A tribal elder is more than just another aging person. To be called an elder is a sign of respect for someone who has had a lifetime of lessons, who is committed to preserving tradition through language, song and ritual, and who has the desire to pass it on to younger generations.
Horace Axtell, 84, is a Nez Perce elder who was born in Ferdinand, Idaho in 1924. His family had been baptized but still held the Nez Perce ways close. Axtell spent his youth absorbing traditional ways of the tribal elders, some of whom were survivors of the 1877 Big Hole (or Bear Paw) War when Chief Joseph led his people north. On their trail were cadres of soldiers, who under President Ulysses Grant's orders attempted to clear the Nez Perce homeland.
His father eventually left the family, and his grandmother, mother and an aunt raised him. At his birth he was named Isluumc, but also given an English name, as was custom.
"To show respect some people will call me Isluumc," he said. "That is an honor to be called by your Indian name. We had discipline in them days. Everything was taught and told to us in our language. When I grew up I spoke our language first. I'm real happy I was raised that way. Not to many left that speak it anymore—when I grew up everyone did."
He is a veteran of World War II, and was among one of the first expeditionary forces to witness the haunting devastation in Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. That same year his mother died and their family home burned down. Upon his return he moved to Lewiston. For 36 years he toiled at the Potlatch mill, retiring in 1986.
"That's how I got my home," he said from his home in Lewiston. "I earned this place."
He and his wife had eight children and 27 grandchildren who all live nearby on the reservation.
Axtell is now a spiritual leader of the Seven Drum religion, a traditional religion of the tribes of the plateau that requires practitioners to memorize songs and accompany them on handmade, hand-held drums. Until arthritis set in, Axtell constructed the drums in the old way, curing the hides and stretching them over wooden frames.
"To sing and play the drum, it's our spirituality," he said. "Most of our songs that we sing are prayers. We use the drum and the bell. It's kind of a director. It makes the song come out stronger. The songs are about life, everyday life, children, relatives, friends and special days. Each song has a special meaning. All handed down. Comes out of your heart. Not written down. We don't record our songs. That's not the way we learned them. We learned them from the heart."
In 1992, Axtell was the subject of a documentary, "Nee-mee-poo: The Power of Our Dance." He made national news again in 1997 when he blessed the newly recovered ancestral lands of the Nez Perce in Willowa County, Ore., where the battles of 1877 were held.
His memoir, "A Little Bit of Wisdom: Conversations With a Nez Perce Elder," co-written with Margo Aragon, was published in 1997. It was the first printed memoir of a Nez Perce elder in more than 50 years.
For nearly nine years, Axtell taught the traditional language of the Nez Perce at Lewis and Clark College in Lewiston.
"I was strict on pronunciation. Non-Indian doesn't have the right pronunciation. I worked with a guy at the college. It got to the point that I corrected him on pronunciation," he said, chuckling. "It didn't go over very well. Now they have a linguist. Not an Indian. It don't go over like when I was teaching it. I had 35 or 40 students all the time. I had a good class. We have some young people stepping up. I helped them. A few come and ask me question and how to spell words. I'm always happy to help them."
For his work in late 2008, Axtell was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship.
"I spent four days in Washington, D.C., for that," he said. "It was good, exciting. I met more people and the others who got the award when I did. We got acquainted."
His efforts have also been recognized with the Washington State Historical Society Peace and Friendship Award, an honorary doctorate from Lewis-Clark State College, and the President's Medallion from the University of Idaho.
A few years before his father's death, Axtell found him at long last.
"From him I learned about his family. His grandfather was a warrior, killed at the last battle of Bear Paw (in 1877). I didn't know these things."
Axtell still owns the land where he was born.
"I rent it out for a pastureland," he said. "That's what I like about it. We had horses there and I used to ride around it. I rode horses until about two years ago. But I had two knee replacements and a hip. But I go there and drive around sometimes. It's my home."