Wovoka, c.1858-1932, Paiute, prophet of a messianic religion sometimes called the Ghost Dance religion. Also known as Jack Wilson, he was influenced by his father (a mystic) as well as by the Christian family for whom he worked and the Shaker religion. Wovoka claimed that during an eclipse of the sun (Jan. 1, 1889) he had had a vision in which God had given him a message—the time was coming when the earth would die and come alive again; all whites would disappear from the earth's surface, and all native people, living and dead, would be reunited to live a life free from death, disease, and misery. In order to bring this about, however, the Native Americans would have to follow Wovoka's doctrine of pacifism and practice the sacred dance he taught them. To make his message more convincing, Wovoka proved his supernatural powers by simple tricks, one of which, the supposedly bulletproof ghost shirt, was to play a tragic part in the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. Before long his stature grew from Paiute prophet to Messiah, and his religion, which spread rapidly through the western indigenous nations, took on warlike overtones never intended by its founder. The great popularity of Wovoka's ghost dance waned as his prophecy failed to materialize and as his converts were forced onto reservations.

See biography by P. Bailey (1957, repr. 1970).

Wovoka (c. 1856 - September 20, 1932), also known as Jack Wilson, was the Northern Paiute religious leader who founded the Ghost Dance movement. Wovoka means “wood cutter” in the Northern Paiute language.


Wovoka was born in Smith Valley area southeast of Carson City, Nevada, around the year 1856. Wovoka's father may have been the religious leader variously known as “Tavibo“ or “Numu-Taibo” whose teachings were similar to those of Wovoka. Regardless, Wovoka clearly had some training as a shaman. Wovoka’s father died around the year 1870, and he was taken in by David Wilson, who was a rancher in the Yerington, Nevada area. Wovoka worked on Wilson’s ranch and used the name Jack Wilson when dealing with whites. David Wilson was a devout Christian, and Wovoka learned Christian theology and Bible stories while living with him.

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.

Wovoka died in Yerington on September 20, 1932 and is interred in the Paiute Cemetery in the town of Schurz, Nevada.

Further reading

  • Michael Hittman, Wovoka and the Ghost Dance, Bison Books 1998, ISBN 0803273088
  • John Norman, Ghost Dance, Daw Books 1970, (a fictional account) ISBN 0879975016

See also

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