APRIL 22, 2010

This painting of Nez Perce women digging kous roots was painted by artist and author Zoa Swayne in 1961. Zoa also wrote a book entitled: Do Them No Harm! – stories and history of the Nez Perce. Zoa said she knew the women did not typically wear their hats while working, but she wanted their hats to be remembered.

Orofino, a history to tell (Part IV)

By Alannah Allbrett

   Waking up in the morning to a chilly, brisk wind, building a fire, and preparing a type of mush made from camas roots might have been a typical morning for a Nez Perce woman in the late 1800’s. There are several high plains in Idaho named Camas Prairie where vast fields of greenery, topped by nodding purple flowers of the camas root plant were more than scenic – they were sustenance.

    The hills and prairies surrounding the Clearwater Valley in north central Idaho were full of these plentiful, nutritious bulbs and other roots such as the kous root which, to me, resembles a large human molar. The native Americans knew many uses, including medicinal, for these plants. Bernice Pullen, Director of the Clearwater Historical Museum, related how the Nez Perce, after digging the roots, dug large pits in the ground, built fires, laid boughs over the fire, put in the roots, covered them over with more boughs, and roasted the roots for as long as three to four days.

   In the never-ending search for food, native Americans hunted in this area for deer and elk. Of course, they had to follow the seasons from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to fish camps, hunting camps, or to pick huckleberries to dry. They also took The Nez Perce Trail, of which there are three branches, up into Montana to hunt buffalo each year. Chief Looking Glass was noted for leading these types of hunting trips.

  The native people fished for salmon and steelhead by building elaborate weirs (frameworks to trap fish) and board walks where the men could walk out over the dangerous rivers and spear fish. The museum has some of the large, metal, trident-like (three and four pronged) spearheads which are astounding in size.

   Contrary to what many people believe, the wild turkey which populate our hills today were not native to the region. They were introduced in the 1960’s after hunters showed an interest in them.

   There are exhaustive books written about the Lewis & Clark Expedition across the United States and in this area. But the Clearwater Historical Museum in Orofino also has books by local authors as well, such as Zoa Swayne who wrote a book of her own in 1990, entitled: Do Them No Harm! Zoa gathered many stories from the Nez Perce which were handed down from several generations through oral tradition. She focused on the Lewis and Clark journeys from the view point of the Nez Perce as they encountered the white men. The Indians enlightened the expedition on “burning out the hollows of the canoes that carried the expedition to the Pacific,” said Zoa.

   Besides the arrowheads and projectiles one might expect to see in an exhibit on Native Americans, the museum has unique collections including casts of pictographs from the region.

   The beadwork on display is exquisite – adorning gloves or gauntlets, moccasins, purses, pipe and tobacco pouches, and tiny, tiny little baby shoes. The bright seed beads, garnered from white traders, still hold their vivid colors today. Floral and geographic motifs, display the beauty and craftsmanship that went into even ordinary, daily use items such as belts.

    In a Mandan village in North Dakota, Lewis and Clark met a member of the Nez Perce people. They traded with him and gave him an axe. When they arrived in the Clearwater Valley, they were surprised that he and the axe were already here ahead of them. But then, of course, it was their country and well known to them.

   On display our several examples of corn husk bags. One such item is a saddle bag used by Charley Adams to pack mail from 1863 to 1870.

   The artwork on display is a visual treat. Using a grant, from the Governor’s Lewis and Clark Bi-centennial Committee, the museum was able to commission a large painting of Canoe Camp, along the Clearwater River. The scene, painted by Valeria Yost, depicts members of the expedition along with Nez Perce sitting on the banks of the river. Looking at this painting, It is easy to imagine the sounds of the water, the nickering of the horses, the strains of a melancholy fiddle as one gaze downriver where the North Fork meets the big river and Dworshak Reservoir stands today.


A beautiful painting by Valeria Yost, was commissioned for the Clearwater Historical Museum. The picture depicts a peaceful scene where members of the Lewis & Clark Expedition share some restful moments beside the Clearwater River where it is joined by the North Fork.


Lying on a background of corn husk, woven saddle bags, are gloves and pouches, and a beautifully beaded vest made by members of the Nez Perce Tribe.


Fishing above the dangerous waters of Celilo Falls, meaning "echo of falling water" or "sound of water upon the rocks," which are approximately twelve miles north of The Dalles, Oregon. The falls today are underwater due to the construction of a dam on the mighty Columbia River.


Large gaff hooks, gig spears and netting are part of a Nez Perce fishing exhibit on display at The Clearwater Historical Museum.