I’m James Spencer and I’m from the Nez Perce tribe and I also have blood ties to the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwa. I’m a storyteller, flute player and I do a lot of the native crafts. I focus a lot on the stories because they’re very important to our people. The children would hear the stories every wintertime from the time they were in cradleboards all the way until they grew up and they became the ones to tell the stories to the children. It was said that the only time to tell stories is in the wintertime or when you were traveling. In the summer months you had to gather foods and prepare them for the long winter months ahead. So it was said only bad little children had to be told stories in the summer time. I kind of bend the rules and I’ll tell these stories to different groups of people so that they’ll know exactly how important these stories are to our people because in these stories is contained all the information that’s handed down from generation to generation. Children learn about the landscape and why it’s shaped the way it is, why animals are shaped the way they are and why they behave the way they do. The children would also learn about the plants; what plants can be used at what time of the year, how they can be used and how much you could use at one time. The children would also learn about how they were supposed to behave. So these stories are very very important to our people. Now most these stories took place during a time that our people referred to as Tit-waa-tit or legend days. That’s sort of like the Australian aborigines concept of dreamtime. It was during this time that all the animals walked on their hind legs and they all spoke the same language. The Nez Perce really related to coyotes so many of these stories they reflect coyote and concentrate on what he does because coyote he’s a lot like human beings. He expresses the same emotions that we do. He’s very powerful. He has great power, but he can be very fool hearty with his power as well even though he’s very wise and powerful. You’ve got to watch out for him because he likes a good laugh as well so he’s not above trying to trick you. These are the types of stories you’ll hear. The Nez Perce they often times refer to themselves as Itse-ye-ye nim mammii-yits, children of the coyote, because it was coyote that created people and so that’s who we come from. That’s who we relate to.
One story about coyote: He was sitting there in his den just sleeping and his wife was baking a pie. She needed some more huckleberries so she told coyote go out and get some huckleberries. Oh all right. He got up and he walked down the trail heading for the huckleberry patch. Along the way he crossed these two raccoons and they were carrying these great big baskets full of huckleberries. They were the largest huckleberries he’d ever seen. So he asked the raccoons, where did you get those huckleberries? They told him, oh there’s a nice patch of huckleberries right down there by the stream. That ‘s where we got them. They’re great big huckleberries. All kinds of them. So coyote went down there to the huckleberry patch just where the raccoons told him it would be and what he didn’t know was that the raccoons followed him and they were watching him. Coyote looked and he saw all these great big beautiful huckleberries and he’d sneak up on them and he’d look really close and he’d reach out to get them and he’d open his hand and they’re gone. He couldn’t figure out what ‘s going on. He’d sneak up on the huckleberries and he’d throw his paw out there to try to grab them and he’d open up and they’re gone. He heard some rustling in the bushes behind him. It’s these raccoons and they’re laughing at him. He says what are you laughing at.
We’re laughing at you. You big dummy. Here you are grabbing at shadows. All you have to do is look up above you. That’s where the huckleberries are all this time. Coyote was sitting there. He was grabbing for the reflection of the huckleberries in the stream. That’s when the elders always tell you. Look around. Before you talk about anybody make sure they’re not around you. Any time you go in to ask an elder now, you go inside the house, always look up. A little joke that we have with the elders. Oh yeah, just making sure they’re not above me. You’ve got to learn from these stories. You don’t hear them just one time. You hear them over and over again and you learn something new each time from the story. That’s the way it is. No matter how many times you tell the story or no matter how many times you’ve heard a story, you always learn something new from them. That’s the way our people were. The children would learn from these stories on a very simple level. But as they grew up they ‘d hear the same stories and they’d begin to tell those stories and they’d learn on a different level. That’s the way our people passed on their knowledge from generation to generation.
James Spencer is Nez Perce with blood ties to the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwa. He lives in Lapwai, Idaho. His grandparents are Sam and Lucie Hays. His father is Russell Spencer of the Ojibwa and his mother is Juanita Spencer of the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce occupied the central portion of Idaho, the lower eastern corner of Washington and the upper eastern corner of Oregon. They shared access to lands with all the people along the Columbia River. There are canyons, high mountains and scorching high dessert.
James is a storyteller and plays the Native American flute in his presentations. He has stories that go along with the skills and stories of the Nez Perce people and the campsites they used. He tells the story of how coyote created people. He has legends about the animals; why they behave the way they do and why they’re shaped the way they are today. He shares modern stories related to animals and he also has fun stories. Most of his stories come from a time known as Tit`wau`tit`yayat, which means legend days, that gives a feel of the Nez Perce legends and what the people are about.
JR has a special oral history that was handed through the generations. During the Nez Perce War of 1877, the very last battle at Bear Paw, when his great grandfather was about twelve, his family was nearly wiped out. He was tending horses as many young boys do and he saw the soldiers coming. He started to run back to camp, but stumbled and fell. A soldier came up to him, pointed a rifle at him and pulled the trigger. The rifle didn’t go off. His great grandfather made it safely back to camp and relayed what had happened.
James reveals that tribal dance and music are approached in a childlike manner reflecting and influenced by the surroundings. Many songs describe certain events or are landscaped within their vocals. They even have songs for whirlwinds. There are a couple of dances that he relates to like the prairie chicken dance and a special dance and song called the duck and dive, which depicted the battle at Big Hole in Montana.
The Native American flute is another topic on his list for presentations. Many traditions were set aside when the tribal people moved to the reservation and the flute was one of them. It was almost lost. A man from Pendleton gave the Nez Perce a small metal flute and told them to learn all they could about it. This brought about the rebirth of the flute for the Nez Perce. Many old songs are gone now. James can take vocal songs to make flute songs. This new flute tradition is continuing to be passed on.
James uses and discusses the life skills that people needed to survive like cornhusk weaving, making fishnets and flint mapping. He discusses how the Nez Perce were famous for cornhusk bags. They did corn husk weaving, but also made bags from hemp, which were used to gather food. Bugs didn’t like hemp and so the food was safe. Cornhusk was easier to work with and more abundant.
James has had several recordings for Montana Public TV. He is also in an American Steamboat Company promotional video for the Nez Perce National Historical Park. He’s done voice overs and recordings that are on file at Lewis and Clark State College. He is President of the Chief Joseph and Warriors Memorial Pow Wow Committee started in 1977 by descendents of the Nez Perce war. The committee selected him to be whip man for their pow wow and make sure it runs smoothly. He tells the dancers when to dance and keeps children from running onto the floor.
PO Box 567
Lapwai, ID 83540