courtesy of the artist

Horace P. Axtell

Nez Perce drum maker, singer, tradition-bearer


Horace P. Axtell is a Nez Perce tribal historian, language preservationist, storyteller, drum maker, and singer. He spent his youth listening to and learning from tribal elders, some of whom had survived the 1877 War resulting from President Ulysses Grant's attempts to clear the Nez Perce homeland. Now a respected elder himself and a pipe carrier for his tribe, Axtell is a spiritual leader of the Seven-Drum Religion. This traditional religion of the tribes of the plateau requires that practitioners memorize songs and accompany them on handmade, hand-held drums. Axtell continues to construct the drums in the old way, curing the hide and stretching it over a wooden frame. In 1997, Axtell's memoir A Little Bit of Wisdom: Conversations With a Nez Perce Elder, published by Confluence Press and recently reprinted by the University of Oklahoma Press, became the first printed memoir of a Nez Perce elder in more than 50 years. Axtell has passed along his knowledge and skills through the Idaho Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. His efforts have been recognized with the Washington State Historical Society Peace and Friendship Award, an honorary doctorate from Lewis-Clark State College, and the President's Medallion from the University of Idaho.

Interview by Mary Eckstein for the NEA

NEA: Congratulations on receiving the National Heritage Fellowship. Tell me how you felt when you heard the news about your award.

Horace Axtell: I thought somebody was pulling a prank on me at first. I couldn't believe it. Really. But after a while it soaked in, and by golly I said, "This is real!" Now I'm getting prepared for the whole thing and I'm really thankful that this has happened to me.

NEA: What about the reaction in the community there? Has word gotten out?

Horace Axtell: It was in the Lewiston Tribune. But not too much is being said about it in the tribes for some reason. I don't live on the reservation -- I live about ten miles off the reservation. I've got a home here in Lewiston, because I worked a long time in here. When I retired, I just stayed here.

NEA: Tell me a little bit about your earliest memories listening to and learning the stories from the tribal elders. What attracted you to those people? What made you want to listen and learn the traditions from them?

Horace Axtell: I was an only child. I was raised by my grandmother and my mother. My father was not there. My grandmother never did learn to speak English or read or write, and so I grew up learning my language. I don't remember when I began talking -- I just grew up with it. As I got older, I could listen when Grandma's relatives came. I could listen to them tell their stories, and talk and I could understand all that. I was very fortunate growing up knowing how to understand and how to listen to the language.

NEA: You've devoted a good portion of your life to preserving the language. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Horace Axtell: I was gifted to be able to learn the language the way I did. You know, when I was in the service and had to walk guard or something like that all by myself, I used to talk to myself in my language. I was glad I did that, because a lot of people have told me that they forget their language when they aren't be able to speak it. But I used to talk to myself -- I'd be way out there on guard duty, and I'd talk to myself and repeat my numbers and colors and all that stuff. I kept it in my mind, and always did. And of course, I help all the young people here when they get involved and they want to learn a little more. I explain to them whatever they want to talk about. It's always important to be able to help someone with their language. I like to do that.

NEA: What were some of the important lessons lessons you learned from your elders?

Horace Axtell: One of my grand aunts was what we call a medicine woman -- I learned a lot of things from her. One of the most important things she taught me was how to tie knots with rope. When I got into the service, I was put in the engineers, and one day they pulled out a bunch of ropes and started having a knot-tying class. I watched the instructor tie the knots, and by the time he got done with his, I got done with mine. Finally, he came over and he looks at me and he says, "Where did you learn to do all these?" I said, "From my grand aunt. She taught me these knots. She never did learn to speak English so I don't know what the names of the knots mean, she just told what they were for." That's all I knew. But not long after that I was teaching knot-tying class. So that was a great encouragement for me to know something like that because we used a lot of knots in our engineering. We built floating bridges, and we used a lot of rope on all kinds of things.

NEA: Tell me a little bit about the spiritual experience of singing and playing the drums.

Horace Axtell: One person will start a song that he wants to sing, and we join in. That's the way our songs go out. And we sing them loudly. We stand straight up and sing to the Creator, and we don't ad lib or anything. Everything is according to the way they were taught to us, and we don't make any alterations or anything like that. We learn these songs with the heart and the mind. We don't have recordings.

We sing certain songs for our food. Certain songs we sing for water, for the sunrise. Things like that are important as the day goes by. There's a song for the moon, and the sun, and the wind and the rain. We've got a connection to the way the water runs down their creek, and all the different sounds that nature makes. It's just something that's there, and it's all around us all the time. All of our way of life is connected to nature. A lot of people want to call it our religion, but we call it our way of life. I know they use that word religion a lot, but I don't agree with it, but then that's what they describe us by. It's our way of life. It's something that we practice every day, not just on Sunday.

When we sing it's a strong feeling that connects ourselves with the Creator, and connects ourselves with the spirits of our people who have, in their own way, made this way possible with their thoughts and their spirituality. They left this way of life behind for us. We were taught it the way they were taught and we will leave it the way they gave it to us. It's always important that we follow the traditions that they left behind for us, and do it proper. We don't change anything. We don't try to make any improvements. We do it the way they taught us. And the songs are all very, very important songs. And as we sing these songs, we're teaching the younger ones how to sing them. That's the only way we can teach them. Some of them are getting very good.

NEA: I understand you are apprenticing your nephew, and also you teach others the traditional ways. What are the challenges in trying to pass along the traditions, the stories, the songs and the language?

Horace Axtell: It's pretty hard, because in a modern society there are a lot of things for our children to get occupied with, like TV and all these games, and many, many other things. And so you have to kind of speak up to them and make them understand that we have to also have a way of doing it.

We don't go out and try to recruit people. That's not our way. We've got several kids enjoying our way of life. And they're getting to learn a lot. The first thing when our young people start coming to our services on Sunday, we welcome them. There's a lot of things that a young person can do with our spirituality. We just do what we have to do, and do it in our Long House. That's where we gather and we eat our meals together, and we eat our traditional foods, and bless them, and that's the way we live. It's an everyday occasion -- we follow the rules, and that's our project. We try to keep our young people, and they enjoy it, they're very responsive to it. It doesn't take long till they fit right in.