Ghost Dance celebrates Indian culture

by Xiao Zhang, Outpost Staff

On the Web

Nevada Historical Society

American Indian Heritage Foundation

Yerington Paiute tribe

Walker River Paiute tribe

Native American Indian resources on the Internet

PBS -- The West Film Project

UNC's Web site on Wovoka

Some 30 people standing in a big circle, hand in hand, moved to the tune sung by an American Indian on stage. Some, white and American Indian alike, were humming with the singer. The constant drum beat that accompanied the singing and the slow movements in the crowd formed a harmonious atmosphere.

The scene was part of the round dance toward the end of Native American Ghost Dance on Saturday at Lawlor Events Center at the University of Nevada. The audience of about 600 was invited to join the Paiute tribe members in the dance, which is a prayer among Northern Nevada Paiutes for good health and wealth.

The Ghost Dance, which was a partial recreation of the sacred ceremony, was a celebration of the life and teaching of Wovoka, the American Indian prophet who made the dance popular. Sponsored by the Yerington Paiute tribe and the Nevada Historical Society, it is the first tribal performance ever at the university.


The audience participates in the round dance led by Paiute tribe members.
Photo by Xiao Zhang

It aimed to give the public an opportunity to know about the American Indian culture.

"The purpose is to inform and educate people about Wovoka and his continuing doctrine and provide a form of more diverse perspective on Nevada history," said Marta Gonzalez-Collins, the library assistant at the Nevada Historical Society in charge of the Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance, started in the 1870s by a Native American prophet, was handed down to his son Wovoka and reached its height of popularity in 1889.

Yerington tribe chairman Kenneth Roberts said the Ghost Dance carries a meaning of reunion.

"It reunites the father, family and relatives that were passed away or gone," Roberts said.


Marlin Thompson from Yerington Paiute tribe accompanies his singing for the Ghost Dance with drum beating.
Photo by Xiao Zhang

Saturday's Ghost Dance, Roberts said, was a good chance for relatives to get together. About 10 to 15 percent of the audience were Native Americans from the Yerington Paiute tribe and surrounding tribes, such as the Walker River Paiute tribe in Nevada and the Bishop Paiute tribe in California.

But when the dance was first started, it meant something special to the Paiutes. Wovoka prophesied if the Ghost Dance was practiced, the white settlers would vanish and American Indians would get back their land. Native dead would be resurrected and reunited with their living relatives and disease and misery would be wiped out.

The prophecies, which came at the time when Native Americans were desecrated, gave them a hoping message, Roberts said.

The dance and teaching were embraced with enthusiasm and became widespread rapidly. Delegates from neighboring Indian nations, such as western Shoshone, came to study the dance and spread it eastward as far as Idaho.


A close shot of Wovoka, as well as other pictures of him, was on exhibit in conjunction with the Ghost Dance.
Photo by Xiao Zhang

The dance stopped after the 1890 government suppression and massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

But Roberts said the Ghost Dance never really died.

"It's always been part of the Paiute culture," he said.

Besides the Ghost Dance the Yerington tribe members performed, a keynote speech was given by Michael Hittman, professor of anthropology at Long Island University and author of "Wovoka and the Ghost Dance: A sourcebook." Wovoka's relatives also shared remembrance of him. An exhibition of Wovoka's available pictures was put on by the Nevada Historical Society at the Lawlor in conjunction with the event.

Posted Oct. 13, 1999
Copyright 1999 Nevada Outpost

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