Lifestyles of the First and Only

The Cultural Difference

Idaho's first people have lived successfully within their regions because their ancestors had brought a very important ingredient from Asia which helped them survive.  That ingredient was CULTURE.

In the science of Anthropology CULTURE is defined as the learned lifestyle people pass from one generation to the next.  Culture includes knowledge, beliefs, arts & crafts, morals, laws, customs, behavior and any other habits held by a group of people.  Culture made possible the knowledge of how to: care for children, build a warm shelter, make appropriate clothing, hunt successfully and how each person was to behave.  The fact that CULTURAL traits are learned ensured the passing of a peoples' knowledge and beliefs from one generation to the next.

In Idaho, there were, as there are now, various tribes of people, each living within different regions which supplied different amounts and varieties of natural resources.  For the tribes, CULTURE is the one ingredient that allows each tribe to make special use of the resources within their regions and then pass that knowledge on to their children's children.  This mix of Culture, resources and people eventually made for different life-styles among various tribes.

Harvesting the diverse resources, provided by nature, the peoples of Idaho altered natural materials into the necessities of life.  Each tribe inhabited distinctive regions, called Culture areas, which supplied them with a unique variety of raw materials the people invented the basic necessities.  The most important basic necessity of course was food, but after food came shelter and clothing to keep bodies warm.

Living Well Requires Resources

Living in the Plateau Culture area, which supplied their needs with a minimum of nomadic traveling, the Schitsu'umsh used forest trees to construct double lean-to-long houses which were covered with woven mats.  The Schitsu'umsh also constructed and used conical lodges generically called tipi.  Several families, sometimes more than ten, would live in the long houses together and would frequently be extended families compromised of aunts, uncles grandparents, cousins, and parents.

Shoshoni Womans Dress. Courtesy of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello Idaho

The forest supplied not only trees for lodging, but animals such as deer & elk for clothing.  Both men and women wore buckskin tunics with long loose sleeves.  The sleeves on the men's tunics reached to their knees, while the sleeves and hems on the women's tunics gracefully descended to their ankles.  In the winter months extra hides from large animals such as bison would be worn to provide warmth.

Also living within the Plateau Culture area were the Nimi'ipuu (Nez Perce).  They had similar resources and also built double lean-to long houses which were covered with woven plant fiber mats.  Some of the largest could measure 100 feet in length and were used for ceremonial affairs.  The Nimi'ipuu erected conical tents (tipi) as temporary shelters when traveling.

Periodically the travel involved trips out onto the Great Plains to hunt bison.  These bison hunting trips brought the Nimi'ipuu into contact with Plains tribes.  Intertribal contact meant exchanging trade items and fashion trends.  Consequently, the clothing worn by the Nimi'ipuu had a strong similarity to clothing from the Plains which was made with Buckskin of deer and elk hides with long fringed sleeves.  The style of the Nimi'ipuu and Plains clothing shared several fashion trends; such as being heavily decorated with beadwork strips and designs; using furs, which were worn in the braids of the women; knee length moccasins; and the use of the saddle as fashion decoration, especially for women.

Northern Paiute womans Sagebrush bark Dress. Courtesy of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello Idaho

Lifestyles and the Trends of Fashion

Making Much Out of Little 

In stark contrast to the Nimi'ipuu and Schitsu'umsh, the Nemme sosoni'ihnee'e (Shoshoni/Bannock) were a nomadic people living in the Great Basin Culture area, a land of scarcity.  Building and living in a permanent shelter for the warm summer months was a waste of precious energy for the Nemme sosoni'ihnee'e, who would soon have to vacate and travel elsewhere to harvest food.  Shelters by necessity were temporary and shaped like conical tipis, but were thatched with bundled grass, bark or tule mats.  Winter shelters, however, were sturdy and constructed so that the family would be protected from blowing snow and cold.

Hunting large animals could be difficult before the horse was acquired and the hides of large animals were rare and needed for winter clothing; consequently, hides were rarely used to cover shelter.  Where possible, caves, especially lava caves on the Snake River plain, made the absolute best shelter because they could be fortified, warmed by fire and provided dry refuge from stormy weather.

Large animal hides, even for clothing, were not often available for the Nemme sosoni'ihnee'e family.  Other materials, such as plant fibers, were plentiful and more available in the region.  The Great Basin and Snake River plain is a country of extreme variable temperatures, either freezing or frying.  The Nemme sosoni'ihnee'e had to have clothing which could respond to the seasonal climate changes, and plant fiber clothes for summer wear were most cool and comfortable, whereas heavy, sweltering hides were not.

One of the most plentiful plants was the sagebrush.  Sagebrush bark was stripped and woven into light, cool summer apparel.  Items of clothing included sagebrush bark woven into breechcloths for the men, shirts, aprons for the women, leggings and foot wear like moccasins.

Rabbit skin Robe/Blanket. Courtesy of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello Idaho
Close up showing stitching. Courtesy of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello Idaho

Winter clothing was frequently made from rabbit hides.  Rabbit drives were conducted each year as a hunting technique which provided a meat surplus and hides for clothing.  A rabbit would be skinned so that the hide made on long thin continous strip, while leaving one eye hole intact.  Then separate rabbit hides were connected by linking the leg of one rabbit through the eye hole of another until a very long strip of hides was made.  This hide strip was then tightly twisted.  This twisted strip of hide was then looped back and forth and sewn across the loops and fashioned into winter leggings, blankets, cloaks, shirts, dresses and other warm winter clothing.

After the 1700's the Nemme sosoni'ihnee'e acquired the horse and pushed out onto the Plains where bison could be hunted and a surplus of large animal hides taken for shelter and clothing.  Bison hides soon covered their conical tipis, replacing the bundled grass and tule mats.  Like the Nimi'ipuu, the Nemme sosoni'ihnee'e acquired new fashion trends from the Plains tribes.  Their clothing soon reflected the "Plains Look" with buckskin dresses, shirts, leggings and moccasins.  Quillwork and beadwork decorated the clothing with many colors sewn into beautiful floral and geometric designs.

Shaping the Future: Growing Up Within One's Culture

Of course, the adults had the immediate responsibility for providing food, shelter, clothing, weapons and tools for their families.  But what about the children?  Were the children simply consuming these things, or did they also have some responsibility for their production?

Northern Paiute Cradleboard. Courtesy of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello Idaho

Differences and variations existed among Idaho's people, but in general within a couple of hours after birth a newborn would be carefully wrapped in soft hides and laced into a cradle board or small receiving cradle which was a combined portable crib, highchair and playpen.  The cradle board kept the infant warm, protected and supported.  Tucked safely in the cradle board, the infant was always with her/his mother and naturally included in all family activities.

What the cradle board did for the mother was to keep her hands free to perform all of the work involved in caring for her family.  The mother could not just sit and hold the infant all day, she had work to accomplish.  While the mother was working, the baby nestled in the cradle board, was carried on her back.

But infants need lots of attention and the baby was frequently out of the cradle board for feeding and nursing, daily bathing, "diaper" changing and as well as being played with, talked to and cuddled.  As with all human infants, the baby developed on a normal schedule and could sit at 6 months, crawl at 8 months, stand at 11 months and would begin walking at about 12 months. In this respect the cradle board did not hinder normal growth.  Whenever the family group was traveling the baby usually rode in the cradle board, even after having learned to walk.  The child would eventually, by about age 2, be too big for a cradle board and often would be carried in a hide slung over the Mother's back  and, of course, was encouraged to walk with the family as they moved throughout their area.

Growing up means learning how to live

Miniture cradle and doll. Courtesy of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Pocatello Idaho

Growing up means learning how to fit into your family and where you belong in your CULTURE.  Growing up also means learning how to live and survive.  As a child grew she/he was given chores to do which helped the family survive, but the chores also taught the child responsibility.  Both young boys and girls helped their mothers gather firewood, fetch water and gather plants for food.  Eventually, as the girls and boys grew older, their responsibilities began to separate and they learned how to live as men and women within their cultures.

When the boys became about seven years old, they began to spend more time with their grandfathers, fathers and uncles.  From these men they learned how to stalk and track prey animals for the hunt and how to manufacture the weapons which would be appropriate for different hunting situations.  Learning how to make quality tools by knapping was also an important element of a boys education.

As horses began to be more common, after 1700 AD, the boys would guard the herds and learned to be expert riders and horse breeders.  They learned to care for the health of the horses by cleaning their hooves and making well-fitting bridles and saddles so that the horses did not get sores.

The men taught the boys how to observe the lands, expecting each boy to know the geography of the land so that they would never be lost or confused.  The boys needed to know the techniques of scouting.  For example, what the moccasin tracks of other tribes looked like, how old horse tracks would look, how to cover one's own trail, how to run for hours and sleep alone in the open at night at a cold camp.

The religious ceremonies of the tribe would also be taught to the boys as they learned the prayers, songs, and dances of their people.  Some boys would begin to learn the ways of the shaman.  These boys would learn which plants to gather and how to process them into medicines, which ceremonies and songs should be performed to cure different ailments and how to properly diagnose the ailments.

While the boys were learning the lessons of manhood the girls took up their lessons in womanhood.  With their mothers, grandmothers and aunts as teachers the girls learned which edible plants to harvest at the various seasons of the years and at what elevation.  Harvesting the plants was only part of the lesson.  The girls then needed to master the techniques which would turn the wild plants into useful foods.  This required understanding how many times to boil some plants and which plants are poisonous, how to grind or pulverize the plants, how to safely cache a surplus of food for winter, how to dry the berries and jerk the meat and how long to roast bulbs like camas.  Of course, the girls had to know the recipes by heart for stews, pemmican, soups, puddings and some medicines.

The women taught the girls how to gut and butcher the animals, how to tan and prepare the various hides, how to sew the hides into clothing and construct hides and wood into warm shelters.

Keeping a neat and orderly shelter (lodge) was also part of a girl's education because her skill at homemaking would help to attract a good husband.

Caring for younger children taught the girls good mothering traits, so that, when they became Mothers they would know how to raise strong and healthy children of their own.

Learning the different weaving techniques for manufacture of baskets was an important part of a girl's training for womanhood.  A girl needed to know how to weave cradleboards for babies, cooking baskets for foods, burden baskets for carrying loads and winnowing baskets for seeds and nuts.  Weaving clothing and hats was also taught to the girls so that their families could wear comfortable clothing in warm weather or when hides were scarce.  Naturally, the girls learned which plants were useful for weaving and how to process those plants to prepare them for weaving.

There was much to learn for both girls and boys.  How well they mastered these lessons would ensure the continuance of their culture and tribal life-style.

The Family Connection

Unlike children today, these children grew up surrounded by their families.  Now we all have families, but sometimes we do feel surrounded, but modern families usually include only a Mother, Father, Brothers & Sisters.  The children of the "People" grew up surrounded by extended families who often lived in the same long houses, as with the Schitsu'umsh and Nimi'ipuu, an traveled together, as with the Shoshoni & Bannock.  They lived with their aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, as well as parents, throughout their childhood.  Often aunts/uncles were not considered different from parents and were referred to as Mother and Father.  This meant that cousins were called Sister or Brother and treated the same.

Interestingly, children of the Nimi'ipuu & Schitsu'umsh were quite formal with their parents.  However, the relationship with their grandparents included joking, playing and teasing.  Children have always been quite special to their grandparents and among the "People" children often went to live permanently with their grandparents until they were older. During the years that the children lived with their grandparents they learned many of their first basic lessons about life.  Boys frequently experienced their first hunting, fishing and horse riding lessons from their grandfathers, with whom they probably shared a close affectionate relationship.  Grandmothers would be teaching the girls how to sew and to identify plants for gathering with a digging stick.

By Any Other Name

A child of the "People" was given a name sometime after girth and usually nicknames were common for children among most of Idaho's first people.  Among the Nimi'ipuu, children's names were from important family ancestors in order to positively influence a child's development.  The names were regarded by the Nimi'ipuu as family property.  Among the Nemme sosoni'ihnee'e, however an ancestor's name was never given because the names of the dead could never be spoken again.

As children grew their names might be changed at any time.  The name change might be as a result of some significant accomplishment or as a result of an outstanding personal characteristic.  The spirit visions experienced by children also could result in a name change if, for example, the tutelary spirit bestowed or instruct a child to declare a new name.  A tutelary spirit was usually an animal which appeared to a person in a dream and acted like a spiritual guide, messenger and protector throughout a person's life.