Smohalla (ca. 1815-1895) was a Native American warrior, medicine man, and spiritual leader who is best known for introducing a revitalized Washani religion amongst his people, the Wanapums (Wanapams) of America's Pacific Northwest.
Native American leader Smohalla is closely associated with the Dreamer religion, as the new Washani faith came to be called. It emerged in part as a reaction to the intrusions of a white settlers, the U.S. Army, and the subsequent Indian policies of the U. S. government. The Dreamer faith, which spread rapidly in the mid and late nineteenth century, called for a return to Native American traditions and lifestyles, and a rejection of white cultural influences. Because Smohalla's religious doctrines were so deeply ingrained in the traditional religious beliefs of the Wanapum people, they continued to be a part of the spiritual life of the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest well into the twentieth century.
Smohalla was born to the Wanapum or Sokulk tribe around 1815. The tribe belongs to the Shahaptian division of the Shapwailutan linguistic stock. The Wanapums lived along the Columbia River above the mouth of the Snake River and are mentioned by Lewis and Clark in the reports of their western explorations. The chief village of the Wanapums, which was founded by Smohalla in the late 1850s, was on the west bank of the Columbia River at the foot of Priest Rapids in the present day state of Washington. The tribe was always small in number with an estimated population of 1,800 in 1780 but by 1960 it had dropped even further to between 150 and 200.
Went by Many Names
Smohalla's birth name was Wak-wei or Kuk-kia, which means "Arising from the Dust of the Earth Mother," but at various times during his life he was called Yuyunipitqana, the "Shouting Mountain," and Waipshwa, the "Rock Carrier." He did not take the name Smohalla, which is Shahaptian for "dreamer," until later in life when he had become a spiritual leader of his people.
Although there is little record of Smohalla's early life, he is known to have been a hunchback at birth and physically unremarkable throughout life. Whites who had met him described Smohalla as being "peculiar" and "not prepossessing at first sight." He did, however, develop oratorical skills and reportedly could hold his followers spellbound with his "magic manner." As a young man Smohalla experienced a religious revelation which had a profound influence on his life and the Wanapums. Concern over increasing white influence on Wanapum culture prompted Smohalla to journey to La Lac, a sacred mountain of his people, in search of his wot, or guardian spirit. While awaiting the appearance of his spirit he fasted and meditated, and according to legend, died on the mountain. However, his spirit was refused entry into the "land of the dead" and Smohalla was ordered to return to his people and save them from cultural extinction, which could only be prevented by rejecting white influences and returning to the traditional sacred beliefs and doctrines of the Washani religion.
Washani is a Shahaptian word for "dancers" but it can also be translated as "worship." Inherent in the faith is the concept of the "dreamer-prophet." A dreamer holds a sacred place in Wanapum culture because it is believed that he has experienced a temporary death, followed by a visit to the spirit world, and a subsequent return to earth with a message from the Creator. This temporary death has sometimes been described as a "vision." Over the centuries the Washani religion has gone through three phases: the aboriginal or pre-European phase, a Christianized variation related to the coming of the Europeans, and finally a revitalized version, with Smohalla and other dreamer-prophets of the mid to late nineteenth century. A dreamer-prophet is said to appear amongst the Wanapums during a time of crisis, which is often a precursor to the end of the Wanapum world. This prophetic crisis may be natural phenomena, such as an earthquake or flood, or it may be precipitated by intruders such as white settlers. The dreamer-prophet, through his teachings and example, prepares the Wanapums for a subsequent renewal of life following the crisis.
Became a Holy Man
Smohalla, like other Wanapums, believed that the Nami Piap or Creator, was responsible for creating the world, that certain peoples were selected to inhabit specific regions, and that an earth spirit or Mother Earth would provide sustenance in the form of fish and game for its inhabitants. He also mirrored the Wanapum belief that the land must not be disturbed by being divided into parcels. Smohalla believed that the white man's practices of land ownership and farming were an affront to the Creator.
When Smohalla returned from his journey to La Lac his tale of death and resurrection made him revered by his people and he soon gained a reputation as a visionary able to foresee the future and approaching doom. It was around this time that he took the name Smohalla. As Smohalla's reputation as a holy man grew so did the jealousy of his enemies. Sometime in the early 1850s he aroused the enmity of Moses, the chief of a band of Sinkiuse Indians living nearby. The two leaders met in battle and Smohalla was stricken and left to die. But Smohalla did not die, and upon regaining consciousness slipped away unseen to the Columbia River where he came upon an unattended boat in which he drifted downriver. Smohalla was eventually rescued by some white men and he purportedly wandered down the Pacific coast eventually reaching Mexico and then returned to his homeland by way of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Upon reaching his people his stature as a dreamer was further enhanced as he was again seemingly resurrected from the dead. Smohalla then found himself the most important spiritual leader of the Wanapums.
Following the Yakima Wars of 1855 and 1856, many of the tribes of the Columbian Plateau (but not the Wanapums) unsuccessfully tried to stand up to the U.S. Army and repulse further white intrusions. Smohalla then moved his band of followers to the region of the Priest Rapids on the Columbia River because of the abundance of fish and game in the region. There he established a lodge with his ten wives and named his eldest daughter his spiritual successor. However, she became ill, died shortly thereafter, and was buried in a canoe on a sandy rise overlooking the Colombia River. When the tribal rites at the grave ended, Smohalla remained alone at the site in mourning. He had not returned to his lodge by the next day and worried villagers hurried to the gravesite only to find that Smohalla had died there during the night. His body was removed to the village where it was cleansed, dressed in buckskin, and adorned with yellow paint and strips of otter fur in anticipation of a funeral befitting a great leader. However, the next morning's funeral ceremony was abruptly interrupted when Smohalla's body began twitching. His eyes soon opened and he rose to his knees, but remained silent. Frightened villagers ran from the lodge which Smohalla, now very much alive, walked out of two days later. The dreamer-prophet had once again been resurrected from the dead, carrying a message from Nami Piap, the Creator. The message was delivered later that day at a spot on the Columbia River known as Water-Swirl-Place.
Taught Songs and Dances
Smohalla told his people that Nami Piap would not allow Smohalla's spirit to remain in the land of the dead. Instead, he was commanded to return to his people and instruct them in a special dance and teach them 120 new songs which were to be added to their religious rituals. According to American Indian Quarterly, Smohalla was also ordered by the Creator to "teach the Wanapums and others to be good, do good, and live like Indians. Give them this song and show them this dance."
The washat, or dance, was an intricate ritual involving seven kookoolots, or drums, which symbolized life. The dancers, both men and women, held eagle and swan feathers which represented flight from the earth to the spirit world. Smohalla conducted the ceremonial dance holding a triangular flag on which was drawn a five-pointed star and a red circle on a white, yellow, and blue background. During the dance a qualal qualal, or brass bell, symbolized the heart and was rung to keep time and announce to Nami Piap that the dance was underway.
Smohalla's emerging religious doctrines formalized traditional Washani beliefs in the goodness of the Creator and the bountiful earth which sustained them. The Wanapums long believed that the salmon was created first and the huckleberry last. Thus did Smohalla have these foods served as Communion first and last at thanksgiving ceremonies. He also had a dogmatic opposition to the white concept of land ownership, farming and cultivation.
Smohalla's influence over the Wanapums was truly profound, as his religious teachings were deeply rooted in and complemented the spiritual traditions of his people his. Smohalla was militant in his beliefs and demanded strict allegiance from his followers, especially in regard to the rejection of the white man's culture and its attendant trappings. Smohalla rejected the white work ethic and federal reservation policies, and although he opposed Christianity many Christian ceremonial practices became incorporated into dreamer ceremonies over the decades. He did not advocate violence against whites. He did, however, garner the enmity of federal bureaucrats who implemented Indian policy from the belief that their Native American wards should be Christianized.
Smohalla's teachings and variations on his teachings spread to other Native American tribes of the Columbian Plateau. Many other, however, chose to be Christianized and live on reservations. A schism soon developed between the two groups with federal agents favoring the latter. Even though Smohalla remained non-violent, many of the hostile actions on non-treaty Native Americans, especially during the Nez Percé War of 1877, were blamed on the dreamer teachings. Soon all followers of the dreamer faith came to be regarded as fanatics and their religion an impediment to the further civilizing of the region.
During the early 1890s the federal government intensified efforts to place all Native Americans on reservations, and with access to their traditional hunting and fishing grounds becoming increasingly difficult the Wanapums had little choice but to comply. By then even Smohalla was living on the Yakima Reservation where he died in 1895. Before his death Smohalla had named his son Yo-Yonan as his successor. Yo-Yonan died in 1917 and Smohalla's nephew Puck Hyah Toot conducted religious ceremonies in a longhouse at Priest Rapids until his death in 1956. As late as 1975 religious ceremonies were still being held by various succeeding dreamer-prophets and Smohalla's beliefs were still providing spiritual guidance to the Wanapums and other Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest.
Trafzer, Clifford E., and Margery Ann Beach, "Smohalla, The Washani, and Religion as a Factor in Northwestern History," in American Indian Quarterly, 1985, pp. 309-324.
Malone, Dumas, Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935, pp. 371-72.
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Smohalla, a chief of the Wanapum, a small Native American group in the state of Washington, became famous as a visionary and dreamer among the Native Americans of the Northwest in the 1880s. As a youth he attended a Catholic mission operating among the Yakima, where he learned French and absorbed some Christianity. He distinguished himself as a warrior during his early manhood and participated in the Yakima war of 1855-56. He had also become known as a powerful medicine man and possessed great occult power and the knowledge to use it.
In 1860 he had a life-changing experience. A chief of another tribe, believing that Smohalla was engaging in malevolent occultism (making medicine) against him, almost killed him and left him for dead. Smohalla was able to crawl away and after a long period of recovery, he became a wanderer. Finally reaching Mexico, he traveled for several years throughout the West. He finally returned to his people, who, believing him dead, listened in awe as he told them a story of his journeys. He claimed that he had visited the spirit world and had returned as a teacher. His message was that Saghalee Tyee, the Great Chief Above, wanted his people to return to their old ways. His teachings included a mixture of what he knew of traditional Native American beliefs along with Catholicism and Latter-day Saints teachings. Because of their departure from the old ways, whites had been allowed to come into the land, Smohalla told them.
Smohalla's message was emphasized by his falling into trance states (during which times he was stuck with sharp objects and he offered no response). During these times he would claim to visit the spirit world, much as a shaman, and upon his return relate the latest message. White people who were present at these trance sessions compared him to Spiritualist mediums. Others called him the Dreamer and his followers the Dreamers. He was also able to predict eclipses.
Smohalla's movement spread among the Native people of Washington and Oregon and westward into Idaho. It had a teaching based upon the Earth as the Mother of All and articulated a program that opposed the attempts of the U.S. government to force the various groups into reservations and favored individuals integrating into the larger economic system. Church-like buildings were constructed for the gathering of the Dreamer religion. Out of his teachings a new Native American church developed that would prosper for a generation and remnants of which, known as the Feather Religion or Seven Drums religion, can still be found. His ideas influenced the Paiute prophet Wovoka, the founder of the Ghost Dance movement. Among his converts was Old Joseph (d. 1871) of the Nez Perce who passed the Dreamer religion on to his son, Chief Joseph, who would later adopt Wovoka's message.
Smohalla lived into his 90s. He died in 1907.
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