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A Deeper Dive Into the Conservation of Wovoka Wilderness

Initially, the lands including the Wovoka Wilderness entered into conservation protection when 535,337 acres of Nevada were added to the Region 5, California Mono National Forest by Proclamation 858--  35 Stat. 2235, March 2, 1909 (the Mono National Forest was established a year before on July 2nd, 1908). Additional boundary adjustments were made in 1911. Beginning in 1908 the Forest headquarters for the Mono National Forest were first located in the town of Gardnerville, Nevada. Later it moved a short distance south to Minden, Nevada in 1919. Early in 1939, perhaps anticipating future administrative changes, the headquarters for the Mono National Forest were again moved, this time to Reno, Nevada, the same place where the Intermountain Region 5 Toiyabe National Forest Supervisor’s Headquarters were located. It appears that both the Mono National Forest and the Toiyabe National Forest may have been managed out of the same office during the early 1940s, as the Reno Evening Gazette, May 11, 1944 mentions: “Fred H. Kennedy, supervisor of the Mono-Toiyabe forest.” Public Land Order 307; 11 Federal Register 250, December 18, 1945 abolished the Mono National Forest and transferred all of its Nevada lands and most of its California lands to Region 4 and the Toiyabe National Forest.  The remaining 213,000 acres of the old Mono National Forest in CA remained in Region 5 and went into the Inyo National Forest.

The interest in preserving the wildness of Bald Mountain is the story of two local youths from Yerington who developed a lifetime of passion for this unique area from their teenage years. Art Shipley first visited what would become the Wovoka Wilderness in 1948 when he hunted there at the age of 17. Steve Pelligrini first visited the area with his father in 1959. Over the next 55 years Art and Steve would return to the area to explore every ridge and canyon. They discovered wildlife that was not believed to living the area and found archeological evidence for a Native American presence over 10,000 years old. Art and Steve also watched as the area became increasing threatened by mining and off road vehicles. In February of 1972, the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club conducted a preliminary evaluation of 99,000 acres of the “Pine Grove Hills” and gave it a preliminary classification recommendation of “Wild. B” (Probable High-Quality Wilderness). The 1979 the USFS RARE II Decisions looked at 73,990 acres of Bald Mountain [aka Wovoka] and allocated it to “Non-Wilderness.” Steve and Art were not deterred, however, despite the fact that they lived in a community that predominately embraced ideological objections to protected Wilderness lands.

Working with Steve and Art in 2005, Bald Mountain was visited and documented by conservationists and proposed as a Wilderness. This proposal failed and withered in an ill-fated 2007 Wilderness campaign, which fomented an extreme anti-wilderness stance by Lyon County. The Lyon County commissioners passed a resolution that there would never be any designated Wilderness in their county. Art and Steve continued to work with conservation organizations like Friends of Nevada Wilderness and other Wilderness advocates to permanently protect the wildlife, natural, and important archaeological values of Bald Mountain through Wilderness designation.

In 2012, an opportunity presented itself for protection of Bald Mountain and its natural and cultural resources. The City of Yerington wanted 11,000 acres of BLM managed public lands in the Pumpkin Hollow area for light industrial expansion and to sell to NV Copper for mining. This set into motion an opportunity for a federal land exchange with a Wilderness designation component. As critical Bi-State Sage Grouse habitat had become important for survival the species, designating Bald Mountain as Wilderness would demonstrate a good faith effort by Lyon County for permanent protection of the Bald Mountain Bi-State Sage Grouse habitat. Additionally, local Wilderness advocates worked with the Walker Lake and Yerington tribes and the granddaughters of Wovoka to get their support for Wilderness protection for of the natural and cultural resources Bald Mountain and their permission to rename the area the Wovoka Wilderness. All of these elements precipitated a coalition to work toward the designation of the Wovoka Wilderness. In September of 2012, the local wilderness advocates conducted a tour of Wovoka with Friends of Nevada Wilderness staff to negotiate acceptable boundaries for stakeholders and the Nevada congressional delegation. Lyon County unanimously reversed their opinion about Wilderness and the Lyon County Economic Development and Conservation Act was introduced in the 113th congress in 2013.

After two more years of intensive work, on December 12, 2014, Wovoka became a designated Wilderness area with the Congressional passage of a public lands bill as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Art’s fondest wish to have “future generations be able to see this country as the ancient aboriginals saw it, or as how I saw it on my first hunting trip in 1948” came true.

A Deeper Dive Into Wovoka, the Native American Prophet

Wovoka was born in the Smith Valley area southeast of Carson City, Nevada, around 1856. "Wovoka" means “Cutter” or Wood Cutter” in western the Paiute language.  His father, Tavivo ("White Man" in Paiute) was known as a “dreamer with supernatural powers” and for his own “prophetic claims and teachings.” Wovoka’s father followed the teachings of Wodziwob, who was part of the original Ghost Dance movement in the 1870s. At the age of 12-14,  Wovoka had been fully immersed in the Ghost Dance philosophy as a compliment to the spirituality of his father’s Native American mysticism.

In the mid 1860s, Wovoka started working for David Wilson in the Mason Valley and was given the “white name” of Jack Wilson. During this time, Wovoka learned of Christianity from David Wilson and was given regular work, including tending cattle and ranch work in the area that would become Wovoka Wilderness.

By the time Wovoka was twenty, he stood six feet tall and he married a Paiute woman he named Mary in honor of David Wilson’s wife.  There is some suggestion that Wovoka also traveled in Northern California over the next 2 decades of his life, most likely as part of a farm labor system that used Paiutes as laborers in picking hops in the Pacific Northwest at that time.  If so, Wovoka may have been introduced by the Pacific Northwest Tribes to the Washani or “dreamer” religion and the Indian Shaker movement. Whatever the genesis of Wovoka’s beliefs, they were grounded in Native American Mysticism, Christian theology, and his paternal family tradition as “medicine men.”

There are three conflicting stories about the circumstances for Wovoka’s vision for the revival of the Ghost Dance.  One says he was chopping wood for David Wilson (in what may have been today’s Wovoka Wilderness) in 1887. Another claims that Wovoka received his vision after entering a two-day trance and to the awaking in tears. The most poetic account tells of Wovoka lying close to death in the grips of a fever and had his vision and a journey to heaven and God during the total solar eclipse of January 1st 1889.  Whatever the circumstances, Wovoka’s vision directed him to perform the “Ghost Dance” (variation of the Paiute round dance, which Wovoka had introduced several years before) at intervals for five consecutive days  as a vehicle to hasten to a new world where Indian peoples would be reunited with their deceased loved ones and relive the old ways in harmony.  The other critical element of Wovoka’s vision was peace: the dancers were to live honorable lives, be good and love one another, live in peace with the whites, do not lie or steal, and put away all practices of war.  Wovoka also believed that God gave him control over the elements so he could make it rain, snow, one dry at will.   There are contemporary accounts and oral traditions of Wovoka’s weather-related miracles.  Wovoka’s teachings quickly spread, first through the Western Paiute people then found a larger, national audience throughout the West and upper Midwest.  Representatives and envoys from many tribes traveled to Nevada to hear and experience what Wovoka was teaching through 1889 and 1890.  Wovoka’s teaching became the first Pan-Indian movement in the United States. Wovoka remained adamant that he was but a prophet of God and the new world to come.  As so often happens, with the rapid rise of Wovoka’s words and teaching, the teachings themselves evolved into something else and Wovoka himself was transformed from a prophet to the Messiah in the minds of the practitioners of the Ghost Dance in far flung locations, such as on the Great Plains. Unfortunately, the performance of the Ghost Dance in the Great Plains was looked upon as Indian Militancy by the Indian Bureau and military and eventually led to the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 29, 1890.

Wovoka did believe in the return of a Messiah who would usher in his vision of a reunited pan-Indian world, but he always insisted that he himself was merely a prophet.  In fact, Wovoka foretold of a Messiah who would some day appear on Mount Grant. When Wovoka learned of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, he encouraged his followers to return to their tribes and stop dancing.  Wovoka’s standing as Pan-Indian leader diminished through the 1890’s.  Wovoka, however, continued to inspire devotion from local Paiutes and even beyond as his message expressed a desire of hope for Native Americans in a nation eager to extinguish their culture and assimilate their people. Wovoka continued to receive letters from his followers throughout the remainder of his life. 

Wovoka died on September 20, 1932 and was buried in the Paiute Cemetery in Shurz.




a Biography by Julien Pellegrini

Sometime during 1887 in the Pine Grove Range (just north of the Wovoka Wilderness boundary) a young Northern Paiute (Numu) man named Wovoka (Jack Wilson) had a vision. Wovoka was chopping wood for the white family (David and Abigail Wilson) that had cared for him as an adolescent. The Wilson family had given Wovoka the white name Jack Wilson. The Indians in this part of the country came to know Wovoka by many nick names, among them was “The (wood) Cutter,” which was given in lieu of his hard work cutting wood throughout the Pine Grove Range for the Wilson Ranch located near the east mouth of Wilson Canyon, Mason Valley, Nevada.

Wovoka spoke of his vision frequently. He was heard to say that while cutting wood, “a great noise appeared above him on the mountains.” Startled, he lay down his axe and walked in the direction of this noise. At some point he fell upon the ground dead, where he lay for some time. When he awoke from death he found himself in a vision within a renewed land free of oppression and turmoil. “I saw all the old people who had died long ago engaged in their old time sports and occupations, all happy and forever young; it was a pleasant land, and full of game,” so told Wovoka. Wovoka was visited by the creator within his vision who bestowed upon him, in addition to a look into paradise, a ministry on Earth to complete. Wovoka was told to return to Earth to tell his people that they must meet often and dance five nights in succession then stop for three months. This duty gave Wovoka great power to do many things, among which was the power to alter the weather.

One such event took place when a Walker River Reservation (Schurz, NV) Numu named James Josephus, a captain of the reservation police came to Wovoka in need. He relayed the story to Arthur I. Chapman, an Indian scout sent by Brigadier General John Gibbon, Commander of the Military Department of the Pacific in San Francisco. James Josephus, along with all the other Schurz Numu were suffering from a severe drought during the 1888 and 1889 period. Josephus, formerly a skeptic of Wovoka’s, traveled to Mason Valley where he pleaded with Wovoka for relief for many hours until late into the night. Wovoka said nothing and sat this whole time with his head bowed just listening. Early the next morning, Wovoka came to Josephus and told him in three days rain would come. Josephus told that upon the early morning of the third day the Schurz Indians awoke to torrential rains unlike any most of the people had ever seen. The Walker River even flooded its banks and the relief lasted.

For a prolonged period of time, the U.S. government became more interested in the Paiute prophet’s rapidly growing influence over a wide array of tribes. It is known that many tribes sent delegates to Mason Valley to meet with Wovoka. One such gathering drew some 1,600 people including tribes such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Ute, Bannock, Navaho, Lakota, and “a tribe to the south of us called the Umapaw,” said one attendee of the meeting. Wovoka remained for a period of time a great mystery to the world as he was known only among residents of Mason and Smith Valley. The Indian Scout sent from San Francisco, Chapman, traveled to Mason Valley in hopes to find the prophet, and eventually found himself in the Messiah’s presence in Wellington, NV. The weather was poor and snow and rain took turns turning the landscape into an inhospitable arctic cold landscape. Chapman had no desire to meet outside, so he sent word to Wovoka to meet in Wellington indoors. The first governmental contact made with Wovoka then followed when the door to Zadok Pierce’s Stage Station and Boarding House opened and the Paiute messiah stepped inside. He was found to be a tall muscular man with a heavy presence, a slow but strong voice, and piercing eyes.

Probably the best known interview held with Wovoka, however was one orchestrated by an ethnographer named James Mooney who had previously participated in and documented Wovoka’s Ghost Dance among tribes on the Great Plains. By the time Mooney arrived in Mason Valley, Wovoka had all but vanished once more from the white world and had fervently begun turning down interviews and visits fading into obscurity. However, Mooney contacted Wovoka’s uncle, Charley Sheep in Schurz and had appealed to him to take him to Wovoka. The first time Mooney found himself within the messiah’s presence was in the midst of a punishing winter storm late at night on an open plane to the north of the Pine Grove Range in Wovoka’s kahnee (Numu house). Mooney wrote that the house was warm and inviting, and so was the 1890 Ghost Dance Profit.

Mooney went on to collect what is considered to be the most comprehensive and accurate account of what Wovoka’s Ghost Dance religion was about. The Ghost Dance was not a new concept among the people living in this part of the world. In fact, Wovoka had two relatives who preceded him as spiritual leaders who had their own Ghost Dance visions that also spread a form of religious message. However, when Wovoka had his vision, the religious movement that followed is believed by some to have been the fastest spreading religious movement the world has ever seen. Accuracy of this claim is difficult to ascertain, but we do know that the 1890 Ghost Dance movement spread from west coast to Oklahoma, the four corners to the Canadian border.

Wovoka preached to the people to be kind, be good to the Earth, and be good to one another regardless of race and back ground. He spoke of living a good clean life. Wovoka was a charismatic and sharply intelligent man with a message of peace. He hated the ethnic persecution of Native peoples and told as many as would listen to join as one, forget old disputes and find strength together. Long ago the glow of his dream, like embers in a small fire in the dark faded as one by one the tribes who once adopted Wovoka’s Ghost Dance lost hope. However, like a persistent wind in the wilderness, his message did persist.


How Old is Old?

Wovoka Wilderness has been inhabitated and utilized as part of Native American Lifeways for untold generations. The Nye Canyon Paleo Site: an Upper Montane Mixed Fluted Point, Clovis Blade, and Western Stemmed Tradition Assemblage in Western Nevada report by David Rhodes, et al in the PaleoAmerica Journal (2022) found evidence that Indigenous Americans have been in the area since the early Holocene. It is interesting to imagine how the climate, flora, and fauna changed within the Wovoka Wilderness throughout the last 14,000 years. Unlike the climate and vegetation found in the area today, the keystone species, pinyon-juniper woodland, did not exist in the region at this time. Packrat middens from the area suggest these woodlands did not arrive until 6,000 years ago. Rhodes describes the transitional Pleistocene/Holocene may have consisted of whitebark pine, aspen and mountain mahogany in the lower sheltered canyons, but the Bald Mountain tablelands consisted of nivataion hollows (permanent snow accumulation hollows) and subalpine vegetation. As conditions warmed, these relict nivitation hollows would have formed shallow ponds for most of the summer months. These uplands would have provide numerous edible plant resources including berries, various roots and bulbs, small seeds. More importantly, however, these uplands would have offered opportunities to hunt the relict Pleistocene large herbivors and water fowl that frequented subalpine bogs and uplands during the early centuries of the Holocene. The stone tool assemblages ascribe to these early people by Rhoodes and his fellow researches, shows that Wovoka Wildereness was part of a much large Indigenoues lifeway that crossed the Great Basin and connected over the Sierra Nevada with California. As of 2022, we now know that human habitation in North America is at least 23,000 years old. This area has been part of this perpetual changing indigenous lifeways for more than half of that time. It is comforting to know that Wilderness Designation for Wovoka is a commitment to provide certainty that this important cultural landscape is allowed to continue its ecologically change and adaptation driven by climatic changes from the past, through the present, and into the future without the constraints and disruption of modern industrial demands.