Cumberland Academy

Wovoka — Paiute Medicine Man & the Ghost Dance

According to the teachings of the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka, proper practice of the dance would reunite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to the First Peoples throughout the region.

What has been called the Ghost Dance War was not a war, but the violent reaction of the United States government against the spread of the Ghost Dance movement on Lakota Sioux reservations in 1890 and 1891. Lakota Sioux reservations were invaded by the US Army, causing fear and confusion among the peaceful Lakota.

The ghost dance was started by a Paiute leader Wowoka – it centered around this idea that a time was approaching when the White man would be “de-fanged” and driven out of North America and the Indian people across the nations would unite.

On January 1, 1889, he claimed to have had a prophetic vision during the solar eclipse which entailed the resurrection of the Paiute dead and the removal of white settlers from their lands. In order to make the vision come true, he taught his people that they must live righteously and perform a circular dance which was called the Ghost Dance. At this time, conditions were bad on the Indian reservations and Native Americans across the west needed something to give them hope. In a series of five-day gatherings, Wovoka’s teachings spread quickly among many Native American peoples, especially the Lakota Sioux.

His teachings followed a previous Paiute tradition predicting a Paiute renaissance. Varying somewhat, it contained much Christian doctrine that Wovoka had learned while living with the white ranching family. When representatives from tribes all over the nation came to Nevada to meet with Wovoka and learned the Zuni, he told them to keep the reason for the dance secret from the Whites.

When the dance spread to the Lakota, the BIA agents became alarmed. They claimed that the Lakota developed a militaristic approach to the dance and began making “ghost shirts” they thought would protect them from bullets. They also spoke openly about why they were dancing. The BIA agent in charge of the Lakota eventually sent the tribal police to arrest Sitting Bull, a leader respected among the Lakota, to force him to stop the dance. In the struggle that followed, Sitting Bull was killed along with a number of policemen. A small detachment of cavalry eventually rescued the remaining policemen.

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