General Howard meets with Smohalla, Wanapum spiritual leader, on April 24, 1877.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 6/03/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9439

On April 24, 1877, General Oliver O. Howard (1830-1909), newly appointed commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Columbia, meets in a day-long council with Smohalla (1815?-1895), an influential Wanapum spiritual leader and advocate of resistance to white culture. Howard and other white authorities blame Smohalla for promoting discontent among Indians in the Pacific Northwest, including the Nez Perce band led by Chief Joseph (1840-1904). Howard tells Smohalla he and his followers must move onto the Yakama reservation. However, distracted by the Nez Perce War, which breaks out a few weeks later, Howard takes no steps to enforce the order and Smohalla ignores it.

Dreamer Prophet

Smohalla was born around 1815 in the homelands of the Wanapum tribe, near present-day Wallula, Washington. His birth name was Wak-wei, meaning "arising from the dust of the Earth Mother." After a vision quest in adolescence, he adopted the name Smohalla, from a Shahaptian word meaning "dreamer." The name reflected his belief that the spirits communicated with him through dreams and trances.

He quickly gained a reputation as a prophet, preaching what became known as the Washani or Dreamer creed. He told his followers that if they shunned white culture and lived as their ancestors had lived, the Creator would reward them by eventually restoring the world to what it had been before the whites arrived. He said Indians should not work as white people did but rely instead on the fish, game, and plants that nature provided. "Men who work cannot dream," he said, "and wisdom comes to us in dreams" (Huggins, 213).

Smohalla's ideology put him at odds not only with whites but with some Indian leaders. He was forced to leave Wallula around 1850 after a quarrel with Walla Walla Chief Homli (sometimes spelled Homily) over allowing whites to use tribal land. "You do not own this land, our Mother Earth," he reportedly told Homli. He also warned that "Those who cut up the lands or sign papers for lands will be defrauded of their rights, and will be punished by God's anger" (MacMurray, 248).

After the quarrel with Homli, Smohalla established a village at Priest Rapids, near White Bluffs, on what is now part of the Hanford Reach National Monument. The area was relatively isolated, and thus less vulnerable to white encroachment; and rich in the resources that supported a traditional lifestyle, especially salmon. It soon became a host territory for Indians who had left reservations or otherwise challenged white authority. Agents on the Umatilla and Yakama reservations complained repeatedly about the "renegades" who had gathered around Smohalla. As the Umatilla agent put it in 1861, "Smo-kol-lah is a bad character and the peace of the country depends on the capture of him and his party" (Ruby and Brown, 52).

Annoyance and Hindrance

The charges against Smohalla had increased in frequency and intensity by the time Howard took command in 1874. In a report dated September 17, 1874, Narcisse A. Cornoyer, the Umatilla agent, said about 2,000 Indians had joined "Smo-hol-ler" in the White Bluffs area. He also said that Smohalla’s disruptive influence had spread beyond the Northwest and into California, Utah, and Nevada. "Until these Indians are placed under proper control, there will be no material improvement among the Indians on the several reservations in Eastern Oregon and Washington," he warned (Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1874, 323).

Cornoyer repeated the message the next year. "These Indians, in their present unsettled and unrestricted life, have no earthly mission beyond that of annoyance to settlers and hindrance to the opening of the country," he wrote (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1875, 85-86).

Howard, a Union general who had lost an arm during the Civil War, resisted demands that he use military force against the "renegades." Instead, beginning in the spring of 1877, he turned to negotiation, holding a series of councils with Smohalla and other non-treaty Indians along the mid-Columbia. His goal was to secure their neutrality in case of war with Joseph and his band, who were defying orders to leave their homeland in the Wallowa country in northeast Oregon and move to a Nez Perce reservation in Idaho.

Smohalla was willing to meet with Howard but wanted the council to take place at his seasonal fishing camp, on the west bank of the Columbia, rather than at Howard’s chosen location, in the fledgling town of Wallula, opposite the camp. Howard wrote later that Smohalla was "afraid to put himself in my power" (323). In a minor show of power, Howard insisted that Smohalla come to him. Assured that "Arm-cut-off" would do him no harm, Smohalla agreed. He and an entourage of about 400 men, women, and children rowed across the Columbia to Wallula on April 24, 1877.

"Spirit Chief of the Columbia"

The council was held in a large storehouse owned by the operator of the town’s hotel/tavern. Howard and four other whites, including Umatilla agent Cornoyer and an interpreter, sat with Smohalla on chairs on a platform at one end of the building. "It was a wild-looking set of savages down there that I looked upon," Howard wrote. He thought "Smoholly" was "the strangest-looking human being I had ever seen." He described him as having a "short and shapeless" body, a hunched back, and a disproportionately large head. His eyes, however, were wide open, clear, and "so expressive that they gave him great power over all the Indians that flocked to his village" (Howard, 333). Smohalla left no record of what he thought of the general.

Smohalla introduced himself as "the Spirit Chief of all the Columbia bands, who gives good medicine, who loves right and justice" (Howard, 335). He said that agent Cornoyer had sent messages to all the Dreamer bands, telling them they must move onto reservations willingly or Howard would use his troops to force them to do so. Cornoyer had said the new president (Rutherford B. Hayes, inaugurated in March 1877) had made this "the Washington law." Smohalla wanted to hear directly from Howard: what is the law?

After insisting "I did not come to the Far West to make war but to bring peace," Howard deferred to Cornoyer on the question of the law. As Howard remembered it, Cornoyer said simply: "The law is for all the Indians to come on my reservation or some other, there are many reservations. Why not come without trouble?" (Howard, 335)

The meeting ended inconclusively. In late May, however, Howard returned to Wallula for another council with Smohalla. Matters in the Wallowa were approaching the crisis point, and Howard wanted to undercut any possible alliances between Joseph’s Nez Perce and the Columbia River Indians. Smohalla reportedly agreed to go to the Yakama reservation as soon as the fishing season ended. "Your law is my law," he said. "I say to you, yes. I will be on a reservation by September" (Mooney, 173).

The Nez Perce War broke out a few weeks later, on June 13, 1877. In early September, Smohalla and his followers moved back to Priest Rapids -- not to the reservation. By that time Howard’s troops were busy chasing Joseph and about 450 Nez Perce through Idaho and into Montana. Howard gave no further attention to the "dreamers and drummers" on the Columbia.

Smohalla remained neutral throughout the Nez Perce War, which ended with Joseph’s surrender on October 5, 1877; and during the Bannock-Paiute War of 1878. He seemed to believe that "the Great Spirit, not war," would free the Indians "in his own good time" (Ruby and Brown, 81).


Sources: Eli L. Huggins, "Smohalla, the Prophet of Priest Rapids," Overland Monthly 5 (February, 1891); J. W. MacMurray, "The ‘Dreamers’ of the Columbia River Valley, in Washington Territory," Transactions of the Albany Institute, Vol. XI (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1887); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Dreamer-Prophets of the Columbia Plateau: Smohalla and Skolaskin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989); Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1874, and Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1875, in American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collection, University of Washington Digital Collections (http://content.lib.washington.edu/index.html), accessed May 2010; Oliver O. Howard, Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known (New York: The Century Co., 1908); James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896); Christopher L. Miller, "Smohalla," Encyclopedia of North American Indians (http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_036600_smohalla.htm), accessed May 2010; "Prophecy and the Dreamer Religion," in Jennifer Karson, ed., As Days Go By: Our History, Our Land, and Our People: The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla (Pendleton: Tamástslikt Cultural Institute and Oregon Historical Society Press, 2006).

Related Topics:   Northwest Indians | Religion

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