The spirit of the ghost dance

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By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
During the 1850s, non-native miners invaded the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the western edge of the Great Basin, in search of silver and gold. (Image: Various photographs / Shutterstock)

Sadly, this popular culture account doesn’t tell us anything about how Ghost Dancers made sense of the movement – when and where it was born, how and why it spread so quickly, and what made it so appealing. – even the meanings that the Indians attributed to it. .

To find answers to these questions, you have to start by going to the Walker River Paiute Reservation, in what is now western Nevada. Established by executive order in 1874, the reserve contains part of the ancestral lands of the Paiute, which originally covered parts of present-day California, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon.

This is a transcript of the video series Indigenous peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Païutes of the North

Like so many indigenous communities, the Northern Paiutes, whose small-scale band-based society revolved around hunting, fishing and gathering, endured incredible hardships as a result of colonization.

During the 1850s, for example, non-native miners invaded the Sierra Nevada mountains, the western edge of the Great Basin, in search of silver and gold. Farmers and pastoralists have made their way into the river valleys. They brought with them environmental devastation, disease, war, dislocation and dispossession. While some Paiutes were successful in operating their own farms and ranches, most men and women worked as migrant laborers, farm laborers, or domestic workers.

This was the world in which the man known as Jack Wilson or Wovoka – the Prophet of Ghost Dance – was born in the mid-1850s. Orphaned at the age of 14, he grew up and worked in the ranch of a devout non-Indian Presbyterian family who adopted it, hence the name Jack Wilson.

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Wovoka’s vision

His name may have been Wovoka, which translates to lumberjack, as he enlisted to cut down huge stands of cedar and pine pines in order to fuel the mining industry. And it should be noted that pines pines were a staple of the Paiute diet and closely related to their social and ceremonial life.

On January 1, 1889, a day that saw a solar eclipse, Wovoka reportedly heard a loud noise while chopping wood, and when he went to investigate, inexplicably collapsed. Some suggest that he died and was born again, and that he received a powerful vision.

He was given the knowledge of a dance which, if performed correctly and associated with a righteous life, promised to cleanse the land of the Whites and return it to the Natives – and not just the Paiutes, but all the Natives as well. . The dance therefore provided a path to healing, peace, satisfaction and joy – and a means of reuniting loved ones dead and missing.

The influence of evangelical Christianity and Christian cosmology

Wovoka’s millennial message was clearly influenced by the forms of evangelical Christianity to which he had been exposed throughout his life. Consider these words:

Do not talk to white people about this vision and this dance. Jesus is now on earth. It appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive. I don’t know when they will be here; maybe this fall or spring. When the time comes, there will be no more disease and everyone will be young again.

Wovoka also reminded those who wanted to listen to him that the white men had killed Jesus when, as he said, he “came … to live on earth with the white man.” He didn’t want the same to happen this time. It would be a mistake, however, to define Wovoka’s message as Christian mimicry.

An image of Wovoka, a Paiute shaman.
Wovoka’s message was tinged with the evangelical Christianity to which he had been exposed throughout his life. (Image: National archives and records identifier / Public domain)

Wovoka relied on his exposure to Christian cosmology and Native American prophetic traditions, but he also carried on a tradition within his own community.

The Paiute Round Dance

Indeed, it is generally recognized that Wovoka’s biological father was influenced by a short-lived prophetic movement, also known as Ghost Dance, which took hold in the Grand Bassin during the 1870s.

Both revitalizing movements were grounded in the Paiute Round Dance, and Wovoka’s time-manipulating abilities, along with his claims of invulnerability, could be seen as traditional aspects of power among the Paiute.

The spread of ghost dancing

Ghost dancing spread very rapidly out of the Great Basin and into the northern and southern plains between 1889 and 1890. It found welcoming communities there 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 the word reached the tribal communities, many responded by sending delegations to hear the message from Wovoka himself and then brought it back to their home communities.

But anthropologist James Mooney, who conducted extensive research on the Ghost Dance in the early 1890s, also suggested that Wovoka’s vision was transcribed, that is, written by students trained by Carlisle, then shared across Indian country through US mail. .

Wovoka also corresponded and sent packages to Indians who sought his help. Another reason the Ghost Dance spread so quickly was the railroad. The railways, which caused so much suffering by accelerating the westward migration of settlers and the destruction of bison, now made it easier to spread Wovoka’s message.

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A renewed sense of belonging

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American Indians lived in a world where choices were increasingly limited. And yet, they weren’t content with having to choose between dying, starving, or fighting. They did not accept the idea of ​​no longer being.

The Ghost Dance thus takes the form of a religious movement allowing many indigenous people to take matters into their own hands. This helped them acquire not only a renewed sense of peace, place and harmony, but also a sense of balance and belonging.

Common questions about the ghost spirit dance

Q: Who was Jack Wilson?

Jack Wilson was the Ghost dance Prophet. He was born in the mid-1850s and grew up working on the ranch of a devout non-Indian Presbyterian family who adopted him.

Q: How did the Ghost Dance help the natives?

The Ghost dance took the form of a religious movement allowing many indigenous people to take matters into their own hands. This helped them acquire not only a renewed sense of peace, place and harmony, but also a sense of balance and belonging.

Q: Why was Jack Wilson called Wovoka?

Jack Wilson was probably called Wovoka, which translates to lumberjack, as he enlisted to cut down huge stands of cedar and pine pines in order to fuel the mining industry.

Keep reading
Modern Native Americans: A Story of Survival and Sovereignty
Changing the narrative of Native American history
Manifest Destiny, Indigenous People and the Civil War


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