The Power of Payumsh (Sage Grouse) and K'axnu (Sharptail Grouse)

Payumsh (Sage Grouse)

Before agricultural development, over-grazing, and pesticides, there was an abundant amount of Payumsh (Sage Grouse) in the Yakima Valley.  Before the Yakima River was developed, there was abundant K'axnu (Sharptail Grouse). The original inhabitants of the valley have legends of these sacred animals.  As it was shared with me by Russell Jim, former Tribal Councilman, Washaat Religious leader and Program Manager for the Yakama Nation Environmental Restoration and Waste Management they were feasted upon during first food feasts along with the jackrabbit, cottontail, goose, and ducks.  "Rarely do these foods make it on the table at feast anymore. Some of them haven't been on the table since I was a young boy."  He went on to add "each one of these foods has a specific nutrient that strengthens every part of our body.  Elders used to be able to tell the people what each food did for the body.  This food is a medicine embedded in our very DNA."  

K'axnu (Sharptail Grouse)

Furthermore, there were songs and dances specific to this animal.  The dance was centered around the movements the Payumsh made during its courting ritual in the late winter, early spring months.  Many tribes across the Columbia Plateau and the Plains have interpretations of these songs and this dance.  Some of them are tied to warrior society ceremonies and others are an interpretation of this sacred animal movements.  For the Plains, the bird specific to the culture is the Greater Prairie Chicken. Yet despite the species differentiation, the courting rituals are quite similar.  



Payumsh displaying for females

After the extirpation of Payumsh and K'axnu, the feathers on the dancer's regalia began to change as the availability of feathers changed.  The introduction of the Pheasant provided a new variation of feathers to replace the extirpated species.  As time has passed, other more exotic feathers have been acquired from Asia and South America and are now utilized in the dance.  However, the meaning, songs, and purpose of the dance remains the same and has now spread across Indian Country in Canada and the US to Tribes who historically never partook in this dance.


Canadian Blackfoot interpretation of the "Chicken Dance" at Standoff Alberta Canada

Within the last 15 years, the Yakama Nation Language Program and Cultural Resources Program conducted a language and oral history project of the Payumsh, its meaning to Yakama people and the historic uses.  Several Tribal elders, who are now passed on, were interviewed for the sole purpose of learning about its significance to the oral history, diet, habitat and extirpation.  

Within the last 10 years, the Yakama Nation Wildlife Program ( has reintroduced Payumsh with the help and guidance of Yakama Tribal elders with the hopes that some day the numbers will be high enough that they will once again appear on the table at First Foods feasts.  More work and research is required before the K'axnu can be reintroduced.  The challenge is with the availability of habitat along the Yakima River corridor, which is highly developed where it was historically located.   

This is the power that two little birds have on the oral history, biology, material culture and language of Yakama people.  


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