Idaho

Praying To A Different Beat Group Of Nez Perce Reviving Tribe’s Native Beliefs; Not Everyone Pleased

With its pastel siding and small yard, Allen Slickpoo Jr.’s home looks like any tract home anywhere.

Hidden out back, however, is an Indian sweat lodge, built with techniques that pre-date Columbus.

Inside, fir boughs line the floor. Herbs soak in water, soon to become steam on hot rocks pulled from a fire.

“This is sacred. This is my church,” said Slickpoo, a 36-year-old construction worker. “This is one of the oldest religions, right here.”

Across the Nez Perce reservation, a handful of tribal members are reviving centuries-old native beliefs. Although the Nez Perce tribe is mostly Presbyterian and Catholic, practitioners of the so-called Seven Drums religion say their numbers are slowly growing.

“We were robbed of our beliefs. But the people are starting to come back,” said Slickpoo. The believers meet in homes, on hilltops, and in a Spalding, Idaho, longhouse that’s little more than a shed.

“I’m going to carry on for my children’s sake, for my sake, and most of all, for those who went before me,” he said.

Seven Drums holds that a creator, known in the Nez Perce language as Hanyawat, made humans and gives power to Mother Earth. Earth, in turn, provides plants, animals and food. Everything is believed to have a soul.

So, Seven Drums members believe, there is an essential link between humans and nature. Rituals, singing, drumming and feasts honor that link. Foods - salmon, camas root, huckleberries - are viewed as sacraments, as is water.

“The water that runs through the veins of Mother Earth is the blood of life,” said Slickpoo’s father, Allen Slickpoo Sr., 66. He works as a tribal historian.

The Nez Perces’ introduction to Christianity came in 1836, when the Rev. Henry Spalding arrived in Lapwai. The tribe had sent envoys to St. Louis, Mo., seeking the medicine and power of the white man’s religion.

Spalding took a dim view of the Nez Perces’ native religion. He discouraged wearing buckskin, dancing and singing.

The elder Slickpoo said the tribe eventually split into the “progressives” - converts to Presbyterianism - and the “heathens” who held to the old ways. Later, a Catholic priest arrived, and then other Christian denominations. The native religion died away.

In the late 1950s, the elder Slickpoo said, Indians on the eastern end of the reservation began holding small native ceremonies again.

“There were a few of us who still believed in it,” he said. “My grandfather and others used to practice their own religion, and on Sunday, they’d be Catholics.”

Raised a Christian, the elder Slickpoo said he was turned off by “church politics.”

In addition to Sunday services, Seven Drums ceremonies are held when children catch their first fish, kill their first deer, collect their first huckleberries or camas root. Slickpoo estimated about 300 of the tribe’s 3,100 members are strong believers.

“It’s still a pretty small number,” he said, “but they’re the nucleus. Others are followers.”

One such strong believer is Horace Axtell, 70, who lives in a quiet neighborhood in Lewiston. A weight machine sits in his garage.

“I like to stay in shape, because I still dance,” he said.

In the late 1970s, Axtell retired after 36 years in a lumber mill. He let his hair grow into a ponytail, and began a quest to learn - and spread - his tribe’s original religion.

“Christianity was forced on a lot of people, and many are not satisfied,” he said.

Today, Axtell leads Sunday services in a makeshift longhouse on a Spalding ranch. About 45 people regularly attend, he said.

On Wednesday nights, the group practices singing Indian prayers. “Like choir practice,” he laughed.

Sometimes, non-Indians show up. They’re welcome, Axtell said.

Occasionally, Axtell said, Christianity and Seven Drums clash. Some tribal members see Seven Drums as a threat to their Christian tradition, now 150 years old. Buckskin and drums, some feel, have no place in a church.

“It goes back to Henry Spalding,” said Allen Slickpoo Jr. “There are people who will always be Presbyterians, because their parents were.”

He recently gave a Seven Drums funeral service for a cousin.

“As soon as I got up there with the bell and began singing, people left,” he said. “And they didn’t come back. My own relatives.”

Axtell said some churches prohibit worshippers from raising a hand and turning counter-clockwise, the direction of the earth’s rotation. It’s a traditional Indian way of praying, he said.

“Sometimes they make an announcement that they don’t want that done,” he said. “They call it twirling, which is not right.”

Repeated efforts to contact Christian leaders on the reservation were fruitless. The few who could be reached didn’t want to say much about the relationship between Seven Drums believers and Christians.

Tribal chaplain Charles Hayes, a Presbyterian Nez Perce, said he thinks the two religions are slowly coming closer.

“There was a lot of misunderstanding begun years ago,” Hayes said. “I think they (Seven Drums believers) are being more accepted in the communities they live in. They are attracting more and more people.”

Hayes sees some parallels in the two religions. Belief in the family of man, for one. Belief in a creator, for another. He believes the Nez Perce of two centuries ago were worshipping the same God as modern Nez Perce Presbyterians.

“They didn’t have the Bible that we have,” Hayes said, “but they loved the Lord as much as we do today. Maybe more.”

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: SEVEN DRUMS FUNERAL HONORED FORESTER Horace Axtell of the Nez Perce Tribe said he’s only given one Seven Drums funeral for a non-Indian. Rutger van Houten , a 44-yearold forester for the tribe, learned in 1988 that he had colon cancer. It quickly spread to his brain and bones. Three months before he died, van Houten requested a Seven Drums funeral. “His connection to the tribe was so strong that I agreed,” said Axtell. “Seven Drums gave something to the mourners. It helped us not grieve too much,” recalled van Houten’s wife, Kathy. A mortuary dressed the body in moccasins, a wool blanket and an Indian shirt. Indian friends gave Kathy a traditional dress and shawl to wear. Mourners sang funeral songs, drummed and danced. They talked about the dead forester without mentioning his name, an Indian tradition. The body was cremated. After an overnight vigil, mourners buried Rutger van Houten’s ashes, wrapped in a Pendleton blanket, on a reservation hillside, among trees he’d helped plant a decade earlier. “It gave you a sense that he was really loved,” Kathy van Houten said. “Sometimes after a funeral you just feel empty. But I felt very much at peace with myself.” - Rich Roesler

Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: SEVEN DRUMS FUNERAL HONORED FORESTER Horace Axtell of the Nez Perce Tribe said he’s only given one Seven Drums funeral for a non-Indian. Rutger van Houten , a 44-yearold forester for the tribe, learned in 1988 that he had colon cancer. It quickly spread to his brain and bones. Three months before he died, van Houten requested a Seven Drums funeral. “His connection to the tribe was so strong that I agreed,” said Axtell. “Seven Drums gave something to the mourners. It helped us not grieve too much,” recalled van Houten’s wife, Kathy. A mortuary dressed the body in moccasins, a wool blanket and an Indian shirt. Indian friends gave Kathy a traditional dress and shawl to wear. Mourners sang funeral songs, drummed and danced. They talked about the dead forester without mentioning his name, an Indian tradition. The body was cremated. After an overnight vigil, mourners buried Rutger van Houten’s ashes, wrapped in a Pendleton blanket, on a reservation hillside, among trees he’d helped plant a decade earlier. “It gave you a sense that he was really loved,” Kathy van Houten said. “Sometimes after a funeral you just feel empty. But I felt very much at peace with myself.” - Rich Roesler



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