See biography by P. Bailey (1957, repr. 1970).
(born 1858?, Utah Territory, U.S.—died October 1932, Walker River Indian Reservation, Nev.) Paiute religious leader. In 1889 Wovoka announced that during a trance God had told him that his people's ancestors would rise from the dead, buffalo would return to the Plains, and the white man would vanish if the people would perform a ritual dance. This vision was the basis for the Ghost Dance, a millenarian cult that arose and quickly spread to other tribes, notably the militant Sioux. For a period of time, Wovoka was worshiped as a new messiah. After the Wounded Knee massacre, Wovoka's following dissipated and the movement contracted.
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Wovoka gained a reputation as a powerful shaman early in adulthood as he was adept at magic tricks. One trick he often performed was being shot with a shotgun, which may have been similar to the bullet catch trick. Reports of this trick probably convinced the Lakota that their “ghost shirts” could stop bullets. Wovoka also performed a levitation trick.
Wovoka claimed to have had a prophetic vision during the solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. Wovoka's vision entailed the resurrection of the Paiute dead and the removal of whites and their works from North America. Wovoka taught that in order to bring this vision to pass the Native Americans must live righteously and perform a traditional round dance, known as the Ghost dance, in a series of five-day gatherings. Wovoka's teachings spread quickly among many Native American peoples, notably the Lakota. The Ghost Dance movement is best known for its role in the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which it caused Indian Agents, Soldiers, and other Federal officials a great deal of consternation and helped to predispose them towards a cautious, wary, and defensive posture when dealing with the Sioux. Important to note is that Wovoka’s preachings included messages of non-violence, but that two Miniconjou, Short Bull and Kicking Bear, instead emphasized the possible elimination of Whites which contributed to the already defensive attitude of the federal officials who were already reacting with fear of the unknown to the Ghost Dance movement.