Idaho Blog – The Heart of the Monster

Flanked by tree-covered buttes rising one after the other, the Clearwater River flows through the beautiful Kamiah Valley. I’m standing near the river looking at an odd stone mound surrounded by level ground. It’s as if a giant monster ripped off the top of a nearby butte and tossed it here. I’m not far off in thinking a monster was involved. This is the site of the Nez Perce creation story, which tells of Coyote, who along with Bear, Rattlesnake, Muskrat, and other animals, was swallowed by a huge monster. With the flint he carried, Coyote started a fire, and using knives began to cut the monster’s heart, freeing the entrapped creatures. Coyote slew the monster and scattered chunks of the carcass to different parts of the Pacific Northwest. Wherever pieces of the monster fell, a Native tribe came forth into the present world. When he was done, Coyote shook the remaining drops of blood from his hands, and where they fell the Nez Perce came to life. The mound before me is the Heart of the Monster, where Coyote left it.

Long before Lewis and Clark crossed the nearby Bitterroot Mountains in 1805 along the border of present day Idaho and Montana, and long before Christopher Columbus landed on the eastern shores of North America in 1492, the Nez Perce were here. They call themselves Nimi’ipuu – “real people” or “we the people.” Their oral history contains no migration stories. They have been here since time immemorial. With salmon, steelhead trout, deer, elk, berries, and roots, they lived well for countless generations. Elder Elsie Maynard Frank explains: “Our way of life was our religion. And we believed that if we properly observed our rituals in this life, our souls would reach an afterworld where life would continue. We didn’t believe in a better happy hunting ground or a ‘hell.’ We lived close to Mother Earth and loved our homeland.”

The original homeland of the Nez Perce spanned nearly 17 million acres, including what are today southeast Washington, northeast Oregon, and north central Idaho. Beginning in 1855, their homeland was drastically reduced through treaties, broken treaties, railroad expansion, a gold rush, and the War of 1877 between the Nez Perce and the U.S. government. Today, the 750,000-acre Nez Perce Indian Reservation is a mere four percent of the original territory. Salmon are still vital to their way of life, which is dependent upon the health of the Clearwater Basin as well as the Snake and Columbia River drainages.

Strengthening their culture is also vital to their way of life. I was honored to be able to photograph a pow wow, a gathering to honor Native American cultures with dancing, singing, and meeting with old and new friends. The influence of their homeland is obvious – regalia of feathers, porcupine quills, grass hats, eagle and salmon emblems, and animal hides. Their drums beat hard, like the rivers pulsing through the canyons. Their singing is arresting, like the steep mountains rising above the valley floors. And their dancing? It’s who they are. Strong, beautiful, enduring.