Trickster on NPR

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Do right always. It will give you satisfaction in life. .... 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 [at the coming of the new world], 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.


(From Trickster: an anthropological memoir, based on various versions found in James Mooney's 1896 renditions of The Messiah Letter.)



These are the words of Jack Wilson or Wovoka (1856-1932), a Yerington Paiute, prophet and founder of the mid-1880s Ghost Dance, which was a traditional round dance performed over five days that became the basis of a major religious/nativistic/revivalistic movement among some American Indians. The Ghost Dance incorporated a strong moral code combining Christian elements with native belief. Its name was based on Wovoka's promise that good living would restore the Indians' dead ancestors, their herds, and their former way of life; whites would not be harmed, but would simply go to another, unspecified, place.

At this time, most of the Plains Indians had been defeated and displaced, so it's not surprising that Wovoka's message eventually spread to most tribes of the western United States. Its most spectacular public manifestation was among the Lakota Sioux; in 1889, a Lakota delegation visited Wovoka and returned home with the Dance, which they performed in sacred shirts, which they believed were bullet-proof.  In 1890, white officials, alarmed at any sign of unfamiliar activity among the Sioux, attempted to arrest Chief Sitting Bull and in the resulting brutal, chaotic melee, 150 Sioux and 25 soldiers were killed in what has become known as the Battle of Wounded Knee.



When I did my fieldwork in Yerington in 1964, Wovoka had been dead for 30 years. He had promised local people that he would return, but until he did, they were to take up a new religion. He didn't specify which one.  This is what I decided to study: what religion(s) did they practice now? Did the newly adopted ones have any similarity to the Ghost Dance? It seemed like a neat, clear-cut study. At the time, very little was being written about Wovoka or the Ghost Dance. I could see a nice, useful journal article emerging at the end of my research. But first, and more importantly, I had to learn about Wovoka for my final report on the summer's work, because as any student knows, one's professor is a far more immediately fearsome person than any imaginary journal editor.


This, of course, as the story of Trickster tells, was before Coyote seduced me and led me astray from my original focus. Nevertheless, I did manage to get a considerable amount of information about Wovoka, and some of it appears here in that final report. The "Acknowledgements" and the "References" section of Trickster refer you to later, much more extensive works, such as Michael Hittman's 1997 book Wovoka and the Ghost Dance, and Alice Beck Kehoe's 2006 study The Ghost Dance: the Ethnohistory And Revitalization.


In the Yerington of 1964, Wovoka was only a memory to older people, both Paiute and white, and unknown to the younger generation. But those who knew of him-Paiutes, whites, anthropologists, historians all had a view: he was a doctor, healer, or leader; a fraud or a miracle-worker; a work-shy manipulator or a kindly, fun-loving avuncular figure. All agreed that he was tall, handsome and intelligent. Hittman's book uses original sources to examine all of these. Today he is a more revered figure, possibly because people now understand more of the historical and cultural context in which he operated, and have more insight into why he used some of the methods he did in order to spread his message.


I have a strong sympathy for Wovoka; I believe that he understood the predicament American Indians were facing and would be facing in the future, and did his best to equip them to survive in an alien world and to look forward, spiritually, to a better world to come. Hittman's and Kehoe's works are good places to start if you'd like to form your own opinion.