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WOVOKA (c. 1856/81932), Paiute religious prophet and messiah of the Ghost Dance of 1890; also called Jack Wilson by white settlers. Although he often referred to himself as Kwohitsauq ("big rumbling belly"), after his paternal grandfather, he was given the name Wovoka (or Wuvoka, "cutter") by his father, Tävibo ("white man"), who was reported to have trained his son in Paiute shamanistic practices. Tävibo had been an active participant in the 1870 Ghost Dance led by the Paiute shaman-prophet Wodziwob. Central tenets of this earlier Ghost Dance were related to the later teachings of Wovoka, which in turn led to the Ghost Dance movement of 1890. Among these earlier revelations was the prediction of the return of the ancestral dead. This imminent return was to be assisted through the practice of a round dance, which would also effect an earthly cataclysm and so result in the removal of white men.

In addition to Paiute shamanic practices and the Ghost Dance of 1870, Wovoka was influenced by his contact with Skokomish Shakers, Mormons, and other Christians. The Puget Sound Shaker religion of the Skokomish leader Squ-sacht-un (called John Slocum by whites) was primarily concerned with healing. It combined native shamanistic and Christian religious practices. These Shakers produced twitching-ecstasies and trances that sometimes lasted for days. Wovoka's later teachings were also similar to Mormon doctrines regarding the rejuvenation of the American Indians, the radical transformations in the earth's terrain, and the return of the Messiah. Moreover, Paul Bailey indicates in his biography of Wovoka (1957) that the famous Plains Ghost Dance shirt bears a resemblance to Mormon holy garments. Finally, after his father died, Wovoka was hired by a white family named Wilson. This position brought him into close contact with Presbyterian Christianity, which involved Bible reading, moral exhortations, and pietistic stories about Jesus.

Around 1888 Wovoka is reported to have undergone his first deathlike trance-journey to heaven. From this point his teachings were derived from conversations with the ghosts of the dead. Wovoka's oral revelations were associated with the ritual performance of the round dance, which promoted moral and spiritual renewal. His teachings were transmitted by means of a syncretic mythology and dramatized through the skillful use of his personal power symbols.

Wovoka's foremost revelations came in a deathlike coma experienced while he was suffering from scarlet fever during the solar eclipse of 1889. During this trance-coma Wovoka related that he saw God on a transformed earth where Indians and game animals abounded. Wovoka's messages increasingly focused on the presence of the Messiah, a role he himself gradually assumed. His mythology centered on the imminent revival of deceased Indians, who would be reunited with their living kin in an earthly paradise. His description of the fate of whites varied. He predicted that they would be either swept away by the cataclysm or amalgamated into the restored humanity. Many of these doctrines, such as the transformed earth, were more fully explicated by Wovoka's disciples, who disseminated the Ghost Dance in the years following 1889.

The later Ghost Dance, similar to that of the Ghost Dance of 1870, was a kind of round dance that lasted for five nights. Men and women, their fingers intertwined, shuffled sideways around a fire, dancing to the songs that Wovoka received from the dead. While the Paiute participants themselves did not go into a trance, Wovoka did occasionally journey in a trance state to the ghosts, who assured him that Jesus was already on the earth with the dead, moving about as in a cloud. Moreover, along with their remonstrations against lying, drinking, and fighting, the dead said that Indians should work for the whites and have no more trouble with them.

Wovoka's personal power-symbols were typical of native shamanic practices. Along with his sombrero he used eagle, magpie, and crow feathers and red ocher paint from the traditional Paiute holy mountain (now called Mount Grant). As with so many visionary symbol systems, their meaning is not fully known, but Wovoka often incorporated these symbols into his teaching so as to foster belief in his messianic role among his followers.

Wovoka went somewhat into hiding when news of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 reached him. He vigorously condemned the misunderstanding of his teachings, especially as reflected in the Lakota armed resistance. He also denied any influence in the development of the Ghost Dance shirts. He later reemerged as the continuing leader of the much diminished Ghost Dance. He readjusted his predictions of imminent earthly transformation, explaining that Indian ritual and ethical behavior had not conformed properly to his visions. Wovoka died on September 20, 1932, in Schurz, Nevada; his death was preceded a month earlier by that of his wife, Mary, his companion for over fifty years.

More is known of Wovoka than of other similar religious figures, but he can be seen as part of a larger revivalistic movement of the period. Various tribal groups, caught in the death throes of their traditional cultures and the inescapable morass of governmental reservation policy, responded to Wovoka's revelations from a variety of motivations that mediated between their present distress and their future hopes. Wovoka's injunctions against warfare, immoral behavior, and some traditional medicine practices enabled many who participated in the Ghost Dance to begin the psychic transitions needed to respond to the changing circumstances of life. Most important in this connection was Wovoka's orientation away from exclusive tribal recognition toward a pan-Indian identity.

See Also

Ghost Dance; North American Indian Religions, article on New Religious Movements.


The most authoritative treatment of Wovoka is still James Mooney's The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (1896; reprint, Chicago, 1965). A biography of limited value because of its popularizing tone is Paul Bailey's Wovoka: The Indian Messiah (Los Angeles, 1957). A good overview of Wovoka can be found in Bryan R. Wilson's Magic and the Millenium (New York, 1973). For an informative account of Wovoka's continuing involvement, by mail, in Ghost Dance activities after 1890, see Grace M. Danberg's edition of Letters to Jack Wilson, the Paiute Prophet, Written between 19081911 (Washington, D.C., 1957).

John A. Grim (1987)

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