Kolaskin, A Sanpoil Prophet

The Columbia Plateau refers to the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana. Many of the Indian nations in this region, such as the Sanpoil, speak languages which belong to the Salish language family. For many of the Salish-speaking tribes, prophecy was an important part of their spirituality. Prophecy is a traditional way of knowing the future and is used to predict such events as salmon runs and war party success. In most cases, prophets were men and women who had died and then come back to life. The prophet would usually return to life with a special vision resulting from their journey to the land of the dead.  

Among the Salish-speaking tribes of the upper Columbia River it was necessary to have a guardian spirit to obtain any success in life. Consequently, both boys and girls at about the age of puberty were sent out to spend some time alone so that a guardian spirit would reveal itself to them.

Like other Sanpoil youth during the last half of the nineteenth century, Kolaskin (also spelled Skolaskin) obtained a guardian spirit. It was not a particularly powerful one, but he proved to be a likeable young man. When he was about 20 years old, Kolaskin became very ill. He developed sores and his legs became flexed. Soon he was unable to straighten them out. He tried herbal remedies, but they failed to work. Medicine people tried to cure him, but they also failed.

After two years of living in pain, Kolaskin went into a coma and people thought that he had died. As they were preparing his body for burial, Kolaskin came back to life. He began to sing a song which no one had ever heard. He announced that his pain was gone and that he had received a great revelation while dead.

While Kolaskin regained the ability to walk, his knees remained permanently flexed. This meant that he had to walk in a stooped position with a hand on each knee.

At this time, Kolaskin was living among the Spokan as his own parents were dead. He began preaching to the Spokan that people should not drink alcohol, steal, or commit adultery. People were to pray to the new god-called Sweat Lodge-each day when they arose and before eating. Every seventh day was to be devoted to praying and singing. On this day there was to be no work, no dancing, and no gambling. People were to be kind and friendly to everyone.

Kolaskin made only a few converts among the Spokan before returning to the Sanpoil. He took up residence at the village of Whitestone and he was hailed by the Sanpoil as a great prophet. Nearly all of the Sanpoil converted to the new religious movement.

At Whitestone, Kolaskin built a structure in which he could hold his meetings. On Sundays, there would be one or two meetings during which he would teach prayers and songs addressed to Sweat Lodge. He would tell of his revelation while dead and of his miraculous cure.

At Whitestone, Kolaskin received a second revelation. He saw the coming of a great flood which was to arrive in ten years. To avoid destruction by this flood, he had a sawmill built near the church to produce lumber for making a boat. Those who would board the boat-both humans and animals-would be saved. Although the lumber was cut for the boat, the boat itself was never actually built.

In 1873, Kolaskin predicted that another disaster was going to occur. Then, on November 22, 1873, a major earthquake shook the region with tremors and aftershocks lasting until spring. With this successful prediction, his reputation was enhanced. He gained many followers among the Spokan and Southern Okanogan. Even many of the Protestant Christian Spokan began to follow this new path.

For those who failed to live up to his expectations, Kolaskin had a jail built. The jail was essentially a pit which was covered with boards. Kolaskin then appointed policemen who acted as judges to determine who should be imprisoned. People were jailed for minor offenses and forced to live on a starvation diet while in jail. This created some ill-will toward Kolaskin.

Finally, two of Kolaskin’s prisoners escaped and his police went in search of them. One of the prisoners was found, and when the police attempted to tie him up to take him back, the prisoner’s uncle came to his aid. He shouted that Kolaskin was always making trouble. Kolaskin had the uncle tied up and taken to the jail. Another nephew entered the fray, and Kolaskin’s policeman shot him dead.

The dead man’s family took the body to Whitestone for burial. They then stormed the jail and released the uncle and the nephew. They attempted to burn the jail, but could not get the fire going.

The Indian agent had Kolaskin and his policeman arrested. While the policeman-the man who actually did the killing-was released, Kolaskin was sent to the McNeil Island prison for three years. Upon his return to the Sanpoil, Kolaskin tried to disband his religious organization. He told the people that his teachings were wrong, but many continued to follow the new path.

Following his release from prison, Kolaskin continued to function as the chief of Whitestone. In this position, he advised his people not to accept anything from the Americans as the Americans would try to steal the Sanpoil land. He continued to practice as a traditional medicine man.

Kolaskin died in 1920 and his religion continued to be practiced on the Colville reservation until 1930.  

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.