Creation Beliefs / Religion of the Plateau Indian tribes
Religion emphasized the relationship between an individual and the supernatural. The spirit called God or the Great Spirit in other cultures, was called Sulia or Suumesh by Salish speaking tribes.
Tribes of the plateau region practiced shamanic healing, where a medicine man was called in to treat the spirit with supernatural powers in order to cure the underlying causes of physical ailments. They also used herbal medicines to treat a wide variety of ailments and maintain general health, and performed surgeries.
Natural causes were recognized for many diseases, especially physically curable ones; others were commonly believed to be the result of intrusion into the body of objects placed there by sorcerers. The healer's treatment of such diseases was dictated by his tutelary spirit, but usually consisted of the medicine man ritually sucking the disease agent out of the body, brushing it off with a bird's wing, or drawing it out with dramatic gestures.
Illness could also result from "spirit loss." The healer's action was then directed to recovering the patient's spirit (either his soul or his guardian spirit power, or both) and reintroducing it to the body. Personal or communal disorders were often held to be the result of disrespectful behaviour toward game animals, tribal sacred objects or natural phenomena.
Most medicine men focused on curing illness rather than conducting community ceremonies but some large scale ceremonies were held, mostly to renew ties with the supernatural.
The Plateau tribes had many ceremonies for the children. Things such as the first game killed or the first fish caught for the boys, the first root or berry picked for girls required a ceremony. At such celebrations the people would sing and dance.
Adults also said a prayer for the individual animals they hunted before killing them for food and pray and leave an offering gift such as tobacco before harvesting plants. It is customary to ask a plant's permission before harvesting it. Permission is determined by signs such as a shaking leaf or the sudden appearance of the right kind of plant soon after a prayer.
There was also a celebration for girls when they reached puberty. There was much praying, singing, and dancing to be practiced as part of her isolation on the occasion of the first menses. Southern Okanogan girls danced and sang "Help me dawn" and "Help me twilight" as they prayed and mourned during puberty isolation. A communal dance was also a part of the ritual.
The Plateau tribes also held a ceremony for boys when they were ready for winter. It was called a whipping ceremony. All boys from age 5 to 10 lined up and the Indian doctor who had a long whip, had the boys crouch on the ground. The boys were then whipped to prevent becoming sick during the winter.
Most plateau tribes believed a spirit guide shaped the direction of each individual's life. The Nez Perce called this personal spirit one's Wyakin. One's Wyakin, the Nez Perces believed, afforded protection, spiritual insight, and guidance in all life matters, and it furnished strength in deciding such critical issues as war and peace. Near puberty, both boys and girls undertook a vision quest to seek and obtain a spirit-helper, or Wyakin.
A spirit quest lasted seven days on a mountain. The young person could have no food or drink until the spirit came. When the spirit came as a vision it usually had human and animal characteristics. The spirit taught the youth his secret power and ability and a song to use in times in need.
If no Wyakin was acheived, one could also inherit a tuletary spirit from a relative.
Those apprenticing to be medicine people trained longer and more intensively and received special powers enabling them to cure the sick or cause harm to others, and were both respected and feared.
The Winter Guardian Spirit Dance was the major ceremony of most Plateau peoples in the US, and was practised in Canada mainly by the Okanagan. The dance was likely celebrated in former times by the Shuswap, Thompson and Lillooet as well, although in a slightly different manner.
Some Canadian Okanagan people still participate in winter dances today in both BC and the US. The winter dance was hosted by medicine men, who used the occasion to communicate their spirit powers in public. After one or several nights of dancing and administering to the needs of the sick, the host or hostess presented the guests with gifts. Other Salishan groups in the Plateau held similar ceremonies, marked by the singing of spirit songs, at any time of the year.
Among the Kootenay and other tribes, a ceremony was held which united a spirit power and its possessor for such purposes as predicting future events and finding lost objects.
Several indian prophets from the Columbia Plateau had visions which foretold the coming of the white men and specific events that occurred after they arrived. Over the years, prophets accurately dreamt of the coming of significant events such as the arrival of Lewis and Clark from the east, an earthquake near the present-day town of Whitebird, and the coming of a book that would teach them differently from the manner in which they worshipped the Creator.
Songs were important in traditional Plateau life, and were used by individuals to summon religious and magical powers. Singing was sometimes accompanied by bird-bone whistles, rattles of deer hooves, and sticks being struck on boards, but mainly by hide-covered wooden-frame drums. One type of song still known and widely performed today is the stick-game song, sung while playing an indigenous gambling game involving 2 opposing teams.
Among the Nez Perce, water was drank before and after each feast to give thanks for the food. Water was believed to be the blood vein of the earth.
The Columbia Plateau indians believe all living things have spirits which are powerful and mysterious, as are many natural phenomena and ritually significant places. Plateau peoples felt a deep connection with the inanimate beings that inhabited their environment. Everything around them was imbued with special powers, even rocks and trees. This spiritual relationship with nature permeated all aspects of daily life.
The world of the dead is usually believed to lie at a great distance from the world of the living, often beyond a great river, in the remote mountains or in the underworld. It can only be reached after a difficult journey by the dead, or a perilous one for the living. Whirlpools or caves may represent the way to the underworld.
Many Plateau people are Christian, speak English, and have adopted many American customs.
Others practice a contemporary traditional religion called Washat, or Seven Drum Religion, which incorporates Christian beliefs with aspects of older religious beliefs including vision questing and shamanistic curing.
The Smohalla or Dreamer religion (also called Washani)plays an important role to the Nez Perce.
Still others practice the Feather Religion or belong to the Indian Shaker Church.