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Site offers Nez Perce view of Lewis, Clark visit Story told of Wetxuuwiis, the other woman who helped save their lives
Chuck Oxley - Associated Press
BOISE _ Many people know that Sacajawea was the young Shoshone woman who helped take the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery through the perilous Northern Rockies in 1805.
But who was Wetxuuwiis?
Her story and others from a uniquely Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) tribal perspective have been recorded in a project financed with a National Aeronautics and Space Administration grant. The oral histories and comments from tribal members are preserved on a new Web site run by a University of Idaho professor.
Tribal elder Beatrice Miles recounts the life of Wetxuuwiis (pronounced wet-COO-ees), who was already an old woman when Lewis and Clark's expedition reached the Continental Divide.
When Wetxuuwiis was a child, she was kidnapped by a band of rival Indians and taken east, beyond the Great Lakes. She met white people, who were kind to her, and learned to speak English. She was married to a French man and bore a child, but she escaped and eventually returned to her homeland.
Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their expedition came upon the Nez Perce tribal village on Sept. 20, 1805. Nez Perce boys alerted the rest of the villagers, who met to decide what to do about the strange "soyaapos" (white people) with beards that made them look like buffalo. Wetxuuiis was ill and lying in a nearby teepee.
"She heard them say, `What shall we do with them? Shall we kill them?"' Miles recounted. "And after she looked out and saw them, she said, `No, don't kill them. They are good people. Save their lives and they will give you gifts."'
Clark recorded that the Indians called themselves the "Chop pun-nish," or pierced noses. Later, French mountain men called the tribe "Nez Perce," which means "pierced nose." But it is an inaccurate portrayal, the site says, because tribal members rarely pierce their noses.
During their stay with the Nez Perce, the explorers got sick from gorging themselves on salmon and camas roots. And a chief named Twisted Hair showed Lewis and Clark how to use fire to hollow out pine trees and make new canoes.
On the Lewis and Clark Rediscovery Project Web site, more than 51/2 hours of interviews with tribal members can be seen and heard.
Rodney Frey, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Idaho, started working on the project a year ago, supplying technical assistance. Because Nez Perce tribal members were concerned that outsiders would take control of the material, he said a "cultural property rights" agreement was made with the government.
"They took charge of the project and made it their own," Frey said. "They wanted to frame the specifics all within their own perspectives."
Authenticity was particularly important to tribal members, Frey said. As a result, the material was reviewed for its accuracy and appropriateness by the Circle of Elders and other Nez Perce groups and committees.
Besides Lewis and Clark lore, visitors to the site can also view information about Nez Perce culture, sovereignty issues, fisheries and natural resources management, artists and the Nimiipuu (nee-MEE-poo) language.
Horace Axtell, a 77-year-old member of the Circle of Elders, gives an oral history about the Animal Peoples -- the Titwa-titya-ya -- who traveled the world before the coming of the human peoples.
In one story about the genesis of the Nimiipuu people, the Coyote, the trickster, killed the Swallowing Monster and threw pieces all over the land. The pieces became the nearby tribes; Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, Yakama. The Nimiipuu were created last, when the Coyote squeezed the Heart of the Monster and drained the blood onto the land.
"That's where he said, `Here is where there is going to be the Nez Perce People. They are going to be beautiful people, they're going to be proud people, they will have a kind and loving heart, and they're going to take care of this land,"' Axtell says in the recording.
Axtell first heard the story when he was a boy. He does not recall where he heard it first, and he had to refresh himself on the story line before the recording.
"I had to put the story together in my mind before I could come out and tell it," said Axtell, who can recite it in Nimiipuu or English.
The Nez Perce section is one of eight stops in the Lewis and Clark journey on the site. Others are in various stages of construction. A section for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe should be ready in December.
The $1.8 million NASA project is meant to spark interest at all levels of education, project director Jean Teasdale said. The University of Idaho, University of Montana and Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia are partners.
On the Net:
The Lewis and Clark Rediscovery Project: www.l3-lewisandclark.com/
-- Anonymous, April 13, 2002