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Religion in Native American History

Jack Wilson—An Anonymous Death

In 1932, Jack Wilson died quietly in his sleep. Spending the last years of his life living in a tent in the Indian colony near Yerington, Nevada, the death of the poor Paiute Indian was not even mentioned in the local papers. But forty years earlier, Jack Wilson had changed the world. His preaching had launched a religious movement that swept the Great Plains, raised fears among white settlers of an Indian insurrection, and prompted one of the most horrific massacres in American history.

Jack Wilson—a.k.a. Wovoka

Jack Wilson was born "Wovoka" in western Arizona. According to most accounts, his father died when he was fourteen. According to another report, his father lived to be more than 100. But all agree that at some point, the young Paiute took on the English name of the farmer on whose land he worked and lived and at some point he learned to speak English, and he was exposed to Christianity.

In 1889, Wovoka claimed to undergo a mystical experience. Briefly dying, he ascended into the heavens where he saw his dead ancestors and received the message he was instructed to disseminate among other Indians. According to Wovoka, history was approaching a watershed. God was preparing to cleanse the earth of evil and introduce a period of peace and abundance. The now-scarce game would return and Indians and whites would live in harmony.

Wovoka's message was clearly influenced by the Christian teachings of his youth. His own claims of death and resurrection mimic the Christ story, and his prophecy of temporal cataclysm and renewal echo the apocalypse and millennium of Revelation. Like the Christian gospels, Wovoka preached that to ensure the arrival of this new age, Indians must reform and prepare. They should lead moral lives, they must not lie or steal, they should avoid alcohol, and they should be kind to one another and practice peace.

But Wovoka's message was also shaped by Indian traditions and beliefs. He urged Indians to rid themselves of the impurities introduced by white civilization. For example, they must stop wearing white men's clothes. Furthermore, to connect with their dead ancestors and hasten the approach of the new time, he urged Indians to perform the Ghost Dance. This dance was a variation on the round, or circle, dance, an ancient ritual that had experienced a revival during the 1870s. At that time, a different prophet, Tävibo, predicting a very similar resurrection of Indian power, had inspired a movement among the Paiutes of western Nevada. Like Wovoka, he urged Indians to dance the Ghost Dance in preparation. During the Ghost Dance—a five-day ritual—participants danced in a circle, often until they reached states of exhaustion or ecstasy.

Wovoka's hybrid Christian-Paiute message found a receptive audience among Indians confined to reservations and struggling with poverty, disease, and alcoholism. It spread first to the West, where reports of Indians dancing the Ghost Dance came in from California and Oregon. Then, Wovoka's message and the Ghost Dance made their way to the Great Plains. There, however, among tribes still reeling from the devastating wars of the 1870s, they took on a more militant and apocalyptic tone. Among the Sioux, in particular, Wovoka's promise of a new historical age was turned into a hope for temporal revenge. The cleansing of the earth, Wovoka promised, was interpreted to include the destruction of the white race. Reflecting this more militant version, participants wore "Ghost Shirts" during the dance—shirts which, once sanctified, were believed to be impervious to the bullets fired by whites' guns. The Ghost Dance, in other words, became a political as well as a religious celebration. It promised to reverse centuries of maltreatment by whites and to ensure the restoration of Indian control over the North American continent.

Tenskwatawa—An Ominous Predecessor

Tävibo was not Wovoka's only predecessor. Eighty-five years earlier, a formerly unaccomplished Shawnee drunkard emerged from a seizure with a message of judgment and renewal sent to him by the Master of Life. This man—Lalawethicka—changed his name to Tenskwatawa, renounced his former ways, and began preaching a message of reform and redemption among the Indians of the old Northwest Territory.

Much like Wovoka's message, Tenskwatawa's prophecies reflected both Christian and Indian beliefs. He described a future of judgment, heaven, and hell, and warned that people's fates would be determined by their behavior. They must give up alcohol, avoid tribal conflicts, and live monogamously. Practices learned from whites, like buying and selling private property, should be abandoned. Instead, they should return to the values and ways of their ancestors–no more hunting with guns, no more domesticated animals, no more bread, no more metal pots, no more European dress.

Tenskwatawa's message spread throughout surrounding villages, especially those most influenced by white society. Indians who had adopted Christianity became symbols of white corruption, were labeled witches, and were tortured and killed. In response, other Indian leaders and white authorities unnerved by the size and behavior of Tenskwatawa's following, challenged him to prove his prophetic powers. Tenskwatawa answered that his authority would be confirmed by the appearance of a "black sun" on 16 June 1806. He summoned believers and skeptics to Greenville, a village he and his followers had established in western Ohio, to witness the event.

On 16 June, while Tenskwatawa waited in his tent, a full eclipse darkened the sky. His critics tried to point out that the event had already been predicted by astronomers, many of whom had established observation centers in the region. But Tenskwatawa's followers–old and new–were convinced only of the prophet's religious power.

Over the next five years, Tenskwatawa's movement spread through the Northwest Territory, but it ended tragically at Tippecanoe in 1811. (That story is told more fully here.) Indians with a sense of their distant past may have asked if Wovoka's movement would end the same way.

The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

As the Ghost Dance spread among the Lakota Sioux, white observers grew increasingly worried. The apocalyptic message was unnerving, and the frenzied, seemingly uncontrolled demonstrations of emotion unleashed during the dance conjured images of Indian rage let loose against white settlers. When the legendary chief Sitting Bull embraced the Ghost Dance, and followers flocked to his camp to participate in the daily dancing and purification baths, white leaders feared that the final ingredient for a major Indian insurrection was in place.

To ensure that the Indian hero of the Little Big Horn did not launch another rebellion, the US Indian Agent James McLaughlin stationed at Standing Rock ordered the Indian Police to arrest Sitting Bull on 15 December 1890. At first, Sitting Bull seemed prepared to surrender quietly, but after his seventeen-year-old son Crow Foot attempted to intervene, Sitting Bull called on his followers to defend him. In the fight that followed, Sitting Bull and thirteen others were killed.In his official report, the Indian Agent lamented the loss of life but branded the action a success. "Great good" had been accomplished by "the ending of Sitting Bull's career." He expected to quickly round up the Indians who had fled following the battle in Sitting Bull's camp. And with the influential chief dead, the "Messiah Craze" would end and calm would be restored to the region.25

But McLaughlin's belief that the episode was essentially over proved horribly wrong. Sitting Bull's followers fled toward the Pine Ridge Agency, where they hoped to find protection under Chief Red Cloud. But while en route they were intercepted by 500 American soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry. The soldiers were ordered to march the Indians to the railroad for removal to Nebraska. They made camp the first night along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek and, to prevent trouble, the soldiers mounted Hotchkiss guns along the camp's perimeter.

The following morning, tensions in the camp mounted quickly. As soldiers searched the Indians for weapons, a medicine man named Yellow Bird began to lead some of the Indians in the Ghost Dance. Another crowd gathered around Black Coyote when he refused to surrender his weapon. During his dance, Yellow Bird threw some dust in the air—a signal, white soldiers believed, to commence an attack. In a matter of moments, shots were flying from all directions. The soldiers sprayed the surrounded Indians with small arms fire while the Hotchkiss guns launched their explosive shells at a rate of almost one per second. When the brief battle ended, 300 Indians were dead, including 200 women and children. Twenty-nine white soldiers were also killed.

The Fate of Wovoka and the Ghost Dance

Following the massacre at Wounded Knee, armed Native American resistance to white expansion came to an end. The Ghost Dance also faded quickly in the aftermath of this tragedy in the Dakotas. Spreading rapidly between 1889 and 1890, it surfaced over the next century only sporadically among small groups of believers. Today, the Ghost Dance and Wovoka are most commonly explored as nineteenth-century curiosities—historical artifacts rather than the ritual and prophet of a living religion.

Yet almost exactly 1900 years before Wovoka's anonymous death, the death of a young Jewish prophet merited barely a mention by the local authorities. Over the next few centuries, his followers—calling themselves Christians—struggled to perpetuate their faith and defend their communities against persecution. But in 312, a Roman general credited his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to the intervention of the Christians' god. Soon emperor of the western half of the Roman Empire, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan protecting the Christians from persecution, granted imperial land to the church, and supported the construction of churches. At the time of Constantine's ascendance, Christians represented about five percent of the empire. By the time of his death, Christianity was the favored religion of the Roman Empire.

In other words, history suggests that we should not rush to judgment about the fate of small religious movements. The destiny of the Wovoka and the Ghost Dance may not be fully known for another few hundred years.

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