Ilt-swi-tsichs?  Yes, this is the name given to a great monster that roamed the very heartland of Nez Perce Indian country, before they became Nez Perce Indians.  According to their creation legend, before people, there was a great monster with a mega appetite, that roamed the landscape of west – central Idaho and eastern Oregon. It had a voracious appetite and devoured every animal it could find.  Desperately,  the few remaining animals  called upon their hero “Coyote – the Trickster,” to work some kind of magic trick on the monster to save them.  So coyote hatched a plan and worked it cunningly.

He tied himself down with wild grape vines, then taunted the giant Ilt-swi-tsichs to suck him into his cavernous body. The monster huffed and puffed, and finally sucked coyote into his giant stomach. All the other animals were there to greet coyote after his ride down the slippery esophagus and passage into the big digestive room. But coyote was smart, he had a knife tied to his shin, so he took it out and stabbed the monster with it, from the inside. Then he cut a passage way out and freed all the animals. What to do next? Fox suggested: “why not make people out of all the monster’s body part?” So coyote did. He cut off the head and made the Flathead Tribe. The feet became the Blackfoot Tribe, and all the various body parts became separate Indian tribes. Lastly, when coyote held up the heart, trying to figure out what tribe to make next, a drop of blood dripped to the ground. Up sprang another people. People of the Heart, now called Nimiipuu or Nez Perce.

To this day, in the Kamiah Valley you can see a stone that is said to be the result of the Great Mystery, who turned the heart into a lasting form to remind the people of where they came from. Though this geologic wonder is along the Clearwater River, I found another place in Blue Canyon that has a similar rock form that may have served the same purpose for the clans and bands of historic Nez Perce. For it was Chief Whitebird and Toolhoolhoolzote occupied that occupied the  heartland of the Salmon River Country. At least, it does for me, as I engage my thoughts when passing by this unique riverine landscape.

When I float over waters of the Salmon River, I feel like I too have been swallowed up by the Ilt-swi-tsichs.   Descending the river is like sliding into the giant monster’s stomach filled full of a vast wilderness. It exposes me to a timeless emptiness, yet full of the essence of everything. That  fullness carries all the powers of an infinite origin and expansion –  a bigness that highlights smallness. It is incomprehensible, yet utterly humbling in all its mystery. And I am thankful for that.

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