American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Seven Drums Religion

The Seven Drums Religion has many names. Called wáashat (Washat, meaning "dance") or waasaní (Washani, "dancers" or "worship") in the Sahaptin language of the Columbia Plateau, it is also known as the Sacred Dance Religion, the Longhouse Religion, or simply the Indian religion. The latter label reflects the contemporary view that Washat is the most "traditional" of the various faiths practiced in Plateau Indian communities, even though it exhibits some Christian parallels. Many practitioners avoid the term "religion" altogether because of its narrow, compartmentalized connotation. "To non-Indians, the longhouse represents religion," explained Lewis Malatare, the leader of a Washat congregation on the Yakama reservation. "To Yakamas, we prefer not to use the word religion but more a way of life—a life that was dictated to us by the natural surroundings of our environment." Wilson Wewa, a drummer from the Warm Springs reservation, suggested "spirituality" as a better way to describe Washat "because it's about honoring the Creator in everything we do." Whatever it is called, the Seven Drums Religion has long provided a central venue for the expression of Indian culture and identity among Plateau peoples. Washat's close association with tribal traditionalism also made it a target of government repression until the 1930s, but today more than a dozen long-house congregations carry on the traditions of their ancestors.

Like most modern religions, Washat has changed significantly over time as Plateau Indians interacted with outsiders and adapted to shifting circumstances. Its spiritual roots extend nearly 10,000 years into the aboriginal past, when the native inhabitants of the Columbia Basin developed the seasonal round of fishing, gathering, and hunting that characterized their culture at the time of European contact. Their subsistence cycle led to the identification of five sacred foods—salmon, roots, berries, deer, and water—which Plateau Indians propitiated through an annual series of first food feasts conducted to show respect for the resources and ensure abundant harvests. Catholic and Protestant missionaries first observed these ceremonies in the 1830s, and their efforts to convert the Indians set in motion a process of religious borrowing and blending that continued into the late nineteenth century. The bells obtained from fur traders and Jesuit priests quickly made their way into Washat rituals, where the sound of the bell came to represent the heartbeat of all life. Similarly, Indians adopted Sunday as a regular day of worship and attached spiritual meaning to the numbers three and seven. While five retained its ritual importance, appearing frequently in Washat songs and dances, seven became the standard number of drummers for most ceremonies (though fewer often serve now if enough are not available).

The popularity and power of the Seven Drums Religion peaked during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the era of the so-called Dreamer Cult. Riding a wave of Indian anxiety over the effects of American colonization, the Dreamers temporarily infused Washani with a strong millenarian and nativistic message. Their greatest prophet, Smohalla, promised his followers divine deliverance from their oppressors if the Indians would cast off white ways and return to their own traditions. Because this creed interfered with federal assimilation policies and encouraged the retention of "savage" customs, the Office of Indian Affairs tried to suppress Washat services using the Indian police and the courts of Indian offenses on each reservation. Agency authorities banned traditional dancing, spied on tribal meetings, arrested religious leaders, confiscated or destroyed drums, and directed Indians to attend Christian churches. Such measures persisted into the early 1930s, long after the prophets and their visions had faded away, but the faithful kept Washat alive by holding their ceremonies in secret, moving them off reservation, or cloaking them in approved holidays such as the Fourth of July.

The Seven Drums Religion remains active today, although its membership has declined significantly due to Indian acculturation and competition from various Christian denominations as well as the Indian Shaker Church. Washat is not an exclusive sect, however, so many people who participate in it also attend other churches. Currently, there are fifteen permanent longhouses located on five reservations and in several off-reservation communities across the Columbia Plateau. Besides holding Sunday services and seasonal first food feasts, they provide gathering places for naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and other community events that define "traditionalism" for contemporary Plateau Indians. Some longhouses are thought to be especially powerful for certain purposes, such as the first salmon feast held at Celilo, and ritual practices vary from congregation to congregation. "Everybody does different things in different longhouses, just like Protestants and Catholics," noted elder Ella Jim, "but we're all worshipping the same Creator."

Andrew H. Fisher


Further Reading
Hunn, Eugene S. 1990. Nch'i-Wana, "the Big River": Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.; 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.
 

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