The death of Elmer Crow, the Nez Perce elder who drowned July 26 while saving his grandson, is a tragedy and an enormous loss, not only to his family, but to the entire Nez Perce Tribe. Elmer had learned to make many traditional items the “old way” and was passing that knowledge on to youngsters. No other tribal member could match his knowledge. His death is a blow to the tribal community and generations to come.
I sat with Crow in his home in Sweetwater, Idaho earlier this year and listened as he described his life and how he learned to make the various nets, gaff hooks, bows, knives and other items, which were displayed in his home. With the permission of his family, the following paragraphs are written from that afternoon back in February and in memory of a remarkable man.
What is your tribal lineage?
I’m from the Ahskapo Band on my mother’s side that met Lewis and Clark. On my dad’s side I’m Cayuse. He came down from Five Crows, one of the signers of the 1855 Treaty.
When did you begin making these traditional items?
I was very fortunate. I was raised by my grandmother and my teachers, five of them, were in the Nez Perce War. I actually got to learn from the elders. I’ve been doing this a lot of years. I started at five or six years old. Grandpa Johnson, who was a warrior in the 1877 war, taught me how to make this one, this bow.
Will you explain how this bow is made?
You see these in the museum. This is Rocky Mountain sheep horn with eel skin. In a museum they’re usually broke. That’s because our great archaeologists who know everything, string them backwards. They’re very powerful. These are built for hunting buffalo off of horseback—short, quick shots. I think this is about 70-75 pounds pull.
These wooden bows—what are they made from?
This is a yew wood bow. That one is Osage orange. This one is syringa and has sinew backing for strength. It doesn’t make the bow stronger but sinew will stretch and the release of the arrow snaps that sucker right out there. That’s why you put sinew on the back.
This wooden bow is a bit different—what is the reason?
Nez Perces were well known for this one. It’s yew wood and a salmon backed bow. It works on the same order as sinew.
Do you still use these to hunt?
I have no problem doing that. In fact my wife’s first experience hunting with me was with a bow.
These two nets are very different. Would you explain what they are used for?
This is kind of special. It’s an eel net. We had eels this far up, thousands of them. You use it like a paddle, pulling it through the water. You fish for eels in the evening or early in the morning while it’s still dark. Eels travel at night. You don’t see these very often. It’s probably the first one that’s been built in 60 years. Uncle Jonas lived down here when I was small. Every time I went by I inspected it. Sixty years later I sat down and built it.
That dip net is about 12 or 13 years old. That’s a yew wood hoop. It took about two-and-a-half weeks to bend it where I wanted it. It’s got a hemp line for net and the black stuff is pitch for waterproof.
How is this one with the deer antler used?
It’s an old guy’s fishing tool. You walk along early in the morning or late in the evening at high water. The fish float up and down and you run that through their gills and pull real quick. The point is made of deer horn. This is the part that’s cool, the kids like this. The way it’s tied it turns sideways and there’s no way it’s going to pull free.
Our discussion continued – gaff poles made with the 2nd and 3rd tine of a whitetail deer antler, obsidian knives with antler handles, sturgeon skin to waterproof moccasins. Elmer’s knowledge of traditional items was impressive, the last to have that amount of knowledge and expertise within the tribe. He used that knowledge in presentations at schools and with other youth groups. He will be missed by family, friends, and certainly the youngsters he taught.