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Wovoka in Native American History

Wovoka, a.k.a. Jack Wilson (ca. 1856-1932) was a Paiute mystic responsible for the revival of the Ghost Dance in 1890. Born in western Nevada, he took on the name of the white rancher, David Wilson, on whose lands he lived during his youth. Some speculate that Wilson taught Wovoka to speak and read English and exposed him to Christianity.

In 1889, Wovoka underwent a mystical experience during which, according to a later interview, he briefly died, ascended into heaven, and received the message he was instructed to disseminate among other Indians: history was approaching a watershed; God was preparing to cleanse the earth of evil and introduce a period of peace and abundance; soon the now-scarce game would return and Indians and whites would live in harmony.

To prepare for this new age, Wovoka instructed Indians to lead purer lives and to perform the ritual of the Ghost Dance—a variation on the round, or circle, dance that had experienced a revival during the 1870s. Wovoka's message and the Ghost Dance spread first to the west and then to the Great Plains where, among the Lakota Sioux in particular, the dance took on a more militant and apocalyptic tone. Wovoka's promise of a new historical age was turned into a hope for temporal revenge; the cleansing of the earth was interpreted to include the destruction of the white race.

Territorial authorities unnerved by the ideology and popularity of the Ghost Dance attempted to squelch it in 1890. These efforts led to the killing of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee. In the following years, participation in the Ghost Dance declined and Wovoka faded into obscurity.

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