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Photograph of the shaman Wovoka
Photograph of the shaman Wovoka

Wovoka, or Quoitze Ow, was a Native American visionary prophet of the Paiute people. He was born sometime between 1856-63 in Smith Valley, Nevada. This was a time of white invasion, wars and skirmishes, and disruption of traditional food sources; these nomadic hunter-gatherers were reduced to manual labor for the invaders and trading with them for food. Starvation became a regular occurrence. From the age of fourteen, Quoitze Ow was working on David Wilson’s ranch, where he acquired the name Jack Wilson; he also learned some Christian theology at this time.

The name Wovoka, “woodcutter,” may come from the tradition that he was cutting wood when he had his first vision in 1887. Other traditions say that he was in a coma possibly caused by scarlet fever, or was triggered by the shock of a great sound. The vision took place on New Year’s Day of 1889, during an eclipse of the sun. (NASA data shows that Smith Valley was outside the area of totality, but the sunlight would have been visibly reduced.) This was the first of many visions and prophecies. His authority arose from these and other miraculous gifts: bringing rain to end droughts, producing ice in midsummer, deflecting bullets, even raising the dead. As his reputation grew, he extended the spiritual work of his father Wavibo, who established the Ghost Dance among his own people. Though Wovoka rarely traveled outside of Paiute territory, delegations came to him from many other tribes to hear the message. In two years, the movement spread from Western Nevada to the West Coast and all the way to the Great Plains.

Variations in the message soon arose, due partly to language barriers and partly to repeated retellings. This is inevitable in the transmission of religious tradition. Wovoka’s message was pacifist and called for a degree of accommodation rather than assimilation into white culture and society. The Lakota either did not understand or disregarded the pacifist thread of the message, and developed the magically bullet-proof Ghost Shirt to wear to Ghost Dances and in battle. They took the initiative in fulfilling the prophecy of the white man’s disappearance. This, among other acts of resistance, led to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Despite this public failure of his most famous prophecy, Wovoka was treated with great reverence by Native Americans wherever he went, for the rest of his life. The Ghost Dance movement is said to have died after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890; and yet many of its elements have been absorbed into Native American religions. Some Native Americans still perform the Ghost Dance as a private ceremony, to this day.

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