Northern Shoshone and Bannock
Traditional Culture
  Since Time Immemorial
Who's Who
All My Relations
Pipe Ceremony and Peacemaking
Great Circle
Intertribal Relations
"How the Indian Averted Famine"
Naming Ceremonies
Agaidika Perspective on Sacajawea
Horses, Trade, & Travel
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
  Sovereignty & Tribal Government
Arts & Artists
Annual Festival Dances
Recommended Websites

  Relationship with the U.S.
  Early Contact
Fur Trade
Naturalists in Shoshone Country
Missionaries and Emigrants
Making Treaties
Lemhi In Limbo
Lemhi Reservation and  Loss
Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

Meriwether Lewis's journal quote about the Shoshone pipe ceremony.
Sketch of bow, arrows, and quiver,
by LaVerne Harriet Fitzgerald. (Fitzgerald: 1933).

Lemhi Pass > Culture > Since Time Immemorial
Migrating swans under a late February moon.
Ken Furrow photograph.

Oral traditions include history, stories, and mythology, and each is different.

History is important to all peoples, and particular methods are developed by all oral cultures to engage the collective memory. Oral history is often told in a ceremonial way, with the history of the people being related through songs, told in a particular sequence, reflecting their historical relationships. The words of songs remain the same, even over centuries of change. By encoding history in songs, the Ne'we (Shoshone) people remember their history from generation to generation.

Stories are always tied to particular people, animals, events, and places. When Shoshone people pass a particular place, they might be reminded of stories of their family and tribe, of battles with enemies, or of any unusual event that stands out. These stories are about events that actually happened, but they are embellished and altered a little with each telling. In this way, they are different from ceremonial stories of history.

Myths are another expression of a culture's stories. Although myths are by definition fiction, they generally hold some core of fact important to the people. Myths help to convey the essence of a people and their values, if not the factual history.

The oral traditions of the Shoshone and Bannock peoples carry them back to "time immemorial." How long is that? Both tribes have lived in the Great Basin region for more than ten thousand years. The Bannocks moved into the Upper Snake and Salmon River country, from their homeland to the west, only after horses became part of their lives in the 18th century.

The antiquity of Shoshone-speakers in the area is much longer, perhaps four thousand years. The boundaries of their territory changed through time, depending on relationships with other tribes, available foods, and climatic conditions.

Oral History

What the Five Brothers-in-Law Learned

This story, related by Ralph Dixey in 1953, (interviewed by Ella E. Clark) may possibly have some connection with a tradition of the Northern Shoshonis that their ancestors came from the south:

"Long ago a man from the north country wanted to go somewhere to look for other kinds of people. He went south and found a tribe down there somewhere. He married a woman of that tribe. Some years later, he decided to return to the north. His young brothers-in-law, all five of them, wanted to go with him. So he let them. They had never seen deer or rabbits or buffalo. They had eaten almost nothing but fish, frogs, roots, seeds, and berries. They did not have bows and arrows, but their brother-in-law made bows and arrows for them and tried to teach the boys how to use them.

image "The men traveled north, up to this country. The man from the north country killed a rabbit and cooked it for his supper. His brothers-in-law were afraid of the rabbit and would not come near it. But while the man was eating it one of them, a little braver than the others, said to him, 'Will you give me a taste of it?' The man gave him a taste and the young brother-in-law liked it. "That is good!" he exclaimed. Then the second brother-in-law tasted it. 'That is good!' he said. So they all had a taste and all like it.

"The men traveled farther north. When the man from the north country saw a deer, he killed it for food for all of them. 'Skin this deer,' he said to the young brothers, 'and we will cook some of it for supper.' But the men were afraid to touch the deer. So their brother-in-law skinned it, cooked some of it, and ate. The young men stood around camp and watched him eating. They smelled the meat, and it smelled good to all of them.'Will you give me a little taste of it?' asked the boldest of the young men.

So the brother-in-law gave him a piece of deer meat. 'Oh, that tastes good!' he exclaimed. Then the second brother tasted it, and the third brother, and the fourth brother, and the fifth brother. 'That is good!' they each exclaimed. 'You can use the skin of the deer also,' explained the man from the north country. And he showed them how to make moccasins from the hide. The young brothers-in-law had never worn anything on their feet before.

Deer in the Snake River country
Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management
"Next morning they broke camp and traveled north again. Soon the man from the north country saw a herd of buffalo standing on top of a hill. 'See the buffalo up there?' he asked his brothers-in-law. "I don't see any buffalo," they answered. "I see only some cedars on top of that hill."
1894 image of Buffalo by Einsley.
From the Olin D. Wheeler Collection, AP3821 Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago
"'Those aren't cedars,' said their brother-in-law. 'Those are buffalo. Their meat is good to eat. You go around on the other side of the hill and make them run toward me. I will kill one.' So the young men went round the hill. When the buffalo started moving, the brothers-in-law were scared and ran. The man from the north country aimed carefully with his bow and arrow and shot a buffalo. But the other men would not help him skin it, for they were afraid to get near the animal. 'He looks dangerous,' they said. When the man had finished skinning the buffalo, he said to the brothers, 'Cut some pieces from it and roast them for your supper.' But again they would not touch the flesh until they were made hungry by the odor of roasting meat.

"'Will you give me a piece of it?' the braver brother asked again. And again he exclaimed, 'That tastes good!' Again the four brothers tasted the meat, and each said as before, 'That is very good.' 'We will cut up the rest of it and carry it with us,' the man from the north said next morning. 'We will carry the skin with us, too. It is good to sleep under when it is dry. From buffalo hides my people make robes and tipis also.' But the young men would not help him cut the meat. They were still afraid of the big animal.

"They left the camp and traveled farther north. In those days every tribe was an enemy of every other tribe. Soon the brothers-in-law ran into a band of Indians. 'Shoot them with your bows and arrows,' the man from the north called to his brothers-in-law. 'Those people are dangerous. They will kill us if we do not kill them.' But the young men would not use their bows and arrows. Instead, they plunged into the band and fought with their hands. They fought hand-to-hand battle and killed many warriors. So the enemy ran away.

The men traveled north again until they came to the brother-in-law's people. They gathered around the chief's place where the Indians were smoking pipes. The brothers-in-law from the south had never seen people smoking before. Their eyes smarted and tears ran down their cheeks. Finally, they stood up and left the lodge. Then their brother-in-law told his people about the young men. 'They do not know how to use bows and arrows,' he explained, 'but they can run faster than a rabbit. They fought the enemy with their bare hands. The enemy shot bows and arrows at them but could not kill them. It is good that they stay with us.'

"The five brothers-in-law stayed in the north country for many snows. By the time they wanted to return to their people in the south, they could shoot with bows and arrows; they could kill rabbits and deer and buffalo; they knew how to cook the flesh of the animals. They had learned how to tan deer hides and to make moccasins. How to make robes and tipis from the buffalo hides. They taught their people in the south all those things. Every year after that, the people traveled north to hunt deer and buffalo for their meat and for many other things that they needed" (Clark: 1966).

Reckoning Time
Click on the map, then click on individual images for information, or click on the highlighted figures below to view same details.
Image courtesy Idaho State University Library, Special Collections Department, Minnie Howard Papers, #MC001-23-03 Plate XIX.

One unusual petroglyph, according to John Rees, contains a certain element of time (Fig. 1). "The Indian in his daily life noticed that the sun traveled north in the summertime and south in the winter. When it returned to the same place from which it started from it represented a unit or a year of time and called by the Shoshonis "Tome", meaning "sky motion". During its journey from the certain point back to that same point the sun cast a shadow which traveled around a tree. In this figure the petroglyph represents "3 years of time".

Fig. 2 represents the "shaman". Early Canadians called every Indian who dealt in any way or manner in matters which were sacred, holy, mysterious or wonderful, a medicine man, because the French called a physician, "Medicine" The reason for this was that most Indians who were doctors like wise practiced all the cults and professions which would be represented in the performance of any of the above acts. So that the words "medicine" and "medicine-man" have come to mean almost anything. What is termed a doctor of medicine by the white man was called by the Shoshonis "nat-soo-gant", meaning one possessed of the knowledge of using healing and curative objects...

Then, there were persons who, through a swoon or delirious sickness, saw and met departed persons and friends whom they knew had been dead sometime. These were friendly spirits and through some of them thhe became endowed with the power of controlling earthly spirits by making them go or travel in certain ways. The power which this manner of person thus obtained was called "pe-ha-gant", meaning one possessed of the knowledge of celestial routes. Thinking that every object which surrounded them was endowed with a spirit, the Indians concluded that their own welfare was governed by these spirits and that they must gain their good-will by the performance of certain acts and ceremonies. When they observed the stone rolling down a hill or a leaf stirring in the breeze They did not attribute the movement to the natural law of gravity or the wind, but to the spirits within them. So, they feared to offend the spirit of the mountain, the woods, the lakes, the sun-father, earth-mother, or the four winds. The shaman had some knowledge of all three practices or "gant", meaning possessor of, but usually practiced most, the last or "po-ho-gant".

The symbol for "mystery" is the ascending spiral which is converted to a zig-zag motion when connected with a person or individual, as appears in Fig. 2, where it is directed toward the earth denoting an appeal to (or) supplication to mother-earth.

Fig. 3 represents a woman who has been scalped.

The combined elements of Figure 4 mean "killed with a club".

A person is making the sign for "innocent"in Fig. 5.

The petroglyph should then read something as follows: "three years ago a woman was killed with a club and scalped" and the shaman accused this man of that crime and invokes the powers of mother earth to make right this terrible deed, but the Indian is holding up both hands saying, "see, great spirit, there is no blood on my hands".

Background: Lemhi Pass, photo by Elaine Mason. Courtesy of Beaverhead County, Montana