Nakia Williamson-Cloud interprets piyopyóotálikt’s (Peo Peo Tholekt) sepuunme’s (Flute)

Cultural Narrative: 

[greeting in Nez Perce]

My name is Nakia Williamson. I’m the director for the Nez Perce Tribe Cultural Resource Program. I’m here to talk about some of the items in the collection here at the WSU Manuscripts, 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. This item is known as a sepuunme’s, or a flute. And this particular flute was constructed in the typical way amongst the Nez Perce people and was constructed out of a whole entire piece of elderberry we call mít’ip, which also is a traditional food that was utilized by our people in the summer months into the later parts when that tree would bloom and would ultimately provide a fruit.

Different from the flutes that were done to the east of us that are made maybe more well known or documented, oftentimes those are made out of some type of cedar or scrub cedar that was made of two pieces that were later reattached together. This was made from an entire piece of wood since the elderberry had a kind of hollow pith. And so they would get a hot rod and they would, metal rod or a stick and they would burn out that pith, thus creating the proper diameter and then putting the holes in there as well as the pine pitch block there that would create the sound.

And this particular flute or sepuunme’s has a lot of decorations that are associated. It’s painted red on the mouth end. And then perhaps darker green or even a black color, a blue color, that was on the lower section. Then there’s this buckskin string that runs the length of it. And off of that is hung various strands of human hair as well as this larger piece of buckskin appendage that also contains a cut tail feather from an immature bald eagle, a spotted eagle. Often called the black eagle. And then there’s these series of pouches that are created from the quill, the bottom end of the eagle. And they’re folded back on themselves and tied. And inside, there’s some substance, something that’s making a noise, I don't know what it is. But there’s two of those here. And obviously some very significant role or purpose it had in this particular item and the usage of this item. Which brings together a lot of elements that are very sacred to this individual as well as how it functioned within the broader community at that particular time. Of course there’s the eagle plume suspended from this small eagle bone whistle, which I assume it’s an eagle bone whistle. And on that eagle bone whistle, there’s carved two figures facing away. It looks like the head of some sort of bird of prey, either a hawk or an eagle. And then various beads, brass wound beads, white beads, the conch shell. This blue padre bead and a variety of other items that, a hawk bell that’s hung off here.

So it definitely has a lot of different types of materials that are brought together that gave this particular piece power. In the olden times, the days when our people camped in the traditional areas along the Snake River, the Clearwater River, the Salmon River. All the different places. The Wallowa River. All these places where people lived. And there would be times, especially in the summer months where they would gather in these larger gatherings in places like Mussel Shell Meadows, we call it seewi’sníme. Or ‘oyáyp, Weippe. Weippe Meadows. Or even around here on the Palouse area, where they would be gathering qém’es earlier in the summer months. Or later on, when the q’oyxc, or the blue back salmon would be spawning up in the Wallowa Lake, they would gather, all the bands would come together at many of these places.

And then at that time, there might be courtship, there was a variety of courtship dances, Tukéywe. Tukéywe and some of the other, Piwiyaqanat, all these dances that were done that are not seen too much nowadays, were times in which the younger people would court one another. And along with that, these flutes would be played by the men. And they were used in such a way that when a young man favored a particular lady, that he would take this flute and he would sit outside of camp and he would play it. And it was kind of a, just like everything in our culture and our way of life, there was always a spiritual element to everything they did. Even the courtship had a spiritual element. So there was a variety of ways in which our people, in particular the men, would attract attention of a young lady. And some of those were associated with very, I guess I would say very secret or sometimes very kind of esoteric sort of beliefs associated with that sort of interaction. And because of that, they had certain power that would be associated with that whole process to attract the attention of the female. Or vice versa. Because the women would also do a similar sort of thing. But they didn’t use a flute. They used these particular types of songs that were, my grandmother called wiláapin. And those songs were sung, and they had words in them. Some of them have been preserved. And they would be sung right at sunset. And they would face the direction like if their boyfriend or loved one had gone somewhere, to war to the east, then they would face in the direction right at sunset and they would sing these songs. And the elder that taught me said they would act in a similar way, like the flute. It was meant to give the sound and make the desired mate think about the individual that in this case was utilizing the flute. Or in the case of a lady, the singing of the wiláapin songs would make the man think of her wherever he might be.

And so it was, again, it was a particular practice of how courtship would unfold in those times, those past times. And obviously people have changed much for people. So many of these specific notions associated with that time that are specific to the flute were lost. And only maybe a few of our elders had knowledge of the specific applications of these particular items and how they function. So what I’m talking about is more generally of how these particular items were utilized within a community in those past times. But they were obviously very important items that allowed an individual to attract attention of someone who he had certain feelings for at that particular time.

And it allowed him to—in all the aspects of life, the power that this individual piyopyóotálikt was a very renowned warrior. But obvious, that wasn’t all his life consisted of. He had other life, too. You know, the ability to care for himself, the ability to acquire horses and the things necessary to carry out his life. The ability to attract a mate, to have a family and to create strong young children that would also be a benefit to the community and work on behalf of the community and family and the various lineages. And so again, all that was considered a part of their life. It wasn’t just the fact that this man was a warrior. There was other aspects of his life and the family’s that are still left behind, the lineage of the family, the families that are there that are related to this individual have even probably more understanding to provide for this individual. But just to give a general idea of how these items functioned and what their intent and purpose was, and to see that this very important piece of it preserved for us even to see. Oftentimes, some of the more personal items would often be put away with the individual when their life had expired. But some of the medicine items would be carried on as well. So we’re indeed fortunate that this item has survived to this point in order to teach our people, our own people, about the values associated with these items as well as use it as a way to have other people understand the values of the Nimiipuu, the Nez Perce people.