Myth & Lore

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Ghost Dance
By CinnamonMoon

Hope Springs Eternal-Ghost Dance 1987 © Howard Terpning


From: The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions by Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin

A religious movement that originated among the Northern Paiute of the Walker River Reservation in Navada and was founded by the prophet Wodziwob. In the late 1860's he made a number of prophecies, including the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of the conditions that existed before Europeans arrived in the region. The movement arose among the Paiute people at a time of great suffering and deprivation. Besides losing their traditional landbase and means of subsistence, other calamities had occurred, including a drought, starvation and epidemics.

Elements identified with the Ghost Dance included curing and increase rites, practice of traditional Paiute Round Dance as a vehicle for the movement and an attempt to introduce the Cry Dance, a mourning ceremony to the Walker River people. The religious movement spread to California tribes and to the Great Basin, where local variations occurred. On the Klamath Reservation in Oregon, it developed into the Earth Lodge Religion and later the Dream Dance.

The Big Head Religion and the Bole-Maru Religion were also offshoots of the Ghost Dance. It's abrupt end after two or three years on the Walker River Reservation among its originators has been attributed to disillusionment over unfulfilled prophecies. Some of the other groups who adopted it continued to perform it. Adherents to the Ghost Dance included Joijoi, Norelputus and Frank Spencer.

A messianic religious movement that began among the Paiute people in Nevada in the late 1880's and quickly spread to other tribal groups. it was originated by Wovoka, a Paiute prophet, who was influenced by earlier visionaries among his people. At the end of 1889, an eclipse of the sun occurred. During that period Wovoka had a visionary religious experience. He was taken to the spirit world where he was given sacred teachings.

Wovoka returned with a message of hope and peace for Indian people. He told them that the earth would be renewed, the Indian dead would return to life and misery and death would end if they followed the revelations he had received. Wovoka told the people to be good to one and other, to be at peace with the whites, to be industrious and not to engage in lying, stealing and other wrongdoing.

He also told them to perform a dance for five days at a time in order to bring about the changes. As Wovoka's prophecies spread, distant tribes sent emmissaries to find out about the rumored messiah and his teachings, including, in 1889, a delegation of Plains tribal leaders such as Kicking Bear, Porcupine, Short Bull and Sitting Bull (Arapaho).

The Ghost Dance eventually numbered followers among other Great Basin groups, and its practice extended from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains and beyond, representing a religious means of enduring the conditions under which native people suffered during that period. Local variations in the movement developed as tribes incorporated it into their own religious traditions, leaders added new interpretations and practitioners learned new songs and teachings during performances of the sacred dance. Some adherents believed that whites would disappear from the country while others believed that they would remain.

The dance itself was a circle dance, but performances of the dance varied. some incorporated a center pole or tree in the dance area, sweat lodge purification, preliminary dances, dances of varied duration and other elements. "Ghost shirts," believed to be bullet-proof, were adopted by the Lakota, Arapaho and other groups and were worn during dance performances. Many dancers also experienced trances during which they visited departed friends and relatives and learned sacred knowledge.

Translations of some of the tribal names of the religion include "dance in a circle" (Paiute), "dance with clasped hands" (Kiowa) and "with joined hands" (Comanche). It was also referred to as a spirit or ghost dance in many native languages because of its association with the return of the Indian Dead.

Sacred Ghost Dance songs proliferated, many of them referring to the restoration of the buffalo and other game as well as to departed friends and relatives.

The Ghost Dance met with particular repression and the government's opposition to the Ghost Dance was a continuation of its earlier suppression of other traditional religious practices. As the movement gained more and more followers, fear and hysteria escalated among the whites. Military intervention was used in the Dakotas--its tragic outcome was the massacre of Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.

Although the Ghost Dance is believed to have ended then, there is evidence that some tribal groups were able to continue it for a longer period of time. Among the Kiowas, Afraid-of-Bears developed an interpretation of the ghost Dance that he called the Feather Dance. Other Ghost Dance leaders included Black Coyote and Fred Robinson.

WOVOKA Wagud, "Wood-cutter" (c. 1856-1932) Paiute.
The prophet who founded the Ghost Dance of 1890. Born about 1856 near Walker Lake in present-day Esmeralda County, Nevada, he was the son of TaviBo (also Numu-tibo'o), a visionary and leader.

Known as Wovoka or Wuvoka from his youth, he later took the name of his paternal grandfather, Kowhitsaug ("big rumbling belly").

Wovoka was eventually influenced by a neighboring white farmer, David Wilson, and Wilson's family, who gave him the name Jack Wilson. Wovoka later worked on the family's farm and, when he was in his 20's, married Tumma, who became known as Mary Wilson.

Wovoka's great revelation occurred on January 1, 1889, during an eclipse of the sun. He first heard a 'great noise' then lost consciousness. When he revived, he announced that he had been taken to the other world where he had seen the Creator and people who had died. Wovoka was given a number of powers there, including five songs for weather control, invulnerability to weapons, political responsibility and prophecies. The Creator instructed Wovoka to return to his people and to instruct them to live in peace without warfare, lying or stealing. they were to work and live in peace with the whites. If they obeyed these instructions, they would be reunited with family and friends in the other world, where there would be no sickness, old age or death.

Wovoka taught a sacred dance, known to the Northern Paiute as nanigukwa, "dance in a circle," which was to be performed at intervals for five consecutive days. Out of Wovoka's experience of death and rebirth, the religious practices of his family and tribe, and his exposure to the Presbyterian beliefs of the Wilsons, evolved the Ghost Dance religion, which quickly spread to other tribal groups. Emissaries representing over 30 tribes traveled great distances to visit him and to learn more of his teachings, often returning home filled with messages of hope for their people.

Some of the visitors from the Plains included Kicking Bear, Porcupine, Short Bull, Sitting Bull (Arapaho) and Wooden Lance. As the religious movement spread, it took on features unique to individual tribal groups. The Ghost Dance was opposed by government agents and missionaries, and efforts to suppress the movement ended in tragedy among the Lakota.

Federal troops opened fire on Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, killing men, women and children. In the aftermath of the events on the Northern Plains, Wovoka continued to receive correspondence from Ghost Dance adherents. Assisted by Ed Dyer, a store owner who served as his secretary, the Paiute prophet mailed sacred red ocher, eagle or magpie feathers, Stetson hats and other clothing he had worn to those who made requests and sent money. He also traveled to distant reservations, served as a shaman and healer, sought land on the Walker River Reservation in Nevada and continued to believe in his political and spiritual powers.

Wovoka spent the last 15 years of his life at the Yerington Indian Colony in Nevada. Before he died he prophesied that an earthquake would occur if he reached the other world again. Wovoka died at his home on September 29, 1932.

Other names for the prophet included Wevokar, Wopokahte, Cowejo, Koit-tsow, Quoitze Ow, Jackson Wilson and Jack Wilson. He was also referred to as Tamme Naa'a, "Our Father," and the Messiah.

***Note, I did a search and found these images for the Ghost Dance so felt they would be an additional help for some of you looking to see the costumes, movements, etc. that were employed in this practice. Here's a link for that site:


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