Umatilla, Walla Walla & Cayuse
Traditional Culture
  Who's Who
Since Time Immemorial
All My Relations
Camp Life & Seasonal Round
Horses, Trade, & Travel
Cultural Continuity
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
  Sovereignty & Tribal Government
Arts and Artists
Recommended Web Sites

  Relationship with U.S.
  Lewis & Clark and the Early Fur Trade
Establishment of Fort Nez Perces
Life at Ft. Walla Walla
Missionaries and Early Settlers
Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

"Songs tell our history..."
Marjorie Waheneke
Do you know how oral history is really done?
Cecelia Bearchum
Cecelia Bearchum explains a time ball.
Map locating Marmes cave on the Snake River.
Helen Sherman map (Fish: 1972).

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Armand Minthorn
"Ancient oral histories..."

Umatilla River > Culture > Since Time Immemorial
Oral History
"From generation to generation..."
"Rattlesnake Mountains and the flood"
Armand Minthorn


A Story of Wet-koo-wies
Is this the woman who saved Lewis and Clark?

"One day a small group of us cornered Gilbert Minthorn, demanding Indian stories. He was our host for the day, and could not well refuse. Moreover, he is president of the Umatilla Ind. Res. council, so who would be in a better position to spin a yarn or two? Ordinarily, Gilbert's English is adequate but we soon found him to be at his best in his native tongue.

"Still another factor added to the thrills of the hour. The interpreter was Gilbert Conner, whose mastery of the English language usually excels that of his white friends; Mr. Conner could give the exact shading of English words needed to make the original meaning clearest. It was a delectable set-up, indeed.

"Gracefully and swiftly, Minthorn's hands, arms, fingers, head and eyes talked in unison with his lips…

"On an early summer evening, many, many years ago, a small band of Nez Perces were gathered about a camp fire on Hurricane creek, that precipitous gash through which a silvery ribbon tumbles from Matterhorn's lofty peaks to the Wallowa river close by Joseph. Delicious trout, seasoned with herbs, sizzled over a bed of coals. Laughing children; men at rest; squaws ready to serve the evening meal. Round about were peace and contentment.

"Suddenly a shower of Bannock arrows; then death, blood, confusion. In less time than required to recite the facts, the happy NPs were dead—save only one comely maiden. Her screams for help reverberated weirdly through the dark canyon as her captors dragged her off to mountain fastnesses. From there she was carried south, day after day, week after week, until the Bannock marauders reached their home land in Southern Idaho. Eventually came an opportunity to escape. But what to do with her freedom, now that she had it? Hundreds of miles form home, the most rugged mountains of the Nw before her; wild beasts and raging torrents in her path? Yet, in a manner you shall presently learn, there came a day when she stood by the gray ashes of what a year before had been a happy campfire on Hurricane creek. From there to Asotin Valley where friends and relatives sojourned was a minor detail. Seeing her while yet afar off, and recognizing the living body of one long thought dead, her friends spoke in reverent awe, as one person, the words "Wet-koo-wisha! Wet-koo-wisha!" which translated means-"returning home from a perilous journey." And for the rest of her life Wet-koo-wies was her name.

Gilbert Minthorn in traditional regalia.
Photo courtesy Tamástslikt Cultural Institut

"But, you ask, how could a bewildered maiden find her way over strange deserts and mountain crags from S Idaho to NE Oregon? Well, it was just like this: from the night of her escape until she reached Hurricane creek, a massive she-wolf strode before her, choosing always the right trail, fighting off predatory beasts and generally looking to her comfort and security. Familiar fields at hand and her task performed, the she-wolf slunk into the brush and was seen no more" (Minthorn; Nelson: 1934).
Reckoning Time
Geneology, a Way of Reckoning Time
Our oral history doesn't usually, because we're not linear, come with dates. But we can tell you when a person lived and some of the significant events of their life. So my mother and her cousin here, are the children of a brother and sister, Gilbert and Blanch Conner, are the children of Sarah Pilatson Monni Conner and her father was Ollicut, and Ollicut's father was Old Joseph or Twiitacuss, and Old Joseph's father was a man who was know by a number of terms.
Bobbie Conner

Old Ollicut was one name they called him, Wullamut Keen was another name he's known by, and as it turns out when the journals were created by the explorers coming through, they called him Yellept or Yellepit, and that's a Nez Perce term meaning trading partner or brother or trader, and it's kind of like calling someone mayor or congressman or senator. It's an honorific, it's a reference to his role and relationship to those two Nez Perce men who brought the Lewis and Clark Expedition here, through this country in October of 1805.

So when they meet him the best reference they have to who he is, is what these men try to explain. And these Nez Perce men, there's no surprise that they might call this man brother or trading partner, close trading partner, because he had a Nez Perce wife with whom he had these children, that are now Joseph band is one of the terms they're called. In addition, he had other wives, he had a Cayuse wife and he had a Walla Walla wife. So the descendents to this man they refer to as Yellept, are numerous, on more than one reservation.

In 1968, not far from where the Palouse meets the Snake River, geologists from Washington State University found some of the oldest human remains ever found in the western hemisphere. The cave which served as shelter for this man and his extended family, is now partially submerged by the backwater from Monumental Dam. Referred to as "Marmes Man," the skeletal remains were carbon-dated to be approximately 10,000 years old.
  Since 1968, the number of human skeletons of this antiquity has grown, but still remains relatively limited. The most controversial finding was discovered downriver from the Marmes Site, outside of the town of Kennewick, Washington, and is known as "Kennewick Man."

A series of radiocarbon dates now available from the Kennewick skeletal remains indicate a date of between 9500 and 8500 years ago during which the Kennewick Man lived… The DOI has made the background information available on the Worldwide Web at

Is Kennewick Man linked to the present-day American Indian tribes in this area? In 1805, Lewis and Clark first documented the presence of the various Plateau bands now living on the Umatilla, Yakima and Nez Perce reservations. Archaeologists investigate many lines of physical evidence in an attempt to ascertain when people of this particular way of life moved into the area.

Archaeologists especially rely on styles of projectile points, dated in stratigraphic context, to determine chronological sequences in a particular area. In the Plateau, Cascade and Windust points (ca. 8,000 - 10,000 years ago) are the earliest recognized types. Most of the Windust and Cascade points are regarded as having served as tips for darts that were probably propelled by atlatls (Ames et al.1998:104).

Languages also hold keys to the length of time a culture has lived in a particular environment. Anthropologist, Eugene Hunn (2000:10) contends that "the prominence and apparent antiquity of terms for rattlesnake (waxpush), burrowing owl (papu), yellow-bellied marmot (chikchiknu), western gray squirrel (qanqan), and tick (ach'pl) all point to a long-term association of Sahaptin with the semi-arid Plateau environment." Hunn also notes that "… every salmon species of the Columbia River basin is named" in Sahaptin" (Hunn 2000:9).

There is no written documentation prior to the Lewis and Clark journey, but the various tribes have oral history which documents an age-old connection to this particular landscape. Many stories recorded from oral traditions describe events which may correlate with the close of the last ice age, dating back some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, such as "Blood Red Lake", "How Coyote made the Columbia River", "Legends of Steamboat Rock", and "Origin of the Palouse Falls", reported by Ella Clark, describe the immense glacial lakes, floods, and river channels that glacial geologists and geomorphologists have shown through independent evidence to date to this Late Glacial period (Ault 2000).

The Origin of Palouse Falls

The Origin of Palouse Falls is about "…four giant brothers and their giant sister…" who were proud of the appearance of their hair and kept it shining with beaver oil (the story itself can be found in Clark 1953:117-118). One day they ran out of oil and went hunting for a giant beaver that lived in the Palouse River. They intend to kill the beaver and use his oil for their hair. The brothers find and attack the beaver, tossing their spears at him. The beaver runs down the river, as he eludes the giant brothers he tears up the river bed creating a series of five small falls, a deep canyon, a series of rapids and another canyon. In the last encounter with the brothers, there is "…the biggest fight of all." In this fight, beaver tears out a big canyon and creates the Palouse Falls as it now exists. In one version of the story, the beaver escapes the brothers, in another, he is killed. image
Palouse Falls
Ben Daniels photo
This story, according to native peoples of the area, explains how the dramatic features of the lower Palouse River were created. It is widely acknowledged that the flood of glacial meltwater from Glacial Lake Missoula cut through mountain ranges and scoured the Columbia Plateau, creating what are presently known as the "channeled scablands". Forty or more floods are estimated to have moved through the region and along the Columbia River between 15,000 and 12,800 years ago.
"The tribes of the Mid-Columbia area do not have stories about migrations; according to their traditions, they have always lived in the places where Lewis and Clark first documented their presence" (Armand Minthorn interview).
"We... have always been here."
Armand Minthorn
Background: Joseph River, just downstream from where
Cold Springs Creek flows into it. K. Lugthart photo