Friday, July 13, 2007

Final Resting Place of the Paiute Messiah

One of the most fascinating figures in Western history was the Paiute religious leader, Wovoka, who was born near Yerington in 1856. Wovoka was raised by a white family, the Wilsons, from whom he took his white name, Jack Wilson.

While living with the Wilsons, who had three sons, Wovoka was exposed to Christian beliefs. Abigail Wilson often read Old Testament stories to the children.

In 1887, Wovoka, whose name is Paiute for “woodcutter,” was chopping trees in the Pine Nut Mountains when he reportedly had a heavenly encounter.

According to his later testimonials, he heard a loud noise, began to investigate and was struck down. As he lay on the ground paralyzed, he had an out-of-body experience during which he was taken to heaven.

“It was the most beautiful country you can imagine, nice and level and green all the time,” he later said. “The dead in heaven were dancing. gambling, playing ball, and having all kinds of sports.”

Wovoka said that God told him to instruct the Indian people to be good to others, to cease hostilities with whites, and not to steal. He also told Wovoka to preach the new religion and teach the people the Ghost Dance.

In return for embracing this new religion, its practitioners would be reunited with loved ones who had died, would remain young forever, and would be free of death or sickness.

By 1890, Wovoka’s Ghost Dance religion had begun to gain national attention among Indians. On several occasions, Wovoka had gone into trances, during which he would be as rigid as a board, for conversations with God.

Additionally, Wovoka performed several shaman tricks—his father had been a medicine man—designed to enhance his standing as a man of magic.

Unfortunately, as historical writer Don Lynch has noted, one of his tricks, during which Wovoka appeared to be unhurt after being blasted by a shotgun, gave many followers the impression that if they did the Ghost Dance they could not be killed by bullets.

The Ghost Dance movement was, as historian David Thompson has written, “eagerly accepted by a people who had recently suffered ruinous cultural problems—military defeats, the destruction of buffalo, confinement on Indian reservations, and epidemics of strange and frequently fatal diseases.”

Wovoka’s teachings, which were essentially peaceful, spread across the country and appealed, in particular, to members of the Plains tribes, who had suffered greatly as a result of the confiscation of their lands.

Unfortunately, the Ghost Dance concept began to evolve as it moved east and its followers performed the ritual with increasing fervor. The religion was energetically embraced by the Sioux people, who added the ghost shirt, a painted cloth shirt that was believed to make its wearer bullet-proof.

Some whites who witnessed the frenzied dancing believed it was some type of prelude to war and would lead to an Indian uprising. The rising tensions finally resulted in the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee—during which nearly 300 Indian men, women, and children were killed by U.S. Army soldiers. Among the casualties was the great chief, Sitting Bull.

Wounded Knee effectively ended the national Ghost Dance movement. After hearing of the massacre, Wovoka told his followers to go home and cease dancing.

Yet despite the unfortunate consequences of the dance, Wovoka remained an important religious figure in Western Nevada. For the rest of his life, he continued to preach the message of brotherhood and peace. He died in 1932.

Today, it’s still possible to wander the wooded banks of the Walker River near Yerington, where Wovoka grew up, and imagine the young Wovoka tossing rocks into the water.

Wovoka is buried in the cemetery at Schurz, located 24 miles east of Yerington. An impressive headstone (which incorrectly notes the year of his birth) points out his role as the “Indian Messiah” and founder of the Ghost Dance.

A good source of information about Wovoka is “Wovoka and the Ghost Dance” by Michael Hittman, which was published in 1990.

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