( Jack Wilson; Wanekia )


Northern Paiute Religious Leader

1856 - 1932


Born along the Walker River in Mason Valley, Nevada, Wovoka ("The Cutter") is usually said to be the son of Tavibo, a Paiute spiritual leader.

As a youth, Wovoka learned the spiritual ways of Tovibo and also knew of the prophetic messages of John Slocum and Smohalla.

As a teenager, Wovoka also lived for a while with a white family of devout Christians, the Wilsons, on a ranch in western Nevada. As a result, he became known to them as Jack Wilson.

Wovoka caught a severe fever in late 1888. Delirious during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, Wovoka later stated that he had been transported to the spirit world and had communed with the Great Spirit.

After this visit with the Creator, he believed he was to carry a message that the earth would come to an end but then regenerate itself into a place only for American Indians and the new messiah. This reborn world would be for all Native peoples, dead and alive.

Thus, Wovoka talked of a new existence free from suffering. To gain this new existence, Indians must live in honesty and harmony, purify themselves often, and avoid Euro-American habits, particularly alcohol.

Similarly, he deemphasized the importance of mourning, since he prophesied that the deceased would be reborn soon.

He sought to replace these mourning practices with meditation, prayers, singing, and most importantly, dancing the Ghost Dance, in which men and womans held hands in large circles and danced slowly while singing prescribed songs.

He contended that through the Ghost Dance a follower might die for a few moments and gain a brief vision of the new paradise for Indians - a world of verdant prairie grasses, large buffalo herds, and all of one's relatives.

This powerful spiritual message spread rapidly through the Indian boarding schools and thence to reservation communities, particularly the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Shoshoni, and Lakota.

As a result of his prophesies, his devotees considered him to be the "Red" messiah and called him the "Red Man's Christ."

Many of the Lakota people, seeking solace for their defeats, developed a new militance after a group of eleven of their leaders, including Short Bull and Kicking Bear, traveled to see Wovoka in Nevada during the winter of 1889-1890.

Interpreting Wovoka's words to suit their agenda, these leaders chose to heighten his message about the eventual elimination of whites from the Americas.

Special Ghost Dance shirts could stop bullets, according to some interpretations.

The Ghost Dance and Wovoka's message caused white authorities to become nervous.

The military decided to intervene and forcibly stop the dances.

This resulted in the death of Sitting Bull and the slaughter of Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee in December 1890.

Wovoka, appalled by the violence, counseled peace with the white population.

Subsequently, the Ghost Dance religion subsided, but some groups, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho, have kept some aspects of the rituals in other tribal ceremonies.

Wovoka and his wife, Mary, had three daughters and a son.

He died in 1932 near Schurz, Nevada, on the Walker River Reservation.