The Ghost Dance (also called the Ghost Dance of 1890) was a religious movement which was incorporated into numerous Native American belief systems. The traditional ritual used in the Ghost Dance, the circle dance, has been used by many Native Americans since prehistoric times. In accordance with the prophet Jack Wilson (Wovoka)‘s teachings, it was first practiced for the Ghost Dance among the Nevada Paiute in 1889. The practice swept throughout much of the Western United States, quickly reaching areas of California and Oklahoma. As the Ghost Dance spread from its original source, Native American tribes synthesized selective aspects of the ritual with their own beliefs. This process often created change in both the society that integrated it, and in the ritual itself.
Jack Wilson’s vision:
Jack Wilson, the prophet formerly known as Wovoka, was believed to have had a vision during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. It was reportedly not his first time experiencing a vision directly from God; but as a young adult, he claimed that he was then better equipped, spiritually, to handle this message. Jack had received training from an experienced holy man under his parents’ guidance after they realized that he was having difficulty interpreting his previous visions. Jack was also training to be a “weather doctor”, following in his father’s footsteps. He was known throughout Mason Valley as a gifted and blessed young leader. Preaching a message of universal love, he often presided over circle dances, which symbolized the sun’s heavenly path across the sky.
Wilson said he stood before God in heaven and had seen many of his ancestors engaged in their favorite pastimes. God showed Wilson a beautiful land filled with wild game and instructed him to return home to tell his people that they must love each other, not fight, and live in peace with the whites. God also stated that the people must work, not steal or lie, and that they must not engage in the old practices of war or the traditional self-mutilation practices connected with mourning the dead. God said that if his people abided by these rules, they would be united with their friends and family in the other world.
In God’s presence, there would be no sickness, disease, or old age. Wilson was given the Ghost Dance and commanded to take it back to his people. He preached that if the five-day dance was performed in the proper intervals, the performers would secure their happiness and hasten the reunion of the living and deceased. Wilson said that God gave him powers over the weather and that he would be the deputy in charge of affairs in the western United States, leaving current President Harrison as God’s deputy in the East. Jack claims that he was then told to return home and preach God’s message.
Jack Wilson claimed to have left the presence of God convinced that if every Indian in the West danced the new dance to “hasten the event”, all evil in the world would be swept away, leaving a renewed Earth filled with food, love, and faith. Quickly accepted by his Paiute brethren, the new religion was termed “Dance In A Circle”. Because the first European contact with the practice came by way of the Sioux, their expression Spirit Dance was adopted as a descriptive title for all such practices.
This was subsequently translated as “Ghost Dance”.
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