Nakia Williamson-Cloud interprets the Wéeptes xotxó’as (Eagle Bone Whistle)

Cultural Narrative: 

My name is Nakia Williamson. I’m the director for the Nez Perce Tribe Cultural Resource Program. And I’m here to talk about some of the items in the collection here at the WSU Manuscript Archives and special Collections. And some of the ethnographic items that were collected by L. V. McWhorter in his association with our people, the Nimiipuu, the Nez Perce people.

And this particular item is a very sacred item amongst our people. And we refer to it as xotxó’as, or an eagle bone whistle. And oftentimes these whistles were constructed from a particular portion of the wing. This one probably I think the understanding is it was made from an eagle bone which corresponds to the basic size diameter, and it’s the lower bone in the wing closest to the body is what this large bone is, this one like right here that would be on the wing of an eagle.

And of course Tipiyehléhne, or Wéeptes, the golden eagle, was a very sacred bird amongst the Nez Perce people, as well as other neighboring tribes throughout the plateau and Northern Plains area and in other parts of this land that the eagle was considered a sacred bird that was utilized in many of our ceremonies, as well as oftentimes it would bestow certain qualities upon the warriors or individuals that were deemed worthy. And such is the case with this particular war whistle.

And amongst the Nez Perce people, this item was used at the direction of their own individual power that they acquired. We refer to as wéeyekin, And oftentimes that power would be transferred to subsequent generations. And in other tribes that are to the east of us, these types of whistles are associated with the, we call pewis wéecet or the tongue dance known more commonly as the sun dance amongst many of the Sioux, Cheyenne and tribes of the Plains area. The sun dance was not practiced by the Nez Perce people as an aboriginal form of spirituality. But many of  our people were in contact with other tribes, other allies. And even subsequent to the treaty making time and ultimately 1877 war, they would often attend many of these events. But these aren’t to be confused with those types of whistles utilized in that context. These were purely used by Nez Perce warriors that connected to our aboriginal belief system, which is distinct from that of those tribes that conducted those types of sun dance ceremonies.

So again, it’s an item that visually may be consistent with what other tribes had known via their own association or knowledge of their particular ways. But it was a separate item that had a separate function amongst the Nez Perce people that was individual but it was passed down through a lineage and through a family.

So these items strictly for the use of those warriors had been acquired through visionary experiences. And during the times of great need in their life, especially in times of war, that these whistles would be sounded, and that’s the way they called their power to come and aid them in their time of need. And those, like this man that owned this whistle, piyopyóotálikt Bird Alighting, later known as George Peo Peo Tholekt, was a very powerful warrior in battle. Also in battle not only with the US Army in 1877, but also even in intertribal warfare against some of the Northern Plains tribes that were at that time allied against the Nez Perce people and they fought in the realm of intertribal warfare that existed prior to that time.

So because of that, his power by blowing this whistle would call his power that would make him invulnerable to bullets or arrows. That’s the function of these particular items. And you see the series of five rings that go around this whistle that are incised into this particular whistle. And five being a sacred number of the Nez Perce people. Three, five, seven, twelve, many of those were sacred numbers. And you could see this as representative to his power, his wéeyekin.

And many of these items that were described later on by some of these warriors, these plaits of hair that were twined together, this isn’t braided, it’s a real thin multiple, looks like four or five strands that are twined together, which is kind of twisted, more or less twisted. And it reverses back on a fourth and then it stays in that manner. And this is human hair. And it once had ermine spots. And then it has a brass-wound bead partway through. And many of these were placed on the hair and were considered protections when they went into battle. And you’ll see many of the warriors that would have these sorts of protections. And they’d be worn usually at the temple like this, and placed before going into battle. And even many of the people later on would braid small temple braids, too, right here. And that would be again, something that referenced back to their spiritual beliefs. But these were often used in that manner and were described by piyopyóotálikt as being used in that manner, and must have been attached to this whistle at that particular time.

And the individual information, only the individual that owned these whistles and that was transferred to family members would know the very specific meaning of what each thing specifically means. And a lot of times, these were never divulged. Because to do so would be to rob yourself of the power and potency of these items to just freely give this information out. So a lot of times the information was only kept with individuals for the specific spiritual use. And so because of that, a lot of the information has not made it down the generations. Or is not shared in a public format.