Letter Regarding the Ghost Dance Doctrine

Image: Arapaho Ghost Dance. (1900) National Archives. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/530915
What instructions did Wovoka give to Indians? What was the appeal of Wovoka’s Ghost Dance movement to Indians? What was going on in their lives at the time?
Compare Wovoka’s Ghost Dance vision with Tenskwatawa’s? How are they similar?

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During a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, Wovoka (c. 1856–1932), a Paiute also known as Jack Wilson, either fell into a coma brought on by scarlet fever or died, depending on which version of his story one chooses to believe. While in a coma or dead, he claimed to have met the Christian God and Jesus and received a vision. Indians were to perform a prescribed dance. If they did so faithfully, whites would be swept from the continent, all the ancestors who had died since their coming would be resurrected, the earth would renew itself, and buffalo would again be plentiful. This was the fourth and last in the chain of “raising-up” movements that began with Pontiac and continued with Tecumseh (See Speech of Tenskwatawa and Address to the Osage). The third in the chain was the Ghost Dance of 1870.

Wovoka’s Ghost Dance movement swept through the western tribes, demoralized by confinement to reservations, like wildfire. His message traveled in two ways. Delegations visited the prophet to hear him preach. To those tribal nations who did not send embassies, he sent letters. The so-called Messiah Letter, as reported by noted ethnographer James Mooney, appears below in three versions: one sent to the Arapaho, one to the Cheyenne, and a “free rendering.”

Although Wovoka’s teachings were pacifistic, whites feared that the movement might unite Indians and lead to military conflict. This misunderstanding started a chain of events that led to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.

—Jace Weaver

James Mooney, “The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,” in J. W. Powell, Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1896), 780–781, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Ghost_dance_Religion_and_the_Sioux_O/KOYNAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0. All bracketed text is in the source.

The Messiah Letter (Arapaho Version)

What you get home you make dance, and will give you the same. when you dance four days and in night one day, dance day time, five days and then fifth, will wash five for every body. He likes you folk you give him good many things, he heart been satting feel good. After you get home, will give good cloud, and give you chance to make you feel good. and he give you good spirit. and he give you all a good paint.

You folks want you to come in three [months] here, any tribs from there. There will be good bit snow this year. Sometimes rain’s, in fall, this year some rain, never give you anything like that. grandfather said when he die never no cry. no hurt anybody. no fight, good behave always, it will give you satisfaction, this young man, he is a good Father and mother, dont tell no white man. Jesus was on ground, he just like cloud. Every body is alive again, I dont know when they will [be] here, may be this fall or in spring.

Every body never get sick, be young again—(if young fellow no sick any more), work for white men never trouble with him until you leave, when it shake the earth dont be afraid no harm any body.

You make dance for six weeks night, and put you foot [food?] in dance to eat for every body and wash in the water. that is all to tell, I am in to you. and you will received a good words from him some time, Dont tell lie.

The Messiah Letter (Cheyenne Version)

When you get home you have to make dance. You must dance four nights and one day time. You will take bath in the morning before you go to yours homes, for every body, and give you all the same as this. Jackson Wilson likes you all, he is glad to get good many things. His heart satting fully of gladness, after you get home, I will give you a good cloud and give you chance to make you feel good. I give you a good spirit, and give you all good paint, I want you people to come here again, want them in three months any tribes of you from there. There will be a good deal snow this year. Some time rains, in fall this year some rain, never give you any thing like that, grandfather,1 said, when they were die never cry, no hurt any body, do any harm for it, not to fight. Be a good behave always. It will give a satisfaction in your life. This young man is a good father and mother. Do not tell the white people about this, Jesus is on the ground, he just like cloud. Every body is a live again. I don’t know when he will be here, may be will be this fall or in spring. When it happen it may be this. There will be no sickness and return to young again. Do not refuse to work for white man or 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 make dance for six weeks. Eat and wash good clean yourselves [The rest of the letter had been erased].

The Messiah Letter (Free Rendering)

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 [rain?] 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 [the 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 [a universal title of reverence among Indians and here meaning the messiah] 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. [Possibly this refers to Casper Edson, the young Arapaho who wrote down this message of Wovoka for the delegation].

Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are all 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 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.

  1. 1. See explanation in bracketed text in the free rendering version below.
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