Wovoka: The Messiah Letter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Messiah Letter, composed by Paiute medicine man Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson, is a foundational document laying out the premise behind the Ghost Dance religious movement, which Wovoka claimed was revealed to him in a vision in January 1889. At the time of this revelation, American Indian tribes across the nation were in a period of difficult transition. Just over fifty years earlier, the federal government had begun to move all Indians to land west of the Mississippi River, then to smaller and smaller reservations as the demand for farmland for white Americans grew after the Civil War. Wovoka proposed a way for Indians to restore their idyllic past, but he did not call for warfare against the encroaching whites. Rather, he called for Indians to remain at peace, live ethically, abstain from drinking alcohol, work hard, and perform the sacred dance, which became known as the Ghost Dance.

Summary Overview

The Messiah Letter, composed by Paiute medicine man Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson, is a foundational document laying out the premise behind the Ghost Dance religious movement, which Wovoka claimed was revealed to him in a vision in January 1889. At the time of this revelation, American Indian tribes across the nation were in a period of difficult transition. Just over fifty years earlier, the federal government had begun to move all Indians to land west of the Mississippi River, then to smaller and smaller reservations as the demand for farmland for white Americans grew after the Civil War. Wovoka proposed a way for Indians to restore their idyllic past, but he did not call for warfare against the encroaching whites. Rather, he called for Indians to remain at peace, live ethically, abstain from drinking alcohol, work hard, and perform the sacred dance, which became known as the Ghost Dance.

Defining Moment

During the last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century, American Indian nations faced an increasingly hopeless situation. Many eastern tribes had already been forced off of their land and pushed across the country to settle in Oklahoma, while many western tribes were seeing more and more white Americans moving west in order to start farms and ranches. The lands granted to Native peoples were becoming progressively smaller, and the more fertile lands were being reserved for the new white immigrants. All the while, federal Indian policy held that they should be forced to give up their traditional religions, languages, and lifestyles in favor of American Christianity and farming.

By the 1880s, many tribes were becoming restless on reservations that held no opportunities or possibilities for them. About that time, a Northern Paiute prophet in western Nevada named Wovoka announced a new religious movement that would hasten the return of the dead (from which it got its name, the Ghost Dance), the elimination of the American settlers, and the restoration of the Indian way of life and all lands they had held before the arrival of European settlers. In order to achieve this, Indian people would have to perform the dance that God had revealed to Wovoka, strictly observe a moral code that had its roots in Christianity, and refuse to make war against or consume the alcohol brought by white people. As Indians in Wovoka's immediate vicinity began performing the dance, stories of the visions they received and healings that occurred began to spread across the West.

Wovoka had been influenced by a Northern Paiute mystic named Tävibo, whom Wovoka claimed was his father. Tävibo had started a similar movement some twenty years earlier, promising that all white people would be swallowed up by the earth if the Indians danced the circle dance he specified. Wovoka's message started from Tävibo's and incorporated aspects of a number of different Christian religious groups present in Nevada, including Presbyterians, Mormons, and the Indian Shaker Church. In January 1889, he claimed that he had received a vision in which God had revealed to him a new dance and a new message specifically for Indian people of all nations. This message combined all of the influences in Wovoka's life and offered hope to Indian people throughout the West, most of whom were facing the same difficult times.

Whereas Tävibo's 1870 movement had only spread to tribes in Nevada, California, and Oregon, Wovoka's Ghost Dance would travel across the West. Many tribes, notably the Arapaho and the Cheyenne, sent medicine men to receive his teachings. Tribes from the Canadian border to as far south as Texas and as far east as the Missouri River practiced the dance and religious acts described in the Messiah Letter.

Author Biography

Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, was born in western Nevada around 1856. Raised by a white rancher's family after his father died, he spoke English and was involved with a number of Christian groups during his early life. At the age of about thirty, Wovoka began to make prophecies about the end of white dominance of the region and a return to an idyllic past. These prophecies centered on the actions of the Indians themselves, whom Wovoka claimed must live a moral life and perform the Ghost Dance in order for his predictions to come true. His new religious movement was heavily Christian in many respects, including its espousal of pacifism and personal ethics as well as several explicit references to Jesus, but at the same time, it was influenced by the dances and mystical aspects of the religious beliefs of his own people. Wovoka's message only provided the basic outline of the Ghost Dance movement, allowing the tribes that embraced it to adapt its principles to meet their own circumstances.

Historical Document

When you get home you must make a dance to continue five days. Dance four successive nights, and the last night keep up the dance until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then disperse to their homes. You must all do in the same way.

I, Jack Wilson, love you all, and my heart is full of gladness for the gifts you have brought me. When you get home I shall give you a good cloud which will make you feel good. I give you a good spirit and give you all good paint. I want you to come again in three months, some from each tribe there [i.e., Indian Territory].

There will be a good deal of snow this year and some rain. In the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before.

Grandfather says, when your friends die you must not cry. You must not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. This young man has a good father and mother.

Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are still alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.

Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes do not be afraid. It will not hurt you.

I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words again from me some time. Do not tell lies.

Glossary

earth shakes: a reference to the coming of the new world

good cloud: rain, perhaps

good paint: literally, face and body paint, but perhaps also presence or power

Grandfather: a universal title of reverence among Indians and here meaning the messiah

young man … father and mother: Possibly this refers to Casper Edson, the young Arapaho who wrote down this message of Wovoka

Document Analysis

Wovoka's Messiah Letter is a transcript of the message delivered to the Arapaho and Cheyenne delegates who had traveled to Nevada to meet with him and learn the Ghost Dance. It was written down by two attendees at the event, an Arapaho man named Casper Edson and the daughter of a Cheyenne delegate named Black Short Nose, and recorded by ethnographer James Mooney. The letter describes the basic tenets revealed in Wovoka's vision, leaving much room for interpretation and variation in how they were implemented.

The letter first says to perform the dance for five days. Although Wovoka does not specify the form of the dance, the actual dance performed, known as the circle dance, was common among western tribes. Then Wovoka begins to make prophecies. He says, “In the fall there will be such a rain as I have never given you before,” clearly implying that he personally is responsible for bringing the rain and snow. Later in the letter, Wovoka claims, “Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud,” again referencing himself as the bringer of the weather.

His authority established, Wovoka moves into descriptions of how those who follow the Ghost Dance movement must live. He advises Indians not to cry when friends pass away, as they will all come back to life when the prophecy is fulfilled. He tells them to live in peace with all people, regardless of race, and to “do right always.” While many tribes had been waging war against the white settlers encroaching on their lands, Wovoka calls for a different approach, asking his audience not to resist, since the fulfillment of the prophecies will make all things right. He also says that the Ghost Dance is for Indians alone and must not be shared or even discussed with whites.

Though religious beliefs often give hope of an eternal reward, Wovoka claims that the reward he is bringing is imminent and will come if people only perform the dance and live as he instructs. After referencing Jesus, and possibly identifying with him, Wovoka states that “the dead are still alive again” and that, though they have not yet arrived, they may be there by “this fall or in the spring.”

At the end, Wovoka returns to the idea of keeping peace with white people, encouraging Indians to work for them and not to worry, as the coming changes that will remove the whites from their land will not affect them. His prophecy complete, he promises to return and give them another message, presumably about the imminent return of the dead and the new age that he intends to usher in. According to anthropologist Michael Hittman, Wovoka never lost faith in his prophecies or his own role as a supernatural being, acting as a medicine man almost until his death in 1932.

Essential Themes

It is unfortunate that the peaceful Ghost Dance movement came to be associated with the violence surrounding the death of the Lakota leader Sitting Bull and the tragedy of the Wounded Knee massacre in December 1890. The Lakota had adapted the Ghost Dance, as had many other tribes, to their own culture and situation, and one of those adaptations was the ghost shirts that the dancers wore, which they believed would stop white men's bullets. As the Lakota had been fighting white settlers and the US Army for more than twenty years, federal officials took the arrival of the Ghost Dance as a harbinger of more militant resistance. The Army arrived, and the ensuing tragedy at Wounded Knee ended both the widespread popularity of the Ghost Dance movement and, at least symbolically, open warfare between whites and Indians. Though local newspapers around Wovoka's home region raised concerns that the Paiutes, under Wovoka's influence, might follow the example of the Lakota, no violence ever came to pass, as it was antithetical to everything that Wovoka and the Ghost Dance stood for.

Despite the fact that his prophecies did not come true, Wovoka remained an influential religious leader among Indian people. The peaceful nature of his movement was not lost on Indian agents in his home region, who wanted him to remain there as a calming influence. In his later years, he made sporadic public appearances and was revered by Indian people from various tribes throughout the West. He was able to make a living by selling items that he had personally used, from clothing to the paint and feathers used in Indian religious ceremonies.

The movement Wovoka started may have faded into historical obscurity for most after the tragic events of 1890, but some tribes, especially on the Great Plains, still practiced the Ghost Dance for many years. During the Red Power movement of the 1960s, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), specifically Oglala Lakota activist Leonard Crow Dog, performed the Ghost Dance. For them, the Ghost Dance was a perfect analogy for their own protest against US government policy and the loss of American Indian cultures.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Hittman, Michael. Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. Ed. Don Lynch. Expanded ed. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. Print.
  • Kehoe, Alice Beck. The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization. New York: Holt, 1989. Print.
  • Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. 1892. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991. Print.
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