Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 70° Partly Cloudy
News >  Spokane

Voices from the past: Idaho project nears the end of 30 years of work on preserving American Indian oral history

By Erica Curless Correspondent

SANDPOINT – Nez Perce Tribal Elder Clifford Allen died last summer at age 85. But his voice – and the stories of his family and his people – live on, as do the voices of other storytellers from Idaho’s five tribes and one tribe based in Washington, thanks to a project started 30 years ago by the Idaho Mythweaver.

The Sandpoint-based nonprofit is raising $2,800, the final amount needed to finish transcribing and reformatting the oral histories and traditional stories into digital files, ultimately preserving the 100 recordings originally produced for radio documentaries and other media projects.

Mythweaver co-founder Jane Fritz recorded the stories and interviews between 1989 and 2003, mostly with tribal elders, who like Allen are now dead.

Fritz used excerpts from the recordings for projects such as the public radio documentary series “Idaho Keepers of the Earth.” But unfortunately, Fritz didn’t have the organizational instincts of an archivist, and she put the cassette tapes in boxes often with little or no labeling or dates and no printouts of transcripts.

In 2017, Fritz and the Mythweaver board prioritized the importance of preserving these recordings for future generations before the plastic tapes with magnetic coatings disintegrate with age.

“I did a lousy job of archiving and labeling on deadline,” Fritz said. “I wasn’t nitpicky about that.”

Preserving the recordings is top priority, a labor-intensive and expensive project. In her yurt nestled in the woods in Sandpoint, Fritz plays the cassette tapes on the original professional-quality machines she used to record the storytellers.

Using converter software, the recording is transferred in real time to her Mac. After the MP3 sound file is on her computer, Fritz listens to it and edits out noises such as cars going by or other people talking, a sin for archival purists, but a necessity for a radio producer like Fritz who is more focused on the cultural importance of the stories and not the raw footage. She then converts the file to an Audio Interchange File (AIF) format.

If the sound quality is bad, she calls on Justin Lantrip, a sound engineer in Sandpoint, to see if he can improve the quality. Fritz calls Lantrip an “awesome technical engineering wizard” and critical to the project because the original tapes are so old.

At first, Fritz attempted to transcribe each tape by hand. Now she is using a transcription company in the United Kingdom. She reviews each transcript and corrects any mistakes. For example, one reference to a sturgeon-nosed canoe was transcribed as “ostrich in a canoe.”

Finishing one tape can take more than eight hours; there are 99 cassettes and one VHS.

But the finished products are mesmerizing.

Allen’s footsteps and breathing fill the recording that Fritz captured as they walked through Yellowstone National Park in August 2001 while following a trail traveled by the Nimi’ipuu during the 1877 conflict. At the time, the tribe refused to give up its ancestral lands and move to the reservation near Lewiston.

Allen, in his slow, metered voice, relays a Nez Perce origin story of the first council of the Animal People, how and why his people began to hunt and how the practice of eating animals ended the communication.

“The council was over,” Allen said. “The Indians continued to eat the deer over the objections. It has been thousands of years since all animals spoke to each other.

“Today, we know the legend is true in our people. The only problem we have had is the location has never been found, where all the animals, all the people once sat in peace.”

Nez Perce Tribal Elder Cliff Allen

Idaho Mythweaver

Allen and Fritz, in their recorded conversion, wonder if that place was in what became Yellowstone.

“This is how we keep our history alive in our families,” said Sylvia Allen, Clifford’s wife. “This was the main goal from the beginning, to remember stories he heard in his family from his grandfather and great-grandfather.”

Sylvia Allen lives outside Culdesac, Idaho, a town on the Nez Perce Reservation, and she was on the Mythweaver board in the early 2000s. Allen said the Mythweaver work is important because it preserves the Indian side of the story and not just white history.

“We just want our truth to be out,” she said. “That’s what (Clifford) was doing all his life. It was important to him and our family.”

The largest number of recordings is from Nez Perce elders, mostly because Fritz worked with the tribe for 13 years on various projects. The other Idaho tribes are Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute. The Kalispels, whose reservation is located in Usk, Washington, also participated; their aboriginal lands extended to Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho and as far as Paradise, Montana.

Mythweavers will give the Nez Perce files and transcriptions to the tribe’s cultural resource department, as well as KIYE Nez Perce Radio for cultural programming. Digital copies, as well as the original tapes, will be housed at the Nez Perce National Historical Park Archives, in Lapwai, Idaho, for long-term access to tribal members, family members and scholars, Fritz said.

The digitized and original tape recordings will be given to the respective tribes. Copies of the Kalispel, Kootenai and Coeur d’Alene recordings will also go to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture’s archive in Spokane; the Idaho State Historical Society Archives in Boise will receive the Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute recordings.

Fritz said it’s up to the tribes to decide how to use the recordings.

Many of the Nez Perce stories are about the 1877 conflict.

Fritz recorded Horace Axtell in 2002 walking through the Bear Paw Battlefield, near Chinook, Montana, on the last day of the 125th year commemoration of the 1877 conflict. The site marks the final battle where Chief Joseph was forced to surrender after a four-month, 1,100-mile journey, just 40 miles from the Canadian border where the Nez Perce intended to seek refuge from persecution by the U.S. government.

It’s also the location where Chief Joseph gave his memorable speech, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Other stories are more mythical. There’s a mid-1990s recording of Nez Perce elder Rick Ellenwood telling Fritz a story about Bigfoot and the stench of the creature that was occasionally spotted in the forests around Clarkia, Idaho. Ellenwood, who died in 1996, remembered being about 12 years old and fishing in the same woods.

“I just got this eeriest feeling in the world,” Ellenwood said. “My whole back just shivered, like when your hair stands up. That’s the idea that I got. I wasn’t really scared, but it was just a feeling that when somebody watches you.”

The $64,200 budget for digitizing the recording included a $2,500 grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and a $5,000 matching grant from Idaho Forest Group, in addition to other private donations. Now the nonprofit only needs $2,800 to finish the project.

Jeanette Weaskus Matuska is a Nez Perce tribal member who served as a tribal scholar for the Idaho Humanities Council grant award. She’s a former professor at the Northwest Indian College and Washington State University, where she taught American Indian studies.

None of her family members is included in the recording, but she said the voices and stories are important for the younger generations.

“They can still continue to learn from these elders even though they are gone,” Matuska said.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.