From the 1700s through the end of the 1800s, visionaries rose up among many tribes in a movement to bring back traditional ways. Native prophets brought messages from the next world through trances, vision quests and natural gifts and abilities. From east to west and north to south, all carried the same message to their people: continue peacefully, but withdraw from the white man’s ways. The similarities were as remarkable as the passion with which they delivered their messages.
Neolin, known as the Delaware Prophet, came onto the radar of the British in the 1760s as he called for a rejection of all things European. In only 100 years, Natives had already become accustomed to cloth and metal, from cookware to guns. A trance produced Neolin’s vision whereby the Master of Life (Creator) told him Europeans would keep them from a peaceful afterlife, and to reject the metal objects as they came from unclean fire. His visions warned that following the white man’s ways would lead to terrible times and that they must remain on the lands that had been created for his people, the Lenape.
Neolin’s vision played a part in Pontiac’s Rebellion. Pontiac was believed to have embraced Neolin’s vision, but rather than reject all whites, Pontiac specifically targeted the British.
Tenskwatawa, known as the Shawnee Prophet, was the brother of Tecumseh. Tenskwatawa had been an alcoholic until age 30 when he fell to ground while sitting at a fire with his family. Preparations for the end of his life began, however, the next day he sat up and said he had been with the Master of Life who instructed him to bring the people back to their original ways and abandon all materialism introduced by the whites. His prophecy was specific in the traditional values: to remain faithful to their spouse, to give up alcohol and the accumulation of property and goods, to use only instruments of wood and stone, and to abandon steel. His prophecy spread throughout the tribes and many left their own homes to stay with him in Prophetstown, Ohio. His sincerity even won over many U.S. officials.
Tecumseh traveled with Tenskwatawa on a mission to unite tribes of the “Old Northwest” (from Ohio to Minnesota), the south, and the Mississippi Valley. Tecumsah was a commanding leader who sought an uprising against the taking of 3 million acres of land in the Treaty of Fort Wayne. Tecumesh, who lived from 1768 until 1813, had a reputation as a visionary in his own right. He foretold of a comet, and later, months before it occurred, of the Madrid Earthquake, the most massive earthquake in the country in an area not known for seismic activity. “There was no scientific explanation for such a thing happening; where no one could possibly have anticipated or predicted that an earthquake could happen,” said David Yarrow, editor of the Ratville Times. “No one except Tecumseh.”
Smohalla, Paiute, lived from 1815 until 1895 in the Pacific Northwest. Smohalla was recognized at a young age to have spiritual gifts. He was of unusual build, with short legs and a large head, and many attributed his stature to one who would be spiritually gifted. When he went on his vision quest at age 14, he came back saying he had died but was refused entrance into the spirit world. He was to return and become a conduit between worlds. Like the other prophets, Smohalla called for an end of indulgence in the white man’s ways. He instructed his people to practice their traditions and to not use the goods the white man had brought into their lives. They were to continue to hunt, gather and fish rather than farm and ranch, which was the only way they would survive. As many as 2,000 people followed Smohalla, including Chief Joseph.
Smohalla’s communication with Nami Piap (Creator) brought new songs and ceremonies to the people. He was a powerful medicine man, able to cure diseases others could not, including smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, influenza, typhoid, and others brought by the onslaught of Europeans. Smohalla, like most of the others, preached peaceful retreat from the whites and he never moved to a reservation.
Wovoka, Walker River Paiute, lived from 1856 until 1932. He was a respected man who had been known to communicate with the elements since childhood. Wovoka was aware of other leaders who called for the abandonment of the settler’s ways. He took the Ghost Dance, developed by another Paiute, Wodzibob, who may have been his father, and refined it with new songs to spread the mission of eliminating whites forever. As a charismatic speaker from Nevada, people came to meet Wovoka from California and Oregon, and when the Lakota came, they brought the Ghost Dance back to the Plains. There, Ghost Dance shirts were worn to protect them from the bullets of soldiers, and Army officials grew concerned at the fervor.
Wovoka called for unity, insisting that if all would come and dance together, the earth would open and the whites would disappear, and those Natives already dead would return. The dance is still practiced among Paiutes and spoken of with reverence among other tribes, but the widespread practice ended with the massacre at Wounded Knee.
According to Clifford Trafzer, Wyandot, author of American Indian Prophets: Religious Leaders and Revitalization Movements, the words of these prophets are relevant today. He said, “Wovoka’s belief system continues. It didn’t end with Wounded Knee as the history books say. It’s about the spirit and what Creator wants people to be doing. It’s about being truer to your way of life. Being Native means following the traditional laws and codes of behavior that were set down at the beginning of time among all communities, the dos and don’ts, and you need to follow that. I know certain friends of mine still do Circle Dances it was, a form of the ghost dance.”
Asked how to practice these ways in today’s world, Trafzer, a professor of American Indian history at the University of California, Riverside said, “I think the most important thing is what’s really in your heart. It’s about what you are doing and how you see that larger circular world of the past in the present. I think the prophets were asking that you connect with our beginning, with our creation, with our songs, our environment. The first ceremonies predate Christianity,” he said. “Stay away from manufactured things and go back to the things we used to do. Remember the importance of rocks, sage, and tobacco—that is where the power sits.
“Remember the relationship to food and water, and the spirit that was given to them by the creator. It is in remembrance of the things that keep us alive. We should never forget that gift was given, that the plants and animals are giving their life so that we can live. That is in accordance with the laws of creation, and are really and truly a beautiful thing.”