Smohalla (1815?-1895)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 7/11/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9481

A Wanapum spiritual leader, Smohalla founded what became known as the Dreamer religion, which was based on the belief that if Native Americans shunned white culture and lived as their ancestors had lived, the Creator would reward them by bringing dead Indians back to life and ridding Indian lands of white people. His teachings spread rapidly among Columbia Plateau peoples in the late nineteenth century. To tribes which had been decimated by disease, pushed out of their traditional homelands, and otherwise dispirited by white encroachment, Smohalla offered hope for a restoration of freedom and dignity. To many whites, however, he represented a dangerous threat, not only to white expansion but to efforts to "civilize" the Indians. Widely feared and vilified in his own time, a century later he was installed in Washington’s Centennial Hall of Honor as one of the 100 most influential people in state history.

"Shouting Mountain"

Smohalla was born sometime around 1815 at Wallula, the homeland of the Sahaptian-speaking Wanapum -- the River People -- a small tribe culturally and linguistically related to the Yakama and the Nez Perce. As was customary among his people, he carried many names during his lifetime. At birth he was named Wak-wei, translated as "arising from the dust of the Earth Mother." As a boy he acquired the name Waipshwa, meaning "Rock Carrier." After he became known as a spiritual leader, his people called him Yuynipitquana -- "Shouting Mountain" -- because of the belief that revelations came to him from a mountain speaking inside his soul.

Little is known about his early years, but it is said his shamanistic powers were recognized when he was still quite young. He was physically distinctive -- with a hunched back, high shoulders, unnaturally short legs, and a disproportionately large head -- and the peculiarities of his body seemed to suggest that he would have unusual spiritual gifts.

He underwent a traditional vision quest in adolescence, fasting and meditating on sacred Saddle Mountain near Wallula in search of his wot, or guardian spirit. According to legend, he died on the mountain, but his spirit was refused entry into the land of the dead, and he was ordered to return to his people as a shaman, serving as a conduit between the tangible world and the spirit world.

By 1850, he had taken on the name Smohalla, from a Sahaptian word for "dreamer." The Indian agents, military officers, newspaper writers, and other contemporaries who chronicled his life offered almost endless variants on the spelling of his name, from "Smawhola" to "Smuxale," but all agreed that his people revered him as someone who could communicate with the spirits through dreams and trances.

Ways of the Ancestors

Like all successful shamans, Smohalla could predict the arrival of salmon runs, direct hunters to the best herds, and tell root-gatherers where to find the most fertile fields. But he also had a reputation for being able to foretell eclipses and earthquakes (including one that shook the Columbia Plateau in 1872). Several skeptical whites claimed that his seeming prescience was based on an almanac, which he had obtained from a railroad survey team at some point and learned to use. Smohalla insisted that all his information came from the spirit world.

Earthquakes, he said, were a sign that the spirits were angry, and the only way to appease them was to obey the laws of the ancestors. Indians should not work as white people did but live instead on the fish, game, and plants that nature provided. "Men who work cannot dream," he said, "and wisdom comes to us in dreams." He conceded that Indians had to work hard during the fishing and hunting seasons to get and preserve food for the winter, but that was "natural work" lasting only a few weeks, while "the work of white man hardens soul and body" (Huggins, 213).

Much of what is known about Smohalla’s beliefs comes from the writings of military personnel, who, as historians Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown point out, recorded their observations more objectively than their missionary, government agent, or settler contemporaries. Among those who interviewed "the Dreamer prophet" at length were Captain Junius W. MacMurray, in 1884, and Captain Eli L. Huggins, in 1885. Smohalla repeated the same themes to both: Indians should reject white culture and all its trappings; by doing so, and by participating in special dances and other rituals, they could hasten the day when the world would be restored to what it had been before the white people came.

Smohalla was particularly contemptuous of efforts to turn Indians into farmers. "You ask me to plough the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom?" he asked MacMurray. "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 white men, but how dare I cut off my mother's hair?" He also warned that "Those who cut up the lands or sign papers for lands will be defrauded of their rights, and will be punished by God's anger" (MacMurray, 248).

As a symbol of his disdain for white customs, he refused to cut his hair, as the whites did, but instead wore it long, the top brushed into rolls above his forehead. "Many Indians are trying to live like white men, but it will do them no good," he said. "They cut off their hair and wear white men's clothes, and some of them learn to sing out of a book" (Huggins, 212).

In sum: "The Indian would be rich and happy if he had never seen the white man" (Huggins, 214).

Dreamer Ideology

At some point in his life, Smohalla became familiar with Christianity, possibly through contact with Father Francois N. Blanchet (1795-1883) and Rev. Modeste Demers (1809-1871), Jesuit priests who traveled through Wanapum country in 1838. He also may have learned something about Catholic doctrine from French-Canadian voyageurs and other fur company personnel at Fort Walla Walla. It is likely that he visited the Saint Rose of Chemna Mission, established at the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers in 1847; and Saint Joseph’s Mission, established in Ahtanum Creek in the Yakima Valley in 1852. He claimed that he spent time in Utah in the early 1850s, where he saw elders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in trances, "getting commands direct from heaven" (MacMurray, 247).

In any case, he developed an ideology that blended traditional beliefs and rituals with elements of Christianity. His teachings about the origins of man were similar to those taught by Catholic priests. He held Sundays to be sacred days. He gave new life to the ancient Washat (also spelled Wáashat), or Seven Drums ceremony, by adding flags, brass bells, and new songs and dances to the ritual.

His major innovation, however, was the idea that dead Indians would be brought back to life if those still living remained faithful to the ways of their ancestors. "After a while," he predicted, "when God is ready, he will drive away all the people except the people who have obeyed the laws." And then, "All the dead men will come to life again. Their spirits will come to their bodies again" (MacMurray, 248).

Conflict and Exile

Smohalla’s teachings brought him into conflict not only with whites but with leaders of several other Columbia River tribes, beginning with Walla Walla Chief Homli (1822-1891). The two quarreled sometime in the early 1850s over Homli’s willingness to cede tribal lands to whites. "You do not own this land, our Mother Earth," Smohalla reportedly told him. "It is not your land to barter to the white people like a piece of salmon." Homli, in turn, mocked Smohalla as "a poor man" who had no horses. "You are no fit leader for your people," he said. "You always talk of the old customs while up and down the river others accept the new ways and they grow rich" (Miller).

A majority of elders in the Wanapum village at Wallula supported Homli, and Smohalla and his followers were forced to leave. They moved north to an old Wanapum fishing site called P’na, at Priest Rapids, near White Bluffs (now part of the Hanford Reach National Monument). The area was too arid to attract white settlers and it lacked the minerals that interested white miners. However, it was rich in the natural resources that sustained traditional lifestyles, especially salmon. Smohalla ended up spending most of the rest of his life there.

The Wanapum, always a small tribe, were lumped with the Yakama in 1855 when Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) negotiated the treaties that forced the largest and most powerful of the territory’s tribes onto reservations. Smohalla refused to move to the new Yakama reserve. He also refused to join the alliance that fought against the Yakama treaty. His position put him at odds with all the contending parties: the territorial officials; the so-called treaty Indians; and those Indians who opposed the treaties with armed rebellion during the Yakama War of 1855-1856.

Rivalry with Moses

Smohalla also aroused the enmity of Moses (1829?-1899), leader of the Sinkiuse (also spelled Sinkayuse), a Salish-speaking people living near Priest Rapids. Moses had opposed the treaties of 1855 but in time became convinced that the tribes had to adapt to white culture or be vanquished. He regarded Smohalla as a troublemaker; he may also have been jealous of his increasing influence among the Plateau tribes.

Witnesses claimed that the two men fought and Smohalla, badly beaten, was left to die. Regaining consciousness, he crawled into an unattended canoe; drifted downriver; and was eventually rescued (reportedly by some white men). According to James Mooney, an anthropologist writing in the 1890s, Smohalla was reluctant to return, disgraced, to his own country and probably still dreaded the anger of Moses. Instead, he set off on "one of the most remarkable series of journeyings ever undertaken by an uncivilized Indian" (Mooney, 718).

Drawing from reports prepared by military officers in the early 1880s, Mooney concluded that Smohalla had traveled down the Columbia to Portland and the Northwest coast, then south through Oregon to California and into Mexico. From there, he turned north into Arizona, Utah, and Nevada before returning to Priest Rapids, "where he announced that he had been dead and in the spirit world and had now returned by divine command to guide his people" (Mooney, 718).

Smohalla’s apparent resurrection further enhanced his stature among the Plateau people. Ancient tradition called for prophets to experience death and then come back to life with important messages for the living. It was said that Smohalla had died not once but several times; these accounts cemented his position as the most important spiritual leader in the Northwest in the late 1800s.

In an ironic footnote to the conflict between Smohalla and Moses, both were included in Washington’s Centennial Hall of Honor in 1989. Moses was cited "for his diplomacy in the peaceful settlement of his people on the Colville Reservation and for his influence in preventing more bloodshed in the Nez Percé and Bannock Wars by preventing his followers from entering into the warfare;" Smohalla for founding "the ‘Dreamer Cult,’ a religion based on the spirituality of all things of nature and the revelation of wisdom through dreams" (Columbia Magazine). The two former rivals and Henry Sicade (1866-1938), a Puyallup Indian tribal leader, were the only Native Americans to win places in the Hall of Honor.

"A Bad Character"

Smohalla became an increasing irritant to whites after his return to Priest Rapids. His village was on the northern edge of a wide triangle bounded by the Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Yakama reservations. The area’s isolation and access to rich fishing and hunting grounds made it an attractive refuge for Indians who had left the reservations or otherwise escaped white authority.

The first official complaint came in 1861. In letters to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, the Umatilla Indian agent claimed that Smohalla’s enclave had become a magnet for "dissatisfied, rebellious Indians" and "a rendezvous for thieves and outlaws." He said the situation threatened the security of the entire region. "Smo-kol-lah is a bad character and the peace of the country depends on the capture of him and his party in my opinion," he concluded (G. H. Abbott to Edward R. Geary, January 5 and February 6, 1861, cited in Ruby and Brown, Dreamer-Prophets, 52).

By the early 1870s, an estimated 2,000 Indians from various Plateau tribes were living in the vicinity of Priest Rapids. Hundreds were attending Smohalla’s weekly Washat ceremonies, conducted on Sundays in a tule mat longhouse on the sandy, windswept banks of the Columbia. White observers reported, with alarm, that Smohalla’s teachings had spread outside the region, to the Palouses under Chief Kahlotus; Nez Perce in the band of Chief Joseph (1840-1904); and Modocs in southern Oregon and northern California.

A steady progression of Indian agents, government officials, and military officers visited Smohalla in unsuccessful efforts to persuade him to abandon the Dreamer way of life and settle down on a reservation. Among them was A. B. Meacham (1826-1882), Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon country from 1869 to 1872. When Meacham arrived in Smohalla’s village in February 1870, he was received in a large pavilion which had been carpeted with tule mats, furnished with some chairs, and decorated with bunting and an American flag. Meacham’s party entered one end of the pavilion and walked slowly down the middle to the other end, greeting the many Indians lining each side -- a process that took fully one hour.

Meacham came away from the encounter convinced that "Smoheller" was an impediment to the advancement of both whites and Indians. He called him "a wild superstitious bigot" whose followers were "tenaciously clinging to the old habits of wild Indians" and "isolating themselves from the Christian Indians and the agent" (Meacham, 155). When the band refused his order to "come in" and live quietly on the Umatilla reservation, he recommended that they be moved there by military force.

Meacham’s successor, T. B. Odeneal, made the same recommendation in a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1872. The "Dreamers" had become "a source of considerable annoyance to the agents at Warm Springs and Umatilla," he wrote. Efforts to induce them to live on reservations and take up white man’s ways had been ineffectual. "Their model of a man is an Indian; they aspire to be Indians and nothing else," he reported. "It is thought, by those who know them best, that they cannot be made to go upon their reservations without at least being intimidated by the presence of a military force" (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1872, p 362).

"Spirit Chief"

By all accounts, Smohalla was not easily intimidated. "He looked like a king. Stolid as a statue," Rev. George W. Kennedy said after meeting him in 1873. Kennedy, a Methodist minister and Oregon pioneer, told Smohalla that "God had made us all brothers and not enemies" and "the Great Father wanted us all to live together in peace on earth." If that is true, Smohalla demanded, "Why has the white man taken our lands from us? Has the white man any rights here in Kittitas that the Indian has any right to respect? The Indian came first." It was, Kennedy conceded, "an unanswerable speech" (Kennedy, 200- 201).

Smohalla projected the same aura of self-confidence when he met General Oliver O. Howard (1830-1909), commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Columbia, in April 1877. He introduced himself as "the Spirit Chief of all the Columbia bands, who gives good medicine, who loves right and justice." Howard, a decorated Civil War veteran, noted that "Smoholly" appeared unimpressed by his uniform and medals. Instead, he gave the general "a long and searching look ... as if trying to read my thoughts," and then quizzed him about some of the finer points of Indian law (Howard, 333, 335).

The self-characterized "Spirit Chief" was a man of undeniable charisma. A correspondent for The New York Times in 1873 described him as "a remarkable man" who had a "magic influence" on the Indians who had gathered around him. Junius MacMurray, the Army captain who interviewed him in 1884, was struck by his "native intelligence and qualities as an orator and natural leader of men" (MacMurray, 246). Howard thought some of his magnetism came from his eyes, which were "wide open, clear, and so expressive that they gave him great power over all the Indians that flocked to his village" (Howard, 333).

Part of Smohalla’s appeal to his followers was his ability to fall into a trance state. Mooney, the anthropologist who studied him in the 1890s, believed he was subject to cataleptic seizures, a nervous condition associated with Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. It’s possible that his trances were brought on by self-hypnosis. Whatever the cause, he could lie rigid for long periods without showing any reaction to external stimuli. Smohalla himself said he visited the spirit world and received visions and revelations during these "dreaming times."

Advocate of Passive Resistance

Writer Christopher Miller has described Smohalla as an advocate of passive resistance to the forces of cultural disintegration. He counseled his followers to withdraw to the world of dreams, to await the supernatural events that would free them from oppression, rather than resort to violence. He remained neutral during the rebellions by the Yakama in 1855-1856, the Modocs in 1872-1873, the Nez Perce in 1877, and the Bannocks and Paiutes in 1878. Still, many whites believed that the Dreamer creed was a root cause of Indian discontent and a contributing factor in all those wars.

Throughout the 1870s, rumors floated that Smohalla was preparing for battle. Kennedy, the Methodist minister, labeled him "the war leader of the Columbias" (Kennedy, 200). The Pacific Christian Advocate in Portland, Oregon, claimed in the fall of 1874 that 300 painted and feathered braves were holding war dances under Smohalla. An Indian agent on the Siletz Reservation in western Oregon told the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1875 that the "Smohallow dance" had come to his and other reservations in that region -- far from Smohalla's homeland. It appeared that Smohalla was uniting Indians of dozens of different tribes in a movement dedicated to the extermination of whites.

Rev. James H. Wilbur (1811-1887), a Methodist missionary and agent at the Yakama Reservation’s Simcoe Agency, tried to calm the fears, saying the rumors were being spread by "a class of irresponsible whites" who wanted to provoke an Indian war in order to open reservations for white settlement (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1873, p. 313). But Wilbur, too, blamed Smohalla and his "heathenish teachings" for virtually every example of Indian defiance of white authority. The Dreamer faith, he said, was "a new-fangled religious delusion and kept alive by a kind of wizard" (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1877, p. 214). He attempted to suppress it on his reservation by sending several Dreamer leaders to jail.

General Howard, too, incarcerated a number of Dreamer prophets, in a show of force intended to induce non-treaty Indians to move onto reservations. Among them was Toohulhulsote (also spelled Toohoolsote), the principal priest from Joseph's band of Nez Perce. Howard held an 11-day council with Joseph and his chiefs in May 1877. He ordered them to leave their homeland in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley and move to a reservation in Idaho. Toohulhulsote served as a spokesman for the band, forcibly articulating Dreamer tenets: that "the earth was his mother, that she should not be disturbed by hoe or plow, that men should subsist by the spontaneous productions of nature, and that the sovereignty of the earth could not be sold or given away" (Mooney, 713). After nearly a week of frustrating debate, Howard lost his temper and put Toohulhulsote in the guardhouse for five days.

Toohulhulsote fared better than Skimiah, a Wishram Dreamer-prophet. Howard ordered him confined to the brig at the Vancouver Barracks for two months in the spring of 1877.

Indictment for Murder

Howard was a member of a special civil and military commission that issued a report, shortly before the outbreak of the Nez Perce War in mid-June 1977, recommending that the leaders and teachers of the Dreamer doctrine "be required to return to the [reservation] agencies where they belong forthwith, and in the case of refusal that they be removed from further contact with the roaming Indians by immediate transportation to the Indian Territory" -- in present-day Oklahoma (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1877, p. 214).

Alvin M. Josephy, author of a book about the Nez Perce, says the recommendation was based on testimony from agents at the Yakama, Umatilla, and Lapwai reservations, who put the onus on Smohalla for their difficulties in converting Indians to Christianity, keeping them on reservations, and persuading them to farm. "None of the agents knew what they were talking about," he writes. Although many of the Indians agreed, at least in part, with Smohalla’s teachings, "the spiritual ideas of some of the bands, including Joseph’s Nez Percé, derived from their own ancestral beliefs and differed sharply from Smohalla’s on several major points -- notably on the promise of resurrection of dead Indians" (Josephy, 486).

Smohalla continued to preach the message that the Great Spirit, not war, would free the Indians. Even so, the authorities remained wary of his influence. In the summer of 1878, he and several other troublesome Dreamers were indicted on charges of murder in connection with the deaths of a white couple at Rattlesnake Springs. Blanche Bunting Perkins (1856-1878) and Lorenzo Perkins (1836-1876) had been killed near their homestead at White Bluffs by a small group of renegade Bannocks and Paiutes on July 9, 1878. Their deaths inflamed the white community and brought suspicion on all non-treaty Indians. Under indictment and facing arrest, Smohalla sought refuge at the Yakama reservation, with about 250 of his followers. A year later, on Howard’s recommendation, the charges were dropped, and the band returned to the village of P’na at Priest Rapids.

Return to P’na

Smohalla was living quietly at P’na when Captain MacMurray visited him there in July 1884. MacMurray noted that the street to Smohalla’s large lodge was "neatly swept and well sprinkled, an unusual thing in any Indian village." Smohalla explained that this had been done to honor MacMurray and "to show that his people had cleanly tastes" (MacMurray, 244).

The lodge, 25 feet wide and 75 feet long, served both as Smohalla’s residence and the village’s longhouse. A whitewashed fence made of driftwood surrounded an open space in front of the lodge. In the center of the space was a flagpole bearing a rectangular, multicolored flag, which Smohalla explained was his personal banner, symbolizing his commitment to his people.

About 400 people were living in the village at the time. MacMurray had been sent there to urge them to either move to the Yakama reservation or file for individual homesteads. He spent several days in the village and left with his mission unaccomplished. R. H. Milroy, the Yakama Indian agent at the time, speculated that the Indians might soon be forced to leave anyway, due to declining fish runs. The "abundant supply of salmon" at Priest Rapids had provided Smohalla’s band with "an unfailing source of subsistence," he wrote. "But this supply is being rapidly diminished by the avaricious hordes of white fisherman on the Lower Columbia with their improved methods of catching fish" (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1884, p. 172).

White authorities also tried to undercut the influence of the Dreamers by banning the Washat, the centerpiece of their religious practice. Section Four of the Regulations of the Indian Department, adopted April 10, 1883, stipulated that Indians found guilty of participating in the Washat would be punished by having their rations withheld for up to 10 days for a first offense and up to 30 days for subsequent offenses. They could also be imprisoned in reservation jails for up to 30 days for repeat offenses. Still, the drumming, dancing, and other Dreamer ceremonies persisted. And in January 1934, Indian Commissioner John Collier issued Circular 2970, stipulating that "No interference with Indian religious life or expression will hereafter be tolerated" (Ruby and Brown, 102).

The Drums Still Ring

As he aged, Smohalla grew increasingly blind. A lifetime of eating salmon and other foods dusted with sand from the arid Plateau left him with teeth that were worn down to the gums. Many of his followers defected to reservations, perhaps because of the decreasing supply of salmon, perhaps because they simply lost faith in his prophecy that the dead would return and every stone become an Indian.

He may have felt disheartened, but he remained faithful to his creed throughout his life. In 1895, he traveled to Satus Creek, in the lower Yakama Reservation, to conduct a Dreamer ceremony. He died there. Legend has it that he had a premonition of his own death, and said: "Don’t be sorry for me; I will be seeing you in the sky." In keeping with Wanapum customs, his people painted religious symbols on his face; covered him with matting, and let him lie in state in a longhouse. He was then buried in a cemetery known as Weyounwe, near his village of P’na.

Before his death, Smohalla had named his son Yo-Yonan (sometimes spelled Yoyouni) as his successor. Yo-Yonan died in 1917 and was succeeded in turn by Smohalla's nephew, Puck Hyah Toot. The tule-covered longhouse in which Smohalla had conducted his Washats was still standing at the time of Puck Hyah Toot’s death in 1956.

Smohalla’s Dreamer faith evolved into the Seven Drums or Longhouse religion, which is still celebrated in longhouses throughout the Northwest. In the words of Yakama elder Arlie Neskahi, "Though many of the River People cut their hair and wear white man's clothes, the drums of Smohalla still ring over the waters of the Columbia" (Wisdom of the Elders website).


Sources: Eli L. Huggins, "Smohalla, the Prophet of Priest Rapids," Overland Monthly Vol. 5 (February 1891); J. W. MacMurray, "The ‘Dreamers’ of the Columbia River Valley, in Washington Territory," Transactions of the Albany Institute, Vol. 11 (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1887); Christopher L. Miller, "Smohalla," Encyclopedia of North American Indians website (http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_036600_smohalla.htm), accessed June 2010; James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896); "Washington State Centennial Hall of Honor," Columbia Magazine, Summer 1989 (http://columbia.washingtonhistory.org/magazine/articles/1989/0289/0289-a2.aspx), accessed June 2010; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Dreamer-Prophets of the Columbia Plateau: Smohalla and Skolaskin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989); A. B. Meacham, Wigwam and War-Path; or the Royal Chief in Chains (Boston: John P. Dale & Company, 1875); Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1872, 1873, 1874, 1875, 1877, and 1884, in American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collection, University of Washington Digital Collections (http://content.lib.washington.edu/index.html), accessed June 2010; George W. Kennedy, The Pioneer Campfire ... Anecdotes, Adventures and Reminiscences (Portland: Clarke-Kundret Printing Co., 1914); Oliver O. Howard, Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known (New York: The Century Co., 1908); "The Modoc War," The New York Times, February 3, 1873, p. 1; Alvin M. Josephy, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997); Arlie Neskahi, "Historical Introduction: the Yakama Nation," Wisdom of the Elders website accessed July 2010 (http://www.wisdomoftheelders.org/index.html).

Related Topics:   Biographies | Northwest Indians | Religion

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