Traditional storyteller brings Nez Perce culture to curriculum

The Nez Perce language was a feature presentation during last week’s education summit.

LEWISTON — The Nez Perce tribe offered teachers and education leaders an opportunity to explore history and language as part of the two-day Indian Education Summit held last week in North Idaho. 

On day-one, Idaho’s top education leaders expressed a desire to address the learning gap for native students. And there was talk about using data to drive reform and new programs aimed at increasing the number of teachers in rural communities.

According to the tribe, what’s also important is Indigenizing the curriculum. But those same state leaders did not attend day-two activities held on the reservation, where it was on full display.

A highly respected elder, Yolanda Bisbee is the executive director of tribal relations at the University of Idaho and a member of the Indian Education Committee. She said the day-two presentations about language and history show what’s important to natives and how to work with this community.

A cultural knowledge holder and Nez Perce language expert, Harry Slickpoo explored the tribe’s seasonal rounds through language acquisition and storytelling: They used the seasons of the year as a means to keep track of time and to guide the major activities and celebrations in their culture, according to a National Park Service document.

As a language teacher at Northwest Indian College, Slickpoo — jovial with gregarious laughter — is innovative and helps shape the college’s curriculum with his own style and personal experiences. Slickpoo is a member of the tribe’s White Bird band and his Native American name is tísqe? ‘Ilp’ílp, according to the college.

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Slickpoo encouraged his college to include storytelling in their curriculum during the winter months, reminiscent of the tribe’s seasonal traditions.

About 60 educators attended Slickpoo’s seasonal rounds presentation at the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center east of Lewiston. They also visited the center’s archival collection and library housed in the basement that holds tribal resources available to teachers.

To engage participants, Slickpoo led a short language lesson that included seasonal food experiences, like the salmon in July or biscuit root loaf — roots that are boiled or pounded and formed into cakes — in May. He asked everyone to repeat Nez Perce words after he pronounced them.

Harry Slickpoo (right) used the Northwest Indian College language curriculum during his presentation as part of the education summit in Lewiston.

“You’re going to say it until I hear it correct,” Slickpoo joked with the crowd, many of whom were struggling with pronunciation.

Slickpoo talked about the tribe’s STEM knowledge and how they used the cosmos and Big Dipper to create patterns in the sky. He talked about eel season and calving season and huckleberry ripening season.

“This is the time when salmon reached the very headwaters of the tributaries, usually around August, this is the time when the people would start to make their way back down to the river valley,” he explained.

They traditionally gathered in larger villages during the winter months to make tools and listen to storytelling that often provided lessons about good and bad behavior. 

In a recent academic presentation, Slickpoo retold the story of “How Eel Lost his Bones” from the Nez Perce oral narratives to warn about being too prideful.

Slikpoo first explains the story in his language and then provides translation. Here is the English version of one traditional story.

Once upon a time there were many different kinds of creatures, all of them animals. One day two of them — the eel and suckerfish — challenged each other at the stick game. I’m an expert at the stick game, said one, so you don’t need to look far to meet your match. I’m right here, said the other. Now we’ll play. Don’t let anyone interfere, only the two of us will play stick game. Then they played, suckerfish on one side, eel on the other. They played almost the whole night long. Eventually, suckerfish defeated the eel. He won from him everything he had, and eel was left without even his scales. That’s why the eel has no scales today. After eel had lost everything, he told suckerfish, I’m going to bunch up as many bones as I have. And so eel gathered his bones and began to gamble again. They continued playing and by this time the sun was rising. Eel had lost all of his bones. This is why the eel has no bones, no scales, no anything — he lost them all to suckerfish in the stick game.

“Winter time was really a time for traditional storytelling and making your clothing. The men would be making their tools and weapons. So all throughout this season, you’re always busy doing something to prepare yourself,” he said.

Slickpoo teaches multiple language revitalization classes that focuses on reclamation, revitalization and the importance of Nez Perce language and culture.

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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