American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Smohalla

Like Wovoka, the Paiute progenitor of the Ghost Dance, the Wanapam prophet šmúxala (generally rendered as Smohalla, meaning "dreamer") rose to prominence during the late nineteenth century as the symbolic head of a major religious revitalization movement. Like the Ghost Dance, Smohalla's creed, called waasaní (Washani, "dancers" or "worship") in the Sahaptin language, mingled indigenous beliefs with Christian concepts but explicitly renounced Euro-American culture. By urging the Indians of the Columbia Plateau to reject white ways and refuse land cessions, the so-called Dreamer Cult inspired strong resistance to federal policies designed to isolate and assimilate Native Americans.

Smohalla lived during a period of wrenching change for the indigenous peoples of the Plateau. Born around 1815 in present-day eastern Washington State, he may have witnessed the arrival of the first British and American fur traders to enter Wanapam territory along the Columbia River. The newcomers brought useful goods, but they also introduced alcohol and diseases that ravaged Native communities and undermined the status of traditional shamans. With the traders came Catholic Iroquois and Jesuit priests, from whom Smohalla probably learned the Christian theology and rituals that influenced Washani. Missionary activity intensified in the 1830s with the arrival of Protestant ministers, but Indian enthusiasm quickly waned as anger mounted over the growing stream of Euro-American emigrants arriving on the Oregon Trail. By 1850, Smohalla and other "dreamer prophets" had begun preaching that their people should shun white "civilization" and never sell any piece of their Earth Mother. Despite such spiritual objections, four treaties signed in 1855 ceded millions of acres to the United States and established reservations where Plateau Indians would presumably settle down as yeomen farmers. Many refused to obey, however, and among the "renegades" Washani became a powerful source of hope.

Smohalla built his reputation and his religion on a series of prophetic visions. Already deemed a potent iyánca ("one who trains or disciplines") by his own people, he attracted numerous followers from across the Plateau by promising them deliverance from the American onslaught. His methods and message closely resembled those of Indian prophets of earlier eras. Besides predicting eclipses and other natural phenomena, he periodically entered deep, death-like trances during which he claimed to visit the afterworld and receive instructions from the Creator. Above all, Smohalla declared, Indians must stop tilling the earth or face divine retribution. When a military officer attempted to convince him otherwise, he retorted:

You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest.

You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I can not enter her body to be born again.

You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like the white men, but how dare I cut off my mother's hair?

The Creator would reward obedience to his creed with world renewal. If Indians faithfully performed the wáashat (Washat, or Prophet Dance), the whites would die off or disappear, deceased relatives would return to life, and the land would revert to its pristine state. Until then, Indians must cast off white ways, seek wisdom in dreams, and reject the reservation system and allotment. Smohalla also preached pacifism, as did most of his disciples, but their teachings gave spiritual sanction to the defiance of federal authority.

By the late 1860s, Smohalla's growing influence had earned him the enmity of government officials and some tribal leaders. He clashed repeatedly with Chief Moses of the Columbia-Sinkiuse, who considered him a rival, and a bitter quarrel with the Walla Walla dreamer Homily prompted Smohalla to move his base from Wallula to the winter village of P'na near Priest Rapids. His greatest enemies, however, were the Indian agents who accused him and his disciples of corrupting their reservation kin. Agency officials clamored continually for the removal and confinement of all renegade Dreamers, but Smohalla maintained amicable relations with the military authorities at Fort Walla Walla. Because the Wanapams remained peaceful and their lands were undesirable to white settlers, the Army saw little reason to force the issue. Smohalla stayed off the reservation until his death in 1895, and his creed survived continuing efforts to suppress it. Although Washani's millenarian and Nativistic aspects soon faded, its forms of worship continue to influence tribal life through the Seven Drums Religion practiced across the interior Northwest.

Andrew H. Fisher


Further Reading
Du Bois, Cora. 1938. "The Feather Cult of the Middle Columbia." General Series in Anthropology No. 7. Menasha, WI: George Banta Printing Company.; 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. 1935. "The Prophet Dance of the Northwest and Its Derivatives: The Source of the Ghost Dance." General Series in Anthropology No. 1. Menasha, WI: George Banta Printing Company.
 

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