Kamiah, and Camp Chopunnish Site
ust above the center of this photo, beyond the freshly plowed field, is the town of Kamiah (pronounced kam-ee-eye), Idaho. For many generations this was a winter home of the Nimi'ipuu people, where they manufactured cordage from fibers of the plant known today as Indian hemp. Its scientific name is Apocynum cannabinum (apo-sigh-num, "away dog"; can-uh-bin-um, "like hemp"). Both the name of the genus and the common name (dogbane, "deadly to dogs") reflect the fact that it is toxic to dogs and livestock; both animals typically avoid eating it. It contains cymarin, which can cause fatal cardiac arrhythmia in humans.
Rope Town on the Clearwater River
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The community, which had a post office in 1878, grew somewhat after 1895, when the Nez Perce Reservation was opened to white settlement.
Apocynum cannabinum (Dogbane)
About seven species of the genus Apocynum are found worldwide, but only two of them, A. cannabinum and A. androsaemifolium are native to North America. The latter, commonly known as spreading dogbane, was once used for birth control by the women of various tribes, but not among the Nez Perce.
The stems were harvested in October. After the thin outer bark was scraped off and discarded, the woody, hollow core of the stem was removed and also discarded, giving the place its name, kamiah, meaning "place of rope litter." The remaining pliable inner fibers were then rolled between the hands or against the bare thigh, then twisted and spliced together to produce strong, durable thread, string, and rope. The cordage was used to make fishing lines, nets, and bowstrings, or was woven into bags, moccasins, mats, bedding, straps, and the like.1
--Joseph Mussulman, 011/04; rev. 01/2011
1. See Primitive Ways, http://www.primitiveways.com/hemp_dogbane.html (accessed December 12, 2004)
Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee.