Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Soyaapo and the Remaking of Lewis and Clark

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Soyaapo and the Remaking of Lewis and Clark

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE PECULIARITIES of writing Native history is the unconscious tendency to move back and forth between past and present landscapes. This might well be called the "what is now" trope, as in this recent description of Nez Perce country in the early nineteenth century: "The Nez Perce ... came to occupy approximately 13 million acres located in what is now north-central Idaho, southeastern Washington, and northeastern Oregon ... [with their] territory centered on the middle Snake and Clearwater rivers and the northern portion of the Salmon River basin" (1) On the face of things, this is a fine and accurate description of conditions at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, yet it is also an odd abuse of the past. Eight generations ago people in these areas did not possess a collective tribal identity with broad territorial claims, and they certainly did not know themselves as Nez Perce. Nor did they think in terms of acres or future state boundaries, let alone center their lives on rivers called Snake, Clearwater, and Salmon. (2)

How the people who call themselves Nimiipuu (Real People) or Iceyeeyenim mamay'ac (Children of Coyote) came to be known as Nez Perce is something of a mystery. Lewis and Clark called them Chopunnish, which possibly derives from a Sahaptian word for piercing (tsoopnit), and both captains noted that some of the people they met had a single shell pierced through their nasal septum. French-speaking trappers in the employ of the North West Company were the first to use the term nez perce (pierced nose) in the early 1800s, but it is not certain to what extent ancestors of the Nimiipuu actually pierced their noses, if at all. (3) Whatever the case, the term Nez Perce has little or no descriptive relevance for the generations of people to whom it has been applied, and--like references to acres and state boundaries--the term takes diverse peoples and their complex worlds and simplifies them beyond recognition. The same might also be said of the Snake River and almost all of the rivers, lakes, and streams in "what is now" Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. In the case of the Snake, the name derives from any number of possible translations and mistranslations of Native, then French, and then English references to Shoshonean peoples. To Sahaptian speakers it was, and is, known as himeeq'isnimewelepe or pik'uunen (both roughly translate as "large flowing river"). (4)

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The problems associated with the historical naming and mapping of Nez Perce territory are practically endless, and all are at play in varying degrees whenever historians try to describe the past conditions of any Native community. More than just the tricks that history plays on the dead, these issues reflect and exacerbate what might be called the "in-betweenness" of much contemporary Indian experience. On the one hand, this temporal dualism fairly captures the back-and-forth nature of living with and between two (or more) different cultures. Yet, implicitly equating Native places and experiences with current names and landscapes also commits a kind of double violence. On the other hand, it seems to prove the old adage that "history is written by the winners" by forcing a constant translation of past Native experiences into the very terms of their undoing. It also makes invisible the dynamic relationships among land use, culture, and ecology that Native languages represent.

Think, for instance, of the meanings embedded in a place called le*qew le*qew, near what is now Elgin, Oregon, in the Grande Ronde Valley. While le*qew roughly translates as "timber" or "trees," doubling the same word implies a particular abundance or significance. In this case, the term referred to an important annual encampment that was used during the hot summer months for gathering cous, berries, and various other plants and herbs, grazing horses, hunting, harvesting fish, cutting lodge poles, taking thermal waters, preparing foods for winter, and meeting with other groups in the well-used area. …

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