traditional Paiute life transformed and inspired the Native American tribes of his own time and continues to do so today.