Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

2. Archie Phinney, "The Maiden and the Salmon"

Over the course of the twentieth century, people in the Pacific Northwest looked increasingly to Native American traditions for lessons about the environment. In part this was because modern people perceived pre-contact Indian societies as having lived relatively harmoniously with nature, and they wished to emulate the early Indians' "environmentalist" perspectives. While perceptions of Indians as the first ecologists are to some extent flawed, historians and anthropologists have found that natives’ treatment of resources did reflect ideas and practices that contributed, even if unknowingly, to what might be called conservationist attitudes. In his study of aboriginal use of salmon in the Oregon Country, for instance, Joseph E. Taylor III estimates that the annual native harvest of salmon along the Columbia River averaged around forty-two million pounds—a substantial figure that approximated for some years what the industrialized fishery produced for white society. Yet unlike the later industrial fishery, the native fishery never declined. Taylor postulates that Indians’ dependence on salmon produced a respect and reverence for the resource that resulted in moderation in harvesting. In other words, natives could have taken even more salmon, but their culture—more specifically, their religion and stories—advised them not to. As an example of a tale that instructed Indians how to treat salmon correctly, Taylor cites the Nez Percé story of “The Maiden and Salmon.” He writes: “Immortality, restoring salmon to the waters, upstream migration, respect repaid, offense punished, naturalistic similes, and transmogrification: ‘The Maiden and the Salmon’ epitomizes Oregon country Indians’ cultural construction of salmon” (Taylor 1999:31).

“The Maiden and Salmon” was recorded by Archie Phinney, an ethnographer who received his training from the renowned Franz Boas at Columbia University. A Nez Percé himself, Phinney earned “the first Plateau Indian doctoral degree in anthropology” (Hunn 1990:17). He also later worked for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs as superintendent of the Northern Idaho agency during the 1940s. In order to compile his Nez Percé Texts (1934), Phinney collected tales from his mother, who spoke to him in the fall and winter of 1929-1930 on the Fort Lapwai reservation. She told Phinney the tales in her native tongue, and he translated them into English. Phinney claimed that her stories were relatively uncorrupted by the changes occurring to the Nez Percé people; they represented, in his words, “the core of an ancient body of myths which have remained practically intact.” In other words, Phinney believed he was capturing stories that seemed on the verge of extinction. He wrote that the larger trend among his tribe between 1880 and the early 1930s had been the transformation of pre-contact stories by influences of the modern world. “Tales tend no longer to be faithfully reproduced in the forms of the old language but to be revitalized by the personal speech flourishes and interpretations of narrators who are striving, on one basis or another, for new aims for their narratives. This is particularly obvious among English speaking natives. The recorder himself has, upon occasion, written tales out of a fairly accurate memory and found that new speech forms employed, forms no less facile than the old ones, and new standards of dramatization felt, invariably altered the character of the tales” (Phinney 1934:vii-viii). It seems likely that even an ethnographer seeking to preserve ancient stories might have brought to those stories another set of “new aims” that was capable of altering them.

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