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A Drink of Water to All Things
Horace Axtell & Margo Aragon
Horace Axtell, a spiritual leader of the Seven Drum religion and a Nez Perce elder, continues the oral tradition of his people. Margo Aragon, a writer and television producer, interviews Mr. Axtell and transcribes his words into essays that blend oral and written techniques. "A Drink of Water to All Things" is such an essay.
What we call water in Nez Perce, is kuus. Kuus. And then yewic kuus is cold water. That's the way Grandma used to wish, "'Eehax yewic kuus inakuus." I wish I had a cold drink of water. That's one thing, Nez Perce people have never had a water shortage. I think the important part of water, to the Indian people, is also a place to gain strength. Like the old stories go, our people used to become strong. The power of water was given—power to be strong. Powerful in the sense of, oh, I guess you might say, the vision quests. Every day, early in the morning, a lot of the old warriors used to jump in the cold water and swim. Even if it was icy. This gave them a lot of strength. I guess it was like medicine. It kept them from getting sick, cold. To withstand cold weather. I know a lot of old people who used to do that. They made me do that sometimes. It's a good feeling, though. It's like a recharge, you might say. You feel so refreshed. They used to do that before they ate their morning meal. That's how powerful water is. We all know how important water is to the everyday life of people.
How it is important to the animals, and the plants, and the birds. Justaboutanything that grows. We know that water is also important to clean our bodies and our faces. Also to prepare our food. This is what we Nez Perce people, a lot of us who believe in the old religion, do: drink water before we eat, to purify our bodies. And then after we eat we drink a little bit of water again to purify the food that we have consumed. This one song I sing a lot is like water you hear. Like the riffles in the water. It's one of the first songs I ever learned in Indian religion. 'Course, we sing our food song and that includes the water, too. All the things that we get from Mother Earth. So, therefore, water has a sacred quality to Indian people.
My grandmother used to go to a certain place where she hadn't been for, maybe, a year. We used to go camping in different areas. When we'd get to a certain place, the first thing, she'd send us down to the spring, or wherever, and get some water so she could drink it. I didn't realize what she was doing, but now I do. It's like a welcome. You feel at home when you drink water from that area. And I know she used to bring water home from different places.
My mother and grandmother used to catch rainwater to water their garden. Get a little dipper and spread water on it. A little bit each day Also, my mother used rainwater to wash her hair. They say it's very good for hair. So there, again, water comes down from the air, the clouds, and gives a drink of water to all things.
We use water, now, in the modern world, to irrigate fields and to make electricity. Water has been so strong to the importance of people's lives and it seems to me that, at the present time, water has been overused. We're starting to squabble over water. It's getting to the point where people seem to be using water for things to create and make money, which is not what water was put here for. We even have to buy our water now, here, in the cities. That's not the way our old people lived, the Nez Perce people. Water was important in another way. They never used water to make money or anything like that, because it was free. There was no charge to use water, no charge to drink water. It's a blessing to the Nez Perce people. I think most Indian tribes feel that water is very sacred. In a sense where it's a purification each time we drink water. It's a purification of our bodies. Keeps us clean inside. And people don't realize this, how important water is to drink. People nowadays, all of us do, drink water when we take medicine to make that medicine go down into our body Also, water is regarded like medicine. Because when people get sick, the first thing they give you is a drink of water.
Animals drink water to purify their bodies and eat their food or grass. Then they drink water again. It's a lifestyle for nature. Water is also important to the fish. We call them The Fish People. If it wasn't for water, we would never have any fish. In order to make our fish have an easy way to get up the creeks up here, we must keep our water clean. But nowadays, the water isn't quite like that and neither are the fish, without the proper water. Water holds the number one priority in all life. All people. Without water, nobody would live.
When I lived in the country, we didn't have running water. We had to go get our good water from the spring, almost a quarter mile away. We used to pack water to have drinking water. We had a well about a hundred yards away, but my mother wouldn't let us drink that water. We used to go down to the spring to get our drinking water. It was good cold water. I know we used to have canteens to fill our water, to carry our water to the house. We always seemed to have good clean water.
We're careful with the water we drink. I urge all people to make sure the water is good before they drink too much of it and get sick. It can, in certain times, cause death. As a veteran, I traveled quite a bit of the world. Some places the water was tested by our own personnel and it wasn't fit to drink. It had to be doctored, I guess you might say. They had to put pills in it. I know each time we got a canteen of water we had to put a little iodine pill in there. It didn't taste that great, but it was water. Scientists have done a lot with water. They make good ways to purify water to make it drinkable and useable. You see lots of news in the paper now, where people have to boil their water to drink. And this should be a warning to all people to make sure they test the water and keep it clean for all people. I keep making my children understand how important water is, and not to waste it. Sometimes kids will forget to turn the water off and leave it running. That's just wasting the water.
I used to hear the old people talking about the dams. 'Iweetum, "blocking off the water," is what they called dams. It's a little different than falls. Falls was 'itikem. So they said 'Iikemhanisiix, "They are making falls." We used to make little dams to make a little swimming pool for our sweat house or place to bathe. You block the water off and nothing can get by that. It's very hard for anything to go upstream then. So it's like shutting off the water. That's the way all the old people felt about the dams. And this is what happened, too. The fish got cut off and lot of things got cut off, just so there could be electricity and irrigation. I think, maybe, people are beginning to realize what they have done. It's just a thought that I have, myself, because I heard the old people talk that way.
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