American Sinai: Wovoka & the Ghost Dance of Walker Lake

Walker Lake, Nevada with Mt. Grant in the distance

Walker Lake, Nevada with Mt. Grant in the distance


This is hallowed ground. Indigenous America’s Mt. Sinai. It’s Sea of Galilee. The birthplace of the Messiah, of late 19th century Indian Hope, and, as always (always) despair.

They came by the hundreds to dance here. They came from Arizona, Washington, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, you name it. They came on trains, on foot, on horseback to this spot: Walker Lake in the high desert of Western Nevada. They came and prayed beneath looming Mt. Grant.

And they danced. Like crazy they danced. They danced for five days sessions without end. They danced because they had been told to dance by the messiah. The danced because the dance would bring back the buffalo, end starvation, return life, and obliterate their oppressors.
WovokaWovoka

It was here that the Indian Messiah was born—Wovoka—and born with him Native America’s most powerful messianic religion: the Ghost Dance.

Wovoka was by his own account a pretty average kid. He went mainly by a white name—Jack Wilson. He grew to just under six feet tall and he wasn’t particularly dynamic or attractive. He came from what was at the time a weak and unwarlike tribe. He was no Sitting Bull.

When he was around thirty, he fell into a trance during a full eclipse of the sun. He described it as dying and returning from the dead. Either way, he awoke with an amazing vision. He had been taken into heaven where he visited with the God and the ghosts of the dead. He was given a promise, a message, and a command. The promise was a restored Indian Nation, a restored continent, and a restoration of the herds (buffalo, elk, deer) which was a primary food source. The message? Peace. Leave the whites to their ways, let God take care of it. It’s the sort of message that prompted Marx’s famous comment, that religion’s an opiate meant to pacify dissent. The command? Dance. Dance for five days, exhaust themselves, cleanse themselves. Be reborn as Indians. Prepare for the coming restoration.

Wovoka danced the Ghost Dance at Walker Lake for the first time in January 1889. So powerful was this dance that within a few months, Indians from nearly every tribe west of the Mississippi streamed into the valley to participate.

Sportsmen's Beach, Walker Lake, Nevada

Sportsmen's Beach, Walker Lake, Nevada

Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux medicine man, sent a delegation in the fall of 1889. They returned to South Dakota in March, 1890. Upon hearing the message, Sitting Bull converted and began to practice the Ghost Dance with a few twists, the most famous of which is the Ghost Shirt (likely picked up from the Mormons notion of an ‘endowment robe’ as the Sioux travelled through Mormon territory).

We know how this ended. White settlers got nervous. The U.S. Government sent troops to occupy the south shores of Walker Lake. In South Dakota, the 7th Cavalry starts moving against Sitting Bull and the Sioux Ghost Dancers.

Postcard from an abandoned campsite of the Empire

Postcard from an abandoned campsite of the Empire


That summer of 1890, Sitting Bull has a number of visions. In one he gathers a sacred reddish/ochre paint, mixed from the shores of Walker Lake, and tells his followers to smear it on their ghost shirts and their tipis. This is a passover marking, he tells them, it will protect you from the evil that is coming. His other vision: he will be killed by his own people.

In December of that year, he gets a bullet point blank to the back of his head from a tribal officer, Red Tomahawk, sent by the Indian agent at Fort Yates.

Two weeks after his death, the Ghost Shirts prove no match for the four Hotchkiss gunsset atop the hill at Wounded Knee. Firing two-pound explosive charges at the rate of fifty per minute, everything within two miles of the guns goes up in flames: tipis, bodies, the grass. Of the three hundred and fifty Sioux, maybe fifty survive. Of course, these numbers get debated.

High Desert Special Ops Center Range Complex, Hawthorne (Walker Lake), Nevada

High Desert Special Ops Center Range Complex, Hawthorne (Walker Lake), Nevada

Of what Ghost Shirts remain on the frozen, dead bodies a few days later, soldiers and hired civilians strip to sell on a burgeoning Ghost Dance trinket market. You can find Ghost Shirts from Wounded Knee in private collections from Montana to Scotland, complete with bullet holes and burn marks. Moneychangers once again desecrate the temple.

Mount Grant's flank

Mount Grant's flank


Wovoka was apolitical and pacifist, but many of his followers were political and militant. I doubt Mohammed or Jesus would be surprised. The ground most fertile to his messianic prophesy in 1890 were those most bleak, most occupied, and saw the most blood. The Sioux were starving. The railroad had cut their reservation in two and brought white hunters that decimated the herds. Winter had arrived, theirs was a land and culture divided.

The guns remain. The Indians do not.

The guns remain. The Indians do not.


Today, the guns remain at Walker Lake. The Paiute Reservation still sits to the north. To the south sits the town of Hawthorne which houses endless rows of ammunition bunkers. Walker Lake is home to the Hawthorne Army Depot, 147,000 acres of ammunition bunkers, a 50,000 acre test range, the Western Area Demilitarization Facility (WADF), and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. Everywhere you turn, signs warn against leaving the road and that you are being watched.

I have come this morning to the shores of Walker Lake for reasons unclear to me. I’ve been reading about Wovoka and the Ghost Dance not because I’m interested in Native American spiritual practice but because I’m interested in Paradise Lost (the poem and the concept, both which travelled west with white europeans). I’m interested in dreamland of youth, of Eden and Arcadia, before Pandora’s Jaropens and the snake enters the garden.

Hawthorne Army Depot Munitions Bunkers, Hawthorne, Nevada

Hawthorne Army Depot Munitions Bunkers, Hawthorne, Nevada


I’m interested in what happens when a society is destroyed by occupation both physically and economically. What form does hope take in a culture that has its land taken, its agricultural and hunting system decimated, its people killed? Does hope form at all? Walker Lake was a birthplace of one such form of hope, now stripped and buried under the abandoned refuse of a dozen wars. I have a photo taken of me in 1988. I am standing on top of burned out tank left to rot on the side of the road in the middle of Africa. It could have been taken right here, just another place fought over and abandoned by empire.

This morning, the trail to Mount Grant is blocked by a hundred years of spent and abandoned ordnance, piles of lethal garbage desecrate its eastern flank. And so I sit in the heat of the Nevada desert and watch as a dragonfly radiates her purple iridescence and alights on the guard rail next to me where she is trapped and devoured by an engorged spider.

The last resident of Paradise

The last resident of Paradise