Wovoka and the Native American Ghost Dance
By Cixx Admin Date Posted.. 2011-10-26 02:39:58
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By Ethan Thomas Dunn

After years of brutal oppression at the hands of the white men, the Native Americans were looking for hope and for a savior. That savior seemed to come in the form of a fellow Native American, a Paiute by the name of Jack Wilson.

Wilson was named after a rancher for whom he worked.(1)  He went by the Indian name Wovoka and he created what would become known as the Ghost Dance religion. The Ghost Dance brought temporary hope to the downtrodden Indians, but eventually failed to produce the outcome which it promised.

The Native American people were being kicked off of their lands, being forced onto reservations, and having their beliefs and traditions trampled upon by the white people. Native Americans relied heavily on the buffalo, and the buffalo were being heedlessly wiped out by the white Americans. Many of the Indians were being slaughtered as well. The Whites tried to negotiate with the Indians to entice them to move onto remote and desolate reservations and promised money, many years’ worth of supplies, and the promise that the land would be theirs forever. Many Indians agreed and went somewhat willingly to the reservations. Many however, were not so willing. They did not want to give up their way of life and they did not, perhaps with good reason, trust the Whites. Being outnumbered and outgunned, the Native Americans had no real chance of standing up against the Whites, and were on the verge of destruction.

This was a time when the Indians were unquestionably exceedingly downtrodden. They needed hope; and a glimmer of hope was brought by the Paiute Indian Wovoka (also known as Jack Wilson). He was born in 1856 and died in 1932.(2)  In 1888 Wovoka claimed to have had a vision in which the white men all disappeared and God, or the spirits of deceased Indian ancestors, instructed him to teach the Indians a new dance. The dance was supposed to bring about the restoration of the Indians old way of life. This would include a return of the millions of buffalo which had been slaughtered by the white men, as well as a return of their dead Indian ancestors. Wovoka also predicted that a natural cataclysmic event would wipe out all the white people allowing the Native Americans to be restored to their rightful dominant position on the continent.(3) Wovoka’s dream brought new hope to the beleaguered Native Americans. The dance and its accompanying religious doctrine gained widespread acceptance among the Paiutes and neighboring tribes and became known as the Ghost Dance.

Although Wovoka was a Paiute Indian from an obscure part of the country in the state of Nevada, the Ghost Dance religion took hold and began to spread quickly throughout other tribes across the country. In his book Indians of the Southern Plains, William K. Powers notes that “the Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Caddo, Pawnee, Wichita, Kiowa, Kiowa Apache, as well as all the Siouan speakers, took up the new doctrine” of the Ghost Dance.(4) The rapid spread of the Ghost Dance religion was due to a number of factors. Principal among these was the fact that most of the Indians were suffering immense hardships on the reservations and had little in the way of food and material possessions and even less in the way of hope. Native Americans tended to be a very religious people and they believed in visions and the possibility of visitations from dead ancestors. As Wovoka shared his visions and taught the doctrines of the Ghost Dance something about it rang true with them. The Native people began to look to Wovoka as something of an Indian Messiah.

The following poem written about Wovoka and his Ghost Dance Religion captures the essence of the hope of the Ghost Dance:

“Wovoka, who realized the Ghost Dance, a ritual to restore the world. The vision swept over the plains from here to Dakota. A belief that if the Indians danced long and hard enough the dead would live and the old ways return.”(5)

In the Ghost Dance ritual, participants would dance for many hours. Some would dance even until they fainted or fell into a trance where they would experience their own remarkable visions. As they came out of their trances they would often sing songs to describe their religious visions and experiences. An example of one of the songs sung by the Arapaho tribe is as follows:

“Father, have pity on me,

Father, have pity on me;

I am crying for thirst,

I am crying for thirst;

All is gone-I have nothing to eat,

All is gone-I have nothing to eat.”(6)

From the words of this song we can see that the Ghost Dance was often a cry to their God for help to gain reprieve from the injustices suffered at the hand of the white men. Often those participating in the Ghost Dance wore special shirts called Ghost Shirts. They believed that the Ghost Shirts held special powers that could protect them from bullets and other injuries. These shirts were often colorful and carried symbols for protection.(7)

As the Ghost Dance began to spread through the Indian nations some government officials viewed the Ghost Dance religion as a potential threat, fearing that it might result in organized rebellion. In fact, Sitting Bull, an important leader of the Sioux resistance, was ordered to be placed under arrest by the military because of his affiliation with the Ghost Dance movement which had recently spread to the Standing Rock reservation where he lived. Unfortunately as the military police came to arrest him at his cabin in December of 1890, a fight ensued resulting in the death of a number of Sioux Indians including Sitting Bull.(8)

Following the death of Sitting Bull more Sioux Indians joined the Ghost Dance movement under the new leadership of Big Foot, a Sioux Leader. The U.S. Government wanted to arrest Big Foot, fearing that he might cause additional problems. So Big Foot took his followers and fled. With the army in pursuit Big Foot and his group camped along the Wounded Knee Creek. It was here that the famous massacre of Wounded Knee took place, where by some counts, 200 Indian women and children and 90 Sioux Indian warriors were slaughtered. Among the dead was Big Foot.(9) The massacre at Wounded Knee was viewed by many in the military as an important victory and something of a revenge for Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn. Unfortunately for the Sioux and many of their sympathetic Indian brethren, the massacre at Wounded Knee took much of the life out of the Ghost Dance movement, resigning the surviving Native Americans to a life of oppression on reservations.

These violent events marked the beginning of the decline of the Ghost Dance religion. While some of the older Indians still clung to the ideas and philosophies of the Ghost Dance, many in the younger generation of Indians began to embrace a new religion which had Christian roots but little resemblance to traditional Christianity. This new religion which was eventually “adopted by over half of the Indians in the United States was called Peyotism.”(10)

For all of its hope and promise the Ghost Dance religion ultimately failed to restore the once proud Indians to their former life and stature. If anything, the Ghost Dance religion brought about many more new problems and persecutions than it seemed to solve. While Wovoka and his Ghost Dance doctrine did succeed in inspiring an intense feeling of hope and pride in the hearts of the Indian people for a short period of time, it ultimately could not deliver on its greater promise to liberate the Native Americans from the oppression and tyranny of the white man. The Ghost Dance religion turned out to be one of the last failed hopes of the Native Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century. From there, they fell into a state of continual deprivation and despair, living out miserable lives on the reservations and never really achieving their full potential as human beings.


1 (Corporation 1986)

2 (Corporation 1986, 9)

3 (Powers 1972)

4 (Powers 1972, 135)

5 (Short 2003 )

6 (Powers 1972, 136)

7 (Stuckey 2003, 166)

8 (Stuckey 2003, 166)

9 (Fox 1971, 80-81)

10 (Powers 1972, 137)


Corporation, Funk and Wagnalls. Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Corporation, 1986.

Forbes, Jack D. Native Americans of California and Nevada. Healdsburg, CA: Naturegraph Publishers, 1969.

Fox, Chief Red. The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Crest, 1971.

Liggett, Lori. The Wounded Knee Massacre. 1998. (accessed October 13, 2011).

Moses, L.G. ""The Father Tells Me So!" Wovoka: The Ghost Dance Prophet." American Indian Quarterly, 1985: 335-351 vol 9 no. 3.

Powers, William K. Indians of the Southern Plains. Toronto: Capricorn Books, 1972.

Short, Gary. "Ghost Dance." ISLE, 2003 volume 10 issue 1: 258.

Stuckey, Paul Boyer and Sterling. American Nation in the Modern Era. Hong Kong: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 2003.

Toledo, Robert A. Wovoka the Paiute Messiah. n.d.

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