Part 18, Misnomers
A Tsoopnitpeloo Legend
As Told by Otis Halfmoon
Of the Nez Perce Tribe
There is some things that I do want to mention, though—about the names that Lewis and Clark put upon our people. When Lewis and Clark came on our people they named a lot of places. They named a lot of places, and a lot of it was wrong. In the history books they call us chu'-nish, or Chopunnish, or whatever you want to call it. I believe that's a corruption of the Nez Perce word, Tsoopnitpeloo. They could not pronounce Tsoopnitpeloo so they called us Chopunnish. Thus, by the same token, they refer to the Clearwater River as Koos-koos-ki-a. Now, they translate it as "Clear water." Now, the Nez Perce name for "clear water" is Kaix-kaix-Koose, which means "clean water." Now, the name, Kooskooskia—where did that come from?
Now, some of the interesting things that we try to piece together about some of those words—'cause those names still exist yet, even today. 'Cause we have Kooskia, Idaho. And, you read in the history books, Kooskooskia—then, with the upcoming Lewis and Clark bicentennial they're going to use those words even more. And it's my contention—to dissect the word Kooskooskia—now, they were tryin' to—hey could talk our language, but they were usin' sign language to talk with our people. And they were looking for the "big water." They were lookin' for the Columbia River. The Nez Perce people, the warriors, probably what they done is, they pointed down-area, sayin' "kooskooskee," which means "there's a small water." Kooskoos is "small." Koos is "water." Kee is "there." Thus they probably thought that was Kooskooskia, so they wrote that down.
So there's a lot of mis-names that Lewis and Clark—came through—when they came in our country—which still exist today.
And I know one of the things that they talked about is "Pierced Nose." But we never pierced our noses, as I mentioned at the very beginning. And there's an explanation for that as well, 'cause the Nez Perces were probably camped with some of the Wasco and Wanapam and Wyam people on the Columbia River. And the spoke the Sahaptan language of our people. And they were probably camped there, and they wore dentalium in their nose. But they weren't Nez Perce. And that's probably where they saw some of those, but we never pierced our noses. And that's why we don't say, today, Nez Pierce, as you hear a lot. We say, Nez Perce. And I know every so often I do correct people on that.
But there's a lot of mis-names about this. Whatever happened to Watkuese? She died not too soon after that. Again people wonder about the age she really was, and again there's great debate on that. Some call her a very old lady. Some thought she might be in her forties. They wasn't sure, but she's unwell. She was dyin'. It was even said one time—recently we discovered in some of the artifacts, or literature done by some of the Evans family and McWhorter family, is that Watkuese met Sacajawea. That Sacajawea and she visited with each other.