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Shoshoni Texts

Occasional Papers and Monographs in Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics, Volume No. 2Shoshoni Texts book cover

by Beverly Crum and Jon Dayley (1997)
ISBN:  0-9639749-2-0
286 pp.

COST:  $29.95

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This monograph is intended as a companion volume to our earlier work, Western Shoshoni Grammar. It contains eight Shoshoni texts which were first given in oral form by eight different elderly native Shoshoni speakers and then later transcribed from tape-recordings and translated by the authors of the monograph. Seven of the texts are in Western Shoshoni spoken in and around the Duck Valley Reservation straddling the Idaho-Nevada border, and one is in Northern Shoshoni spoken in Eastern Idaho. The texts comprise a variety of genres and topics. One is a narrative on Shoshoni rites of passage; another on medicine, healing practices and healers; three others are prayers; two are folktales, and one is on place names. In addition, several of the texts contain prayer songs. At first glance, it might appear that the texts have little in common with each other except that they are all in Shoshoni. However, all of the texts have to do with Shoshoni spirituality and sacred outlook to one degree or another either directly or indirectly. For the Shoshoni, in some sense everything is sacred: the changes through life, medicine, healing practices and healers, prayers, songs and folktales, and this earth on which we all live, whatever particular place it may be. Songs and mythological stories in particular are regarded as very precious as they are passed down to the next generation of Shoshonis.

In terms of format, each of the texts is presented first entirely in Shoshoni, then followed by an idiomatic English translation, which is then followed by an interlinear word-by-word translation with English equivalents below each of the Shoshoni words.

The first chapter contains the text Nemikkante Newen Nahanna ‘ Shoshoni Rites of Passage’. Rites of passage are rituals that help people make the transition from one major phase of life to the next. These phases take place in the life cycle of nearly all human beings at birth, puberty , marriage, and death. Rights of passage rituals are performed in cultures throughout the world because these events involve other people, not just the individual undergoing the transition. A baby is born, matures into an adult, marries, and finally dies. However, he or she does so not alone but always with the involvement of other people.

The second chapter is a narrative by Earl Crum, Beverly Crum’s husband, entitled Newe Nattahsu’u(n) ‘Shoshoni medicine’. It is about traditional medicine, healing practices and healers called puhakante(n), which literally means ‘one having power’ or puha. The word puhakante(n) can be variously translated in English as ‘healer, medicine person, doctor, shaman’. As Earl mentions in the text, a puhakante(n) can be either a man or a woman. Several songs are included in the narrative, some of which Earl remembered from healing ceremonies held at his aunt’s place when he was a boy on the Duck Valley Reservation. Part of the text on Shoshoni medicine is about Earl’ s late brother, Ray. In the narrative, Earl gives the reader a sense of his family’ s struggle to help Ray before he died of tuberculosis in the 1930s at the age of 21. At that time, highly contagious tuberculosis was a serious health problem for many Indian people.

In the third chapter, Tan Newe Nanisuntehaippeh ‘Shoshoni Prayers’, three women each offer a prayer. Like people of other cultures, Shoshonis also have a need to call for help beseeching powers beyond themselves, especially in times of stress. It should be mentioned that in the past Shoshonis did not have secret religious societies where sacred prayers were only intended for a limited number of people. Religious expressions and practices were open to the entire group; in other words, they were sacred but not secret. This same spirit of openness still prevails today.

In the winter time, Shoshoni people told folktales or mythological stories. Gifted storytellers related their stories to entertain and help educate the people. The entire family would gather around together to listen to stories like the two presented in chapters four and five: Itsappe Pem Paitem Ma’ai ‘Coyote and His Daughter’ and Tatapai Paikkappeh ‘The One Who Killed the Sun’.

Folktales in the mythological era are in some ways quite different from stories in a literary tradition like that of Europe. This is not because animals and other things have human characteristics. The European tradition has animal tales too, for example, Aesop’s fables as well as other folktales. But there are other reasons.

The most important functions of folktales are entertainment and education. For thousands of years for the vast majority of human existence, there were no TVs, radios, movies, videos, or even written literature.2 Most of humankind’s (not just the Shoshoni’s) home entertainment in the past, and still in many areas of the world, has come through countless tales, not unlike Itsappe Pem Paitem Ma’ai and Tatapai Paikkappeh.

The final chapter in this book is a list and discussion of some 60 Western Shoshoni place names, Newen Tepian Nanihanna, provided by Earl Dean Barney, an elderly member of the Duck Valley tribe, along with comments and questions by Earl and Beverly Crum. Mr. Barney begins his narration starting from Elko, Nevada, and moves northward, giving place names of various springs, canyons, hills and mountains in and around the Duck Valley Reservation. Be also provides place names for parts of Idaho north of the reservation.

Taken together, the texts presented in this book, with narratives on rites of passage, healing practices, and places, along with songs, prayers, and folktales can provide a great deal of insight into Shoshoni worldview and culture. This worldview comprises the values, customs and beliefs that constitute the very heart and soul of the Shoshoni people. It is our hope that having these things recorded in written form will be a valuable legacy for the Shoshoni people themselves.

Finally, the glossary at the end of the book contains several thousand Shoshoni words, including all of the words in the texts presented here, all of the words in Western Shoshoni Grammar, as well as many more that we have encountered in the last several years. The words are given with their English translations, their parts of speech, any variant pronunciations, and usually with their important grammatical or paradigmatic forms.