American Indian Religions: The Dreamers

The Columbia Plateau is an area that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the east to the Cascade Mountains to the west. It is cut by the Columbia River. For thousands of years, many different Indian nations have lived in this area, many using the Columbia River to provide them with fish. While there are diverse spiritual traditions among the Indian nations in this area, many of them share a focus on prophecy.

One of the prophets to emerge in this region during the nineteenth century was Smohalla, a Wanapan medicine man whose teachings led to a religious movement known as the Dreamers. American government attempts to suppress this indigenous religion culminated in the 1877 Nez Perce War.  

From an American perspective, Smohalla did not seem to be a likely candidate to become the leader of a religious movement. He did not fit the non-Indian’s image of what an Indian leader should be: he was relatively small and somewhat overweight. In addition, he was born with a hunchback and a large, oversized head. From an Indian perspective, however, he had a very important ability: he was an orator who could hold his audiences absolutely spellbound.

By today’s standards, we might consider Smohalla as a psychic. He had an ability to predict the future, to foretell the coming of storms, to know when the salmon run would start, and to predict the eruption of volcanoes. To the Indian people living along the Columbia River, he was simply known as a prophet, as a powerful spiritual leader.

Smohalla’s spiritual strengths were enhanced through two afterlife experiences. In the first afterlife experience, Smohalla died, travelled to the land in the sky, and conversed with the Creator (Nami Piap). He was not permitted to enter eternal life, and was told that he was to return to his people and tell them to reject American culture. Indian people, he was told, were to return to the Indian social, economic, political, and religious traditions.

In a second incident, Smohalla again died and made the journey to the land in the sky. Once again he visited the Creator and a special dance (washat) and over 120 religious songs.

Historically, Smohalla got into a conflict with Columbia Chief Moses about 1860. Some say that Smohalla was making medicine against Moses, and a fight broke out between the two men. Moses won the fight and Smohalla was left for dead. However, he revived and crawled into a boat. Badly injured, he left the area, wandering first to Portland and then south into California, Mexico, and Arizona. He then returned home through Utah.

When he returned to the Columbia Plateau, Smohalla reported that he had visited the spirit world. He tells the people that in his visit to the spirit world he had been told that the American ways were bad for the people: American ways cause sickness and confusion for Indians.

At this time, Smohalla began to lay the foundation for his new religious movement, later called The Dreamer Religion by the Americans. He taught the Indian people in the Plateau area that they were to return to the ways of their ancestors. He brought about a revival of the traditional Washani religion with an infusion of new songs and dances.

Smohalla had a book which was filled with mysterious characters. He said that this writing was the records of events and prophecies. Concerning these characters, nineteenth century ethnologist James Mooney reported:

“It is probable that they were genuine mnemonic symbols invented by himself for his own purposes, as such systems, devised and used by single individuals or families, and unintelligible to others, are by no means rare among those who may be called the literary men of our aboriginal tribes.”

Among the Indian nations which embrace the revived religious movement are the Palouse and the Nez Perce. Following Smohalla’s teachings, the Palouses new performed the traditional washat using seven drums, seven singers, and several brass bells. Both women and men used eagle and swan feathers to symbolize flight from earth to heaven. To symbolize Dreamer Religion ceremonies, the Palouse would fly a triangular flag with a five-pointed star and a red circle with a white, yellow, and blue background.

Among the Nez Perce, Chief Joseph (the elder) became one of his supporters. When Chief Joseph died in 1871 He was buried at the foot of a hill, a fence of poles is placed around his grave, and a red pole with a bell suspended from a cross piece was placed within the fence. The bell was used by the Dreamers to indicate important moments.

Smohalla’s reputation for prophecy was enhanced in 1872 when he accurately predicted a major earthquake in north central Washington. Smohalla predicted that the Great Spirit would show displeasure by shaking the earth.

By 1875, Smohalla’s teachings placed him in conflict with the American government. The American government felt that Indians must become farmers in order to become assimilated into American society. Smohalla, on the other hand, was preaching that Americans were destroying the earth. While he did not advocate violence, he opposed farming. The Indian superintendent for Oregon and Washington felt that Smohalla’s Dream Religious had to be suppressed, with military force if needed.  He was incredulous that “their model of a man is an Indian.” It was apparent that Indians could not be religious leaders nor models for other Indians.

In the 1870s, Indian reservations were administered by Christian (primarily Protestant) religious denominations. The American government at this time was actively seeking to convert Indians to Christianity and to destroy traditional religions. In the Plateau area, Smohalla’s Dreamers came under fire on several reservations.

The Nez Perce Reservation in 1875 was a theocracy run according to Presbyterian Christianity. The Nez Perce who followed the Dream path were seen as a threat. Smohalla was portrayed as the purveyor of dangerous ideas which were harmful to the people and attractive to those who were not strong in their Christian beliefs.

There were a number of Nez Perce bands which had not been relocated to the Idaho reservation. Many of these bands were followers of Smohalla. One government commission which was looking at Chief Joseph’s band in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon reported that Joseph and his band were under the “spell” of the Dreamers. The commission recommended that the leaders of this religion should be removed to Oklahoma, and that the band should be removed to the Idaho reservation, by force if necessary.

In 1876, the Indian superintendent for Oregon and Washington felt that Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce band was a part of an intertribal Dreamer conspiracy. According to the superintendent the government has an obligation to suppress the Dreamer religion and to force Joseph’s band to live on the Idaho reservation where they must become Christians.

On the Yakama Reservation (home to 14 Columbia River nations), the Indian superintendent (a Methodist minister) insisted that all Indians on the reservation must become Methodists. He blamed Smohalla and the Dreamer religion for every act of Indian defiance in the area.

In 1876, the United States sent General O. O. Howard, billed by contemporary newspapers as “America’s Christian General,” to meet in council with the non-treaty Nez Perce bands and to inform them that they would move to the Idaho reservation. Chief Joseph, acutely aware that Indians on reservations were wards rather than citizens and that they had no rights, including the freedom of religion, informed the council that he could not accept a reservation. General Howard would later write of this refusal: “Indian Joseph and his malcontents denied the jurisdiction of the United States over them.”

After Joseph’s band left the council, the American commissioners concluded that he was under the influence of the Dreamers. They recommended to the Department of Interior that Dreamer teachers be confined to their own reservations and suppressed or that they be exiled to Oklahoma.

In 1877, the military was sent in to forcibly remove the Nez Perce from the Wallowa Valley. The goal was to destroy the Dream Religion and to open up the land for non-Indian settlement. The result was the Nez Perce War. Following the war, many of the Dreamer Nez Perce were held as prisoners of war in Oklahoma.

Today, the Dreamer Religion (also known as the Seven Drums Religion) continues to be celebrated by many Plateau Indians.

Smohalla died in 1907 at the age of 92. His religious movement was called The Dreamers by Americans because revelations were revealed in dreams.  

2 thoughts on “American Indian Religions: The Dreamers

  1. You mention that physically he was an unlikely person to be followed. Was not Tenskwatawa of Shawnee similar in also having physical handicaps?

  2. Tenskwatawa had been blinded in one eye and his face disfigured. He was another major Indian leader who is often short-changed in standard histories. I’m working on a short bio of him to post here.

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