Learning about the Indigenous Peoples of Idaho (Getting in Touch with the Palouse)

By Sidney Williams

Every weekend while I was growing up, I went down to Clarkston Washington to play Yu-Gi-Oh at a local card shop (Gameplay, check them out, they’re amazing) I made dozens of friends and a large portion of them were from the Nez Perce reservation whose seat of government is only a 25 minute drive from the card shop. Although I really learned nothing about their heritage during this time, it allowed me to grow up alongside an extremely diverse group of people and served as a reason for me to become interested in Nez Perce, and other Indigenous Peoples’, culture. Of course, growing up in Moscow it’s pretty hard to avoid all Native influence. Lewiston is right next to Clearwater River Casino, Coeur d'Alene is just over an hour’s drive away, and the biggest city in the area (Spokane) has Northern Quest Casino. There are pretty consistent events which explore Native culture. The University of Idaho Native American Student Association hosts annual Powwows. And as I mentioned in my article on Moscow every so often, the Northern Quest Casino sponsors Nez Perce dancers to come up for the farmers’ market. In addition, I grew up surrounded by nature, and seeing a sky full of stars every night, I was always enamored by how beautiful the area was. Seeing how connected to nature the Native people are I always wanted to learn how their mythology was shaped by the surroundings I grew up in. 

To make sure I did the best I could with this article, I contacted an expert: Rodney Frey. Rodney Frey is an ethnographer at the University of Idaho specializing in the indigenous cultures of the area in, and around, Idaho. He also wrote two of the books I’m recommending, and worked with the author of another two during his PhD. Finally, he wrote an in depth chapter on the professional protocol of working with, and writing about Indigenous cultures. I’ll talk a bit more about why that’s important, but it means that I have to be very careful about how I approach this.

This article will start with some brief introductions to the topics I found either most interesting, or most important, with these basic introductions I’ll include the title of the book where you can find more about the topics. I’ll then recommend some of my favorite myths and talk about why I found them so engaging. From there, I’ll give you my book recommendations–all of which I have read cover to cover–if you want to continue diving in. Finally, I’ll give some closing thoughts, enjoy! 

Ethical Writing (Carry Forth the Stories)

Writing ethically about the topics covered in both this article and in the recommended books is exceedingly difficult, especially for someone of my background (European, White, Male). The Indigenous peoples have been systematically exploited, and marginalized during their entire history shared with Europeans. Therefore, any writing attempting to communicate their culture and traditions must tread very carefully. I am certainly not qualified enough to know and do everything that is necessary, and so there are large swaths of information that I do not feel comfortable talking about and will only be able to refer you to the books I recommend.

Geographical Layout (Indians of Idaho)

Indigenous tribes were distributed all throughout Idaho, each utilizing the wildly variably environment differently. As a rule of thumb in northern and central Idaho, food was available and it was easier to thrive, in southern Idaho (especially before horses) it was much, much more difficult to survive, resulting in a very nomadic culture and much smaller population sizes. Within Idaho, the northern tribes were the Kalispel, the Coeur D’ Alene, and the Kootenai (whose territory was mostly in Montana and Canada), the central tribe was the Nez Perce, and the southern tribes were the Shoshone-Bannock, the Northern Paiute (whose territory was mostly in Oregon). By far the Shoshone-Bannock’s territory was the largest, reflective of their extremely nomadic nature. To give you a better idea of the geographical layout the current day reservation locations are Kalispel: north of Spokane WA, Coeur D’ Alene: south of Coeur D’ Alene ID, Kootenai: Bonners Ferry ID, Nez Perce: east of Lewiston ID, Shoshone-Bannock: north of Pocatello ID, and the Northern Paiute ended up getting rolled in with other tribes as the original reservation establish in eastern Oregon did not work out well as it was too far from traditional lands and the environmental conditions were untenable. I’ll mention it again later, but if you’re looking for a more categorical analysis of Idaho’s Indigenous tribes, Deward Walker’s Indians of Idaho is very thorough and presents a lot of good information on how the tribes actually were.

The Medicine Wheel (Carry Forth the Stories)

During his research excursions, Dr. Frey was struck by the Apsáalooke’s ability to traverse distinct ways of life at the same time with, seemingly, no effort. For example Tom Yellowtail was both a devout Baptist and an akbaalíak (a traditional healer) as well as the Sundance Chief for his people. And Susie Yellowtail was both one of the first American Indian registered nurses and danced alongside her husband. However, while in one setting they were entirely dedicated to being in that setting, no Bible was present at the sundance, and no eagle bone whistle blew at church. Tom Yellowtail explained that he resolved the apparent conflict between these systems of interaction with the world by “traversing the medicine wheel”. The medicine wheel was initially assembled by Burnt Face, a young disfigured boy who we will talk about in the stories section, as a gift to the Awakkuléeshe (Little People) and consists of many spokes and a central cairn. It can represent the many ways you can dedicate yourself to faith, and be connected to others who have dedicated themselves differently. Tom also referred to it as a wagon wheel, alluding to each spoke necessarily being of equal length and of equal importance: if one was missing, or of a different length, the wheel wouldn’t turn.

Types of Knowledge (Carry Forth the Stories) 

In Carry Forth the Stories, Frey establishes the two different types of knowledge: Head, and Heart. Although it is most convenient to delineate these as “European” and “Indigenous” ways of knowing, it really isn’t that clean. Both cultures exhibit mastery of both knowledge subsets, but Indigenous cultures certainly place a greater emphasis on heart knowledge than European cultures do. This being the case, means that those who read this article will be by far most comfortable with head knowledge, and will therefore try to use it to examine heart knowledge. This is unfortunate because trying to develop an empirical understanding of something that can only be felt would only distort the knowledge. This is a ridiculously complex subject that I can’t condense into a single, digestible paragraph, it involves looking at philosophy and the experience of being alive. There is a wonderful chapter in Carry Forth that covers Heart Knowledge in great detail, I cannot do any better than recommending that you read that.

Some Stories (Nez Perce Coyote Tales) 

There are so many stories that I read through in researching this article. But a few in particular stuck with me. The first being the creation story. This story is what opens Walker’s Coyote Tales and sets the stage for the indigenous peoples roaming the earth. The next which stuck with me was Coyote and the Rock Monster. This tells of how Coyote inadvertently made Lake Coeur d’ Alene blue. You can actually hear this story being told on Lifelong Learning Online (you will need the ability to play .rm files to listen). The final story I’ll mention by name is Burnt Face. This story takes a central role in both of Frey’s books and follows a young man that was badly disfigured and went to the mountains to fast and pray, resulting in coming back to his community completely transformed. Burnt Face exemplifies the practice of basbaaaliíchiwé the Apsáalooke word for “telling my own story”.

Reading Guide

In doing research for this article, I read cover to cover five books, and collected for later reading another three. If you’re primarily interested in the mythology I’d recommend picking up Nez Perce Coyote Tales The Myth Cycle by Deward E. Walker and Daniel N. Matthews, Stories That Make the World Oral Literature of the Indian Peoples of the Inland Northwest edited by Rodney Frey, and Coyote Tails Stories based on legends and language of the Nez Perce by Jennifer Walker. I’ll expand on each of these books in a moment, but they all do the job of collecting essential stories from the Nez Perce and other tribes. If you’re more interested in the philosophy surrounding the stories as well as the ethicality of presenting the stories as an outsider Carry Forth the Stories An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition by Rodney Frey is one of the most profound and thought provoking reading experiences I’ve had in years. And finally, if you want more of an exploration of the traditions and pre-colonized ways of Native culture in Idaho Indians of Idaho by Deward E. Walker gives an in depth look at how each tribe that inhabited Idaho lived prior to the White man’s takeover.

Nez Perce Coyote Tales The Myth Cycle by Deward E. Walker and Daniel N. Matthews is how I started reading about the Indigenous Peoples of Idaho. It is a straightforward collection of over fifty stories from the Nez Perce, bookended by analysis of the stories and structure of myths presented. Although very light on the commentary, this book is the perfect place to get a sense of the mythology and how stories were told in Nez Perce culture. Every story follows Coyote getting up to mischief and includes important stories such as the Nez Perce creation story, and the story of why the Coeur d’Alene lake is blue.

Stories That Make the World Oral Literature of the Indian Peoples of the Inland Northwest edited by Rodney Frey is a good companion to Coyote Tales in that it talks about a few of the same stories (and a few new ones) but includes much, much more commentary on how to read the stories and what it means to convert an oral tradition into a written one. Each story is written in a way that mimics the stresses and pauses put on words during an Oral telling, this is essential as, for the most part, the actual words of the story are less important than the feeling and emphasis that a storyteller gives, and the orality is how this is communicated. Rodney Frey is a professor at the University of Idaho and has personally helped me with this article. He is very knowledgeable and his writing is very engaging. Both of the books of his that I recommend here are some of my favorite books that I have read in the last year.

  

Coyote Tails Stories based on legends and language of the Nez Perce by Jennifer Walker is a metadrama of sorts, starting with a story of a boy and his grandpa and using that to lead into the retelling of Coyote stories. This is a very short book, and it is definitely aimed at a younger audience, but despite that the spirit of the stories still shine through, and out of all the books it is by far the easiest and fastest way to get into the myths. Centering on the fictional day trip of a boy and his grandpa, Coyote Tails pauses at different parts of the overarching narrative so that the grandpa can tell another myth to the boy. Each story is related to the happenings in the overall plot, and expands on the significance of each place visited.

Carry Forth the Stories An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition, is a general exploration of how ethnographer Rodney Frey spent his career interacting with Indigenous peoples and their cultures. It introduces the different types of knowledge: head, and heart, and how they have been employed by different cultures (both Indigenous and European). It explains the professional protocol necessary when being invited into a new culture. And it explores Frey’s life as he explored and grew through the indigenous cultures he interacted with. A relatively short, but very dense read, Carry Forth covers so much, from actual stories to the contrasts between Indigenous and European philosophies. Everything talked about is very complex, and very interesting. Without a doubt, if you’re interested in this topic, this is a must-read.

Indians of Idaho was written by Emeritus University of Colorado Boulder anthropologist Deward Walker JR. (who was Frey’s PhD committee chairperson). It is much more classically written than the other books I’ve recommended. It’s pretty short, but it reads almost like a textbook. I personally enjoyed it, but information-dense nonfiction is my favorite type of nonfiction. Walker goes through each of the major Idaho tribes in its own section, describing the area where they traditionally reside, the technology available to them, and some of their traditions which was what I was most interested in. I think this will appeal only to a very specific group of people, but to those that like it, it’ll be indispensable.

Conclusion

This was a really difficult article to write. I started after realizing that there was not a lot available on the internet for recommendations on how to read indigenous mythology, now, this made sense as it is an exclusively oral tradition, but I thought that there must be some way of experiencing the stories in a way that didn’t involve becoming good friends with an elder. I did eventually find some material, and getting in contact with a local expert gave me excellent resources, but by doing so my vision of the article evolved far past a list of books to check out. I wanted to introduce some of the lessons that I had found, some of the cultural structures. This, of course, introduced the new wrinkle of trying to make sure that I conveyed everything correctly and respectfully. I think that I accomplished this task, although I realized while writing that I did not possess the eloquence needed to talk about everything I wanted to talk about. However, the authors that I recommended do, I strongly encourage anyone interested enough to read this article to explore my recommendations, they are really an excellent way of learning.

Nez Perce Coyote Tales: The Myth Cycle By Deward E. Walker, Daniel N. Matthews Cover Image
$21.95
ISBN: 9780806130323
Availability: Depending on warehouse location, this book could arrive at the store within 3-4 days, or it might take around 10 business days.
Published: University of Oklahoma Press - February 18th, 2021

An incorrigible trickster, a clever thief, a rogue, sometimes a magnanimous hero, often a vengeful loser, but always a survivor, Coyote is the most complex character in the Nez Perce cycle of traditional myths.


Stories That Make the World, Volume 218: Oral Literature of the Indian Peoples of the Inland Northwest (Civilization of the American Indian #218) By Rodney Frey (Editor), Lawrence Aripa (As Told by) Cover Image
By Rodney Frey (Editor), Lawrence Aripa (As Told by)
$26.34
ISBN: 9780806131313
Availability: Depending on warehouse location, this book could arrive at the store within 3-4 days, or it might take around 10 business days.
Published: University of Oklahoma Press - January 1st, 1995

Volume 218 in the Civilization of the American Indian Series By using verse form and visual clues indicating pauses, intonations, and gestures, anthropologist Rodney Frey permits readers to hear the oral literature of narrators from the Coeur d'Alene, Crow, Klikitat, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Sanpoil, and Wasco people today in Washington, northern Idaho, and Montana.


Coyote Tails: Legends of the Nez Perce People By Jr. Walker, John W. (Contribution by), Jennifer Walker Cover Image
By Jr. Walker, John W. (Contribution by), Jennifer Walker
$11.99
ISBN: 9781481151511
Availability: Depending on warehouse location, this book could arrive at the store within 3-4 days, or it might take around 10 business days.
This book is non-returnable except in the case of manufacturing defect.
Published: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform - December 15th, 2012

A collection of legends told for generations among the Nez Perce. The stories involve Coyote, known for his magic and trickery and offer some explanations for why the landscape and animals look the way they do today. Also tells the tale of how the Nez Perce believed all the tribes were created by Coyote.


Carry Forth the Stories: An Ethnographer's Journey Into Native Oral Tradition By Rodney Frey, Leonard Bends (Foreword by) Cover Image
By Rodney Frey, Leonard Bends (Foreword by)
$29.95
ISBN: 9780874223484
Availability: This book was in stock at the store 24 hours ago but could have sold since then. Please call to confirm if your order is urgent.
Published: Washington State University Press - June 7th, 2017

Seasoned anthropologist/ethnographer Rodney Frey offers personal and professional insights into the power and value of storytelling gleaned from more than forty years of working successfully with indigenous peoples.


Indians of Idaho (Anthropological Monographs of the University of Idaho) By Deward E. Walker Cover Image
$11.95
ISBN: 9780893010539
Availability: This book was in stock at the store 24 hours ago but could have sold since then. Please call to confirm if your order is urgent.
Published: Caxton Press - June 1st, 2003

A survey of the lifeways of Idaho's native people, including the Kutenai, Kalispel, Coeur d'Alene, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, and Northern Paiute. It helps scholars, teachers and students understand and communicate the cultural realities of Indian life.