The Ghost Dance Prophet

Wovoka (1856 – 1932)

  • Wovoka was the Paiute religious leader who triggered The Ghost Dance Movement.
  • His white name was Jack Wilson.
  • When the prophet was orphaned as a child he was adopted by the Wilson Family – Nevada ranchers who taught him English and Christianity.
  • He left the ranch to become a tribal Holy Man.
  • Wovoka claimed he could control the weather, and several of his followers told of his miraculous deeds.  He was said to be able to light his pipe with the sun.  Some people claimed he was the new Messiah – the Native version of Jesus.
  • On January 1, 1889 Wovoka experienced a vision during a solar eclipse.
  • He saw the resurrection of their dead ancestors, and a removal of the white people from North America.
  • To bring this vision to pass, his followers had to perform a 5-day dancing and singing ritual called The Ghost Dance.
  • Some believers made special Ghost Shirts for the ceremony.  They were said to be bullet proof.
  • The prophet, however, never left Paiute land.  Followers came to him. He relied on missionary disciples to spread his teachings across the various tribes.
  • Unfortunately, this allowed his words to be misinterpreted and misrepresented.
  • Although he taught a non-violent restitution to former glory, men like Short Bull and Kicking Bear manipulated his pacifism to insight rebellion on some of the reservations.
  • The Ghost Dance gained such rapid popularity it was seen as a threat to white stability.
  • The Pine Ridge Agency was singled out as a hotbed of dissention, which culminated in the tragedy of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the end of the Ghost Dance Movement.


Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson)

PBS:The West, “Wovoka / Jack Wilson,” at

ViewZone, “Wovoka,” at

Wikipedia, “Wovoka,” at

Indian Wars: Wounded Knee Massacre (1890)

Wounded Knee Massacre


Date:             December 29,1890.

Opponents:  Colonel James W. Forsyth, Major Samuel M. Whitside, and the 7th U.S. Cavalry


                        Chief Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux.

Place:             Wounded Knee Creek, Pine Ridge Lakota Indian Reservation, South Dakota.

Factors:       * The Sioux were inspired by a prophet called Wokova.  His Ghost Dance Religion promised a return to the old days, and claimed that special, painted shirts could repel bullets.

                       * Spread of this new “Messiah Craze” alarmed the white leaders, who feared a massive uprising and break-out from the reservation.

                       * The 7th Cavalry was sent in to disarm the warriors and prevent a potential rebellion.

                       * There are differing accounts of what happened next, but many claim that a deaf tribesman – Black Coyote – refused to surrender his rifle and a scuffle broke out.

                      * The army surrounded the village and opened fire, indiscriminately shooting men, women, elders, and children.

                       * Chief Sitting Bull was one of the first fatalities.

Results:       * This was a massacre of such epic proportions that it decimated the Sioux, and effectively ended the Indian Wars.

                      * 39 army soldiers were injured and 25 died, some from “friendly fire.”

                      * 150 Lakota Sioux perished.  51 were wounded.

                      * The Holy Man – Black Elk – who survived the attack claimed, “A people’s dream died there.  It was a beautiful dream.”


Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt, 1970.

McGregor, James H. The Wounded Knee Massacre: From the Viewpoint of the Sioux.  South Dakota: Fenske Media, 1940.

Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890.  Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks.  Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Wikipedia, “Wounded Knee Massacre,” at