By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The Ghost Dance, a movement that has a lot of currency in popular culture because of its association with the Wounded Knee Massacre. Unfortunately, that’s often all people know about the Ghost Dance. And it gets reduced to playing a small role in what is perceived as the last gasp of resistance before the final vanishing act of the Indians, the closing of the frontier, even the supposed end of Indian history.
Unfortunately, this popular culture narrative doesn’t tell us anything about how Ghost Dancers made sense of the movement—when and where it originated, how and why it spread so quickly, and what made it so appealing—even what meanings Indians assigned to it.
To find answers to these questions, one needs to begin by going out to the Walker River Paiute Reservation, in present-day western Nevada. Established by executive order in 1874, the reservation contains part of the ancestral lands of the Paiute, which originally spanned parts of present-day California, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Northern Paiutes
Like so many indigenous communities, the Northern Paiutes, whose small-scale band-oriented society revolved around hunting, fishing, and gathering, endured incredible hardship as a result of colonization.
During the 1850s, for instance, non-Native miners flooded into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the western boundary of the Great Basin, in search of silver and gold. Farmers and ranchers made their way into the river valleys. They brought with them environmental devastation, disease, war, dislocation, and dispossession. While some Paiutes managed to operate their own farms and ranches, most men and women worked as migrant laborers, farm hands, or domestic servants.
This was the world into which the man known as Jack Wilson or Wovoka— the Ghost Dance Prophet—was born during the mid-1850s. Orphaned at the age of 14, he grew up and worked on the ranch of a devout Presbyterian non-Indian family that adopted him—hence the name Jack Wilson.
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He may have been called Wovoka, which translates as woodcutter because he hired himself out to cut down huge stands of cedar and piñon pines to fuel the mining industry. And it’s worth noting that piñon pines were a staple of the Paiute diet and intricately woven into their social and ceremonial lives.
On January 1, 1889, a day that saw an eclipse of the sun, Wovoka reportedly heard a great sound while chopping wood, and when he went to investigate—inexplicably collapsed. Some suggest he died and was reborn, and he received a powerful vision.
He was given knowledge of a dance—one that, if performed properly and coupled with righteous living, promised to cleanse the earth of whites and restore it to Native people—and not just the Paiute, but also all Native people. The dance, therefore, provided a pathway to healing, peace, satisfaction, and joy—and a means of reuniting with loved ones dead and gone.
The Influence of Evangelical Christianity and Christian Cosmology
Wovoka’s millenarian message was clearly inflected with the forms of evangelical Christianity that he had been exposed to throughout his life. Consider these words:
Do not tell the white people about this vision and dance. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.
Wovoka also reminded those who would listen to him that white men had killed Jesus when, as he put it, he “came…to live on earth with the white man.” He didn’t want the same thing to happen this time. It would, however, be a mistake to define Wovoka’s message as Christian mimicry.
Wovoka was drawing upon his exposure to Christian cosmology and American Indian prophetic traditions, but he was also continuing a tradition within his own community.
The Paiute Round Dance
Indeed, it’s generally acknowledged that Wovoka’s biological father was influenced by a short-lived prophetic movement—also called the Ghost Dance—that came to the fore in the Great Basin during the 1870s.
Both revitalization movements were predicated on the Paiute Round Dance, and Wovoka’s abilities to manipulate the weather, as well as his claims to invulnerability, might be considered traditional aspects of power among the Paiute.
The Spread of the Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance spread very quickly out of the Great Basin and into the Northern and Southern Plains between 1889 and 1890. There it found welcoming communities among the Shoshone, Bannock, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Caddo, and Lakota.
So, how exactly did it spread? One of the ways was word of mouth. Once word reached tribal communities, many responded by sending delegations to hear the message from Wovoka himself, then carried it back to their home communities.
But the anthropologist James Mooney, who conducted extensive research on the Ghost Dance during the early 1890s, also suggested that Wovoka’s vision was transcribed, that is, written down by Carlisle-trained students—and then shared across Indian Country by way of the U.S. mail.
Wovoka also corresponded with and sent packages to Indian people seeking his help. Another reason the Ghost Dance spread so quickly was the railroad. Railroads, which brought so much suffering by accelerating the westward migration of settlers and the destruction of the bison, now facilitated the spread of Wovoka’s message.
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A Renewed Sense of Belonging
By the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, American Indians lived in a world of increasingly limited choices. And yet, they weren’t content with having to choose between dying, starving, or fighting. They didn’t accept the idea of being no more.
The Ghost Dance, thus, took the form of a religious movement enabling many Native people to take matters into their own hands. It helped them gain not only a renewed sense of peace, place, and harmony, but also a sense of balance and belonging.
Common Questions about the Spirit of the Ghost Dance
Jack Wilson was the Ghost Dance Prophet. He was born in the mid-1850s and grew up working on the ranch of a devout Presbyterian non-Indian family that adopted him.
The Ghost Dance took the form of a religious movement enabling many Natives to take matters into their own hands. It helped them gain not only a renewed sense of peace, place, and harmony, but also a sense of balance and belonging.
Jack Wilson was probably called Wovoka, which translates as woodcutter, because he hired himself out to cut down huge stands of cedar and piñon pines to fuel the mining industry.