A Letter from Wovoka (1890)

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Wovoka (c. 1856–1932) was a Native American mystic and the father of the Ghost Dance Religion. A member of the Paiutes tribe, Wovoka grew up in the company of white settlers in Nevada. The years he spent working on the ranch of David Wilson earned him the nickname "Jack Wilson," which is how he refers to himself in this selection. At some point in 1889—perhaps during an eclipse of the sun—Wovoka had a spiritual experience that led him to create the mystical Ghost Dance religion.

Wovoka believed that the time of reckoning was nigh and that his people would experience a transformation into bliss early in 1891. Emissaries from the Paiutes carried his message west via a series of letters, including the one selected here. Though the ecstatic religion fell out of popularity soon after the transcendence failed to be achieved, Wovoka's letters were collected and reproduced by ethnologist James Mooney.

Leah R.Shafer,
Cornell University

See also Ghost Dance ; Indian Dance ; Indian Religious Life ; Nativist Movements (American Indian Revival Movements) ; Sioux .

When you get home you must make a dance to continue five days. Dance four successive nights, and the last night keep up the dance until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then disperse to their homes. You must all do in the same way.

I, Jack Wilson, love you all, and my heart is full of gladness for the gifts you have brought me. When you get home I shall give you a good cloud [rain?] which will make you feel good. I give you a good spirit and give you all good paint. I want you to come again in three months, some from each tribe there [the Indian Territory].

There will be a good deal of snow this year and some rain. In the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before.

Grandfather [a universal title of reverence among Indians and here meaning the messiah] says, when your friends die you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. This young man has a good father and mother. [Possibly this refers to Casper Edson, the young Arapaho who wrote down this message of Wovoka for the delegation].

Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are all 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.

Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes [at the coming of the new world] do not be afraid. It will not hurt you.

I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words again from me some time. Do not tell lies.

SOURCE: Mooney, James. "A Letter from Wovoka." In The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. 14th Annual Report, Pt. 2. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of American Ethnology, 1896.