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Authors: Win Blevins

The Snake River

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The Snake River
Win Blevins

Because it tells and child,

this story is dedicated to my three children,

Pamela Jo, Adam, and Ethan.

The world is full of stories, and from time to time they permit themselves to be told.

—OLD CHEROKEE SAYING

Prologue: The River

It is a strange river, the Snake. It has been strange for aeons, back to the time when volcanoes gave birth to this land in unimaginable violence. The Snake is one of the children of that violence.

The river still flows from a country that will thrill you one moment and terrify you the next. And into a country that, besides thrilling you and terrifying you, will boil you, freeze you, and scour your skin off with sun and wind. It is no country for the timid.

Officially, the Snake begins in the high mountains just southeast of the border of Yellowstone National Park, some of this nation’s most remote wilderness. Unlike the Yellowstone River, which gets its start nearby and crosses the continent to the east, the Snake goes fiercely west. The river’s fountain-head—wonderful word,
fountainhead
—is a big spring. From there the river rampages toward the Pacific.

The beginning of the journey is idyllically alpine, along the southern edge of the park, then south through the grandeur of Jackson Hole. In these first hundred miles or so it parades through mountain meadows and forests of fir, spruce, and aspen, with the Tetons as a spectacular backdrop. If you hike and fish and float this part of the river with alert eyes or a good guide, you’ll see moose, elk, buffalo, and the bald eagle commonly enough, and on occasion the river otter or the grizzly bear. One kind of paradise.

Originally this stream was known as Lewis’s Fork (and today it’s sometimes called South Fork). Out of the mountains on the west side of Yellowstone Park flows its brother, Henry’s Fork. Another alpine stream, swift, cold, and dazzlingly clear. Another sojourn through mountain meadows and grasses and forests. A parallel paradise.

At the wedding of these two forks the Snake crashes into hell. The river roars over a great falls and charges forward through a high, dry, broken, lava-flow country, a country that gives unforgettable meaning to the term
malpais
, bad country to travel through. The lava is deeply fissured—sometimes you have to go forty miles out of your way, they say, to get around a crack. There’s little water. The lava rock soaks up the heat on summer days and radiates it back at you, helping the sun simmer your brain.

The animal life runs to grasshoppers and lizards. There’s so little game the Indians here used to eat the grasshoppers, broiled on sticks or mashed into cakes. Mountain man Joe Meek, run onto starvin’ times in this country, reported licking ants off his bare arms, and glad for the opportunity.

The river travels mostly in chasms, out of reach of man. It goes down stepping-stones, through the big waterfalls. It surges through Whitewater canyons. The first white men to try to navigate it were astonished by the river. “Its terrific appearance beggars all description,” wrote Wilson Price Hunt in 1811. “Hecate’s cauldron was never half so agitated when vomiting even the most diabiolical spells.”

What Hunt didn’t know was that the Snake River drains country that was and still is even wilder and crazier. The mountains of Yellowstone start the river. From the south the deserts of Idaho, Utah, and Nevada add their bitter comments. From the north come the turbulent waters of some of the continent’s great mountain fastnesses.

Names tell part of the story: the Bitterroot Mountains, Hell’s Half Acre, the River of No Return, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Hell’s Canyon. Nine million acres of tumbled, wild-hair-up-your-ass desert and mountain feed the Snake. They turn it so wild, men curse it.

The name Hunt and the other first white navigators gave the Snake was a curse—Maudite Riviere Enragée, Accursed, Enraged River. It’s so wild that modern men have trapped and tamed it with dams, partly for irrigation and partly for peace of mind. Nowadays you have to do your floating mostly on the far ends of the river, upper and lower. Dams clog the main artery.

After about a thousand miles of adolescent hell-raising, far downriver in the state of Washington, the Snake gives up its identity to the Columbia River, and turns west for a majestic processional to the sea. Just as well. Maturity and tranquillity would not become the Snake.

Before Wilson Price Hunt and his fellow fur traders came, human beings had lived along the Snake for centuries. They were, to modern sensibilities, a strange people.

Now we call them the Shoshones. They called themselves by names such as the Root-Eating People, Squirrel-Eating People, Salmon-Eating People, Pine Nut-Eating People, Seed-Eating People, Dust-Eating People, and Sheep-Eating People. The early trappers called them the Snakes. This name is said to be an error based on the sinuous movement for the name of the people in sign language. Some of their traditional enemies among the Plains Indians to the East also called them Snakes.

They lived in the huge vastnesses from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevada, from the heights of the mountains of Yellowstone to the depths of Death Valley. They lived in the mountains to the north and east of the Snake, where salmon ran the rivers and sheep grazed the high country. They lived in the Great Basin south and west of the Snake, where they foraged for roots, nuts, and seeds, and sometimes hunted small game.

They were different from the Indians white Americans are most familiar with, and in prehistoric times sharply different. They dwelled not in tipis but in brush huts, and sometimes in holes in the ground. They did not hunt the buffalo. They wore little (though it was taboo for women to wear nothing). Instead of riding horses and shooting arrows, they walked and prodded at the earth with sticks—two of the white-man names for them were Walkers and Diggers.

During this era before they had the horse, they had little in a material way. All their richnesses were spiritual, for they did know Duma Apa, Father Sun, and Duma Sogobia, Mother Earth, and Wolf and Coyote and Spider, Blackbird and Crying Cloud, and many other powers. They had not theology but mythology, ritual, and dream. Their awareness of Spirit came from old, old stories. They did not debate the nature of (God. They did not know much
about
God. But without such analysis, they knew Spirit. They knew Mystery.

They came to know by mythology, ritual, and dream. The old stories showed them Power afoot in the world. Ritual put them in harmony with that Power. And in waking dream or sleeping dream they were granted blessings of
puha
, guardian spirits, and were told ways to live as channels of
puha
, the power those spirits can give. This religion was not what they figured out but what they knew from experience.

Some of these people lived near the eastern edge of their vast territory, in the Rocky Mountains, and therefore near the Indians of the Plains. As time went on, these Shoshones integrated the ways of the Plains Indians into their own—they became horsemen, tipi dwellers, buffalo hunters—they mixed their original Great Basin culture with a Plains culture. These Shoshones are known to us as the Wind River Shoshones, Green River Shoshones, Fort Hall Shoshones, and by other white-man names.

This cultural adaptation was a great change for them, so great they even integrated the central religious ceremony of the Plains Indians, the sun dance, which they called the drystanding dance, into their own sense of Spirit.

Before long, as we are speaking of time, these eastern Shoshones encountered yet another culture, very alien to their own, and underwent changes far greater still.

The first whites the Shoshones encountered were fur traders, led to Henry’s Fork of the Snake River by Andrew Henry in 1810. The next year brought more fur traders, led by Wilson Price Hunt, and the next year still more. In 1818 the British sent a Hudson’s Bay Company fur brigade to the upper Snake River. In 1824 the Americans followed suit, and soon there were white men in the country every year.

The Shoshones welcomed them. They made friends with the whites. They traded them horses. They lent and traded them women. For a long time they could boast that no Shoshone had ever killed a white man. They absorbed what the whites had to offer—guns, metal knives, powder, lead, blankets, beads—and used these things to enhance their own way of life.

The white men liked the Shoshones. They were good Indians in a grand country rich with beaver. The whites trapped beaver in Shoshone country in spring and autumn, rendezvoused there in midsummer, and often spent winter with the tribes. They married Shoshone women. They learned the language and adopted the ways. They had Shoshone children.

Simply because of what they had in their heads, the whites made everything different. Quite by accident, the mountain men brought new ways of seeing the world to the Shoshones. Implicit in their guns and compasses lay applied science. In their knives and blankets, manufacturing. In their exploring, a kind of imperialism. In their minds in every way, a new worldview.

Great changes came on the outside as well. In the 1840s the white people turned the old trail along the Snake River into a great highway to Oregon, and then a highway to California. Whereas the mountain men admired the eastern Shoshones, the immigrants mostly despised them, as they despised all Indians. Small trading posts in Shoshone country grew into big enterprises serving the wagon trains, Fort Hall and Fort Boise on the Snake itself, Fort Bridger on Black’s Fork. Eventually there were troubles. Eventually soldiers came, and there were greater troubles, including massacres of Shoshone people. Eventually the Shoshones were confined to reservations, the largest being Fort Hall in Idaho and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, both still with us.

Then the railroad came, and brought with it surveyors and farmers and bartenders and sheriffs and preachers and real-estate agents and district attorneys and the whole kit and caboodle of the vitality that passed for civilization in the mid-and late-nineteenth century. The Shoshones had to find a way to live in the midst of all this alien progress. They managed. They still manage, with difficulty. Their old ways are making a comeback, and give them peace of spirit in the whirlwind of change.

Now the old road along the Snake River, part of the Oregon Trail, has become Interstate 84. You can drive from the headwaters of the Snake to its mouth at the Columbia in two easy days. You will not see the great falls. Most of the turbulent water has been turned into reservoirs. You won’t need to eat lizards, grasshoppers, or ants. You may pay no attention to the lava flows everywhere. Even on the hottest August day, thanks to air conditioning you may not even notice Duma Apa, Father Sun, as you cruise along. All that is both a gain and a loss.

The story that follows is of the kind that is invented but true. Invented in its particulars, true to the spirit of the times, the 1830s, and of the peoples, both red and white. They were strange people, from the modern perspective, and we must reach across a distance of mind to embrace them.

The story began with a fur trader who came among the eastern Shoshones with that Hudson’s Bay Company brigade in 1818, and planted his seed in a Shoshone woman’s belly.

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