Smohalla: Native American Sovereignty


Smohalla (1815?-1895), center, in white, Priest Rapids, 1884
Courtesy National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

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In the early 1850s a Wanapum Indian doctor named Smohalla attempted to use his powers to heal his only daughter, who was to assume the mantle of spiritual leadership. Neither the holy man’s power nor that of other medicine people could save the girl, who died of an infectious disease brought by Suyapos: white people. Smohalla sang with his people in an all-night funeral service and prayed at her grave.

Indian people say that the Yantcha, or holy man, died at his daughter’s grave, his body becoming lifeless and rigid. They dressed him in fine buckskin clothing, adorned his braids with otter fur, and painted his face yellow, the color of death. They conducted his funeral in an A-framed longhouse—the men and women singing funeral songs all night, sending their prayers skyward with swan and eagle fans. They sang to Nami Piap, the Creator, and prayed for the prophet’s journey to the land in the sky. Just before dawn, the ceremony ended abruptly when Smohalla’s hand moved and the corpse sat up. The people left the longhouse and waited.

Smohalla asked one of his wives to have the people meet him along the Nch’i-wana (the Big River, or Colum­bia) at P’na (Water Swirl Place), not far from his village at Priest Rapids. There he reported he had died and his soul had traveled to the land above, where Nami Piap gave him new power to heal the sick, divine the future, call the weather, predict salmon runs, and interpret the meaning of volcanic eruptions. Nami Piap taught Smohalla several new songs, sacred rituals, and, most importantly, the Washat, a dance and ceremony in which seven elderly men beat kookoolots (hand drums). Smohalla introduced the people to the Washat, or Seven Drums Religion, a variation of the old Washani faith. From there he rose to become one of the most prominent Indian doctors on the Great Columbia Plateau of present-day Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and British Columbia.

Smohalla was born between 1815 and 1820 and grew up at Wallula, a village located near the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers in eastern Washington. In 1818 the Northwest Company built Fort Nez Perces (later changed to Fort Walla Walla) on a commanding site overlooking the Columbia not far from Wallula. Smohalla grew to witness the invasion of the region by whites who came to trap furs, buy horses, Christianize Indians, and open routes to the Oregon country. Along with them came contagious diseases and new land policies.

Wallula witnessed many changes from the 1820s to the 1850s, when Smohalla experienced his first significant religious revelation. Covered wagons, stagecoaches, and freight wagons rumbled through the region on Indian trails widened for wheeled vehicles. Steamboats soon plied the Columbia and Snake rivers, stopping at new settlements on the lower Columbia. The new transportation systems brought more white people, commerce, and demand for Indian lands. Smohalla had sought his wot, or spirit power, as a youth of 12, but he renewed his relationship with the spirit world when he was about 30 years old. Concerned about white settlement and the fate of his Wanapum people, Smohalla climbed the sacred mountain of La Lac near his home, where he prayed and sang, asking for divine guidance.


Smohalla (1815?-1895) and followers outside his lodge, Priest Rapids, 1884
Courtesy National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Standing by tradition

In a vision, Smohalla met Nami Piap, who told him to return to his people and preach that the Creator wanted them to reject American culture and return to the old tribal ways. Smohalla came down the mountain to proclaim this new message that the people should continue to hunt, fish, and gather as they had for generations, and not to work on farms, ranches, or in the mines. He told them not to drink whiskey, hoard their wealth, sell their lands, or move to reservations. To protect his people from the influence of whites, Smohalla moved them north to an isolated spot along the Columbia near P’na, later called Priest Rapids.

Smohalla lived in relative seclusion at Priest Rapids with his band, but he was greatly aware of the increasing number of “red-eyed fools,” the soldiers who drank whiskey. His isolation did not prevent him from worrying about the loss of Indian culture and a growing materialism among Indians. The prophet’s teachings resonated with many Indian leaders, but some, like Chief Homli of the Walla Walla and Chief Moses of the Sinkiuses, did not like him: The Wanapum prophet had not been born into a leadership family and he was not a warrior. Nevertheless, other Northwestern Indian leaders, including Luls of the Umatilla, Husishusis Kute of the Palouse, and Toohoolzote of the Nez Perce, made the Washat come alive among their tribes.

Several white people pointed out that Smohalla did not fit the image of a great Indian leader. In 1885 Capt. E.L. Hug­gins visited Smohalla and recorded that the Yantcha was overweight and not a large, imposing figure. In 1884 Maj. J.W. MacMurray described Smo­halla as “peculiar”: “thickset, bald-headed, and almost hunch-backed.” In essence, he thought Smohalla was “not prepossessing at first sight, but he has an almost Websterian head with a deep brow over bright, intelligent eyes.”

In spite of his looks, Indians and non-Indians recognized Smohalla as a great orator, spiritual leader, and doctor. He used these skills most effectively after his daughter’s death at Priest Rapids and the prophet’s own death and rebirth, when he brought back the Washat dance from Nami Piap. In response to the social chaos among Indians resulting from white settlement, survey parties, and the threat of losing their lands, Indians from diverse tribes accepted Smohalla’s divine message: He returned to life to bring them new spiritual power and hope.

Indians from many quarters visited Priest Rapids along the Columbia to hear Smohalla preach, and Indian doctors learned the new ceremony. Smohalla taught the people to conduct weekly Washats, beginning on Friday and Saturday when the people prepared for Sunday’s ceremony. Women prepared the food, men cut wood and hauled water needed by participants, and everyone helped clean the village, repack the dance floor of the longhouse with white clay, and begin thinking in a holy manner. Each participant wore Native clothing made of buckskins, and they cleansed their hearts and minds through specific rituals before following the prophet and six other drummers into the longhouse for the lengthy ceremony.

Nami Piap had instructed Smohalla to use qualal qualal, or brass bells, during the service as well as symbols of the sun, moon, and stars. The prophet made several flags to fly on Sundays, or whenever the people conducted the First Foods Ceremonies giving thanks to Nami Piap for creating the salmon, berries, roots, deer, and other foods. The people made a special blessing to choos, or water, the giver of life that flowed through the rivers like blood through veins. Smohalla taught the people to sing new songs and praise the Creator by telling the ancient stories that tied the people to the earth.

Through Smohalla, Nami Piap urged the people to reject materialism, the division of land into parcels, the sale of land, and residence on reservations. Smohalla encouraged his followers to seek wisdom in dreams and learn “the highest wisdom” that could not be taught in words. He asked people to remember their relationship with animate and inanimate life. He urged them to be kind and generous and to hold onto their Indian identity. The prophet did not preach violence against whites, but he championed a firm passive resistance to their influence in order to maintain and perpetuate Plateau Indian culture.

Smohalla did not create the Washani faith but he revitalized the religion, adding form, ceremony, ritual, symbolism, and song. He harnessed spirit power, bringing it first to himself and then sharing it with others. He used his healing power to diagnose and cure the sick. When people violated Indian laws by handling sacred objects, entering forbidden lands, or killing animals without proper preparation, he warned that they would suffer spirit sickness, which could make a person ill or die.

Spirit sickness was an essence all its own, a negative power that other people, plants, places, animals, and objects could “shoot” into a person, causing sickness. Smohalla knew how to identify the invading illness and remove it. He also knew how to teach others to do the same. Indeed, Smohalla’s medicine power was so effective that he was credited with curing his nephew’s smallpox. Other Indian doctors treated the sick, but they often treated the symptoms and too often failed to save the afflicted from measles, chickenpox, mumps, cholera, tuberculosis, influenza, ty­phoid, and other diseases brought by newcomers.

Smohalla taught his doctrine and ceremonies to other Indian doctors, but in the tradition of his people, he concealed his wot, or spirit helpers. Under tribal law, Smohalla could not generally reveal the source of his powers, which would bring spirit sickness to himself. Thus, he kept his “medicine power” to himself, but he used it to heal patients and provide hope for the distressed.

In 1853 the United States divided the Oregon Territory, creating the Washing­ton Territory that included lands in present-day Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. The federal government selected Washington Territory Gov. Isaac I. Stevens and Oregon Territory Super­intendent of Indian Affairs Joel Palmer to negotiate treaties with the Wanapum and other Indians of the inland Northwest. In May 1855 delegates of the United States and the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Palouse, and other Indian nations met to discuss treaty terms.


Wallula Gap, south of the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers, 2003
Photo by Glenn Drosendahl

The prophet’s protest

Smohalla knew of the treaty council in the Walla Walla Valley but he refused to attend. He remained at Priest Rapids to sing and pray, rejecting treaties and resettlement to reservations. Stevens and Palmer met several Indian leaders with written treaties in hand; they wanted the tribes to surrender millions of acres so that newcomers could own the earth that had once been the domain of Native Americans. Stevens and Palmer also asked the tribes to move to reservations, where agents of the Office of Indian Affairs would serve the people. Smohalla had warned Indians that one day the whites would ask them to surrender their homelands and move to reservations, and his prophecy proved true in 1855.

In his own way, Smohalla had preach­ed Indian sovereignty. At the beginning of time, the Creator had given the people their lands and its bounty; Smohalla and other Indian doctors preached against changing this fundamental Indian law by accepting treaties and reservations. But the government pressured the tribes; Iroquois and Delaware Indians living among the Northwest tribes also warned them to be cautious in dealing with the United States.

Stevens and Palmer spent the first few days of the council explaining their position. According to documents from the negotiations, Stevens asked, “What shall we do at this council? We want you and ourselves to agree upon tracts of land where you will live; in those tracts of land we want each man who will work to have his own land, his own horses, his own cattle, and his own home.”

The Indian leaders responded to the government’s proposal in much the same way Smohalla had for years, pointing out the spiritual relationship of Indians with the earth. Lt. James Doty recorded the Indian speeches, using his own words to describe the Almighty. “We have but one Father in Heaven,” Cayuse Chief Five Crows told the Americans, pointing up into the sky. The Creator “had made all the earth; He made us of earth on this earth; He made our Fathers.” The sale of their land violated Indian law, which placed the people in jeopardy of spirit sickness, natural disaster, and death. Chief Peopeo Moxmox (Yellow Bird) told everyone that the Americans had “spoken in a manner partly tending to Evil.”

Smohalla had often referred to the earth as his mother, the giver of life. Cayuse Chief Stickus used the same imagery when he said: “If your mothers were here in this country who gave you birth, suckled you and while you were sucking some person came and took your mother and left you alone and sold your mother, how would you feel then?” He explained, “This is our mother, as if we drew our living from her.”

Cayuse leader Young Chief also mirrored the teachings of Smohalla when he spoke: “I wonder if this ground has anything to say: I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said. I wonder if the ground would come to life and what is on it; though I hear what this earth says.” Using Judeo-Christian terminology, the interpreter recorded Young Chief as saying: “The Earth says, that God tells me to take care of the Indians on this earth. . . . God named the roots that he should feed the Indians on: The water speaks the same way. . . . The grass says the same thing: Feed the horses and cattle.”

The Creator had given all life their names, and “neither the Indians or the Whites have a right to change those names,” Young Chief said. The chief believed that the Almighty had created all things and placed them on the earth. The Creator had instructed the Indians “to take good care of the earth and do each other no harm.”

Yakama Chief Owhi also represented the teachings of Smohalla when he said: “God gave us day and night, the night to rest in, and the day to see, and that as long as the earth shall last, he gave us the morning with our breath; and so he takes care of us on this earth and here we have met under his care.” He questioned the ways of the newcomers in much the same manner as Smohalla. “Is the earth before the day or the day before the earth?” Owhi asked. “God was before the earth, the heavens were clear and good and all things in the heavens were good. God looked one way then the other and named our lands for us to take care of.” Smohalla often pointed out that Nami Piap had named the lands for the various tribes and had instructed them to take care of the animals, plants, and places. The people had a sacred duty to care for their world, and the Creator could punish the Indians if they neglected their sacred charge.

Smohalla taught that Nami Piap represented the superior law for humankind, and that the policies of the United Stated violated that law. Owhi concurred when he told Stevens and Palmer that the Creator had “made this earth and it listens to him to know what he would decide.”

Owhi said he did not want to surrender his lands. “Shall I steal this land and sell it?” Owhi asked. “Shall I give the lands that are part of my body and leave myself poor and destitute? Shall I say that I will give you my lands? I cannot . . . I am afraid of the Almighty.” Still, as much as the leaders feared the Creator’s wrath, many of them agreed to sell large portions of their land in order to prevent bloodshed and the loss of all their land: They knew the United States’ history of taking Indian lands and removing the people.

In June 1855 some of the Indian leaders agreed to sign three treaties with the United States, creating the Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce reservations. Smohalla never signed a treaty, but at one point when the government threatened him, he reportedly agreed to move to the Yakama Reservation. But Smohalla and his followers held fast to their beliefs, and many—including Smohalla—never moved permanently to a reservation. Some of Smohalla’s people still live at Priest Rapids, and they still practice the Seven Drums Religion, dancing the Washat.

Indian leaders at the Walla Walla Council used the precepts of Smohalla’s teachings to respond to the Americans, and in 1876 and 1877 several Nez Perce tooats, or Indian doctors, also used Smohalla’s doctrines to explain their spiritual beliefs. Since the 1850s Indian leaders throughout the Northwest have drawn on the prophet’s words and power to address contemporary issues involving fishing, hunting, and grazing rights, and they have looked to Smohalla and others for guidance in advancing Indian sovereignty.

The prophet lived out his life at Priest Rapids but he often conducted ceremonies on reservations. In 1895, after traveling to Satus in present-day Washington for a memorial ceremony, he became disoriented and then predicted his own death, saying, “Don’t be sorry for me; I will be seeing you in the sky.” Smohalla died, and the people painted religious symbols on his face and held a large funeral in the Washat tradition. They wrapped his body in woven mats and buried him in the Satus cemetery with two of his special flags.

Indian people say that Smohalla’s spirit remains at Priest Rapids and his power still echoes in the canyons, hills, and mountains through his holy songs, ceremonies, and rituals. Some Indian people still practice the Washat, and they conduct sacred gatherings to renew their health and spirit. Smohalla’s power lives on through the people who have not forgotten the Wanapum Yantcha or his teachings.


Clifford E. Trafzer, author of American Indian Prophets, is professor of American Indian history at the University of California, Riverside. He co-published with Gerald McMaster the inaugural book of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Native Universe: Voices of Indian America.


Words of Smohalla

You ask me to plow the ground!  Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom?  then when I die she will not take me to hear bosom to rest.

You ask me to dig for stone!  Shall I dig under her skin for her bones?  Then when I die I cannot 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?

It is a bad law and my people can not obey it.  I want my people to stay with me here.  All the dead men will come to see life again.  Their spirits will come to their bodies again.  We must wait here in the homes of our fathers and be ready to meet them in the bosom of our mother.

translated by James Mooney