Paiute Prophet

Wovoka (c. 1856 - September 20, 1932), also known as Jack Wilson, was the Northern Paiute religious leader who founded the Ghost Dance movement. Wovoka means "cutter" or "wood cutter" in the Northern Paiute language.

Wovoka was born in Smith Valley area southeast of Carson City, Nevada, around the year 1856. Wovoka's father may have been the religious leader variously known as "Tavibo" or "Numu-Taibo" whose teachings were similar to those of Wovoka. Regardless, Wovoka clearly had some training as a medicine man. Wovoka’s father died around the year 1870, and he was taken in by David Wilson, a rancher in the Yerington, Nevada area, and his wife Abigail. Wovoka worked on Wilson’s ranch and used the name Jack Wilson when dealing with European Americans. David Wilson was a devout Christian, and Wovoka learned Christian theology and Bible stories while living with him.

Wovoka gained a reputation as a powerful medicine man early in adulthood and is now perceived to have been adept at magic tricks. One feat he often performed was being shot with a shotgun, which may have been similar to the bullet catch "trick". Reports of this feat potentially convinced the Lakota that their "ghost shirts" could stop bullets. Wovoka also performed a feat of levitation. One of his chief sources of authority among Paiutes was his alleged ability to control the weather. He was said to have caused a block of ice to fall out of the sky on a summer day, to be able to end drought with rain or snow, to light his pipe with the sun, and to form icicles in his hands.

Wovoka claimed to have had a prophetic vision during the solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. Wovoka's vision entailed the resurrection of the Paiute dead and the removal of whites and their works from North America. Wovoka taught that in order to bring this vision to pass the Native Americans must live righteously and perform a traditional round dance, known as the Ghost dance, in a series of five-day gatherings. Wovoka's teachings spread quickly among many Native American peoples, notably the Lakota. Wovoka's vision brought about the question of his sanity.

The Ghost Dance movement is known for being practiced by the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre; Indian Agents, soldiers, and other federal officials were predisposed towards a cautious, wary, and defensive posture when dealing with a movement that was so mysterious to them. Important to note is that Wovoka’s preachings included messages of non-violence, but that two Miniconjou, Short Bull and Kicking Bear, instead emphasized the possible elimination of whites which contributed to the existing defensive attitude of the federal officials who were already fearful due to the unfamiliar Ghost Dance movement.

Wovoka died in Yerington on September 20, 1932 and is interred in the Paiute Cemetery in the town of Schurz, Nevada.

"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 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?

"I want my people to stay with me here. All the dead men will come to life again. Their spirits will come to their bodies again. We must wait here in the homes of our fathers and be ready to meet them in the bosom of our mother."

Wovoka's Message
The Promise of the Ghost Dance

Indigenous Peoples' Literature Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature

Compiled by: Glenn Welker

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