Throughout history, most civilizations have had a legend to explain the origins of life. Whether it’s Adam and Eve, the romantic dalliances of Zeus, or the sun god Inti rising from the depths of Lake Titicaca, humans seem to have an innate need to explain our presence on earth. And the Nez Perce are no different. Their creation legend is a bit more colorful than most, and occurred at a geological formation they called The Heart of the Monster.
We listened to an audio recording of the story while seated at the hill outside Kamiah, just off Highway 12. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but it goes something like this:
Noble and clever Coyote was distraught that all the creatures were being consumed by a great and terrible Monster, as big as a mountain. So, one day, he gave himself a thorough bath and dressed himself as to look appetizing to the Monster. He called out: “Hey, don’t I look yummy?! Why don’t you gobble me up?!” Which the Monster promptly did.
Coyote marched down the Monster’s cavernous throat and encountered Grizzly Bear along the way, who growled menacingly at him. Coyote hollered, “So you want to be aggressive to me, huh?”, and then kicked Grizzly Bear in the snout, which is why grizzlies have flat noses.
Duly chastened, Grizzly Bear marched along with Coyote down the throat of the Monster, and they encountered Rattlesnake, who hissed menacingly at them. Coyote hollered, “So you want to be aggressive to us, huh?”, and then he stomped Rattlesnake on his head, which is why rattlesnakes have flat heads.
Upon finding the Heart of the Monster, Coyote took out a set of knives and began cutting. The heart was so immense that the knives kept breaking. When the last knife broke, Coyote ripped the heart out with his bare hands. The Monster immediately died and the animals escaped out of all his holes … and I do mean all his holes. Unlucky Muskrat chose to flee out the anus, which closed at the last minute and trapped him by his tail. Coyote had to pull Muskrat out, and this is why Muskrats have flat tails.
Coyote now got to work carving up the Monster, and threw his various parts across the land. In each spot where a body part landed, a different tribe sprang up. The Blackfeet, the Coeur d’Alene, the Shoshone. But the Heart of the Monster was left where it lay, and here arose the Nez Perce.
Not a bad legend! But of course, I’ve always been partial to stories which involve a muskrat trapped in a giant’s butt.