The Nez Perce Story—again

Alvin Josephy found the story in 1952 or 53—and things changed. Over the next dozen years he would become engulfed in the Nez Perce story and the American Indian story. He would find old drawings tucked away in museums, chase fur trade records to London, sweat with veterans of the Nez Perce War, and put the big of it and the detail of it into a huge American epic called The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest.

His was not the first attempt, and certainly not the last. The Nez Perce story is told and retold in poems and novels and histories again and again. There are new books every year that explore aspects of the story in detail, and/or shout their author’s own astonishment at finding the story and desire to get the rest of us to know it. Almost always they pay tribute to the Josephy text and to the Nez Perce people and specific elders who keep the story alive.

On Sunday I was privileged to watch and listen to another telling of the story in the Lapwai, Idaho High School gym. It was a world premier, a special performance for Nez Perce people of a work commissioned and performed by the Caritas Chorale of the Wood River Valley in Idaho. Artistic director Dick Brown brought some 60 singers from his chorale and 30 string and percussion players from the Boise Symphony to play the work composed by Idahoans David Alan Earnest (music), and Diane Josephy Peavey (libretto).  

Brown, who grew up in Mississippi, told the audience that he was familiar with prejudice and issues of social justice. He didn’t tell us how he had first commissioned a work on Lewis and Clark in Idaho with the same composition team, and that Diane Peavey brought the Nez Perce chapter of Lewis and Clark into that piece. It was performed to fine reviews, and Brown dug deeper into the Nez Perce story himself, and then found the funds to commission a new work and take the group of musicians to Lapwai to boldly test it with the Indian people.

I remember talking with Diane when she first got the charge. It was daunting, because of her father’s identification with Nez Perce history, and because she knew enough of the story and knew many Nez Perce people and wondered how she could tell their story.

But with their help, she told the Nez Perce story as a tribute to them and a lesson to the rest of us, the non-Indians who now share land and waters we took from them.

When Alvin found the story, he was driven to precedents, to trace the history of tribes and European immigrants to the Northwest. Eventually it led to studies and books about the whole of it—“The Indian Heritage of America” and “500 Nations,” massive dioramas of two continents and 30,000 or more years of human habitation. He studied archeology and linguistics, mythology and contemporary Indian cultures in making his pictures, and he came away knowing that Indians had survived against all odds and had things to teach us still.

A choral work does not allow for great detail; the work of it is in the selection of the scenes and then telling, with few words and accompanying music, the essence of it. I am sure that artistic director, composer, librettist, and Nez Perce friends all had a hand in choosing and creating, but it was really Diane’s charge to be the word teller. The scenes were brilliantly chosen—from Lewis and Clark and creation myth through white religion, the Nez Perce War, and on to Nez Perce care of the land today. I loved the inclusion of the Celilo Falls story, that final affront to 12,000 years of Indian living, and thought that wrapping the story around the Nez Perce promise to the Creator that the two-leggeds would always care for the four-leggeds and the land and waters that sustain us was brilliant.

Shakespeare used old stories to address his concerns, and the Bible tells the Gospel four times. We learn with every telling of the Nez Perce story, and now have two Josephys to thank for theirs.

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Note: performances in Sun Valley and Hailey, July 14 and 15. For more information, go to