DESERT CREEK, Nev. - In an ancient rite of spring that may date back
thousands of years, tribal members from Nevada and California gathered on a
mountainside in Nevada to bless this year's growth of pinon pines to bring
in a good harvest of pine nuts this fall.
I was honored to be invited to attend the blessing ceremony, which this
year had the added distinction of seeing the granddaughter of Wovoka, the
Paiute medicine man and prophet of the Ghost Dance movement, say the
blessing in her native dialect.
Spring comes late this far north in Nevada, so a soft spring snow was
beginning to fall as Marlin Thompson of the Yerington Paiute Tribe and I
arrived at the traditional blessing ground, located south of Yerington in
what is now the Toiyabe National Forest.
Thompson, who is the tribe's NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and
Repatriation Act) coordinator and is in charge of a regional commodities
distribution operation, was worried that the cold weather would keep elders
away from the ceremony and produce a repetition of the previous year's
But despite the snow, hail and occasional wind at the Desert Creek site,
and despite a snowstorm visible high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that
was making its inexorable way toward the blessing ground, a mix of adults,
elders and children from several of the local bands of Paiute arrived to
continue this traditional rite of spring.
Elder Freida Brown, granddaughter of Wovoka, spoke to the assembled people
in English about her grandfather, who she knew when she was a small girl
before his death in 1932. She explained that his Indian name, Wovoka, meant
wood cutter (his English name was Jack Wilson). She also said that he was
born nearby in Desert Creek and spent much time in these mountains, where
he organized gatherings much like the one we were participating in now,
carrying on in his tradition.
Wovoka, a tribal doctor or medicine man, is remembered by the Yerington
Paiute as a rainmaker and a good doctor. A vision he experienced at a
mining camp high in the mountains, at Pine Grove, led to the Ghost Dance
movement, which swept through Indian country in 1890.
Brown switched to her own dialect of Paiute to give the blessing in a
resonant, powerful voice, after Thompson rubbed his hands in wild tobacco
(which grows nearby) and then placed a garland of sage and pine cones in a
rushing snowmelt rivulet, weighing the package down with a stone.
Thompson then asked group members to do a Round Dance to ensure the growth
of the pine nuts, which will be gathered in the fall engendering a harvest
ceremony. As he started to beat on a hand drum, the snow began to fall
again, prompting Brown to jokingly exclaim, "My grandfather called the
rain, not the snow!"
I felt it was a special honor to be asked to join in the Round Dance. I
felt an unusual closeness to the spirit and tradition of Wovoka, as I am
keenly aware that the Ghost Dance was also a Round Dance. Thompson played
the drum and sang songs in Paiute. One was an Eagle Song, which he said he
learned from Brown, who learned it from Wovoka.
Afterwards, lunch was served, to the elders first, and I asked Brown
permission to take her photograph. She readily agreed and I sat next to her
and asked her about her recollections of the prophet. She told me he was a
kindly man who always referred to her as "granddaughter."
Brown, like her grandfather, has an aura of power and spirituality about
her, and when she mentioned the wind it kicked up suddenly, causing both of
us to smile. We both enjoyed sitting in the immensity of the mountainside,
which rolled away toward the valley and more spectacular mountains on the
other side, also being carpeted with clouds that would sometimes break to
bring sudden sun.
On our return, just ahead of the snowstorm, we passed through Wilson
Canyon, where Thompson said Wovoka's powers are said to reside; and visited
the Wilson ranch, where he grew up as Jack Wilson. The narrow canyon, with
its rushing branch of the Walker River, is stark and beautiful. The current
owner of the ranch said there was a serenity about the place, which she
attributed to Wovoka's residence there.
Although the ranch house is new since Wovoka's time, outside there is a
stone corral where tradition says the prophet called the Ghost Dance. I
walked out into its empty expanse and I could imagine, or feel, the
presence of the Round dancers there, just as I had been in the presence of
their descendants, who had just danced a different Round Dance on the
mountain to help the pine nuts grow.