Lapwai, Idaho – It was a performance unlike any other, with a style and quality of music and subject never before performed on the Nez Perce Reservation and unique in all of Indian country.
A chorus of 56 singers, the Caritas Chorale, came from the Ketchum/Sun Valley area some 435 miles away. They were joined by an orchestra of 32 musicians from Boise, 285 miles away. Together, they performed “Nez Perce: Promises,” in the new Lapwai High School gymnasium on the Nez Perce Reservation. This was a new work, a new program, musically telling the story of the Nez Perce Tribe from before first contact with Lewis and Clark to the present day. It’s fair to say that nothing in the past could compare to the music heard in Lapwai on this day.
The story was written by Diane Josephy Peavey, and was her interpretation of Nez Perce history. It was composed by Davis Alan Earnest, directed by Dick Brown, and narrated by Page Klune.
Peavey had grown up with Nez Perce friends in Wallowa County, Oregon. Her father, Alvin M. Josephy, was the founding chairman of the board of The National Museum of the American Indian. “For me, the Nez Perce have been like an extended family,” she said.
Dick Brown told of a piece they did in 2005 that saluted the Lewis and Clark’s Bicentennial here in Idaho. “I felt the story was not complete,” he said. “I felt we needed to tell what happened to the people they came in contact with.” He commissioned the composer and librettist to begin work on another story. “It took us about six years to really do something we felt honored the Nez Perce. We were also very careful. We are not speaking for them, but we wanted to tell their story in the best possible way. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I felt we wanted to say to them there were many broken promises. You also have made promises to the environment, the land, the animals, and we honor that.”
David Alan Earnest told of the “great libretto” that Peavey had written and how he set it to music. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to do a sort of cultural exchange. Our people from Sun Valley could come up and experience the Nez Perce. Their hospitality has been awesome. It’s been a great experience.”
Peavey pointed out that without the Nez Perce people the Lewis and Clark mission wouldn’t have gotten through the Bitterroot Mountains and the expedition would have been a failure. “The piece really emphasized the important role of the Nez Perce.”
Peavey also explained that the story is more than just factual history. “We move back to Nez Perce myths and it shows the character and strengths and importance of the world around them. We move into the coming of Christianity, and treaties, and the flight of Joseph. It ends with a segment on Celilo Falls, which was the ultimate land grab. The final piece talks about prayer and prophecy. It says the Nez Perce came and greeted non-Indian peoples always with kindness and generosity and we never reciprocated in kind. It’s past time to do that.”
Prior to the performance, the musicians had the opportunity to see portions of the reservation and visit the Spalding Museum, dedicated to the Tribe. Silas Whitman, the tribal chairman, spoke to them during a lunch break. Whitman related some of the stories and lore of his people. He told of burial customs and spoke about the life of tribal members and the character and strengths and importance of the world around them. And, he spoke about the coming of Christianity and treaties and the Nez Perce War.
Diane Mallickan, Park Ranger and Cultural Interpreter, also spoke to the assembled musicians, telling of the use of sweat lodges and cold baths. “It made your heart strong and relieved stress,” she said. This was salmon country, she explained. “Salmon is to us what buffalo were to the Lakotas and other plains people.”
From its beginning, with kettle drums providing a dramatic introduction, to its ending about 90 minutes later, the program kept the focus of the nearly 300 who sat in rapt attention. It was broken into eight parts, each stressing a different aspect of the history of the tribe: section titles included “The Creation,” “The Pursuit of Freedom,” “Silence of Change,” “A Prophecy,” and “A Prayer.”
As each part began, narrator Klune talked as the orchestra played quietly. “My people, what have we done to the Nimiipuu, to the salmon, to the harmony of nature?” she asked in one such passage. “What have we done when our need to control nature is bigger than the thundering waters – bigger it seems than God?” In another segment she said, “But the land theft did not end in a stroke of power over the Nimiipuu, over Columbia River Indian Peoples, Celilo Falls was taken. And the word spread like news of death for it was death.” A third began with the words, “Nimiipuu, you kept the promise to honor the earth and its creatures. Even as we tried to change you – you survived knowing who you were, while we never understood the land was in the hands of the believers.”
Powerful. Emotional. And fitting.
Rebecca Miles, Executive Director of the Tribe, remarked, “This is an extraordinary gift to not only the Nez Perce Tribe but the City of Lapwai. Bringing something of this magnitude to a rural area and on the reservation, and having it be specifically written for the Nez Perce people! It all started in the heart and mind of Diane Josephy Peavey.”
Ann McCormack, formerly Cultural Arts Coordinator for the tribe and now Economic Development Planner, was given the job of coordinating the visit and performance. “I loved the creative process,” she exclaimed. “I think stories are best told through an art form. Adding not just the story but the song and music really brings everything to life. It’s wonderful to be taken completely out of the tribal culture and put in another culture and interpreted their way. I think the story is very good.”