Native American prophets and holy men have long troubled the uneasy conscience
of the modern culture of North America.
These native sages have played a larger part in the conscious and unconscious
lives of the people of North America than is generally recognized. A few
of them, like Lame Deer and Rolling Thunder are known at least by name to
the general public, though exactly what they had to say is less familiar.
While Western prophets envision Armageddon at the end of the (literal) line,
native prophets see a circle, an endless process in which the past and future
are alive in the present. It is worth contemplating that combining a straight
line and a circle results in a spiral.
One native prophet of great interest is Wovoka, a member of the Paiute nation.
He is thought to have been born in 1854 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of
Nevada. Wovoka was also known as Jack Wilson, and by the time of his birth
European settlers in Nevada had destroyed the Paiute nation and way of life.
Native American nations throughout the continent had been stripped of their
lands and traditions, the buffalo had been slaughtered and their peoples
were herded onto reservations. All that was left to most of these peoples
were their world view, their spiritual beliefs and their medicine men, many
of whom, in desperation and sadness, were trying to dream the white man out
Because of a dream, Wovoka had a profound, lasting and tragic impact on the
course of the relationship between the European and the Native American.
During a full eclipse on New Years Day of 1889, Wovoka had a dream
which resulted in what came to be known as the "Ghost Dance" among Native
Like most Paiutes of that time, he had considerable exposure to the Christian
faith of the settlers, and his dream was a mixture of native and Christian
beliefs. In his dream, Wovoka died and an eagle carried him to the sky; when
he returned alive, he said something like this: "When the Sun died, I went
up to heaven and saw God and all the people who had died a long time ago.
God told me to come back and tell my people they must be good and love one
another, and not fight, or steal or lie. He gave me this dance to give to
In a short time, Wovokas message and dance had spread from Nevada to
the Plains Indians, particularly the Lakota Sioux of Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
The ritualistic dance lasted four and five days, and was deeply appealing
to Native peoples, whose world view and spiritual traditions were based on
nature and who were mystified by what Robert Toledo termed "the pew-bound
protocol of Christian faiths."
Though Wovoka clearly and consistently spoke against violence in any form,
the Ghost Dance was turned into a militaristic ritual by the Lakota. Whatever
the effect on Lakota people of non-stop dancing for days at a time, white
settlers, mostly as a result of newspaper reports of savage indians dancing
themselves into a pagan and violent trance, were terrified.
Blame for the situation fell on Wovoka, who was in Nevada and opposed to
violence, and Sitting Bull, the Lakota chief medicine man, who was apathetic
to the Ghost Dance. Nevertheless, Sitting Bull was killed on Dec. 15, 1890,
in a botched attempt by government officials to arrest him and stop the Ghost
Fourteen days later, unable to stop the Ghost Dance, the U.S. Army slaughtered
290 mostly unarmed mostly women and children Lakotas on the frozen plains
of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation. Thirty-three soldiers died,
most of them from friendly fire; 20 Medals of Honor were presented to soldiers
with the courage to massacre women and children.
Because of Wovokas dream, Wounded Knee became the predominant symbol
of Americas brutality toward its first people. It also stopped the
In 1971, Rolling Thunder, a Cherokee and Shoshone shaman, said, "People should
treat their own bodies with respect. Its the same thing with the earth.
Too many people dont know that when they harm the earth they harm
themselves, nor do they realize that when they harm themselves they harm
And Lame Deer, a 20th-century Sioux shaman, said several years ago, perhaps
presaging Y2K: "
in my vision the electric light will stop sometime.
It is used too much for TV and going to the moon. The day is coming when
nature will stop the electricity. Police without flashlights, beer getting
hot in the refrigerators, planes dropping from the sky, even the President
cant call up somebody on the phone. A young man will come, or men,
wholl know how to shut off the electricity. It will be painful, like
giving birth. Rapings in the dark, winos breaking into the liquor stores,
a lot of destruction. People are being too smart, too clever; the machine
stops and they are helpless, because they have forgotten how to make do without
the machine. There is a Light Man coming, bringing a new light. It will happen
before this century is over. The man who has this power will do good things
too---stop all atomic power, stop wars, just by shutting the white electro-power
off. I hope to see this, but then Im also afraid. What will be will
Im trying to bring the Ghost Dance back, but interpret it in
a new way. I think it has been misunderstood, but after 80 years I believe
that more and more people are sensing what we meant when we prayed for a
new earth and that now, not only the Indians, but everybody has became an
endangered species. So let the Indians help you bring on a new earth without
pollution or war. Lets roll up the world. It needs it."