THE NEZ PERCES, PART 13
In the autumn the people assemble to determine where the longhouse (watsatnit),
of six to eight fires, is to be placed, and when the ceremony is to begin;
also what single lodges will form the longhouse. At the appointed time
the families owning these single lodges erect them in the appointed place,
forming a long structure with as many fires as there are component lodges.
Each family occupies its portion of the structure. Some of the heads of
families in the medicine-lodge are medicine-men, some are not. Those who
are tie their medicine-bundles to the lodge-poles at their portion of
the house. One of the men is appointed to preserve order among the children,
but there are no positions of honor in the medicine-lodge.
The rites are held only at night, continuing nearly until morning, and
from about Christmas time until spring, or until each new claimant of
medicine-power has sung his songs long enough to feel perfectly satisfied.
On the first night, after all have entered who desire men, women, and
children, one of the tiwat stands up in his place and sings,' while walking
down one side of the fires. This is to see if the ground is pure and ready
for the dancing of his "children" the young men who later will
declare their possession of medicine, and dance. After returning to his
place he may call on some other medicine-man to sing and see if the ground
is pure, lest he himself may have overlooked something. The second man
then gets up in his place alongside the row of fires, and walks singing
to the end, then down the other side, to the opposite end, where he declares
his belief that the ground is good, and returns to his seat. The floor
has previously been prepared by cutting off the sod, and levelling and
watering the ground, so that it dries hard and smooth for the dancers.
But sometimes there may be present a medicineman of some other tribe who
may cause holes or cracks ("silent places") in the space, which
would cause the young men who dance to have swelled legs and feet, and
the singers to make mistakes. Or occasionally medicine-men, especially
those among the Yakima, knowing in what place the ceremony is to be held,
smoke and blow the smoke on this place, thus causing imperfections in
the ground. In such cases the medicine-man walks several times round the
row of fires, singing, and without fail he calls on others to do the same,
until they are certain that their singing has counteracted the efforts
of the opposing medicine-men. Nobody is permitted to make his entrance
into the medicine-lodge in the midst of the singing of medicine-songs.
To do this would cause his death.
Any man who, when a boy, has fasted and seen a vision, but has never revealed
the fact, may, if his medicine causes him to feel so inclined, make himself
known at this ceremony; and this is the only occasion when he may do so.
If he intends to do this, he deposits a present at each end of the long-house,
to be taken by any person in the lodge who wishes it. Each time he sings,
on this or on any like occasion, he must make to the lodge a gift appropriate
to his medicine. Thus a man whose medicine is eagle may give a basket
of dried deer's meat, which a female relative then distributes among all
After the testing of the dancing-ground by a tiwat, one of the medicine-men
stands in the middle and sings his medicine-songs, after the first repetition
starting to walk down beside the fires, turning just before reaching the
last one and walking back on the same side of the fires until the opposite
end is reached, then turning again and coming back to his place. If any
of his songs seem to allude to what any young novice has seen in his vision
when fasting, or even if it refers only indirectly to something rather
remotely connected with the vision, he, without any voluntary or conscious
action, finds himself standing out in the middle, trying to sing, but
totally unable to do so. He cannot find the words which are trying to
force themselves out. He becomes very weak, and the people have to carry
him back to his place, where they lay him on blankets. He lies there,
trying with all his strength to bring out the song, but he can make only
feeble sounds, and other men lie close beside him, straining their ears
to catch the words and the sounds he makes, putting them together one
by one, trying to help him bring out the song that is in him. Gradually
they have the whole song and the name supposedly conferred by the vision
spirit, although this may take more than the entire night, sometimes as
many as seven nights. When finally they have completed the song, they
begin to sing it, the young man also raising his voice as loudly as his
weakness will permit, and he goes out and stands in the middle, singing,
while all the other people assist him. The more loudly they sing, the
greater will be his strength.
If the author is right in his conclusions, we have here a most interesting
phenomenon. As it was previously described, a child less than ten years
of age, following the instructions of its parent, goes into the mountains
to perform certain devotional acts, and through the performance of such
is to receive, in a vision, supernatural power.
But to the child it has been explained that a spirit will appear. It will
look like a man, but it will be the spirit of some animal. "This
spirit will teach you a song and will tell you what he represents."
And further, the child is told that when this spirit appears, he, the
child, will be lying as though dead; and that when he awakens, but little
of what has been seen will be remembered, that the song will be within
him, but cannot be sung until years later in the long-house ceremony.
It is evident that the subject has been given definite instructions in
so far as the definite objects to be gained are concerned. The only indefinite
things are what animal, bird, or object is to be revealed, and the words
of the song. Following such instructions, the child, in its devotions,
reaches an abnormal mental state, presumably hypnosis, and while in this
state does see the visions suggested. In the succeeding normal condition
it remembers that a vision appeared, but the songs lie dormant in the
brain for ten, perhaps fifteen, years. Then, in another abnormal mental
state, presumably hypnosis, the original revelation reappears. That impressions
received in hypnosis on one day may result in action on the following
day is well understood, but that the brain retains the dormant impression
over such a long period of time seems to open a new field of conjecture.
It is exceedingly difficult to secure information from the Indians on
this subject, as it is a part of their sacred life which should not be
discussed with alien thinkers. A very interesting experience was that
of the interpreter through whom the Nez Perce material largely was gathered.
As a child and in youth he lived as other children of the tribe, fasting
in the usual way. Then, when about twelve years of age, he was sent to
Carlisle, and after graduation he engaged in special study at a theological
institution, having in view the ministry. Following this he returned to
the reservation, expecting to become a missionary to his people. Shortly
after his return he by chance or through curiosity attended a long-house
ceremony. His own words best tell the story:
"I went inside of the long-house with some other young men, thinking
I would just look in and see what they were doing. A tiwat was singing
a song which touched me" referred to the animal seen in a vision
in youth. "I felt myself being drawn into the centre of the lodge.
Something within my body grew strong. I fell down and could not rise.
The people carried me back and laid me there on blankets. I knew what
they were doing, and heard the singing and the talk, but could not speak.
I saw my vision again and knew what the song was, and continually kept
trying to bring it out- but my voice was weak. People held their ears
close to me to hear. Hour after hour for three days I lay that way trying
to bring out my song. At last I knew I had the song right, as the spirit
had given it to me, and then I awoke."
This is remarkable testimony. During the long interval between the two
states of hypnosis the man had taken up an entirely new life, and the
brain had been trained to believe that all of the old life was false and
that its conceptions must be cast away. The question can well be raised
whether the impression received during the early state of hypnosis has
not an actual bearing on the second hypnosis, when the revelation presumably
is made. The author's belief is that in this instance the brain has carried
dormant impressions which are later brought into action through a second
abnormal mental state similar to the first.
These long-house ceremonies are scenes of great religious fervor and excitement,
and the mental state of all participants is in a way abnormal. At a successful
ceremony of this kind there may be fully a dozen young men in trance at
the same time, and over each a group of highly excited persons endeavoring
to encourage and assist him. In all cases persons thrown into the cataleptic
state remain so until a medicine-man brings them out of it, and specific
instances are mentioned in which the subjects were unconscious for as
many as six or eight days. At times several medicine-men attempt to bring
a subject to his senses, before finally one of them succeeds. Of especial
interest is the case of the man who was told by a shaman that if he was
thrown in the ceremony he would never arise. The event justified the prediction:
the dancer died in a state of hypnosis.
"I shep comes in a dream. The person to whom this comes sings a
song in a strange language, dances violently and continuously, and must
give away all possessions. Usually it causes death, but if the afflicted
lives through the winter and summer until fall, ishep will thereafter
belong to him and will do no harm. This may come upon a person at any
time and in any place, but generally it begins in the medicine ceremony.
It usually comes to women. If the person so affected with the desire to
dance continuously loses this desire in the autumn, life is assured. About
one person in a hundred of those affected escape death. While dancing
they cut themselves across arms and legs with flint-points." Probably
this dance, which they call ishepit, is an emotional madness affecting
some in the highly emotional scenes of the medicine ceremony. No one seems
to be able to give a satisfactory account of it. Under variants of the
same name it is found among the Spokan and other Salishan tribes of the
Pacific coast as well as of the interior. The interior tribes say that
it came to them from the coast. See Volume VII, page 89. The song of a
man who danced ishepit is found on pages 183-184. The same song was in
use among the Salishan tribes. In the journals of Lewis and Clark (Thwaites
ed., III, 101-102) reference is made to a woman who "feigned madness,"
or, as Gass said, "took a crazy fit," sang, gave away in small
portions all her possessions, and with a piece of flint gashed her arms
from wrists to shoulders.
Occasionally at times of the greatest excitement in the ceremony nothing
would still the frenzy of a man but to eat a portion of his own flesh.
Such a man would request a friend to cut a very small bit of flesh, usually
from his side, and after swallowing this the devotee would become quiet.
Sometimes several nights at the beginning of the ceremony may pass without
any young man declaring his medicine. Then one of the tiwat may shout
to the others in a loud voice so that all in the lodge hear it, "Let
us see if any of our children can sing!" He then begins to sing,
and if his songs touch the experience of anybody who has fasted but has
not used his songs, that person comes forward as described.
A man who has had a vision does not know what creature the person he saw
in it represents; and he will never know until his song has been brought
out by the efforts of himself and the people who help him, when, from
the nature of the song and its interpretation by one of the medicine-men,
both the initiate and all the others will know what creature it was. When
the young man first sings his song, he may not be supplied with the things
he is to wear according to the nature of his medicine-spirit; so he walks
about the fires, crying, "My friends, I have not the things I need!"
And whoever has the required articles must give them to him, or the life
of the young man would be lost.
Sometimes young men who, when boys, have had visions, become fearful of
declaring themselves, and, before the singing begins, make some pretext
to go out and remain away in order to avoid the possibility that any of
the songs touch their own experience and force them to declare themselves
and to go through the ceremony. But if they wait until the singing begins,
they cannot leave until it is finished.
At any time during the course of the ceremony one of the tiwat may say
to the others, "Let us play!" This is the formula for challenging
them to a trial of medicine-power. The one who so challenges places himself
on hands and knees and receives on his back any one who cares to contend
with him, grasping the hands of the other in his own and thus stretching
the arms of the uppermost man over his shoulders and parallel to his own
arms, so that the hands of both rest on the ground, and in this position
crawling over to the first fire until it is directly under his breast.
From there he crawls to the second fire, then to the third, and so on,
until he has placed himself and his opponent over each fire, unless before
that his opponent has given up. The defeat of the uppermost man is indicated
by an involuntary and spasmodic contraction of his arms, which shows that
something has passed out of the body of the challenger into him: his medicine
has been defeated by the medicine of the challenger. The influence of
fire is necessary if the medicinepower is to exert itself in this way,
but it is not the heat of the fire that causes either of the men to succumb.
If the challenger wins the first contest, he takes on his back a second
rival, and so on until all who wish to make this trial for supremacy have
been given an opportunity, or until the challenger is defeated. If the
uppermost man stands the test until each fire has been passed, he then
receives his opponent on his back and exposes himself to the flames, trying
to conquer the challenger; and if again the two pass along the entire
row of fires, they, or rather their medicine-powers, are regarded as equal.
When a man's arms spasmodically contract, indicating defeat, he is unceremoniously
and as violently as possible thrown backward upon the ground. A man so
defeated in mental combat lies for a long time in trance.,
Another form of contest takes place when an elk-man is the challenger.
While he sings, others, representing eagle, wolf, and other predatory
animals, press about him, singing their medicine-songs and enacting the
drama of an attack upon the elk. If Eagle is so much as touched, physically,
by Elk, he falls as if dead. The Wolves and other animals overcome Elk,
but he rises, holds his hands over the fire, places them on his loins,
and cries, "Come, children, and see how you are!"' The young
men who have had visions, but are still novices in this ceremony, go up
behind him in single file, walking after him as he dances. They go close,
and one by one, sometimes two or three at a time, they fall over on the
ground unconscious. For a time they are left lying without attention.
They have done this so that they may ascertain if they have arranged everything
about their costumes just as the spirits in their visions were dressed.
They do this in several successive ceremonies, and each time they see,
while unconscious, what alterations must be made in their costumes by
painting or by changing the beadwork to make them correspond exactly with
the dress of their guardian spirits. After all of the young men have fallen,
the Elk says, "I must clean myself from doing all this." Then
he sings some other song, that of a harmless creature. The Duck song is
the cleanest because this bird has no evil medicinepower: all it can do
is to play the hand-game (the symbolism being in the similarity of the
motions of the duck's wings and the player's arms). While all this has
been taking place, the audience have been standing. The Elk now tells
them to raise their friends, and again he begins to sing his medicine-songs.
On another night of the ceremony he may call for any one of the Waptipas
who wishes to try his power with the Elk. He who accepts the challenge
raises his arms and the Elk grasps his wrists, then raises him, face downward,
on his back, and walks about with him, singing, and if he feels the other's
arms stiffen, he throws him off backward, violently, and the defeated
one lies there unconscious. Then the Elk comes to him, holds his arms,
and revives him.
Throughout the northern region west of the Rocky mountains one hears in
almost every tribe a tradition that before the appearance of the first
white man a dreamer, or in some instances (and nearer the truth) a wandering
Indian of another tribe, prophesied the coming of a new race with wonderful
implements. In every case the people formed a circle and began to sing
according to the instructions of the prophet. At the end of the song the
palms were extended outward and upward, and sometimes it closed with an
ejaculation that is unmistakably a corrupted "amen." The following
was the prophecy song of the Nez Perces. It will be noticed that the air
is reminiscent of a Catholic chant, and the words savor of the Christian
doctrine of angels.
The report of a strange race in the east spread from tribe to tribe,
far in advance of the earliest explorers, and some of the churchly forms
were no doubt introduced among the remote tribes by wandering eastern
Indians, or perhaps French mixed-bloods. A Klickitat woman says that her
great-grandmother was drowned as the result of dancing forward into the
water of the Columbia at the command of one of these prophets. Evidently
the hypnotic phase of the religion of this region is not new.
EDWARD S. CURTIS