Mark Eubanks recently brought me the score of a musical work called “The Chief Joseph Legend: A Choral Symphony in Five Parts.” Mark is a long-time bassoonist with the Oregon Symphony who retired to Wallowa County a few years ago, but finds time to take his bassoon over the hill to play with the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra. There is a connection between “The Chief Joseph Legend” and the Orchestra, and Mark thinks the score and material related to it should be in the Josephy Library.
More on that in a minute.
I immediately thought about “Nez Perce: Promises,” a piece commissioned for the Caritas Chorale in Ketchum, Idaho by its conductor, Dick Brown. The composer was David Alan Ernest, and the librettist Diane Josephy Peavey. I was lucky enough to attend the “world premier” in the Lapwai High School Gymnasium in June 2012. We have the program—with lyrics but not the score—in the Library.
The composer of “Chief Joseph Legend,” John Verrall, had been Mark Eubank’s instructor at the University of Washington years ago. Verrall was born in Iowa, studied in London and Budapest, and spent several summers at Tanglewood with Aaron Copland and other American musical luminaries.
Yaacov Bergman, then and still conductor of the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra— where Eubank now plays his bassoon—had suggested the subject of the 1988 work to Verrall. Bergman was born in Israel, and in addition to his post in Walla Walla conducts the Portland Chamber Orchestra.
Two symphonic pieces telling some part of the Nez Perce story join hundreds of folk songs, books, articles, poems, stories, sculptures, paintings and drawings related to the story—many of them hinged directly to the most famous Nez Perce leader, Chief Joseph, or Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht (Thunder traveling over the Mountains). They all confirm my growing idea that the Nez Perce Story has become an American Odyssey, and that Chief Joseph is our Odysseus, the tormented leader exiled from his own land and longing for return.
Writers, composers, artists of all kinds recognize this on picking up the smallest thread of the story, and then work it into their own American narrative. In fact, the Nez Perce and Joseph narrative is powerful enough to attract an international audience and artists like Bergman—and to specially attract the attention of Americans who have left home and looked at their own land from foreign lands, like Verrall.
Diane is of course Alvin Josephy’s daughter. I remember how nervous she was in creating the text for “Nez Perce; Promises.” Being her father’s daughter and an experienced writer in her own right, Diane went immediately to tribal elders for help with the work. Diane also had a history of working and traveling abroad. And her father came to the Nez Perce Story fewer than six years removed from the beaches of Iwo Jima in World War II. In his memoir, Alvin describes finding a “great American epic.”
At the Josephy Library, it is not only professional and amateur writers and artists who come clinging to a page of the Nez Perce Story, but readers and listeners too. And they come from across the world. This week it was a retired pediatrician from Orcus Island who had worked with tribal people throughout his career, but only recently happened on “the story.” He’d read Kent Nerburn’s Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, and Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains, and that was enough to bring him here. He thinks he will visit Nespelem next, and plans on coming here again.
A few weeks ago it was a retired American History professor from New York, who had not read Indian stories seriously until he retired. He started with the Navajo, and came here for the Nez Perce. Last summer there were visitors from Japan and Germany and Hawaii, come to see the land of the Nez Perce.
Identifying the phenomenon is the simple part. The question, which I have raised from time to time and know will continue to come back to, is about the growing interest in the Nez Perce Story. And why now?
One day we’ll have a symposium or a gathering to consider this. For now, let’s continue collecting evidence—the stories in word and song, stone and bronze; and the writers and composers and painters who are drawn to the Story.
Send me yours!
p.s. Yaacov Bergman will be at the Josephy Center at noon on July 10 to discuss the “Chief Joseph Legend” and tell us what he knows about its composition.
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Rich, I find this one of the most moving pieces of writing I have ever read. To read your words about the Odyssey made total sense to me on every level. And I always thought of his Nephew, Jackson Sundown as Chiron the Wounded Healer. I am hoping to make it this summer to hear more about this. I know I am camping with Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht's relatives sometime that month, and plan to bring them there to see the library. As always, K'iya.
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