PULLMAN, Wash.— Washington State University Press has just published River Song: Naxiyamtáma (Snake River-Palouse) Oral Traditions from Mary Jim, Andrew George, Gordon Fisher, and Emily Peone, a new collection of Native American oral histories. For many generations into the twentieth century, Mary Jim, her family, and their ancestors lived a free and open life on the Columbia Plateau. They journeyed from the Snake River to Badger Mountain to Oregon’s Blue Mountains, interacting and intermarrying within a vast region of the Northwest.
Denied a place on their ancestral lands, the original Snake River-Palouse people were forced to scatter. After most relocated to the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama, and Colville reservations, maintaining their cultural identity became increasingly difficult. Still, elders continued to pass down oral histories to their descendants, insisting youngsters listen with rapt attention. Intended as life lessons, these sacred texts contain many levels of meaning and are rich in content, interpretation, and nuance.
Beginning in the 1970s and continuing over three decades, Naxiyamtáma elders—in particular Mary Jim, Andrew George, Gordon Fisher, and Emily Peone—shared their stories with a research team. The featured elders had ties to Plateau people’s leadership families and had lived in the traditional way—gathering, hunting, and fishing. They participated in the ancient Wáshani religion and honored the Creator through First Food ceremonies. They hoped to teach American Indian history in a traditional manner and refute incorrect versions. In the process, multiple themes emerged—a pervasive spirituality tied to the Creator and environment, a covenant relationship and sacred trust to protect and preserve their traditional lands, storytelling as a revered art form that reveals life lessons, and belief in cyclical time and blood memory. The stories speak of change and continuity over time, and help disseminate knowledge about Native Americans who lived on the Great Columbia Plateau.
Regional creation stories include “The Creatures of Cloudy Mountain,” “Why Coyote Made the Palouse Hills,” and “The Origin of Palouse Falls.” Although narratives told by other groups are similar to Mary Jim’s “How Coyote Learned to Fish,” and Gordon Fisher’s “How Beaver Brought Fire to the People,” the versions in River Song offer a distinct Naxiyamtáma perspective.
In their retelling, award-winning authors Richard Scheuerman and Clifford Trafzer, both university professors, endeavor to capture the elders’ original voices and remain true to Snake River-Palouse oral traditions. They also describe their method and approach—one that will serve as a model for conducting Native American cultural research.