[This Off Belay story first appeared in Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
Bathed in newly awakened spring colors, the crooked summits of the Seven Devils Mountains cut the eastern skyline, forming the rim of Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. Below us, twisting ravines divided the states of Idaho and Oregon. This is one of the wildest regions in the Lower 48, a place that nurtured my understanding of what it means to have a relationship with the planet.
As a resident guest in this Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce) homeland, I wanted to understand better how its natural and human history weave together and how to be respectful of that history when I access the spaces I love there–whether canyoneering the depths of the continent, or scaling the nearly 10,000-foot peaks on either side of that rugged canyon country. So I’d asked Nez Perce elder, Allen Pinkham, if he’d share some of his knowledge of the land with me. He graciously agreed to meet me in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. There, he began by speaking of a landmark called the Creation Place, about two hours north of us near the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, where he lives:
On that ridgeline, there are big stones that look like the backs of large animals, like dinosaurs and mammoths. We knew those animals existed because we found washouts where bones and fossils were exposed. Those were the large animal people our stories talk about, who disappeared.
Way before the human beings arrived, the animal people were called together by the Creator. He said, “There’s going to be a great change coming. Some of you may not survive. But I want you to come out and be given a name, and a purpose.” The animal relatives were told to demonstrate how they wanted to be, and live, and how they could help the human beings when they arrived. Even the plants came out and were given a name. Everything you see was given a name, and in some way it could help the human beings.
Salmon came forward and said, “I can help the human beings with my flesh. When I come up the river, I will die, so they will have to catch me before then.” Bee came forward and said, “I’ll make honey that is very sweet, and they can use it for food; but I’ll sting them to protect what I have.” Eagle came forward and said, “I want to fly up high so that I can bring messages to you from the human beings, and they can use my feathers for ceremonies and symbols–so they will know who the Creator is.”
The tale can be told for days, continuing through thousands of years of ecological data archived within oral tradition. Allen’s stories explain the laws of each living thing, the way that his people have related with them throughout human memory, and how to interact with these ecosystems without disrupting their timeless patterns. “There’s all kinds of stories that tell us about everything you see,” Allen said. He pointed at the Seven Devils, “They were put there to remind us that rocks have life. They were alive, and they moved. Of course, that was lava. It turned to rock; then it eroded, and water moved the rock. Even the mountains that you see, and the water, have a life like everything else.”
As I listened, I understood that recognizing the sovereignty of other elements in the world–including rocks, plants and water–can weave sustainability into a culture. When people stop assuming a right of possession and begin to receive what most call “resources,” but what Allen calls “life sources,” as gifts from living relatives, then an equitable relationship with the planet can evolve. A gift is something that is reciprocated out of love and respect. That is how the “original laws” of Allen’s culture, such as “never take more than you need” and “always give back for what you take” derived. By acknowledging and honoring the life force in rock and water, I realized I could also understand those elements more fully. A wider view of the unfathomable history contained in the Earth could enhance my adventures upon it, along with my ability to pass those experiences on to my grandchildren–just as Allen was able to share the same stories with me that his ancestors had told of this place 10,000 years ago.
[Joe Whittle is a mountaineer, a photojournalist, a natural history educator, an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and a descendant of the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma. This Off Belay story first appeared in Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Whittle also wrote a Wired story for Alpinist 62 titled “Adventures on the Turtle’s Back” in which he described other journeys he has made in the region: “Time spent in wild places can help us heal from the traumas of colonialism and rebuild our identities.”–Ed.]