Indian Education

Utah State Board of Education


The man people regard as the “shaman” from the Paiutes who was responsible for beginning the Ghost Dance religion or beliefs and teaching it to various Plains Indian tribes.

Wovoka or Jack Wilson the name he used when working with the white people, was born around 1856 in the Nevada region.  His father died when he was young and he lived with the Wilson family. 

Wovoka has been romanticized in early literature as a mystic, a magician, a shaman but we know from later reports that he took many Christian beliefs and theologies and wove them into the Ghost Dance religion.  Prior to Wovoka spreading the Ghost Dance, a Paiute named Tavibo had an earlier vision and made a prophecy of the whites being swallowed by the earth and that dead Indians would be alive again.

This belief was a very strong pull for many Indian nations whose ranks had been decimated by war and diseases brought by the white people.  To see relatives again who had died brutally perhaps or of a disease was such a powerful draw that Indian nations sent emissaries to learn about this new religion. 

The most well known is the Lakota whose delegates Kicking Bear and Short Bull brought back the dance and the “ghost shirt” believed to be able to stop bullets.  While the dancing and singing was harmless and peaceful, it caused concern among the white people and the U.S. Army who forbid the Lakota from doing the Ghost Dance.  The culmination of that conflict was at Wounded Knee where Big Foot and his band of followers, trying to reach safety at the Red Cloud Agency were massacred by the 7th cavalry in 1890. Their crime had been to believe that doing the Ghost Dance would make all white people disappear and their relatives would return as well as the buffalo.  Prior to that Sitting Bull had been killed after blame was placed on him by the U.S. Army for allowing people to do the Ghost Dance.

After that event, Wovoka lost any further new followers and he returned to his identity as Jack Wilson until he died perhaps around 1932.  Conflicted by the realization that his vision of the Ghost Dance prophecies might not be true, he vanished into obscurity.

While Wovoka was a leader of a different type, he gave people reason for hope at a time when tribes were losing their land, their languages, their identities and way of life.  His vision was not that the world would end, but that the dead Indian people would become alive again.

Whether he believed in the Ghost Dance as he told it to other Indians or not, he did as “mystics” do of any culture or race did and that was to have a vision, promote it with promises that others want to believe.  He later offered to control any Indian nations from uprising for food and financial help from Washington.

To learn more about Jack Wilson or Wovoka and the Ghost Dance visit websites:

Paiute - Ghost Dancers - Wovoka - Crystalinks where Harlow Parson writes in some detail easily read.

A Meditation on Indian Prophecies

This information can be used as a resource to the lessons presented in *Eighth Grade Standard(s): 6120-0301 Explore life among the various American Indian Nations prior to European exploration of the New World.

Topic: Changes to the American Indian cultures as a result of European exploration

Stage 1

Understanding: Students will learn how the American Indian culture changed and what religious beliefs were used.

Essential Question # 1: How did Wovoka blend Christianity and Indian beliefs to create a new religion, The Ghost Dance?

Stage 2 Assessment: Students will be able to compare in written form or power point presentation why the Ghost Dance appealed to the American Indians at that time and how did it compare to Christian beliefs.

Stage 3 Learning Strategies:

The teacher will have students use the computer to visit websites to gain an understanding of Wovoka, his early years and what molded his thinking and beliefs about the Ghost Dance.

The students can work in groups for discussion or debate purposes.

The teacher will divide the students into groups.