Historical and Cultural Context

The Sanpoil is a tribe of Native Americans located in Washington state.  Their name derives from the Okanagan dialect, and means “gray as far as one can see”.  They, along with the Nespelem tribe, as well as other additional tribes, were members of the “Interior Salish” Native American tribes, who settled in many places such as Washington and British Columbia (Hilaire 173).  The Sanpoil tribe was one of several tribes in this group that would be moved to the Colville reservation in 1872 (173).  After being moved to the reservation, many of the tribes were converted to Roman Catholicism “in name,” suggesting that not all beliefs of the religion were adopted (174).  This explains Runnels’ Catholic affiliation. In 1905, the Sanpoil tribe had 324 people, which decreased to 202 in 1913.  In 2010, census numbers indicated they had 234 members.  Today, the Sanpoil are “one of the Twelve Tribes that make up the Colville Confederated Tribes.

Several elements of the story can be explained given context.  One interesting element of the story is the council of many different tribes that discussed how to provide a sun for the sunless earth.  Apparently, the Sanpoil had a government, which was semi-democratic, where many chiefs would each represent a community in the tribe.  In addition, the story mentions the “Great Spirit,” which is essentially the translated name of the deity of creation in many tribes.

At face value, the story is seemingly only a creation myth for the sun.  The story explains in the beginning that dense vapor clouded the earth and made firewood difficult to light.  As stated, their name means “gray as far as one can see,” which suggests that this condition in their story could be connected to their name.  Furthermore, similar weather conditions are seen in other Sanpoil stories, such as The Origin of Fire.  This condition prompted the tribes to band together to overcome “a long difficult struggle” and create the “fire,” which can be implied to be the sun.  The struggle is discussed in another Sanpoil legend, Origin of the Sun and Moon, which also has a very similar ending.  Many other stories from the Sanpoil tribe often involve creating or stealing fire, such as Arrow Chain and Theft of Fire.

While the origin of the sun is the main aspect of the story, there is also a brief mention of the transformation from animal to man, suggesting a form of “social evolution.”  Social evolution in anthropology is traditionally defined as a movement from different stages in society, and shows a movement from hunting and gathering-based societies to more advanced and literate societies.  This is briefly touched upon in the text, and shows a movement from animals, to a more “civilized” species that is recognized and protected by the “Great Spirit.”  This, as well as the other explained elements of the story help to understand why the story should be included in this anthology.

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