Wanapum People After Smohalla

  • By Stephen Emerson
  • Posted 9/15/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9524
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In the 1850s, the Wanapum people were living peacefully at their village of P'na near the foot of Priest Rapids, on the Columbia River, where they practiced their Washani religion under the guidance of the prophet Smohalla  (1815?-1895).  They were painfully aware of what was going on all around them but managed to keep their distance and were little noticed. Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the newly appointed governor of Washington Territory, was apparently not aware of their existence as a separate group.  Being lumped together with other tribes of the mid-Columbia they, like the Chief Moses Band of Columbias (Sinkiuse), were expected to move onto the Yakama Reservation following the treaty of 1855.  But, also like the Columbias, none of their leaders signed the Yakama Treaty. Unlike the Columbias, however, the Wanapum were not numerous and lived in a relatively small and isolated geographical area, although they continued to travel to far-flung subsistence sites. Whereas the Columbias were considered an impediment to white settlement in the central Columbia Basin country, the Wanapum were considered to be harmless by the few whites that settle in the Priest Rapids vicinity. The most obvious consequence of these differing perceptions was that the Columbias lost their ancestral lands and were eventually relocated on the Colville Reservation, while the Wanapum continued to dwell near their ancient village site at P'na.

The Wanapum and Their Religion

Although white authorities frowned upon the Washani religion of the Wanapum, the small band continued to live along the Columbia River and visit traditional cultural sites with little notice.  Relationships with their neighbors, including the Columbia and Yakama groups, were intimate and their family ties became intertwined.  Some Wanapum moved onto the reservations, including the Yakama, the Colville, and the Warm Springs reserves.  Others continued to live in mat-covered lodges at Priest Rapids.  The Indian/white wars of the late 1870s focused attention on all Indian groups who had not settled on reservations.  There was a demand that they be finally dealt with. 

Prior to the flight of the Nez Perce, in May 1877, General Oliver Howard (1830-1909) met with Smohalla and Chief Moses (1829?-1899) near the mouth of the Snake River.  There he accused the Wanapum leader of preaching a religion that was “calculated to appeal to the Indians and stir them up against the whites” (Howard 1907 as cited in Sharkey 1984). The Indians replied that they only wanted peace and the right to occupy their traditional lands. Two months later Smohalla met General Howard again, at Fort Simcoe, on the Yakama Reservation.  The prophet answered Howard’s demands by promising to move onto the Yakama Reservation and actually relocated his people there during the Nez Perce War. This was due to bad feelings about his beliefs, which many thought encouraged Indian resistance. Afterwards, however, Smohalla and his followers moved back to P’na.

Although the Wanapum continued to live at Priest Rapids relatively unmolested in the late 1800s, their subsistence and cultural underpinnings were being relentlessly eroded. The white population was expanding at a rapid pace. Livestock grazing and agriculture were destroying the root-gathering places. The salmon runs were in decline and the wintering grounds for the horses were being taken over by whites. About the only physical things remaining of their traditional lifeways were the mat-covered lodges at Priest Rapids and the nearby fishing sites on the Columbia River. Many Indians responded to the diminishment of their traditional food sources by moving onto reservations or obtaining homesteads.  Smohalla refused both of these alternatives. During the many years that he and a small band of Wanapum lived in peace at Priest Rapids, their numbers declined. They continued, however, to practice the Washani religion.

Puck Hyah Toot (Johnny Buck)

During the latter years of the 1800s, Smohalla taught his beliefs to his son Yoyouoni and his nephew Puck Hyah Toot (1878?-1956). Smohalla died in about 1895 and his powers were passed onto the son, Yoyouni (?-1917). In 1917, however, the one called Little Smohalla died while hunting in the Colockum Mountains, southwest of Wenatchee. Thus Puck Hyah Toot became the successor and prophet of the Wanapum and married the widow of Yoyouni.  Puck Hyah Toot would become well known to the whites of the Priest Rapids vicinity as Johnny Buck.  As both the prophet and as the Wanapum Indian Johnny Buck, Puck Hyah Toot would wage a long battle for the rights of his people to a home and a place to fish.

One of the predictions that Smohalla had made to Puck Hyah Toot was that the whites would someday build dams across the Columbia River and stop the salmon from migrating. Alton S. Dam made the first call for a dam at Priest Rapids in 1906.  His proposal was shelved. In 1908, a hydroelectric plant was constructed at the foot of Priest Rapids. Water was diverted into a long chute and forced through the turbines of the power plant. Part of the energy produced was used to power a pump downstream near Coyote Rapids, which took water from the Columbia River and diverted it onto the low lying lands of the left bank of the river across from the White Bluffs. This project led to the development of a small community at Priest Rapids, where life revolved around the power plant, cattle and sheep ranchers, and the railroad that came down the river from Beverly.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, Wanapum Indians lived at their home at the lower end of Priest Rapids, their numbers continuing to decline.  They peacefully co-existed with the small population of white ranchers and farmers who  lived in the area. Pinto ponies were grazed on the steep hills to the west. Salmon were still caught at the traditional fishing grounds at Priest Rapids, White Bluffs, and at the Horn, or Wanawish, located on the Yakima River, 10 miles above its mouth.  Some of the Wanapum traveled to the Soap Lake vicinity in the spring to visit friends and gather roots. Other destinations were not of such a traditional nature.  Some of the Wanapum would travel to various locations to find seasonal work, including the Yakima Valley, where in the spring they were hired by white farmers to train hops vines. 

At Priest Rapids, the Wanapum continued to practice the Washani religion, as taught by Puck Hyah Toot, John Buck, in a mat-covered long house. They celebrated the first foods of spring with an annual feast. A letter written by John Buck, the name he usually used with whites, illustrates the sort of semi-nomadic life that the Wanapum, and indeed many other American Indians, lived at the time. John Buck was staying at White Bluffs, Washington. The letter was written to  Indian advocate Lucullus McWhorter (1860-1844) and is dated April 9, 1942:

"I was sorry you could not come Sun. to our feast. We had a big crowd.  Indians came from Toppenish, Wapato, White Swan and one man from Nespelum. We had a nice day for it. All the Indians have gone out to work. Some in Moxee, some Sunnyside, some Grandview. Just me and my wife are left here. I have to watch the horses. Maybe I sell them all soon.  Then we go to the horn to fish. Well I guess that is all.  Everybody is well. We are not going to Soap Lake this year. Write here to White Bluffs" (McWhorter Collection Cage 55, Box 41, Folder 396).

The Wanapum and Salmon

In 1937, the Game Warden of Benton County informed the Wanapum that they could no longer fish for salmon at the traditional locations noted above. Lucullus  McWhorter immediately stepped in to resist this action that would endanger the very lives of the Wanapum, who continued to depend on salmon for food more than most other native peoples.  First he contacted Washington State Director of Fisheries B. M. Brennen, pleading the case for the Wanapum in a letter dated September 30, 1937:

"If I did not misunderstand the chief, there are but three men in the band with some nine or ten women, composed mostly of widows, of course, and some six or seven children. These Indians have never been amalgamated with any Indian reservations, but have always resided at the Priest’s Raids, entirely self-supporting, working every season in the Yakima Hop yards, and potato fields, harvesting and general ranch work. They are reliable and respected by the whites where ever known.  Their simple honesty cannot be gainsaid.

These few Indians pray that they be permitted to catch and dry or smoke-cure enough salmon to tide them through the winter. They do not ask permission to catch fish commercially, do not expect to or want to catch for any other purpose that their own winter’s use; as such has ever been their principal source of food supply (McWhorter Collection Cage 55, Box 41, Folder 396).

McWhorter used his influence with the Washington State Historical Society, with which he was a curator, to support his plea. The society adopted a motion of sympathy basing their supposition on the general treaty rights of the Indians. McWhorter also went to the Washington State Legislature, where a House Resolution was prepared on behalf of the Wanapum. Fisheries Director Brennen opposed the measure chiefly because he feared that the Indians would abuse their rights and fish commercially.  McWhorter wrote to Brennen, pledging on his word that the Wanapum would not fish commercially.  He told the director that whites at White Bluff’s had told John Buck to just take the fish the Indians need in secret. John Buck refused to do this and dictated a statement of his simple plea, which was included in the letter to Brennen: “I want to catch salmon and want white man to catch  salmon but I don’t want to break no law, and if we can catch salmon we can live (McWhorter Collection Cage 55, Box 41, Folder 396).

With the support of McWhorter and others, legislation permitting the Wanapum to catch salmon at Priest Rapids and the Horn was passed in 1939.  McWhorter had tirelessly lobbied in Olympia, even taking the legislatures samples of dried salmon given to him by John Buck. This, he later wrote john Buck, “was a great help in getting the bill through for you.”  Another supporter of the bill was the man who signed it, Washington Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955).  After receiving a dictated letter from John Buck thanking him for his action, Martin replied: “Perhaps some time I might be able to come over and join with you at one of your gatherings and when you may partake of this splendid fish” (McWhorter Collection Cage 55, Box 41, Folder 396).

McWhorter's Further Efforts

Lucullus McWhorter also interceded on behalf of the Wanapum by initiating efforts to acquire some land at Priest Rapids for them to call their own.  In a letter dated April 4, 1940, he laid his case before State Representative Knute Hill:

"This, small band of Indians, numbering thirty-six people, with two head men, is known to the general public as the Priest Rapids band of landless Indians. They call themselves the Wana-pom tribe, which simply means River Indians. This small group of Indians are the survivors of the once powerful Sokulks.

"When the treaties negotiated by Governor Isaac Stevens were in the process of being made, the Sokulks were overlooked. Today they are living as squatters on land which is now in the hands of a land company and under lease as a sheep ranch.

"These Indians are self supporting. They live in the ancient manner of their ancestors and observe the religious rites of a period long since forgotten by most of their contemporary tribes" (McWhorter Collection Cage 55, Box 41, Folder 396).

McWhorter tried to arrange a deal between the federal government and the Rothrock Cattle Company, which owned much of the land in the Priest Rapids vicinity. He spoke to company president F. M. Rothrock who indicated his “willingness to sell a scope of this range if bought for the Indians, at a far less price than valued by a practical stock man, who is interested in the fate of these Indians which is inevitable soon or later” (McWhorter Collection Cage 55, Box 41, Folder 396).  

McWhorter took this offer to John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in a letter dated October 4, 1937:

"Is it not possible to secure a small scope of the Rothrock ranch, enough for a home for these truly interesting, and hapless people?  Range sufficient for their small band of horses or possibly sheep?  They are industrious hones and hold the respect of all the whites of the White Bluffs settlement, every citizen attesting to their good standing collectively when petitioning the State Legislature to pass an act permitting them taking salmon for their own table only" (McWhorter Collection Cage 55, Box 41, Folder 396).

F. M. Rothrock offered to sell six sections of land totaling nearly 4,000 acres.  Rothrock stated that he was willing to sell the land for as little as $2.00 per acre if the transaction was settled quickly. The land offered was not the land where the Wanapum village was at, however. The Rothrock Company did own land fronting the Columbia River, but this they did not want to sell. For this and other reasons the deal was never consummated and the Wanapum continued to live on land owned by others.

Further Encroachments, Further Changes

The next blow for the Wanapum came in the early 1940s when the Hanford Atomic Works nuclear reservation was created. The Wanapum were restricted from using their fishing grounds in the White Bluffs vicinity, downstream from Priest Rapids. Many of their white friends moved away as small towns and settlements were swept away. The families of those who worked at the Priest Rapids power plant had to obtain passes to travel on the reservation. 

In 1941, a new Bonneville Power substation near Vernita became the primary source of power for the area. The Priest Rapids Irrigation District was dissolved and the plant leased to Pacific Power and Light in 1943. It was later shut down and ultimately removed to make way for the construction of Priest Rapids Dam. The U.S. Army was also taking over land for the Yakima Training Center, west of Priest Rapids. Since this was the primary range for the horses of the Wanapum, yet another outlet for traditional activities was taken away. 

John Buck complained of this in a letter to McWhorter, dated March 26, 1942:

"You knew the army took a lot of their range and I don’t know what I will do this summer with my horses. I’m watching them now but pretty soon they will have the feed eaten up, and I don’t know what I’ll do.  I want to sell most of my horses -- maybe you know some men [who] want to by [sic] some of them" (McWhorter Collection Cage 55, Box 41, Folder 396).

A Harmonious Community

During the 1940s, Silas Yeager was foreman at the plant. He lived at Priest Rapids with his wife, Anna, and their family in a house provided by the Irrigation District.  While Silas worked at the plant, Anna taught at the small Priest Rapids schoolhouse.  Anna and other whites maintained close relationships with the Wanapum Indians, who lived about a half-mile upstream.  Photographs indicate that they lived in several mat-covered buildings, including the long house with its flagpole.

Anna Yeager would order cloth from Sears-Roebuck for the women, write letters that John Buck dictated, and keep the Wanapum dugout canoe in her yard for security reasons. Ranchers also grew hay and raised sheep at Priest Rapids.  Additionally there was a depot that accessed the Priest Rapids branch rail line. This great variety of people, Wanapum Indians, ranchers, railway workers, and power plant employees and others apparently lived side by side in harmony.

Silas Yeager was transferred to Yakima by the Pacific Power and Light Company in 1948. When he and Anna returned for a visit during preparations for the construction of Priest Rapids Dam, they noted that some of the Wanapum had moved into some of the buildings associated with operation of the plant, including the old school house. The brick power plant building was being demolished and Anna saw it tilting over on its side. The wood frame buildings occupied by the Wanapum were soon demolished.

The Wanapum Today

Today, surviving members of the Wanapum Tribe live largely under the protective aegis of Grant County Public Utility District No. 2, the owners and operators of the Priest Rapids Dam and the Wanapum Dam, further upstream on the Columbia River.  Many of the Wanapum live in modern homes financed by the P.U.D. 

The Wanapum are enthusiastic caretakers of their cultural heritage, maintaining a museum and participating in archaeological investigations. In 2000, they constructed an authentic replication of a conical mat-covered house, a fitting reminder of their past.


Lucullus V. McWhorter, McWhorter Collection, Holland Library of Archives and Special Collections, Washington State University, Pullman; Click Relander, Drummers and Dreamers: The Story of Smowhala the Prophet and His Nephew Puck Hyah Toot, the Last Prophet of the Nearly Extinct River People, the Last Wanapums (Pacific Northwest National Parks and Forests Association, Seattle, 1987); Margery Ann Beach Sharkey, Revitalization and Change: A History of the Wanapum Indians, Their Prophet Smowhala, and the Washani Religion (unpublished  M.A. thesis, Department of History, Washington State University, Pullman, 1984).
Note: This essay was corrected on January 25, 2012, and May 12, 2017.

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