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The Ghost Dance Religion and the Prophet Wovoka

Wovoka was ill, sick with fever, and then he died. It was New Years Day, 1889 and there was a total eclipse of the sun in the skies above Nevada where the Paiute known as Wovoka lay dead. Legends said that the eclipse opened a door and that while the sun was enclosed in shadow, Wovoka journeyed back from the land of the dead following the crow’s road. Wovoka returned to this earth with a message from God. He had been instructed to teach the people to dance.

It was the beginning of a Native American religious movement which became known as The Ghost Dance. Word spread from tribe to tribe, state to state, reservation to reservation like a prairie fire. Many Indian nations sent their local leaders to the shores of Pyramid Lake where the messiah himself was leading Ghost Dance ceremonies. Chiefs such as Porcupine the Cheyenne, Sitting Bull the Arapaho, and a Sioux delegation including Good Thunder, Short Bull, and the medicine man Kicking Bear; all traveled to Wovoka’s hometown and returned to spread the gospel among their own people. By the summer of 1890 there were Ghost Dance ceremonies, sometimes with 7,000 and 8,000 participants, being performed simultaneously in Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Montana. Each of these ceremonies may have held more people than Wovoka had ever seen at any one time. Soon newspapers noticed the popular and powerful ceremonies as rumors began to spread of an impending Indian war.

Wovoka preached an apocalyptic vision. The world was about to end he claimed. The grass had grown old. The trees and flowers had grown old. The mountains were old. The earth needed to be renewed and Wovoka had been sent back to teach the people how. The world would be destroyed by a series of natural events; fire and flood, all the bad people, mostly whites, would be killed. All the good Indians would be dancing with magpie feathers in their hair; magpie feathers — the wings of heaven — would raise them above the calamity. When the earth had been cleansed all the game animals would return; there would an avalanche of flesh on the hoof, elk, antelope, buffalo, and venison, billowing clouds of dust rising from beneath their pounding feet. Then with a great whooping and hollering the gates of heaven would open, returning lost loved ones to live on the earth again; reuniting families and friends. It was this return of the ghosts which earned the dance its name.

Yet, Wovoka always claimed that the Ghost Dance was a peaceful ceremony. Good white men were to survive as well as good red men. Bad red men, those Native Americans who did not follow the precepts of the Ghost Dance would be destroyed along with everybody else. In fact, the Wovoka led ceremonies in Nevada frequently had whites included in the circle, holding hands with other dancers. Most of the ghost dancing whites were members of the Mormon community. Although never accepted as official doctrine by the church it was estimated that as much as 10% of Salt Lake City made pilgrimages to visit the “red messiah”. The gospel Wovoka preached was a mixture of traditional Native American beliefs and Christianity. He claimed that Jesus Christ had reappeared on earth. Last time Christ had appeared the white people had failed to listen to his message, so this time he brought his message to the Native Americans. Wovoka claimed Jesus Christ had returned to earth as a cloud and Wovoka was chosen to be his messenger.

The Fox have a legend about the Ghost Dance Prophet as Wovoka became known. There was once a good man; an Indian, who became a Christian. The man died and tried to enter Christian heaven where he was told that Christian heaven only held white people. The red man tried to enter Indian heaven, but the Great Spirit barred his way; stating that Indian heaven was not for Christians. So, the dead man tried to go to hell, because hell is more or less the same in all cultures, but he was refused entrance into hell. The dead man had been a truly good man and there are no good men in hell. The dead man had no choice except to return to earth, where he began to teach all God’s children to dance.

The rules of the Ghost Dance ceremony were simple. Wovoka forbade people to wear metal when they danced. They were encouraged to dress gaily, wearing magpie and eagle feathers, and their best rabbit skin robes. Many of the dancers were adorned with sacred paint. Ghost Dancers were not to cheat, steal, lie, fight, drink, or harm others. They were admonished by Wovoka to “Do right always.”

The vision Wovoka preached was apocalyptic. He claimed that if his followers danced religiously, lived right, and sang so loudly that their words reached all the way to heaven, then the apocalypse would come in the spring. He was preaching to a desperate people. By the time of the Ghost Dance revival there were no more “free” Native Americans anymore. The Indian wars were over except for one last tragic battle. All Native Americans were confined to the reservations. Those in the government responsible for feeding and clothing the Native Americans were notoriously corrupt and unscrupulous. This left the Native American communities especially susceptible to disease. The reservations were overwhelmed with disease and plague, wave after wave of whooping cough, smallpox, and measles. A common theme among the Ghost Dance ceremonies was people who were dancing and believing with all their hearts, hoping to bring back their dead sons and daughters, ghost children returning from the grave along the crow’s road to reunite grieving families. With the old way of life closed off and their children dying in their arms the Native Americans were watching both the past and future disappear, wondering if they would perish from the earth as a people.

It is ironic that it was an industrial age innovation which helped spread the word of the Ghost Dance so quickly. Distant Native American leaders such, as Porcupine the Cheyenne, traveled to visit the messiah and returned to their reservations on the railroads which were just beginning to link the new nation. Delegation after delegation of tribal leaders, traveled swiftly to the messiah and back again, spreading the word quickly in wave after wave of jubilation. Also, being confined on reservations made it easy to gather large crowd for ceremony. In the Oklahoma lands the compression of so many tribes side by side caused the Ghost Dance to spread among several different unrelated Indian Nations all at once.

The prophet Sitting Bull the Arapaho used to preach the Ghost Dance gospel on the conglomeraion of Oklahoma reservations to crowds numbering in the thousands, preaching his sermons with his fingers — speaking in the universal Native American sign language to crowds of Kiowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Caddo, and Kickapoo. Unable to understand each other’s languages they stood side by side as Sitting Bull the Arapaho spoke with his hands; sculpting the sky with visions of dreams. Sitting Bull the Arapaho had a sacred eagle feather which had been given to him by Wovoka himself. As the Ghost Dancers held hands, chanted, and danced in a circle, Sitting Bull the Arapaho would pull aside dancers one by one and hypnotize them using the sacred eagle feather. The mesmerized dancers would twitch and tremble, falling to the ground, where they would convulse and be visited with visions. New ghost dance songs would be written about these visions and these songs were sung at the next ceremony. In one instance a hypnotized woman had a dream of her darling dead daughter playing a game of bati qtuba with other little Indian girls. Bati qtuba was a plains Indian game much like field hockey or lacrosse, and it lightened the grieving mother’s heart to watch her daughter smile, laugh, and play once more. At the next dance, the woman had written a new Ghost Dance song and she brought along a bati qtuba stick of her own; hoping to be invited to play alongside. At the next dance after that there was maybe a dozen grieving mothers singing and dancing with bati qtuba sticks.

Grieving parents hoping to be reunited with lost children was a common theme among many Ghost Dancers. Black Coyote, an Oklahoma Cheyenne, lost ten of his twenty children during a two-year period when wave after wave of epidemic brutalized the reservation. Black Coyote had a vision that if he offered up seventy pieces of his flesh to the sun that no more of his children would die. Black Coyote took a knife and cut himself up, carving tattoos of the sun, crescent moon, morning star into his flesh and no more of his children died. Black Coyote was an ambitious and industrious man. A man with twenty children has some drive. He had several wives and tried to straddle both the traditional and modern Native American worlds; serving as both sheriff and shaman to the reservation Indians. When the Ghost Dance came along, Black Coyote took on another role in the community — choir director. In between dances Black Coyote would hold daily choir practices so that the lyrics of the songs might reach more beautifully to heaven.

Many of these songs were collected by the ethnographer James Mooney when he was sent to explore the Ghost Dance movement by John Wesley Powell and the Smithsonian Institution. Here is a fragment of a song recorded by Mooney.

“Father, Father, the Morning Star

Father, Father, the Morning Star

Look on us we have danced until daylight

take pity on us.

Thus says our Father the Crow,

go around five times more,

dance the circle five times more.

Thus says our Father the Crow.

When we dance until daylight

the moon takes pity on us.

How bright is the moonlight

Now I am singing it;

the Cottonwood song,

the loudest song of all

the most resounding song.

The crow is making a road.

My children, my children,

it is I who wear the Morning Star on my head.

I show it to my children.

I have given you magpie feathers to wear on your head.

I am a bird my children.

I am the crow.

The earth is about to move.

The crow is building a road.”

James Mooney wrote an extensive history of the movement when much of it was still happening, including a journey to Pyramid Lake and an interview with the messiah himself. At one point Mooney visited the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming where the reservation agent assured him there was no Ghost Dancing going on at his reservation. The agent provided him with a member of his staff to lead him around and a Native American interpreter. None of the Shoshone or Arapaho gathered at Wind River ever heard of the Ghost Dance, at least until the sun set and the government agent headed for home. Then the drums began to pound, and the people gathered while Mooney smiled, recognizing the beat of a Ghost Dance song.

It was the rumors of an impending Indian uprising which really caught the attention of the white pioneers in the newly settled western lands. The Ghost Dance ceremonies performed on the various Sioux reservations gained a reputation as the most militant. At one Ghost Dance ceremony, on Red Cloud’s reservation, with thousands of participants, the newly appointed Reservation agent was sent home by the barrel of a shotgun. The frightened agent went home and telegraphed Washington DC, asking for more soldiers.

The Ghost Dance ceremonies of the Sioux would take place in the grass fields of the high prairie, the circle of dancers whirling around a cedar tree. This single tree, sacred because of the fragrant incense it produces, would be decorated with ribbons and feathers, and frequently adorned with an American flag — Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze. A maiden would fire an arrow in each of the four directions, each arrowhead carved of bone and dipped in sacrificial blood. The dancers would join hands and circle the cedar tree as they sang, the buckskin fringes of their magic Ghost Dance Shirts waving in the breeze. Wovoka always claimed that it was the Ghost Dance Shirts, an artifact of war, which corrupted his message and made it fail.

How much of the responsibility for that failure can be laid at the feet of Wovoka means looking at an enigmatic and complex human being. To the Yerrington Reservation Paiutes he was never Wovoka or the Ghost Dance prophet but Jack Wilson. His mother worked as a household servant for the Wilson family and young Jack was raised alongside the other Wilson boys like a foster brother. Shortly after the New Year’s Day eclipse, Wovoka performed a rain dance to end a long drought. A huge storm soon followed, dumping deep snow drifts on the mountains and causing floodwaters to rise. Wovoka was asked to stop the rain. He sang another song and the rains stopped.

It was said that Wovoka had five songs to control the weather, one for soft rain, deluge, snowstorm, lightning, and clear skies. According to Paiute legends, the biggest storm Wovoka ever conjured came the day after the funeral of his only son. Wovoka made it rain for four days and nights until the footsteps of his lost son were washed from the earth. The Cheyenne tell a tale where General Nelson Miles led a cavalry unit to arrest Wovoka and the Ghost Dance prophet made it rain until all the soldiers except General Miles had drowned.

Wovoka could be a bit of a charlatan at times. Once he performed a miracle during a sermon, while preaching along a riverbank on a hot summer day in the middle of the Nevada desert and suddenly miniature icebergs began to float downstream. The audience was amazed, unaware that upstream one of the Wilson brothers had released the chunks of ice to float downstream at Wovoka’s preset time. A similar miracle was the chunk of ice which fell from the sky. Wovoka held a sermon in the open prairie when suddenly chunks of ice fell from the sky. Most historians believe that the ice was somehow hidden in the branches of the tree the ceremony was being held beneath.

The biggest controversy involves Wovoka’s role in the Ghost Dance Shirt. The Ghost Dance shirts were made of deer skin and painted with the sacred red paint with pictures of sacred birds; eagle, crow, magpie, and sage hen, or astronomical symbols such as the sun, moon, and morning star. On the Sioux reservations it was claimed that a Ghost Dance shirt was impervious to bullets. Wovoka did have a special Ghost Dance shirt. It was patterned after the magnificent Mormon Temple Garments whose robes were said to ward off disease, deceit, and bullets. While wearing his Ghost Dance Shirt, Wovoka performed a piece of magic before a delegation of Sioux and Blackfeet. Wovoka handed a shotgun to one of the infamous Wilson brothers and went to stand on a blanket. Bang! The Wilson brother fired and for a moment, the Ghost Dance messiah was hidden in a cloud of gunfire. As the smoke cleared, Wovoka shook himself like a wet dog, bullets fell from his clothing and rattled on to the blanket. The Sioux chieftains, including Sitting Bull’s nephew — Kicking Bear, moved to inspect the prophet and observe that although the shirt was riddled with holes Wovoka remained unharmed.

The Ghost Dance ceremonies on the Sioux reservations were attended by throngs numbering in the thousands. It was more people than Wovoka had ever seen, and they were all dancing to bring about the apocalypse the Ghost Dance messiah had predicted. The Sioux people danced and sang, experiencing their first taste of the hallucinogenic cactus; peyote. They danced in a circle, holding hands, and many of them wore ghost dance shirts — the shamans claiming the sacred garments were impervious to bullets.

Back on the Oklahoma reservations, the Kiowa elders sent Apiatan to go investigate the claims of the Ghost Dance messiah. Apiatan had lost a son, the apple of his eye, and desperately wanted to believe that the Ghost Dance would reunite him with his departed child. He traveled first to the Wind River reservation in Wyoming and heard only good things. Next Apiatan went to the Sioux country where he was invited to dance, but he declined until he had seen the prophet firsthand. Apiatan journeyed to the shores of Pyramid Lake, arriving to expect the Ghost Dance messiah to be able to speak all Native American languages and read Apiatan’s thoughts. So, Apiatan was skeptical when Wovoka was forced to ask through an interpreter what the Kiowa wished.

If Wovoka was indeed the red Christ, then Apiatan demanded to see the scars of his first crucifixion. Wovoka chuckled and replied that it did not work like that. Jesus had indeed returned to earth, but he had come as a cloud. Wovoka was merely a messenger.

Apiatan returned to the Oklahoma lands and attended one of the Ghost Dance ceremonies being conducted by Sitting Bull the Arapaho. The ethnographer Mooney described the throng of followers who swarmed about the presence of Sitting Bull the Arapaho. The swarm of people would crowd about Sitting Bull and reach out cautiously, touch him as if he were lightning and then quickly pull away. It was into this atmosphere, before a crowd of two or three thousand devotees, that Apiatan stepped forward and denounced Sitting Bull the Arapaho as a fraud. He announced loudly that he had been to visit Wovoka and asked the Ghost Dance messiah to perform a single piece of magic. Wovoka was unable to raise even one spirit from the dead. Wovoka was a fraud. Apiatan announced loudly, “The crow’s road is closed.”

Sitting Bull the Arapaho was left with only a small handful of the most devoted followers. Apiatan was left all alone. Later he would be given a medal by President Harrison, but Apiatan always considered that slight compensation for never seeing his lovely son again.

One afternoon, Black Coyote burst into the lodge during the middle of choir practice. He had bad news to report. Wovoka was turning away visitors. His vision of the future was no more, his message of peace had been corrupted into a dance of war and the magic was gone. Then Wovoka went into hiding.

Sitting Bull, the sacred dreamer of the Sioux never personally participated in a Ghost Dance, but he did encourage the dancers to gather on his reservation. It was his nephew Kicking Bear who led a small band of militant Ghost Dancers off the reservation and into the heart of the sacred Black Hills. Kicking Bear announced that at the next Ghost Dance he would reveal the face of God. Sitting Bull broke the pipe of peace which he had kept for seven years and announced that he would attend and participate in the next ceremony. The military took quick action; sending a detachment of Sioux reservation police to apprehend Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was arrested during the night, and while Sitting Bull gathered his things, after his favorite horse had been retrieved; a small crowd gathered outside.

Sitting Bull’s favorite horse had been given to him as a gift by William F. Cody or Buffalo Bill. One of the conditions of his pardon; forgiving him for his actions in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, was that he tour in the Wild West Shows of Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill gave Sitting Bull a one trick pony. When the theater troupe reenacted Custer’s Last Stand and the bullets began to fly on stage, Sitting Bull’s horse would rear up and perform a slow death dance.

As Sitting Bull stepped outside his house, held on each side by a uniformed policeman; the gathered crowd grew ugly. Sitting Bull called out for help and a Sioux Indian named Catch the Bear shot Lieutenant Bullhead as he held Sitting Bull’s arms. Officer Bullhead fell wounded. Sergeant Red Tomahawk put a bullet into the back of Sitting Bull’s skull and the infamous shaman slumped over dead.

At the sound of gunfire, the one trick pony reared up and began to do his slow death dance. Everyone gasped, the spirit of Sitting Bull had entered the horse and was doing the Ghost Dance.

Then the horse laid down and the battle resumed with sticks, fists, and guns as Sioux battled Sioux, brother fought brother, and aunt attacked nephew. In the end Sitting Bull and his son were dead. There were six dead people among the police and eight other dead Ghost dancers. Kicking Bear was still alive. The outlaw prophet and his rebel Ghost Dance followers were still hiding out in the Black Hills.

Grieving members of Sitting Bull’s reservation travelled tojoin Big Foot’s band. Together the two groups of Sioux left the reservation, fleeing for the Black Hills, and hoping to join Kicking Bear’s band in the mountain stronghold. It was late December when the rag tag, desperate band led by Big Foot escaped from the reservation. Their progress was deterred by a severe snowstorm. Big Foot was sick with pneumonia, riding in a box atop a wagon and coughing up blood. As the pursuing soldiers came near, the band of Sioux surrendered and agreed to be escorted back to the reservation. Soldiers and Sioux camped nervously beside each other.

In the morning, Big Foot’s band awoke along the shores of a creek called Wounded Knee, surrounded by soldiers. There were rapid firing Hotchkiss guns mounted in a circle around the Sioux camp. The Native Americans referred to the deadly artillery as “twice firing” because of the two pound fragmentation shells. Both sides were still and silent, nervously watching the other. The only figure moving at all was a tall slender shaman named Yellow Bird, who moved back and forth, dancing like a wading crane. Yellow Bird blew into a bone whistle, creating a rhythmic piercing shriek. Yellow Bird chanted, “There are lots of soldiers and they have lots of bullets, but the prairie is large and the bullets will not go towards you.”

The soldiers went amongst the sitting warriors to retrieve weapons, including hatchets and hunting rifles. The soldiers came to a deaf Native American named Black Coyote who refused to surrender his rifle. As the Sioux and the cavalry soldier struggled, Yellow Bird threw a handful of dust in the air.

Then both sides started fighting. Big Foot lifted himself to see the commotion and received a bullet to the head. Cavalry and warrior both fired carbine rifles, hand to hand skirmishes broke out along the battle lines, while the Hothckiss guns sat silent, afraid of shooting their own soldiers. When the Sioux warriors broke free, fleeing to rescue their families, the shell a minute artillery pieces opened fire.

Native Americans camped within a twenty-mile radius of Wounded Knee would describe the sound of the automatic weapons as a long and continuous blanket tearing. Exploding shells hit the teepees and fires were started. Fifty-two of the One hundred six male warriors of Big Foot’s followers were killed in the first volley by the Hotchkiss guns as the soldiers chanted, “Custer’s Revenge!” The Lakota Sioux recount in oral tradition the names of the first six men to die at Wounded Knee; Big Foot, Spotted Thunder, Horn Cloud, Ghost Horse, Iron Eyes, and Wounded Hand. A young mother ran to the center of the camp with her child in her arms and clung desperately to the pole where the flag of truce hung. She was shot repeatedly, her baby still nursing at her breast as she lay bleeding to death. As many as 250 Sioux may have died in the attack. The army counted twenty-five dead and thirty-nine wounded soldiers — most by friendly fire.

At a nearby church where some of the survivors were taken, the doctors asked a young mother named Blue Whirlwind if they could cut off her Ghost Dance shirt to treat her wounds. Blue Whirlwind had fourteen pieces of steel piercing her body and only one of her two children had survived. She told the doctors they could keep her Ghost Dance shirt — she would not be needing it any longer.

As news of the Wounded Knee Massacre began to spread across the west, Wovoka renounced his prophecies and turned away visitors; claiming that his message of peace had been corrupted into a message of war. Wovoka went into hiding, fearful the government might arrive to arrest or even execute him. It was only reluctantly that he agreed to the interview with the ethnographer Mooney. Wovoka was also hiding from vengeful Sioux and Blackfeet.

As the years passed, Wovoka slipped into obscurity. I have always wondered how “former messiah” looked on a job application. Wovoka did market his celebrity enough to make a paid appearance at a World’s Fair. He also ran a mail order ministry, sending blessings and sacred red paint or feathers in return for monetary donations. From time to time he toured the Oklahoma reservations. In 1929, silent movie cowboy star, Tim McCoy was filming a movie titled “The Thundering Herd”, amidst the alkaline flats, oasis, and tumbleweeds of Death Valley. McCoy discovered the Ghost Dance prophet was still alive and nearby. He sent a limousine to pick Wovoka up and deliver him to the movie set. The Arapaho actors were delighted, gathering reverently around the medicine man and practicing the new dances Wovoka had taught them far into the night.

Wovoka died on September 28, 1932. Wovoka boasted shortly before his death, that if he ever made it into heaven, he would be so happy, that he would shake the earth. The earthquake which followed his death was described in The Mason Valley News as “The most severe earthquake felt by the majority of Mason Valley residents in their entire lives.” Aftershocks were felt as far north as Canada and as far south as the Mexican border.”

I was watching my television on the New Year’s Eve as 1999 prepared to roll over into 2000, the networks showing celebrations from all over the world. Suddenly the cameras zoomed in on the town where I was born — Tucson, Arizona. There was a Native American Pow Wow taking place at Rillito Downs Racetrack. It seemed an appropriate setting because of the Native American fondness for horses. It was a quiet celebration with the dancers holding hands and gently twirling in a circle. They told the newscaster it was called “the circle dance” but I recognized it as the same dance which Wovoka once taught to red and white men along the shores of Pyramid Lake.

The dancers told the newscaster that once you have held the hand of someone in the circle dance that they become your friend for life. Then they invited him to join in. It was a peaceful intimate celebration of the new millennium. The core of Wovoka’s message is just as relevant to the new millennium as it was at the end of the nineteenth century. “Do not lie. Do not cheat. Do not harm others. Do right always.” Simple words to live by.

In the morning, the Pow Wow would continue with an exhibition of Aztec dancers. Then would come a Fancy Dancing Contest, complete with competitors wearing resplendent feathers. In the afternoon, a local tribe — the O’odham, would play a field hockey game; a traditional matriarchal game where mothers play alongside daughters wielding a stick similar to the type they use in Bati Qtuba.



Wild Westerns will tell histories of the wild characters who have inhabited the American west, Cowboys, Native Americans, conquistadors, mammoths, mammoth hunters, stagecoach bandits, archeologists, and Navajo Codetalkers and more who wandered the scenic places of the wild west

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Gary Every

Gary Every is the author severl books including “The Saint and the Robot” “Inca Butterflies” and has been nominated for the Rhysling Award 7 times