Earthquakes and Native American Spirituality

There have been a number of major earthquakes recently-Haiti, Chile, Turkey-and, as usual, there have been some religious explanations about why they happened. During the past century there have been a couple of earthquakes here in North America which involved Native American spirituality.  

The most intense series of earthquakes in North America happened in 1811 with an epicenter in Arkansas. It is estimated that this may have been an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. This earthquake is commonly called the New Madrid Earthquake.

Just prior to the earthquake, Cherokee chief Skaquaw (The Swan) had a vision while gazing at a comet. Lightning flashed from the four directions and formed a small light at his feet. He picked it up and found that it did not burn his hand because it was tame fire. A child then approached him from the east and another from the west. They perfumed the air and he fell asleep. While sleeping, the Great Spirit told him to warn the Cherokee that they must leave the St. Francis, Arkansas area before great disaster falls upon them. When Skaquaw awoke he told the people what he had learned and they left the area. In this way, they escaped from the New Madrid earthquakes.

There’s another story about the New Madrid Earthquake from Alabama. Shawnee leader Tecumseh had been visiting the Creek in an attempt to gain their support for a rebellion against the Americans. When he left the Creek village of Tuckhabatchee he told the Creek Chief Big Warrior that when he returned to Michigan he would stamp his foot and that the earth would shake the Creek village. In about the length of time it would have taken Tecumseh to return to his Michigan home, the ground at Tuckhabatchee shook from the New Madrid Earthquake.

In 1870, the Wanapum prophet Smohalla predicted that an earthquake would shake the ground to announce the displeasure of the Great Spirit in the way the people were living. Soon after a major earthquake struck the Chelan in north central Washington. Many in the area, including those who had not heard Smohalla’s words, believed that Mother Earth was angry with them. The Catholic priests used this event as an opportunity to increase their missionary efforts. However, Chief Nmosize, a follower of the traditional ways, burned down the mission house.

In 1873, the Sanpoil prophet Kolaskin predicted that a major disaster was going to happen. On November 12 a major earthquake struck. The earthquake enhanced his reputation as a prophet and increased the number of his followers, including the protestant Indians on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington.

In 1887, the noted Yavapai healer Echawamahu began to spend his days wandering away from his San Carlos Apache Reservation camp in Arizona. He muttered to himself and looked skyward. He returned in the evening, carrying flowers, and then was gone again in the morning. He went to another world, but the Great Spirit sent him back to tell the people about coming changes.

Echawamahu called a number of Yavapai and Apache to his camp and gave them specific instructions. He told them that people from four camps were to approach from the four cardinal directions, then be seated in rows. Four young women would be selected to come dressed in white, wearing eagle feathers in their hair. These chosen women would sprinkle dust on each of the seated participants, and then the entire crowd. One by one, they would sprinkle dust on Echawamahu. If the people believe and do as they are told, then the Great Spirit would restore their lands.

When a large earthquake struck the reservation many Yavapai and Apache were convinced that Echawamahu spoke the truth. More than 1,000 gathered at a spring known as Coyote Hole for nightly dancing.

In 1932, the Paiute prophet Wovoka, whose vision had started the Ghost Dance movement, died in Nevada of enlarged prostate cystitis at the age of 74. Prior to his death he predicted that there would be an earthquake after his death which would signal his entry into heaven. Three months after his death, a large earthquake rocked the Smith and Mason Valleys which had been his home.

In 1959, a group of Cree on the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana requested a Spirit Lodge ceremony. The Cree were concerned about unemployment and about the general unrest among tribal members. During the ceremony the spirits told the ceremonial leader that the people were forgetting the traditional ways. As a result, the leader reported, there would be an earthquake to remind the people. Within a month, a devastating earthquake shook Montana and surrounding country. It caused landslides, created a new lake, and killed many people. The Cree who had been at the meeting of the Spirit Lodge were not surprised.

One thought on “Earthquakes and Native American Spirituality

  1. “The lives of the Cucapa Nation have been shattered with the loss of their homes, roads, electricity and water,” said Maggie Rivera, vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “The economic state of Mexicali mirrors that of Haiti to where local economy relies on tourism. This devastating crisis is something many leaders believe reflects the desperate need of financial hardship in this region of the world.”

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