Along Clearwater River in North Central Idaho, the landscape comes alive with stories.
The arched rock formation is where Ant and Yellowjacket were turned to stone. Coyote’s fishnet is etched into the hillside. The Heart of the Monster rests along the banks.
When Nez Perce Language Program Coordinator Angel Sobotta takes her middle school students to these landmarks, she isn’t simply showing them geographic marvels. She’s sharing stories that bring new life to her culture and language.
Angel has dedicated her career to teaching the Nimiipuu (nee-MEE-poo) language at Lapwai School District in Lapwai, Idaho. The Nimiipuu—also known as the Nez Perce people—are deeply rooted in the landscape they have called home for millennia.
Rich in knowledge and moral values, the oral retellings of their stories preserve the language and traditions of the tribe.
“The language ties directly to the land, and so we form that connection to that land and language within the story,” Angel says.
By sharing stories in the Nimiipuu language, students and teachers are reclaiming their cultural identity for future generations.
Connecting to Her Language
Growing up in Lapwai, Angel knew only a few Nimiipuu words spoken by her family and friends. It wasn’t until third grade she felt connected to her language, when she received some Nimiipuu classes.
“I was so fascinated with those colors, numbers, animals at that age,” Angel says. “I was good at it, and it made me feel smart. It built my self-esteem to know I was excelling in my own language. Once you put meaning behind what you’re learning, it means so much more.”
Although this was the only formal Nimiipuu language learning Angel received during her time at Lapwai School District, it stuck with her.
After she graduated from high school, Angel attended Washington State University in Pullman and then transferred to University of Washington in Seattle. After college, she worked in the city at Indian Heritage High School teaching a culture class.
“I really started getting invested in my culture and the history and the stories and language,” Angel says. “Everything became more appealing to me as I matured.”
She created a Nimiipuu club while living in Seattle to learn and share the language and culture. But for Angel to truly revive her language, she needed to return to where her culture was alive all around her—from traditions to the landmarks that shaped her ancestors.
“Everything was gray and so hard all around me,” Angel says. “I wanted to get back and study my language, be with my grandmothers before they passed away. I wanted to get an Appaloosa horse and marry a Nez Perce man.”
A Calling to Return Home
After 10 years away from home, Angel returned in 1997 and began her journey of learning and teaching the Nimiipuu language. She took a part-time position with the Nimiipuu Tribe Cultural Resource Program to create a language curriculum and took Nimiipuu language classes at Lewis-Clark State College.
Angel and co-workers Harold Crook and Ann McCormick had guidance from the Nez Perce Dictionary and the college’s language classes, but they still needed to learn how the language was traditionally spoken and the meaning behind the words and phrases they were learning.
“We have 300-plus of our own stories,” Angel says. “They were documented and written in the language in the 1960s. We have oral recordings to study the old language and put them into the curriculum. I asked myself, ‘How can I build the curriculum, and what are we going to do when our elders are gone?’”
The team sought the help of six tribal elders who spoke Nimiipuu to create a language program for Lapwai School District.
“It was said at the time that we had 80-plus speakers,” Angel says. “It always felt like only a handful of speakers.”
Angel says there is meaning within every story, and it can be lost when translated into English. The elders helped the teachers read between the lines and better understand the stories.
“People think you can just grab a dictionary, yet you need to know what those sounds represent,” says Thomas Gregory, Nimiipuu language team leader. “That’s where we have to learn as much as we can. It’s a challenging race against time. Our elders aren’t going to be with us forever.”
Reviving the Language
Through guidance from the elders—along with the written and oral recordings of the tribe’s stories—the Nimiipuu Language Program was created.
“None of us are fluent,” Angel says of the language teachers. “The more appropriate word to use is proficient.”
In fall 1997, the language curriculum was launched at Lapwai Elementary School. Today, it is taught by six teachers throughout the district and in Kamiah.
Students start learning Nimiipuu words in preschool. Language classes become part of the weekly curriculum in grades 6-12.
Storytelling is at the core of Angel’s language instruction. With pictures and oral repetition, she tells one story a week in the classroom, reconnecting students to their language and the land that has shaped the generations before them.
“I am trying to teach them the place,” she says. “I want them to know origins of the sweathouse. It’s the remembering place. When you know the name, it becomes so much more powerful.”
Setting the Stage
Angel received her master’s from the College of Education at University of Idaho, in 2013, focusing on learning language through stories. As her final project, she created a play of the Heart
of the Monster creation story.
“Angel has a way of teaching the language and telling the stories that helps draw the students in,” says LoriLynn Parrish, Lapwai School District homeschool liaison and mother of students Skylin and Sonny. “She can be very animated when telling the stories, which helps students and myself remember more of the story.”
Angel is continuing her studies by earning her doctorate from University
“I am investigating the indigenous knowledge within the stories and language to build back our relationship to these places and story sites,” she says.
Through their continuous work with the elders, Angel and her team gains a deeper understanding of many words and stories in their language.
“Our staff and elders are researching and looking at pieces of the language,” Angel says. “That is where some of the indigenous knowledge jumps out.”
The Language and the Land
In 2021, Angel started taking middle school students on field trips to sites throughout the Nimiipuu land. Students study the stories and images before the trips.
“There are a lot of things that come into effect that were passed down through generations that are really hard to show in a classroom,” says Indian Education Coordinator Iris Chimburas, who secured funding for two vans to transport students.
At Nimiipuu sites, students retell the stories they have learned and play games in the language associated with the place.
“That’s one of the richest things the language program is doing for the kids right now,” Angel says. “The kids now know what to call the place. They know the story and how to locate it.”
After teaching for 24 years and dealing with the struggles of reviving her language, Angel says the field trips have reinvigorated her work.
A thank-you note from her niece, seventh grader Davi Jo Whitman, reads, “You understand us more than other people can.”
“Those things keep you going,” Angel says. “They feed the soul so that you can continue doing the soul work.”
Angel and the language program team have banded together to create something bigger than themselves that won’t be lost by the passing of time.
“We’re dropping those seeds and we’ll see what can blossom in the future,” Angel says.
Heart of the Monster: The Nimiipuu Creation Story
Nestled along the banks of Clearwater River in Idaho, the Heart of the Monster rests. Now docile amongst the rolling hills, its significance lies in the creation story of the Nimiipuu, also known as the Nez Perce people.
Heart of the Monster is one of the sacred Nimiipuu story sites that can be visited along Highway 12 near Kamiah, Idaho. To view the full story, watch Angel Sabotta’s Heart of the Monster play on the Ruralite website, https://www.ruralite.com/heart-of-the-monster.
The Nez Perce Dictionary
Not many people can say their family helped save their language, but when 13-year-old Skylin Parrish opens her dictionary, her family’s history unfolds.
The Nez Perce Dictionary holds the written language of the North Central Idaho tribe. In 1960, UC Berkeley Linguistics PhD student Haruo Aoki visited the Nimiipuu Tribe, also known as the Nez Perce Tribe, to document its oral language.
Nimiipuu elders who were fluent and proficient in the language assisted Haruo.
For Skylin and her 11-year-old brother, Sonny, their great-great-grandparents Wallace and Ida Wheeler are memorialized in the dictionary for contributing to its creation.
The 12-year project included writings and recordings of the tribe’s language and stories compiled into a linguistic document.
“It was written in the language and written in English and then recorded,” says Nimiipuu Language Program Coordinator Angel Sobotta.
In 1994, the Nez Perce Dictionary was published. The dictionary and oral recordings preserved the language and supported development of the Nimiipuu Language Program at Lapwai School District.
Nimiipuu is traditionally a spoken language rich with storytelling passed down from generation to generation. With the rise of Westernized culture and education, the language started to disappear.
“Some of my ancestors couldn’t speak the language and had to learn English,” Skylin says.
That was the case for her great-great-grandfather. In first grade, Wallace was no longer allowed to publicly speak his language. He began learning English at a nearby school.
The seemingly small deviation in his education had drastic effects on his family. Future generations no longer reached fluency.
“His children weren’t taught, and my mom learned a little bit,” says LoriLynn Parrish, Skylin’s mother. “When I was young, I learned a little in Head Start and then not until
This is the first time in five generations LoriLynn’s family has been allowed to learn and speak Nimiipuu throughout their public school education.
During his final years, Wallace lived with Skylin and Sonny. He introduced them to the language, reigniting a generation of his family speaking the language at home.
“I think that for me, and maybe for all tribal people, the language is healing,” LoriLynn says.
She notes how special it was for her children to spend time with Wallace—one of the last remaining fluent Nimiipuu speakers.
“I hope that they will become fluent and, because of the language programs, that we will hopefully never lose our language, but be able to take it back,” LoriLynn says.
Skylin is proud of her ability to have a conversation in Nimiipuu.
“I speak it with some of my friends at school,” she says. “I want to keep doing it until I am fluent with it.”