Seekers after wisdom have always been drawn to American Indian ritual and symbol. This history of two nineteenth-century Dreamer-Prophets, Smohalla and Skolaskin, will interest those who seek a better understanding of the traditional Native American commitment to Mother Earth, visionary experiences drawn from ceremony, and the promise of revitalization implicit in the Ghost Dance.
To white observers, the Dreamers appeared to imitate Christianity by celebrating the sabbath and preaching a covenant with God, nonviolence, and life after death. But the Prophets also advocated adherence to traditional dress and subsistence patterns and to the spellbinding Washat dance. By engaging in this dance and by observing traditional life-ways, the Prophets claimed, the living Indians might bring their dead back to life and drive the whites from the earth. They themselves brought heaven to earth, they said, by “dying, going there, and returning,” in trances induced by the Washat drums.
The Prophets’ sacred longhouses became rallying points for resistance to the United States government. As many as two thousand Indians along the Columbia River, from various tribes, followed the Dreamer religion. Although the Dreamers always opposed war, the active phase of the movement was brought to a close in 1889 when the United States Army incarcerated the younger Prophet Skolaskin at Alcatraz. Smohalla died of old age in 1894.
Modern Dreamers of the Columbia plateau still celebrate the Feast of the New Foods in springtime as did their spiritual ancestors. This book contains rare modern photographs of their Washat dances.
Readers of Indian history and religion will be fascinated by the descriptions of the Dreamer-Prophets’ unique personalities and their adjustments to physical handicaps. Neglected by scholars, their role in the important pan-Indian revitalization movement has awaited the detailed treatment given here by Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown.