Near the end of the 1800s, the Native Americans were being forced onto reservations. The buffalo had been slaughtered almost to extinction by the whites. The entire life way of the Native Americans was passing away. Their only hope came from their religious beliefs and their medicine men who, throughout the Plains, were trying to dream the whites out of existence.
Many Native Americans believed that the Messiah had come to the white man first, and he was killed for his trouble. The Messiah said he would return and He had, as a Paiute of the Fish Eaters camp in Nevada. The Messiah, the Wanekia (“One Who Makes Live”) the Christ, as many believed, spoke through Wovoka. The whites called him Jack Wilson.
In 1888, during an eclipse of the sun, Wovoka died, and an eagle carried him to the sky. When he returned to earth he was alive again and said he had a message from God. He said, “You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always.”
Hundreds of miles to the east a Lakota Medicine Man, Kicking Bear, heard a voice which commanded him to travel toward the setting sun. He did so, accompanied by his friend, Short Bull.
In Nevada they were greeted by two Paiutes who told them that Christ had returned as a Native American. Hearing this, they followed the friendly Paiutes to the camp of Wovoka where they met hundreds of other pilgrims of different tribes. All had come to see this new Messiah.
“I have sent for you and am glad to see you,” Wovoka said. “I am going to talk to you after a while about your relatives who are dead and gone. My children, I want you to listen to all I have to say to you. I will teach you how to dance a dance, and I want you to dance it. Get ready for your dance, and when the dance is over, I will talk to you.” And they danced the Ghost Dance during which many participants would faint or enter into a trance where they would see and speak to their dead relations.
The Oglala Lakota sent three wise men to meet with this Messiah. They were Good Thunder, Brave Bear and Yellow Breast. They returned with prophecies and stories of miracles. Black Elk remembered it this way:
“These three men all said the same thing, and they were good men. They said that they traveled far until they came to a great flat valley near the last great mountains before the big water, and there they saw the Wanekia who was the son of the Great Spirit, and they talked to him. Wasichu s called him Jack Wilson, but his name was Wovoka. He told them that there was another world coming, just like a cloud. It would come in a whirlwind out of the west and would crush out everything on this world which was old and dying. In that other world, there was plenty of meat, just like old times; and in that world all the dead Native Americans were alive, and all the bison that had ever been killed were roaming around again.”
Wovoka’s message of peace and brotherhood was overshadowed by his prophecy of the disappearance of the whites and the return of Native American traditions. The whites and some Native Americans ignored his message of peace and reconciliation while taking literally the idea that the Ghost Dance movement would, one way or another, make the whites vanish.
The U.S. government’s interest in, and fear of, the Ghost Dance movement peaked in December of 1890 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. There, nearly 300 Lakota’s en-route to a Ghost Dance gathering were massacred. That event, it was assumed, put an end to Wovoka’s vision.
But this vision of rebirth and re-emergence did not die! It is returning stronger than ever in the hearts of Indigenous Peoples everywhere on Mother Earth with a message of upliftment and spiritual transformation for all Members of the Human Family!