The Bottomless-Pit becomes The Arch-Nemesis


August 24, 2011

If James H. Wilbur feared anything, it was non-Christian religion, or at least what he considered non-Christian.  For instance, Wilbur held little stock in Catholicism.  Like many Protestants of his era, Wilbur figured Catholicism was something other than Christian.  Understanding the Catholic faith as non-Christian, Wilbur did all he could during his tenure to keep priests off the reservation.  However, if Catholicism troubled Wilbur, the Yakama Dreamer religion terrified him.

Wilbur brought the mindset of his generation to the reservation.  Full of Santander manifest destiny, Wilbur not only knew himself and White Christians as the chosen people, which meant Yakama’s were a pagan and nearly bottomless-pit people, but also the Dreamer religion endorsed immoral behavior and held people from ever attaining salvation.  Such a mindset led to a clear conclusion, the wellbeing of Yakama’s lay in their conversion to his Christianity, and only evil would stand against conversion.

One Yakama religious leader in particular became Wilbur’s arch-nemesis.  Born sometime after 1810, Smohalla was neither a chief nor shaman, but iyánča—“one who trains or disciplines.”  Smohalla was Wilbur’s opposite.  Where Wilbur was Christian, conventional, and earth bound, Smohalla was Dreamer, prophet, and known for trances allowing him to visit the Spirit land.  Where Wilbur was six foot four and 200 pounds, Smohalla was frail and slight.  Where Wilbur had the political weight of the U.S. government and military behind him, Smohalla had his priests.

During their relationship, Smohalla never backed away from opposing Wilbur and his Christianity, and became known for his rejection of Wilbur’s “The Plow and the Bible” conversion-civilizing efforts.  Where Wilbur believed land and person became civilized the day a Yakama picked up the plow and dominated the land by physically turning the soil; Smohalla believed the plow was a destruction of spirit to both land and person.

My young men shall never work.  Men who work cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams.  [When] challenged that his people were even then hard at work digging camas in the hills, he replied: ‘…it is natural work and does them no harm.  But the work of the white man hardens soul and body.  Nor is it right to tear up and mutilate the earth as white men do.’  [When challenged further] he responded: ‘We simply take the gifts that are freely offered.  We no more harm the earth than would an infant’s fingers harm its mother’s breast.  But the white man tears up large tracts of land, runs deep ditches, cuts down forests, and changes the whole face of the earth…Every honest man know in his heart that this is all wrong.

Smohalla and Wilbur stood on opposite sides of a theological fence.  On the one hand, Wilbur understood human domination over Creation as a requirement of God.  On the other hand, Smohalla believed the Creator created on a horizontal-equal plane and no part of creation has a right to dominion over another.  Smohalla, therefore, not only places all people as equal to one another, but also believes a collaborative state should exist between people, land, animals and wind.

Smohalla’s theology arises at the July 31, 1871 council meeting with Indian Commissioner Felix R. Brunot held in Wilbur’s church.

This is our land. We have been planted and grown like a tree on the land.  As a tree is valuable on the land, so is our being planted here good for the land.  First was the earth, then riches was placed in it, then man was placed on it.  It is good for man and woman to be together on the earth; a home is given and they are placed in it.  We do not know how the earth was made, nor do we say who made it.  The earth was peopled and their hearts are good, and my mind is that it is as it ought to be.  The world was peopled by whites and Indians and they should all grow as one flesh

Brunot’s response best reflects the theology of Wilbur’s church,

You have not got it quite right.  God was first.  He made the earth and all things.  He made the whites and Indians; the whites away to the East, the Indians here.  God gave the white man the Bible to tell about Him.  The white and red men were all bad once, God took pity on them and sent His Son to die, instead of having all the people die.  We would have you learn from this.

Brunot’s response maintains the manifest destiny theology of White people as the chosen people of God, who are privileged with a secret knowledge, and who are called to tell and convert those whom God has chosen not to privilege with such knowledge.  Brunot’s response endorses and preserves Wilbur’s system of Yakama subjugation.

All though Brunot and the U.S. government imbue Wilbur with power and privilege over the Yakama people, he is unable to bring an end to Smohalla and the Dreamer religion.  Smohalla continued to influence the Yakama people by centering his activities in Priest Rapids, while his priests held worship services throughout the reservation.  Smohalla’s tenacity is evident to this day; the Dreamer religion stands equal to Christianity on the Yakama reservation.

© David B. Bell 2011

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