Wovoka, buried in Schurz, remains hero to many
Every time I drive through Schurz, I instinctively slow down near the fire station and look west from Highway 95 to a bluff upon which lies the town cemetery.
It contains countless graves, but there is no doubt that the burial place of Wovoka, a Northern Paiute mystic, messiah and prophet who was born 160 years ago this year, is the most noted of them all.
I first visited Wovoka’s grave site in the late 1970s following my purchase of the then-weekly Lahontan Valley News. At that time, his headstone was a weathered wooden board. But in the early 1990s, Milos “Sharkey” Begovich, the owner of Sharkey’s Casino and Restaurant in Gardnerville who, like many Nevadans, deplored the state of Wovoka’s headstone, paid for a grand marble replacement which now serves as a suitable tribute to the Native American leader and the causes he represented.
Several years before his death in 2002, I stopped at Sharkey’s for one of his famous steak sandwiches and asked him why he had bought the new headstone and iron fence and benches which surround Wovoka’s grave.
“My answer can best be described by the words on Wovoka’s gravestone which were written by Walter Cox,” Sharkey answered.
Cox, the owner of Yerington’s weekly Mason Valley News and a former president of the Nevada Press Association, had described Wovoka on the headstone as “Founder of the Ghost Dance, good will and promise of life after death, will live as long as man inhabits earth.”
Wovoka, who was born in a rude hut near Yerington in 1858, six years before Nevada became a state, took the alternate name “Jack Wilson” when he was a teenager from the Wilson family which owned the land surrounding his birthplace. Although he adopted Western dress, learned English and attended Bible readings at the Wilson home, Wovoka, the son of Paiute shaman or medicine man Tavivo, eventually became one himself.
This occurred when he was about 20 years old and cutting down trees in the Pine Nut Mountains. (Wovoka in Paiute means “woodcutter.”) “All of a sudden,” he told friends many years later, “I heard a loud noise, was struck down and was paralyzed and was taken to heaven. The dead in heaven were dancing, playing ball and God told me to instruct the Indian people to be good to others and to cease hostilities with the whites.”
Wovoka also said that God told him to found a new religion called the “Ghost Religion” and to teach his people the “Ghost Dance,” both of which would reunite them with their ancestors and enable them to remain young and free of sickness and death.
He did what he said God ordered him to do, and soon he developed a growing legion of followers in Nevada and across the nation who believed that if they followed Wovoka’s dictates, they could counter the depredations of the White Man who had seized their lands and forced them into involuntary, degrading servitude.
The Ghost Dance, which consisted of Indian males chanting prayers while walking in a circle, as well as its attendant religion, said historian David Thompson, “were eagerly accepted by a people who had suffered ruinous cultural problems, military defeats, the destruction of buffalo, confinement on Indian reservations and epidemics of strange and frequent diseases” inflicted on them by whites who had taken and settled on their ancestral lands. Wovoka also told his followers that if they would be patient, the whites would someday vanish from the earth, the Indians would live happily in a land with abundant wildlife and food, and that their ghosts or ancestors would soon return.
“Wovoka was a man of power,” wrote historian Michael Hittman in his 1989 book “Wovoka and the Ghost Dance.” “He really felt he could control the elements. Basically, he was a good man. People came from all around the country to talk to him,” said Hittman.
But the Native Americans’ faith in Wovoka came crashing down on Dec. 29, 1890, during the last major battle of the U.S. Indian Wars, the Battle of Wounded Knee in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
Incensed and fearful for their lives when Lakota Indians at Pine Ridge performed a frenzied ghost dance while wearing “Ghost Shirts” which Wovoka said would protect them from bullets, panicky members of the Army’s Seventh Cavalry shot and killed an estimated 250 Native American men, women, children and their legendary chief, Sitting Bull. About 15 soldiers also lost their lives, and 20 of the dead and living troopers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Wovoka, who was not present at the Wounded Knee massacre, nevertheless lost much of his stature following the battle because most of his promises to the Indians had been shown to be fanciful. But he has been praised by many Native Americans, whites and historians for bringing hope and salvation to 19th century Indians who had long endured the White Man’s cruelties.
After Wounded Knee, Wovoka slowly reclaimed his reputation, remained a revered Native American leader and prophet, and spoke at numerous Indian reservations where he preached nonviolence and peace between members of all races and religions. He died in Yerington at the age of 74 on Sept. 20, 1932, of a liver disease. He and his wife, Mary, also a Nevada Paiute, had three children.
Their marriage lasted 50 years, and her passing came just one month before his.
David C. Henley is publisher of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.