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