American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Dreamer Cult

Known as waasaní (Washani, meaning "dancers" or "worship") in the Sahaptin language, the Dreamer Cult emerged among the Indian peoples of the Columbia Plateau in response to the pressures of Euro-American colonization during the second half of the nineteenth century. Like earlier religious revitalization movements, such as those led by the Delaware prophet Neolin (mideighteenth century) and the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa (early nineteenth century), the Washani mingled traditional spirituality with Christian beliefs and ritual forms. Dreamer prophets rejected non-Indian culture and advocated returning to indigenous traditions, which made their teachings a significant obstacle to the policies of removal and assimilation pursued by the U.S. government. Indian agents and missionaries blamed the Dreamers for obstructing Native American "progress," but their efforts to suppress the faith largely failed, even though its promise of world renewal never came to pass.

The Dreamer Cult both reflected and reacted against the influences of Christianity and Euro-American culture. Prior to contact, Plateau Indian spirituality revolved around a complex of winter dances, personal vision quests, and seasonal feasts tied to the annual subsistence cycle and the acquisition of guardian spirit powers. Starting in the 1820s, fur traders and missionaries introduced Christian doctrines and symbols that Indians selectively adapted and incorporated into the evolving Washani religion. Among the most visible influences were the ringing of hand bells during ceremonies, the use of the numbers three and seven in a sacred context, and the performance of services on Sundays. Interaction with whites also spread devastating diseases, however, while the growing non-Indian population generated pressure for land cessions. By the early 1850s, a number of nativistic prophets had begun exhorting their people to shun the newcomers and return to traditional ways. Most scholars attribute the revitalization of the Washani to the Wanapam prophet Smohalla, but there is evidence that he developed the creed in concert with the Yakama prophet Kotiakan. Together with a host of disciples, they carried a powerful message of hope up and down the Columbia River.

The Dreamer faith appealed to Indian communities reeling from the impact of American colonization. In visions received during deep trances, Smohalla foresaw the disappearance of the whites, the resurrection of the Indian dead, and the restoration of the world to a pristine state. This millennial transformation required no acts of violence—indeed, most Dreamers counseled pacifism—but to achieve it the Indians had to obey the instructions of the Creator as conveyed through the prophets. In addition to performing the wáashat (Washat), or Prophet Dance, they were exhorted to cast off white culture and show respect for the land. The earth was sacred and not to be bought, sold, or torn up for agricultural and extractive uses. As the Yakama chief Owhi explained at the 1855 Walla Walla treaty council, "God made our bodies from the earth as if they were different from the whites. What shall I do? Shall I give the lands that are a part of my body and leave myself poor and destitute? Shall I say I will give you my lands? I cannot say. I am afraid of the Almighty." Such sentiments, though laced with Christian imagery, helped spark the Plateau Indian wars of 1855–1858 as well as inspiring passive resistance to federal policy well into the twentieth century.

To the government's dismay, the Dreamer Cult spread far beyond Smohalla's winter village near Priest Rapids. Although some of his disciples modified Washani symbols and ceremonies, all retained the basic belief that Indians must honor their own traditions. "Their model of a man is an Indian," cursed one exasperated official. "They aspire to be Indian and nothing else." Accordingly, many Dreamers stayed off the reservations and refused to take allotments or send their children to school. Agents and missionaries, acting with the support of sympathetic Christian Indians, responded with a crusade to crush the Washani. In 1878, for example, the Walla Walla prophet Homli complained that the agent and the Roman Catholics on the Umatilla reservation persecuted his followers, "which makes their hearts sore, and [they] cannot stay on the reservation if they are not left alone, and allowed to worship God in their own way." Seven years later, numerous Yakama families abandoned their reservation farms after the agent clapped Kotiakan in irons and imprisoned him at hard labor for six weeks. Far from suppressing the Washani, however, government coercion merely drove it underground or off the reservations, where agents and Indian police had little power.

The Dreamer Cult remained strong until the early 1890s, when Kotiakan and Smohalla passed away and their followers began to lose faith in the promise of a world free of whites. The Washani's nativistic edge also dulled over time, as Plateau Indian culture continued to evolve, but many of the Dreamers' songs, dances, and ritual innovations survive as part of the contemporary Seven Drums Religion.

Andrew H. Fisher


Further Reading
Relander, Click. 1956. Drummers and Dreamers. Caldwell, ID: Caxton.; Ruby, Robert, and John A. Brown. 1989. Dreamer Prophets of the Columbia Plateau: Smohalla and Skolaskin. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Spier, Leslie. [1911, 1935] 1979. "The Prophet Dance of the Northwest and Its Derivatives: The Source of the Ghost Dance." In General Series in Anthropology No. 1: AMS Press.
 

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