Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 2/Items from the Nez Perces Indians

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The Nez Perces have been the romantic tribe of the Columbia River Valley, and have ever been performing startling deeds; and have, moreover, been, with but one exception, and that involving but one band of the people, the steadfast friends of the white peoples, and particularly of the Americans. Without their friendship, and their most signal assistance at more than one crisis, the history of Oregon would have at least been quite different; and possibly the valley of the Columbia would have been British rather than American territory—the government at Washington, fifty years ago or more perhaps, being unwilling to pay the price that would have been involved in an Indian war if the thousand Nez Perces fighters had taken the side of the Cayuses in 1848, or of Kamiakin in 1855. A recent valuable contribution to the services of these Nez Perces is found in the very interesting life of Gen. I. I. Stevens, by his son Hazard Stevens, containing an account of the great council at Walla Walla but a short time before the general Indian war, at which some two thousand Indian warriors were present, and the Cayuses and Yakimas made a secret agreement to massacre Governor Stevens and all his party. But the plot was discovered by Lawyer, the Nez Perces chief, and word was circulated by him that the Americans were under his protection, which was effectual, as Lawyer's force numbered at least half the whole aggregation of Indians.

The friendship of the same tribe during the Cayuse war is also well known, as well as their welcome and steadfast kindness to the American missionaries. In Joseph's war—when it was shown that Nez Perces were desperate fighters—the main body of the tribe was faithful, and very valuable services were rendered by James Reubens. Just the reason why this tribe has maintained such relations to the Americans would be an interesting study and just theme of minute investigation. During a brief visit to the old tribal station at Lapwai, the writer was fortunate enough to obtain two manuscripts, one of which has never been published; and probably the other has not in its present form. These will be presented here in their historic order: The first being a tradition still current among the Indians, explaining the presence of a remarkable mound in the valley of the Kamiah, and the origin of the various tribes—the Nez Perces, or Nimipu, "the People" as they called themselves, having been derived from the very heart-blood of the primitive monster. The story was related to me by Mr. James Grant, a Nez Perces living on the Lapwai; a man of much intelligence and substance. But, in order to preserve it more exactly in his language, I secured the notes of the same, taken some time ago from Mr. Grant by Dr. O. J. West, United States physician at Lapwai. Doctor West's narrative is understood to have been published in The Western Trail, a magazine devoted to Pacific Coast literature, and published at Tacoma, Washington; but the story is worthy of permanent place in the Oregon Quarterly also. It should be explained that these notes were taken from Doctor West's waste table, he being in San Francisco at the time, by leave of his obliging friends in the agency building at Spalding; and we feel that we violate no trust in transferring them to Oregon literature.


Doctor West says by way of introduction: Of Nez Perces folk lore I had heard only detached bits, but enough to learn that Coyote—"Old Coyote"—was the medium through which their flights of imagination found vent. Old Coyote was all that the subject of imaginative tales should be; at one time endowed with power almost godlike, at other times, the butt for some merry jest, or even ridicule. He could change form at will, and also produce rivers, canyon, or plain, by a simple motion. Yet at times he would walk into a predicament so palpable that a child would have shown surprise. I often asked Ilitamkat (James Grant) for Coyote stories, but he put me off with a laughing "some time.' One evening, however, as the log fire crackled and roared in the fireplace, and the pipe of peace had gone the rounds, he said, "Well, I tell you the story of Old Coyote."

He did, and I inscribe it here with all the Indian idioms and terseness of phraseology, but I. can not transmit the gestures and sign language which made it so realistic.

He continued: "It is a beautiful story—the best story ever told,—a story that has been handed down among my people for hundreds of years, yet we have no written record as has the white man. The old men tell it to their children around the camp fire in the evening, and these in their turn transmit it to their children, and thus it has come from long, long ago, to the present day.

"Well, a long time ago, before there were any human beings, a monster stood by Kamiah—Iltswowich, Indian name. It faced south. This monster was B-I-G,—so big that when it breathe all living animals near by were drawn in, and go down its throat; when monster stand up and draw in its breath hard, so—s-o-o-oo-p, every living thing flew into his throat, no matter if long way off—hundred mile, maybe.

"Well, other animals look on Coyote as big chief—no, not big chief, but smart man"—kind of father counselor?—"That's it, counselor. Well, Coyote, he trot around everywhere, but couldn't find any one—all gone down Iltswowich's throat.' (Here occurs a break, the story being, however, that the Coyote went to his partner, Kots-kots, the fox, and together they devised a way to investigate the interiors of the monster, and discover in what condition the animals were after having been swallowed, and, if possible, to let them out. The fox was to creep up slyly, almost to the jaw of the monster, while the Coyote went off to a distant mountain in the Wallowa country, and made medicine, and tried his strength before actually intrusting himself within his jaws—in order to prove, probably, that he was able to take the risk of being swallowed and coming through alive. So he went off thither, climbed to the top of the highest mountain, and sighting the monstrous Iltswowich rose up and whistled. He was so far away that he looked no bigger than a single stalk of grass to the monster sitting at Kamiah, and he was not at first seen. But he continued to whistle and to make a challenge that the other should draw him in with his breath, which the monster tried, breathing in all directions; but, as had never happened before, no one came to his mouth, and he began to suspect some great medicine. The Coyote's medicine, however, was nothing more than a grass rope, by which he had tied himself to the mountain. But by it the monster was nonplussed and still gazed abroad to see what thing so small could still exert such force to resist his breath. The story goes on: "He (Iltswowich) rise up like any animal who hears challenge and look. Has eyes just like telescope,—see long way,—but no see Coyote yet. Coyote calls out again, 'Wako keape-wast-komahliksit, Iltswowich,' and shake just one stalk of grass (looks no larger than one stalk of grass).

"Then Iltswowich he see and recognize Coyote. He say, 'Ungh, ungh, wy-ya iin neshawyam weapstsim? Is that you, Strong-Medicine Coyote? "Coyote just call out again, 'Wako keape-wast-ko-mahliksit;' but Iltswowich want to talk—make friends; he afraid now. He think Coyote mean mischief. So he call him big medicine; but Coyote just keep on making challenge, 'Wako kea,' etc.

"But by and by Iltswowich (thinking probably to test the actual strength of the Coyote's medicine) he say, 'All right, but you try first.' Coyote, he say, 'No, you first;' but Iltswowich he think maybe he get out of the test of strength, so he not try.

"Then Coyote, he try first; he drew in breath hard, so-s-o-o-oo-p, and Iltswowich moved towards him one step. This first time anything like that happen to Iltswowich, so he surprised; 'Ungh, ungh, Coyote big medicine; now I try,' he say. Iltswowich try 's-o-o-oo-p;' he drew his breath, and for one hundred miles around every living thing fly toward him just like big wind; but Coyote not go; his rope hold him. Then Iltswowich try again 's-o-o-oo-p;' all same; can't move Coyote. Then Iltswowich 'fraid; "ungh, ungh, ungh, Coyote big chief, big medicine,' he say.

"Well, Coyote he come down from mountain and cross by Seven Devils, (in Snake River country,) and cross to Salmon River country. All time when he come to high place where he can see Iltswowich he make challenge, but Iltswowich not answer back; he sullen now; he think pretty soon something going to happen.

"When Coyote come this side of Salmon River he cut off grass rope, because he know Iltswowich scared now and not try to do harm, and he walk over into Clearwater Valley where was Iltswowich. When he come up to Iltswowich he say, 'Iltswowich, open mouth; I want to go inside to see my people.' (Here follows a somewhat lengthy description of the Coyote's descent into the mouth and stomach of the monster, by the assistance of Kots-kots, the fox, his partner, and of the interior arrangements of Iltswowich. Here were rooms and passages, and within these labyrinths, slightly illuminated, were found the bodies of the animals that had been swallowed. They were in all stages of emaciation, some still but little shrunken, while others were but mere paper of skin upon the bones; yet all were alive. He conferred with them, as he found them here and there, asking why they did not go out at the mouth or nose of the monster; and pointing also to the great lobes of fat with which the passages were lined, he asked why they did not make a fire and have it light and warm as long as they remained. The animal characteristics were preserved, however, even in this dim abode, and some said as he approached, "There's Old Coyote; he thinks he is a big medicine, but he is only the drippings from Iltswowich's nostrils.' But others were disposed to take the suggestion about the fire, and soon had the fat piled and burning, and were gathered about the blaze. They also ate of the new crisped flitches, and were no longer either cold or hungry. But this was not the end of the Coyote's plan. After conference with Kots-kots, his partner, the fox, he decided to cut the arteries about the monster's heart, which could be plainly seen far above them.)

"Coyote take five long flat knives Kots-kots tell him to bring, and begin to cut near heart. Hurts bad, and Iltswowich grunts, 'Ungh, ungh, ungh,' and say 'Coyote big man, good fighter;' and Coyote he say, 'Yes, and when I get hurt I don't complain,' and keep on cutting at artery. Four knives break, and Coyote have just one left, but heart nearly drop (from its place), and monster nearly dead—sway from side to side.

"Well, when just little bit more to cut, Coyote says, 'Push all bones of our people to openings of monster's body, and when comes last stroke I push all out, and then they come to life again.' So when comes last stroke, and heart fall, Coyote push, and all bones and all animals rush out, except muskrat. Muskrat little slow, and tail gets caught in monster's mouth, but muskrat pull pretty hard and tail comes out slow, but all hairs are stripped off, and thus has been muskrat's tail ever since.

"When animals all get outside, and bones Coyote push out came to life, all begin to wander off, because nice day, and they feel good to be outside. But Coyote calls to them, 'Come back all together for last wonder. For now, my friends, from present time through all the years to come, there shall be a new race of people on this earth—called Human Beings; so I cut up this dead Iltswowich, and from head I make the Flatheads; from feet, the Blackfeet; from other parts I make the other tribes of men.' So he cut up the monster into pieces, and cast the pieces to the north and east and south and west, and from the pieces came all the tribes on the earth. But after this was done, Kots-kots, the fox, the partner of the Coyote, looks over the valley of the Clearwater, and saw that all parts of the earth had men but this. Then he speak up and say, 'See, here is all this beautiful Clearwater Valley and you have made no people to inhabit it.' Coyote look around and see monster all gone; then he sees his hands all blood from dividing up the monster (and from its heart), and he say, 'Bring me some water.' They bring water and Coyote wash hand, and as he wash he sprinkle blood on earth, saying, 'Here on this ground I make the Nez Perces, a tribe few in number, but strong and pure. "Here the Nez Perces have lived since that time, and by Kamiah is still the heart of Iltswowich, the monster."

This "Heart," indeed, stands nearly in the center of Kamiah Valley, and is a low, stony hill, elongated a little, and about the shape of a heart.

The above is no doubt essentially the Nez Perces story, being that told by James Grant, and noted by Doctor West, and also told me by Miss Macbeth, who learned it of Indians at Kamiah. Bancroft gives a somewhat different version, making the monster a beaver.


The following has never been published hitherto. It was prepared by Miss Kate C. Macbeth of the Lapwai mission school for the Northern Pacific pamphlet, "Western Wonderland," but owing to some misunderstanding of its purport on the part of O. C. Wheeler, the editor, was not inserted in the publication. It is not intended as a critical study of the Indian story, or comparison with the account of the American explorers, but a simple rendering of the tradition as now held by the Nez Perces. Its value is in the light it throws upon the first bias this tribe received in respect to the Americans. This was favorable. Whether the story upon investigation would prove true to veritable objective fact, in any or all details, is of second importance to the fact that the scribe has ascribed to a definite cause the traditional friendship for Americans, and the Indians themselves refer it to the first meeting with them. It is thus the story of a sentiment—the sentiment being more than the story.

Miss Macbeth has condensed what the Indian narrators would probably extend into an epic the length of Hiawatha, and which some American poet may yet turn into a new Evangeline.


Miss Macbeth writes: The Lo Lo trail was a very old one and was used before there were any whites in this country to help make it. It was over this that Lewis and Clark came into the We-ippe country. Later it was improved by the whites, and for a time was better than another, that they sometimes used, called the Elk City trail, which is also a very old one.

In olden times the buffalo country in Montana was the camping (and hunting) ground for all the tribes, far and near. There many battles were fought among each other, and those taken captive were made slaves to the victors. A Nez Perces woman, Wat-ku-ese, was taken captive by a tribe, who, while on their return to their own land, fought with still another tribe, and the Nez Perces woman was again captured, and carried farther and farther away; and it was while there, still a captive, she was the first Nez Perces to look upon a white face. We are inclined to think she must have been taken to a place near the Red River Settlement.

Some time afterwards, with her child upon her back, she made her escape, and along the way met with much kindness from the whites, whom she called "So-yap-po,or the crowned ones (because of the hat). Her child died, and she buried it by the way in the Flathead country. There she was fortunate in finding some of the Nez Perces, who brought her home, a poor, diseased woman. She had much to tell about the strange people with the white eyes, who had been so kind to her.

Later on this poor woman was with a great company of Nez Perces on their best camas ground, the We-ippe (pronounced Weé-ipe), when Lewis and Clark came over the Lo Lo trail and surprised them there. Their first impulse was to kill them (the white strangers). Wat-ku-ese lay dying in her tent, but was told about the strange people who were on the ground. She at once began to plead for them, saying: "Do not harm them, for they are the crowned ones, who were so kind to me. Do not be afraid of them; go near to them."

Cautiously they approached, and the whites shook their hands; this they had never seen (done) before, and in surprise they said to one another, "They dandle us." Wat-ku-ese died that same day, but had lived long enough to keep Lewis and Clark from being put to death by these naked savages (the Nez Perces). Their fear of the paleface soon vanished and they became friends.

Some of the Nez Perces guided them (the explorers) into their beautiful Kamiah Valley, and on down the Clearwater River. At North Fork the Indians presented the leaders with some very fine fish. Lewis or Clark carefully unrolled a package containing a piece of cloth, the first they had seen—they now think it was a flag—and tearing a red band from it, wound it around the head of the man who had given the fish, and by this act was the first Nez Perces chief made. They separated at (the present) Lewiston, Lewis and Clark intrusting many things of value to them, and found them safe when they returned the following year."

Such is the story as now in circulation among the Nez Perces; and any one knowing Miss Macbeth would be sure that it is given by her with perfect accuracy.

An interesting comparison would be to follow the trail on the spot and see the points indicated in the Weippe. Reference to Doctor Coues' fine edition of Lewis and Clark's journal shows that the explorers had attempted to cross the Rocky-mountain divide into the Salmon River Valley, but found the country too rough for travel, and turning back worked along the crests of the difficult double chain northward, following for a time the headwaters of Clark's Fork of the Columbia, but finally struck west over the Bitter Root Mountains by the Lo Lo trail. They had suffered considerable hardship, encountering storms of rain and even of snow, the time being in August and September, 1805. They had been eating colts and old horses, in lack of game, and their pack animals were almost incapable of travel from sore feet.

On page 603, of Coues, is stated, in the language of the journal, the first discovery of the Nez Perces, as follows: "He (Captain Clark) continued for five miles, when he discovered three Indian boys, who, on observing the party, ran off and hid themselves in the grass. Captain Clark immediately alighted, and, giving his horse to one of the men, went after the boys. He soon relieved their apprehensions, and sent them forward to a village, about a mile off, with presents of small pieces of ribbon. Soon after the boys reached home a man came out to meet the party with great caution; but he conducted them to a large tent in the village, and all the inhabitants gathered around to view with a mixture of fear and pleasure these wonderful strangers. * * * They soon set before them a small piece of buffalo meat, some dried salmon, berries, and several kinds of roots. Among the last is one which is round, much like an onion in appearance, and sweet to the taste. It is called 'quamash.' * * * They (Clark and seven men) then went on in company with one of the chiefs to a second village in the same plain, at a distance of two miles. Here the party were treated with great kindness. The two villages consist of about thirty double tents, and the inhabitants call themselves Chopunnish, or Pierced Nose. The chief made a chart of the river and explained that a greater chief than himself, who governed the village, was now fishing down the river. This chart made the Kooskosky Fork a little below his camp; a second fork was below; still farther on a large branch (Snake) flowed in on the east side, below which the main river passed the mountains. Here was a great fall of water, near which white people lived.' (Coues here inserts a note that whites did not then live at the cascades, but Franchere mentions that there was a white man, named Soto, who had lived long at that place—writing but ten years after Clark.)

On page 608, we find this entry, as to the Nez Perces chief: "Captain Clark passed on with Twisted Hair, who seemed to be cheerful and sincere."

On page 609, an Indian is mentioned thus: "The man received us without any apprehension, and gave us a plentiful supply of provisions; the plain was crowded with Indians."

On page 610: "The chiefs and warriors were all assembled this morning. * * * We gave a medal to two of the chiefs, a shirt, in addition to the medal, received by Twisted Hair, and delivered a flag for the grand chief."

On page 611: "Captain Clark set out with Twisted Hair and two young men in quest of timber for canoes.(James Grant states that old Indians still know where the stump stands from which a tree was cut for a canoe.)

Stating characteristics of the Nez Perces, page 623, Coues, the journal says: "The Chopunnish are in person stout, portly, well-looking men; the women are small, with good features, and generally handsome. * * * Their life is painful and laborious.' In disposition, however, they are not described so favorably as the Shoshones, who were bountiful in the extreme, and asked no pay; but the Nez Perces were "indeed selfish and avaricious/ but their intelligence and integrity were beyond question, and they "proved perfectly reliable. * * * They were healthy, except for scrofula, for which they practiced both hot and cold bathing."

These descriptions are so exact that even if the locality and the name was not known, the Nez Perces would be indicated. In business affairs they are disposed to be grasping, and in politics, crafty; but they are the most industrious and honest of any, absolutely reliable. The men are still portly and well-looking; the women still small and handsome; and they are still ruddy and healthy, except for scrofula, leading too many to death from consumption.


From a very brief glance at the subject in a Nez Perces dictionary compiled by a missionary of the Society of Jesus in the Lapwai Valley, the language seems to be what might be called pre-ideographic. It is said that there. is a picture writing which, however, is not peculiar to the Nez Perces. The ability of this tribe to make charts is referred to above in Lewis and Clark's journal. This was also recently very strikingly shown by an old Indian familiarly called Billy Williams. (His Indian name was Ku-ku-lu-yah, signifying a pelican or other sea bird, and illustrating, perhaps, the wide wanderings of the tribe.) At the request of Miss Fletcher of Harvard University a few years ago, he made a chart of the ancient territory of the Nez Perces, which extended from the Blue Mountains to the Bitter Root Mountains, and located seventy-five streams and the band of Indians originally occupying the valley of each, with the original name.

There is also a very complete sign language, known to all the tribes. Mr. Lee Morehouse of Pendleton, Oregon, formerly agent of the Umatilla Reservation, mentions the universality of this language as he discovered at Washington City. Indians of all tribes were holding a council, and the necessity of interpreting many times sentence by sentence, made the proceedings very tiresome. Suddenly the assembled Indians began using the .sign language, and Sioux and other eastern Indians were conversing freely and with great animation with those of the Columbia Valley. This sign language has been charted and is used very freely by the missionaries of the Nez Perces in preaching to other natives. It is of interest to find also that the Indian songs, or music, which Miss Fletcher has been reducing to written notes, is universal, the stick-bone gambling tune, which she took from a performance at Vancouver Island, British Columbia, being instantly recognized by Indians at Omaha, and by Nez Perces also, some of the latter being shocked to hear it on an organ.

While the language was not written, the next step, if it had not been reduced by missionaries to a phonetic form, would have been to a picture signifying the word; or rather, perhaps, a picture signifying an entire phrase or sentence. This is shown unmistakably in the names of men and women, each name often signifying a whole sentence. It is also shown in the verb, which often, by an inflection, indicates what we express by adverbs and prepositions. This also seemed to me well confirmed in the formation of plurals, as told me by a somewhat notable Indian, White Bird, or Peo-peo-otilikt, one of Joseph's band, who explained that "good dog" was expressed by "talts tsuk-am-tsuk;' but ten dogs by "putimt te-talts tsukamstuk," talts, or tahts, being the adjective good, and putimt the numeral ten; but the plural is not expressed in the noun, but in the adjective. The mental picture is not of the dogs, but of the good dogs. The adjective denotes the picture; the noun the abstraction .

However, abler philologists should take up the subject. But the following list of names from some two hundred and fifty, taken by Miss Macbeth, may be an interesting beginning for study; or, perhaps, stir others to contribute names still extant among other tribes, with the meaning. The names are numbered according to Miss Macbeth' s list. She remarks that the names of women are taken mostly from inanimate objects, or the smaller animals; and the names of men from the larger beasts or birds. The prefix "Ah" is not necessarily the sign of the feminine, but refers more likely to Alalimya, the spirit of the wind, who reaches almost to the clouds, never rests, but moves to and fro and sighs in the trees, and sometimes weeps:—


3. Ah-la-lim-yah, Ah-la-lin-te-yukt—(fem.) Echo on the mountain.
6. Ah-la-yim-yah-tah-kas-min (masc.)—Filled with the spirit of the wind, when the wind becomes a whirlwind.
7. Ah-la-lim-yah-tan-my (fem.)—Sings together ; weeps together.
9. Ah-la-yim-ya-we-sun (fem.)—Always she weeps as the wind in dry forest trees.
12. Alew-ta-laket (fem.)—Going with heat of the chinook wind: goes to the mountains.
14. Alew-toe-tas-i-eye (fem.)—But a little light on the mountains.
13. Ah-leu-toe (fem.)—Daughter of Piles of Clouds. Aleyu Aleuya, signifying extreme cold; Toe, light on the top of the mountains.
16. Alew-yah-we-nun-my (fem.)—Now the chinook wind has sent all away.
18. Ah-lew-yet-kikt (masc.)—It snows in the spring.
19. Ah-lew-gone-my (fem.)—All covered with snow and ice.
28. Ah-na-wite (fem.)—See mud and water on the dress and am surprised.
37. Ah-pots-te-ya-la-ne (masc.)—The black stone crumbles down.
44. Ah-to-kah (fem.)—Come in.
47. Ah-we-yo-tson-my (fem.)—The echo of the feet.
48. Ah-ya-we-te-late—The fish meet in the sea at the time to bring forth their children before they go up the shallows.
54. Ah-ya-toe-te-yakt (fem.)—Cloud rests gently on the mountain ; voice from the winter.
63. Ant-as-in (masc.)—The arrow has passed through the body.
66. At-pips—Many dead bones old long ago.
67. Ats-so (masc.)—Enters the enemy's camp.
80. E-la-ips (masc.)—Intense heat.
E-la-n-sa-le-ka-tsat—Singing on a hill.
84. E-yan-steamed—Sound from the breaking up of ice on the river.
154. Heh-haught (fem.)—Always laughing.
168. He-meem-il-ip (masc.)—Red wolf.
169. He-meem-ka-yse (fem.)—Laughing wolf.
209. He-yume-la-son-my (fem.)—Noise from passing bears.
212. He-yume-pe-tits'—Daughter of the bear.
E-lo-win-my—Heat of summer.
113. E-ya-tls-ke-likt (fem.)—Tree, roots and all floating down the river.
122. Ha-hats-il-lack-ne (masc.)—Many white bears.
123. Ha-hats-kuts-kuts (masc.)—Little white silver bears.
130. Ha-hats-il-pilp (masc.)—Red bear.
133. Ha-hats-mox-mox (masc.)—Yellow bear.
Te-yokt Echo.


Emalypo—Place above Asotin, where grows a flower, and root good to eat.
Nah-to-in—Mouth of the Potlatch.
Ya-tain—Creek above Potlatch.
Hat-way—First creek above Lewiston.
Pis-nis-tain—Place above Lapwai ferry.
Asotin Asotin—where lived a band of Nez Perces.
Ah-no-toe-no—Place above Asotin.
Lapwai—Place of waters (said by some to mean place of butterflies).

A casual glance would seem to bear out Mr. S. B. Smith's idea that places rather than streams were named, but since the coming of the whites the idea of naming streams has probably been adopted.

Any idea that the Nez Perce language is scant or inexpressive is at once dispelled by a glance at the dictionary compiled by the Jesuits, in which upwards of five thousand words are defined. The great work on this language, however, has not yet been published. This was compiled by Miss Sue Macbeth, and listed and defined upwards of eleven thousand words—possibly as many as fifteen thousand. This was forwarded, according to the provisions of her will, to the Smithsonian Institute, where it has remained. It is to be hoped that the attention of the authorities will be fittingly called to the desirability of speedy publication, as the Nez Perce is a living language, and is extending to nearly all the Rocky Mountain Indian tribes, and is doubtless a much better medium of civilization and religious thought to a people still accustomed to think in images rather than by definitions, than our English.

Miss Kate Macbeth, a sister of Miss Susan, who is still carrying on the mission at Lapwai with great earnestness and success, has also her own working lexicon, but this is by no means equal, so she says, to her sister's.