click here to return to the main page
Nez Perce
Expedition Culture Geography People Maps Nature
  Self Determination and Sovereignty
Sovereignty: Underlying Legal Principles
Fisheries Resources Management
Natural Resources Management
Cultural Resource Program
Contemporary Artists: Continuities
Contemporary Artists: Fusions
Language Program and Some Lessons
Horse Program
Acknowledgements and Cultural Property
Cultural Property Rights Agreement

  Native American
  Oral Traditions along the Clearwater and Snake Rivers
Coyote and the Swallowing Monster
Territory of the Nimíipuu
Seasonal Round: Winter into Summer
Seasonal Round: Summer into Winter
Horse in Nimíipuu Culture
Growing Up Nimíipuu: Family and Community Life
Growing Up Nimíipuu: Headmen and Leadership
To Sing and Dance: In the Past
To Sing and Dance: In the Present
Spiritual Life
Traditional Clothing Styles and Appearance
Céexstem: Dice Game

  Smallpox and Disease
Missionaries and Christianity
Fur Trade
Treaties and the Dawes Act
Treaty of 1855
Treaty of 1863
Conflict of 1877

Oral Literature
  1. Coyote and the Swallowing Monster, the Nimíipuu account of the creation of human peoples and the Heart of the Monster at Kamiah, along the Clearwater River.


  1. Heart of the Monster, August 2001
  2. Coyote's Fishnet (to the left) with the Rattlesnake and Rabbit (in the center), c. 1963
  3. Cecil Carter demonstrating the shape of Coyote's Fishnet
  4. Coyote's Fishnet, 2001
  5. Bear
  6. Frog
  7. Animals Late for the Naming
  8. Ant and Yellowjacket
  9. Cecil Carter demonstrating a Coyote Story with string, Coyote and Fox Talking
  10. Cecil Carter demonstrating a Coyote Story with string, Coyote's Tipi

A Lewis and Clark Perspective

On September 21st 1805, William Clark wrote in his journal:

. . . The Countrey from the mountains to the river hills is leavel rich butifull Pine Country badly watered, thinly timbered & covered with grass -- The weather verry worm after decending into the low Countrey, -- the river hills are verry high and Steep, Small bottoms . . . .

On September 22nd, John Ordway wrote:

. . . we proceeded on over a mountain and descended it down in to a valley which is Smooth and mostly handsome plains. Some groves of handsome tall large pitch pine timber . . . .

On the same day, Meriwether Lewis wrote:

. . . . our rout was through lands heavily timbered, the larger wood entirely pine. the country except the last 3 miles was broken and decending
the pleasure I now felt in having tryumphed over rocky Mountains and decending once more to level and fertile country where there was every rational hope of finding a comfortable subsistence for myself and party can be more readily conceived than expressed, nor was the flattering prospect of the final success of the expedition less pleasing . . . .

On September 24th 1805, Ordway continued:

. . . . the Soil verry rich a lays delightful for cultivation . . .

On October 6th 1805, Clark wrote:

. . . The winds blow cold from a little before day until the Suns gets to Some hight from the Mountains East as they did from the mountains at the time we lay at the falls of the Missouri from the West. . . .
The river below this forks is Called Kos kos kee it is Clear rapid with Shoals or Swift places ? The open Countrey Commences a fiew miles below This on each side of the river, on the Lard Side below the 1st Creek. with a few trees Scattered near the river . . . .

Click Here to get RealPlayer 28K 56K 256K
HTML Transcript
Horace Axtell tells of an account of the Coyote and Monster, and the origin of Hells Canyon and Seven Devils mountains. Listen to this story told in Nimíipuutimptneewit, the Nez Perce language. Part 1. (Interviewed by Josiah Pinkham March 2002)

Click Here to get RealPlayer 28K 56K 256K
HTML Transcript
Horace Axtell continues telling of the Coyote and Monster, and the creation of the various peoples, including the Nimíipuu. Part 2. (Interviewed by Josiah Pinkham March 2002)

In listening to the wealth of Nimíipuu oral traditions, the world of the Animal Peoples is at once revealed, as well as re-asserted onto the landscape. The Animal Peoples are the Titwa-tityá-ya, powerful beings who traveled the world before the coming of the human peoples. This is the world of Coyote 'Iceyéeye and Fox, of Eagle and Grizzly Bear, as well as large host of other Animal Peoples. They traveled the landscape and encountered its many dangerous monsters, such as Swallowing Monster and the five Maidens, destroying each of them. For example, there were five Maidens at Celilo Falls who kept all the salmon behind their dam, preventing them from going up river. With his cunning and deceptive ways, Coyote was able to trick the sisters, breaking their dam and releasing the salmon so that the human peoples would be nourished.

These powerful Animal Peoples are at once animal, human, and spirit beings, with great transformative powers, wayakin. As Archie Phinney once commented, there is "no clear picture" of the physical shape and image of the Animal People "offered or needed." As a result of the actions of the Animal Peoples, the landscape was given its particular form, with the river beds and mountain peaks created, with the heart of a monster here and the fishnet of Coyote there.

Click Here to get RealPlayer 28K 56K 256K
HTML Transcript
Allen Pinkham discusses the nature of the oral traditions and their importance. (Interviewed by Josiah Pinkhan in November 2001)

It was the Animal Peoples who also set forth the ways to successfully travel and live upon the land, from providing the instructions in how to fish the salmon and dig the camas, to how to use the sweat house for prayer, healing and spiritual cleansing. As brought forth in the adventures and sometimes misadventures of the Animal Peoples and embedded in their legacy, the oral traditions and the landscape they transformed, are the "teachings," the moral and ethical codes of behavior upon which the very identify of the Nimíipuu is founded. It is thus the Animal Peoples who prepared the world for the coming of the human peoples, for our coming.

Click Here to get RealPlayer 28K 56K 256K
HTML Transcript
Cecil Carter demonstrating Coyote Stories with string. (Interviewed by Josiah Pinkhan and Harold Crook in November 2001)

In the telling of the oral traditions, while the stories of Coyote can instruct and instill in the young and reaffirm in the adult a Nimíipuu identity, and while those stories can bring a laugh or a tear as a result of Coyote's antics, the oral traditions do something more. In the act of re-telling these ancient accounts, and especially when told in the Nimíipuu language, the listeners are made participants of the unfolding events. The story's participants witness Coyote throw the parts of the Swallowing Monster to the four directions and create the human peoples, all the while standing along side the once beating heart of that Monster. The listeners, made participants in the telling, are with Coyote as he fashions his fishnet and renders Frog into stone along the Clearwater River.

And once the storytelling has ceased for an evening, those same stories go with the listeners as they travel the identical landscape traveled by Coyote. To view the Heart of the Monster is to re-participate in the story of creation. The accounts of Coyote and all the meanings and significances, all the teachings, are thus embedded in the river beds and mountain ridges. The mountains and rivers of the Nimíipuu become morally endowed, continuing to offer practical lessons and spiritual significances for those who listen. In the re-telling of the oral traditions, the landscape, its animals, plants, waters and rocks, are themselves thus revitalized and perpetuated. And the world of the Nimíipuu is continued.

Click Here to get RealPlayer 28K 56K 256K
HTML Transcript
Cecil Carter demonstrating Coyote Stories with string, told in Nimíipuutimptneewit (Nez Perce language) (Interviewed by Josiah Pinkhan and Harold Crook in November 2001)

As with the entire of the Nimíipuu territory, the sections along the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, where once Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery traveled, is rich with the stories of the Animals Peoples. Among the most important oral traditions along these rivers is the story of Coyote and the Swallowing Monster, the Nimíipuu account of the creation of human peoples and the Heart of the Monster at Kamiah. In the version shard by Horace Axtell (above), we see how Hells Canyon along the Snake and the Seven Devils mountains were first created.

In another oral tradition, Coyote was fishing for salmon with his fishnet, when Frog came along and began arguing with him, telling him he would catch no salmon where he was located. The arguing continued until Coyote threw Frog across the river, turning him to stone, with his back to the river. In another account, when Bear came across Coyote fishing for salmon, he asked Coyote why he had not gone to buffalo country with the other people? Not wanting Bear to know that he had forgotten Coyote began arguing with Bear, soon the same fate as Frog befell Bear. People are to be reminded of what can happen when you argue. But still, Coyote was without luck, so in frustration, he threw his fishnet on to the hill side and went on. In another oral tradition, you can see Rattlesnake and Rabbit just to the right of the Fishnet, and farther down river, Rattlesnake's partner awaits Rabbit. The Fishnet is located along the south side of the Clearwater, between Lewiston and Spalding. The "V" formed by gullies running down the hillside is the fishnet.

In another account, the Creator was calling in all the Animal Peoples to give them their particular characteristics and abilities, and to name each of them. Soon the human peoples were to arrive and each of the Animal Peoples were to help them find their way. For example, one animal said he'd offer his horns to make arrow points and his skin to fashion hide for clothing. He was named, "Deer." Salmon agreed to offer himself to the humans if the salmon would be allowed to complete their cycle, uninterrupted, from the mountain streams where they were born, to the oceans, and back to the streams where their decaying bodies nourished the next generation of salmon. And so Deer, Eagle and Salmon, and the other Animals were given their names and special abilities. But as some of the "large animals" were late to the meeting, the Creator turned them to stone. There can be a price to pay for being late! Located west from Coyote's Fishnet.

At a rock outcropping along the Clearwater River, Ant and Yellowjacket began arguing on which of them had the right to eat dried salmon at this particular place. Each was jealous of the other and each claimed ownership to this place. Coyote came along and told them to stop their arguing, and that they should share this place. But Coyote's words fell on deaf ears, as Ant and Yellowjacketet continued to fight. So Coyote used his powers to turn them both into stone, with their backs arched, each in the grip of the other. And just who does own "the land"? Ant and Yellowjacket are located east from Coyote's Fishnet, near Spalding, along the Clearwater River.

© Nez Perce Tribe 2002

next >