Nez Perce girls, late 1800s

Espowyes awoke to her grandmother’s gentle shaking. The sunlight was barely showing from behind the mountains, which surrounded the her village next to the river. As she pulled on a clean deerskin dress, moccasins, and her necklace of quills and shells, she looked forward to learning more from her grandmother.

Espowyes is a girl in a pre-European contact Nez Perce tribe. Living in the mid-1700s, just before contact, Espowyes would have known horses without ever knowing of the Spanish explorers who brought them to America in the 1500s. Before horses, her tribe relied on dogs pulling sleds and dugout canoes to travel.

She would live a life similar to other girls around the world. Though she didn’t attend a formal school, her days consisted of learning from her mother and grandmother. She was taught all aspects of caring for her home (cooking and cleaning), how to make clothes and tools, and how to collect berries, fruit, and seeds to accompany the meats her father and brothers hunted. She would also learn stories, music, and how to make beautiful coiled basketry, paintings, and quillwork. She played with dolls and pinecones.

Her village traveled with the seasons, so her tasks varied. In the spring, she would help prepare the fishing equipment needed to collect salmon. In the summer, she would learn how to prepare hides and game meats. In the fall, she would learn how to preserve food and repair the winter homes that her village would soon use. And in the winter, she would learn the tribe’s history through its stories, music, and art as she waited for the dark, cold, snowy days to end.

When Espowyes reached puberty, she would go through a tribal ritual. She would spend a week in the menstrual hut, isolated from her villages. She was only allowed to scratch herself with a stick and had to keep herself busy. She would likely spend time hoping to be contacted by an animal (the Nez Perce believed that animals could chose to speak to them and become guides), as well as working on tools, clothes, and crafts. By this time, her family had probably arranged a marriage for her, and she would soon wed her chosen groom and begin a family of her own.

-Tiffany Piotti
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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