Senator Abourezk, Arabs, and American Indians

We just lost a good man who is probably now unknown to most Americans—although the nation’s news frequently talks about the Indian Child Welfare Act, which he was instrumental in steering into law in 1978. The New York Times announced his passing:

“James Abourezk, who was elected by South Dakotans as the first Arab American senator, and who used his prominence to support the causes of Palestinians and Native Americans while also pushing for friendlier relations with Cuba and Iran, died on Friday, his 92nd birthday, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D.”Read Rich’s Post →

Nez Perce Scores

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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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