Smohalla (1815–1907)
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
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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.
Sources
Debo, Angie. A History of the Indians of the United States. Norman,
Okla. University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Dictionary of American Biography. 20 vols. and 7 supps. New
York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928–36. 1944–81.
Mooney, James. ‘‘The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux
Outbreak of 1890.’’ In the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau
of Ethnology. Compiled by J. W. Powell. Washington Government
Printing Office, 1896.