For the week of April 7, 1999  thru April 13, 1999  

Wovoka, Lame Deer, Rolling Thunder, Wounded Knee, Y2K

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


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 of existence.

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 Year’s Day of 1889, Wovoka had a dream which resulted in what came to be known as the "Ghost Dance" among Native Americans.

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 my people."

In a short time, Wovoka’s 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 Dance.

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 Wovoka’s dream, Wounded Knee became the predominant symbol of America’s brutality toward its first people. It also stopped the Ghost Dance.

In 1971, Rolling Thunder, a Cherokee and Shoshone shaman, said, "People should treat their own bodies with respect. It’s the same thing with the earth. Too many people don’t know that when they harm the earth they harm themselves, nor do they realize that when they harm themselves they harm the earth."

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 can’t call up somebody on the phone. A young man will come, or men, who’ll 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 I’m also afraid. What will be will be…I’m 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. Let’s roll up the world. It needs it."

 

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