Nez Perce elder honored for keeping language alive

By Jennifer Bauer
Lewiston, Idaho (AP) 7-08

One day after working a night shift at Potlatch Corp., Horace P. Axtell was asleep at home when the doorbell rang and his spirituality came calling.

“Some elder ladies and a couple of men came to see me who wanted me to go and learn this way of life,” says Axtell, 83, about traditional Nez Perce religion. “That was because of my ability to speak the language fluently. I did not agree right away.”

Axtell’s mother and grandmother were dedicated Christians and had raised him that way. It was a difficult decision, he says. Eventually he became a spiritual leader in the Seven Drum religion. This fall he’ll go to Washington, D.C., to accept the National Heritage Award for preserving the folk arts, which comes with a $20,000 prize.

“I’m really honored by this award I’m getting. To myself I assume all this is coming to me for being dedicated to my tribe. I guess I’d have to say that makes me a proud Nez Perce to represent my people like that.”

Axtell was born Nov. 7, 1924, on a ranch outside of Ferdinand where he was raised by his mother and grandmother. As a child he thought Nez Perce was the only language. His grandmother, Jane Moody, could read the weather in the hoot of an owl. She never learned to speak, read or write English. While growing up he would translate for her and witness her signature, an X.

Axtell’s father, also raised Christian, left when he was a baby.

“He had a hard struggle with life,” Axtell says, because of alcohol and diabetes. In later years, relatives came and told him he should take his father in. Axtell went to Kamiah and got him and took care of him for 20 years. Like him, his father spoke Nez Perce.

“So we talked in this way and I found out a lot of things about my ancestors. My great-grandfather was a warrior in the Nez Perce War. He was a spiritually strong warrior. He didn’t survive the war. He died at Bear Paw Battlefield, the last war. That helped me decide who I wanted to be, to follow his footsteps.”

It was not an easy path in a tribe divided by religion during the 1877 war when those who wanted to follow the old ways split from those who followed the teachings of missionaries.

“I don’t tell them to be like me but to seek the spirit they feel they’re comfortable with,” Axtell says.

Axtell devoted himself to teaching the Nez Perce language and ways to tribal members. He goes to youth camps, college seminars, prisons, wherever he is called.

“The main reason is to try to make them understand our people were very strong in their traditional ways,” he says, and adds it’s often not easy.

“So much of the non-Indian ways have pushed some of our old traditions and culture and language backwards. We’re about at a point to lose the language, but I still have some young people stepping up. I’m happy about that.”

The songs, stories and traditions, like his specialty, drum making, are passed on person to person. “There are no books. It all comes from the heart. Everything we learn about our ways is put there.”

As an elder on the council for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, a highly educated group of top-notch students from all tribes, Axtell counsels American Indians from all tribes to not forget their roots.

“The main thing I tell them is not to back away from language. Each tribe has a different language. I tell them not to ever stick to your one name. You gotta have an Indian name.”

This is basic to identity, he says. “Because in most of our spiritual beliefs you’ve got to have an Indian name to get into the happy land.”

His last name – Axtell – was the last name of the secretary who worked in the survey office when his grandfather claimed a land allotment in 1885. His Indian name – Isluumts – belonged to the same man. A grandaunt, who was a medicine woman, gave it to him the day he was born. Its meaning is lost to time.

Name-giving ceremonies are coming back strong, Axtell says. Sometimes students come to him and say, “‘I got an Indian name now.’ And they’re proud,” he says. “I think a lot of this has to do with that award I’m getting.”

The award will join others beside family photos on the living room wall in the Lewiston Orchards home he shares with Andrea, his wife of 45 years. He sits in his favorite recliner there, his hair in two long braids, wearing a belt buckle beaded with the name Axtell.

Axtell has traveled to Washington, D.C., to repatriate remains and in 2004 to represent the Nez Perce at the opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“One thing that stuck in my mind when I went when they built that museum and all the tribes were gathered, I couldn’t understand why our president didn’t come to see us. He never came. I guess he was busy with the war or something.”

The Indian experience with the U.S. government can be a difficult subject.

“One of the things I think it’s natural to us that we learn (is) how to forgive. It’s an important word. The hardest thing to forgive is to forgive the unforgivable,” he says.

“To truly understand they killed our children and our elders and our women. We try not to talk about that too much.”

Axtell goes to Bear Paw Battlefield every year to pay respects to those buried there. He says some people have heard crying coming from the field.

“Some people don’t believe that but it can happen. It’s just one of the things we have to live with. It’s kind of hard to talk about, really. But our life has to go on. I don’t know how long I’ll be on this Earth so I’ll do the best I can.”

As a veteran of World War II, where he served in the Pacific theater, Axtell says he’s proud to have followed in the warrior footsteps of his great-grandfather. Most of all he is proud of his family. Several of his children are following him in learning the traditional ways.

“I’m proud I was able to have my kids go to school and graduate high school. Some went to college. They have their own homes and they’re raising their children practically like my wife and I raised them. All these other things are things that happened to me.”