Trails Through Western Woods

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WHEN Lewis and Clark took their way through the Western wilderness in 1805, they came upon a fair valley, watered by pleasant streams, bounded by snowy mountain crests, and starred, in the Springtime, by a strangely beautiful flower with silvery-rose fringed petals called the Bitter Root, whence the valley took its name. In the mild enclosure of this land lived a gentle folk differing as much from the hostile people around them as the place of their nativity differed from the stern, mountainous country of long winters and lofty altitudes surrounding it. These early adventurers, confusing this tribe with the nations dwelling about the mouth of the Columbia River, spoke of them as the Flatheads. It is one of those curious historical anomalies that the Chinooks who flattened the heads of their children, should never have been designated as Flatheads, while the Selish, among whom the practice was unknown, have borne the undeserved title until their own proper and euphonious name is unused and all but forgotten.

The Selish proper, living in the Bitter Root Valley, were one branch of a group composed of several nations collectively known as the Selish family. These kindred tribes were the Selish, or Flatheads, the Pend d'Oreilles, the Cœur d'Alenes, the Colvilles, the Spokanes and the Pisquouse. The Nez Percés of the Clearwater were also counted as tribal kin through inter-marriage.

Lewis and Clark were received with great kindness and much wonder by the Selish. There was current among them a story of a hunting party that came back after a long absence East of the Rocky Mountains, bearing strange tidings of a pale-faced race whom they had met,—probably the adventurous Sieur de La Vérendrye and his cavaliers who set out from Montreal to find a highway to the Pacific Sea. But it was only a memory with a few, a curious legend to the many, and these men of white skin and blue eyes came to them as a revelation.

The traders who followed in the footsteps of the first trail-blazers found the natives at their pursuits of hunting, roving over the Bitter Root Valley and into the contested region east of the Main Range of the Rocky Mountains, where both they, and their enemies, the Blackfeet, claimed hereditary right to hunt the buffalo. They were at all times friendly to the white men who came among them, and these visitors described them as simple, straight-forward people, the women distinguished for their virtue, and the men for their bravery in the battle and the chase. They were cleanly in their habits and honorable in their dealings with each other. If a man lost his horse, his bow or other valuable, the one who found it delivered it to the Chief, or Great Father, and he caused it to be hung in a place where it might be seen by all. Then when the owner came seeking his goods, the Chief restored it to him. They were also charitable. If a man were hungry no one said him nay and he was welcome even at the board of the head men to share the best of their fare. This spirit of kindliness they extended to all save their foes and the prisoners taken in war whom they tortured after the manner of more hostile tribes. In appearance they were "comparatively very fair and their complexions a shade lighter than the palest new copper after being freshly rubbed." They were well formed, lithe and tall, a characteristic that still prevails with the pure bloods, as does something of the detail of their ancient dress. They preserve the custom of handing down by word of mouth, from generation to generation, their myths, traditions and history. Some of these chronicles celebrate events which are estimated to have happened two hundred years or more ago.

Of the origin of the Selish nothing is known save the legend of their coming out of the mountains; and perhaps we are none the poorer, for no bald historical record of dates and migrations could be as suggestively charming as this story of the people, themselves, colored by their own fancy and reflecting their inner life. Indeed, a nation's history and tradition bear much the same relation to each other as the conventional public existence of a man compared with that intangible part of him which we call imagination, but which is in reality the sum-total of his mental inheritance: the hidden treasure of his spiritual wealth. Let us look then, through the medium of the Indian's poetic imagery, into a past rose-hued with the sunrise of the new day.

Coyote, the hero of this legend, figures in many of the myths of the Selish; but they do not profess to know if he were a great brave bearing that name or if he were the animal itself, living in the legendary age when beasts and birds spoke the tongue of man. Likely he was a dual personality such as the white buffalo of numerous fables, who was at will a beautiful maiden or one among the vast herds of the plains. Possibly there was, indeed, such a mighty warrior in ages gone by about whose glorified memory has gathered the half-chimerical hero-tales which are the first step toward the ancestor-worship of primitive peoples. In all of the myths given here in which his name is mentioned, except that one of Coyote and the Flint, we shall consider him as an Ideal embodying the Indians' highest conception of valor and achievement.

Long, long ago the Jocko was inhabited by a man-eating monster who lured the tribes from the hills into his domain and then sucked their blood. Coyote determined to deliver the people, so he challenged the monster to a mortal combat. The monster accepted the challenge, and Coyote went into the mountains and got the poison spider from the rocks and bade him sting his enemy, but even the venom of the spider could not penetrate the monster's hide.

Coyote took counsel of the Fox, his friend, and prepared himself for the fray. He got a stout leather thong and bound it around his body, then tied it fast to a huge pine tree. The monster appeared with dripping fangs and gaping jaws, approached Coyote, who retreated farther and farther away, until the thong stretched taut and the pine curved like a bow. Suddenly, the tree, strained to its utmost limit, sprang back, felling the monster with a mortal stroke. Coyote was triumphant and the Woodpecker of the forest cut the pine and sharpened its trunk to a point which Coyote drove through the dead monster's breast, impaling it to the earth. Thus, the Jocko was rid of the man-eater, and the Selish, fearing him no more, came down from the hills into the valley where they lived in plenty and content.

Fiction & Literature
12 November
Library of Alexandria
The Library of Alexandria

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