Nez Perce Music



Nez Perce music, like the music of many North American Indian tribes, has always told a story of relationship to land and history. Drums, flutes, and human voices echoed and imitated the sounds of wind, water, birds and the four-leggeds around them. Years and years later, after the missionaries and after the boarding schools, Indian ears would match the sounds of saxophones and trumpets to older sounds—and play jazz and dance music. “Music was always spiritual for us,” says Nez Perce elder and musician Si Whitman. That’s a good place to start thinking about Nez Perce Music.

At Carlisle, Chemawa, and Sherman boarding schools in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and California, Indian children’s hair was cut, their languages outlawed, and they were put into band uniforms and made to play John Phillip Sousa and march in parades. They came home to their reservations with their instruments, and although there was still some marching, the newly minted young Indian musicians were captivated by—and played—pop music, dance music, jazz music. And with a thumb to Indian agents and assimilationists, they proudly wore their headdresses as they played the music.

Today, there are Indian rock bands and rappers. There’s a fine Nez Perce jazz singer named Julia Keefe, and powwow drums from reservations across the West come to play at the Nez Perce Homeland’s annual Tamkaliks celebration each July in Wallowa.


The Harmony Chiefs

Instruments include a banjo, tuba, and violin, along with tenor, alto, and sportano saxophes, clarinets, drums, and piano. The musicians are dressed in a combination of Nez Perce regalia and Euro-American dress shirts and slacks; some wear moccasins and some hard-soled shoes with feather headdresses featured prominently. This photograph… conveys non-Indians’ ideas about and interest in Indians at the time, Nez Perce culture through the regalia the musicians wear and contemporary mainstream popular music trends for 1926.

David McFarland – Nez Perce & Ben Harris – Osage

Nineteenth-century US government assimilation programs emphasized Western music education in their curriculum specifically to ‘civilize’ Indians… A musical education that began in US government schools often as martial music such as Sousa marches was transformed by Indian musicians into one of the most liberatory of all musical genres: jazz.

Memorial Procession – Nespelam 1903

The Nez Perce Music Story can be seen as the story of assimilation, adaptation, and resistance. Indians “celebrated” on the Fourth of July because it pleased the white administrators that they did so, and because, as Albert Andrews explains elegantly in his essay, Indians could use it to their own purposes for grieving and recovering.

Drummers & Dancers


Photos by Edward Latham at Fourth of July celebration in Nespelem, circa 1903. Many powwows are still held on the Fourth of July, as the “Code of Indian Offenses,” promulgated by Congress in 1883, encouraged Indian agents to strip tribal people of their cultures. Scalp dances, sun dances, and any “warrior” dances were specifically banned. “Most of the Code of Indian Offenses was directly aimed at outlawing Indian culture. Thus, the practice of medicine men, Indian dances, the giving of gifts to compensate and honor a family for a daughter given in marriage, potlaches and other traditional reciprocal gift-giving, polygamy and other Indian customary practices were all made punishable offenses by the Code of Indian Offenses

The Nezpercians

This was the the best-known and longest-lived band from the Lapwai country. Titus White, Harry Pete “Fox” McCormack, and Tony Whitman were regular musicians in the band, which included over 20 musicians over the years. According to Janis Johnson’s research, the Nezpercians played from British Columbia to Arizona. They jammed with Lionel Hampton’s band in Portland, and let the African-American band members stay in their rooms when a nightclub owner expected them to sleep on the floor.

Nez Perce Hymnal

Henry and Eliza Spalding set up their mission near Lapwai in 1836, and in 1839 the first printing press in the region arrived from a sister missionary outpost in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and the Spaldings immediately began printing hymns and books of the Bible. These pages are from an 1897 hymnal.

Julia Keefe

MemorialProcession (21x17)
At a very young age, Julia became an accomplished jazz singer who is making it a point to remember another Indian jazz singer, Mildred Bailey, from the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho, who sang with Bing Crosby in Spokane, and later with Paul Whiteman’s band. Julia was born in Seattle, and spent her early years on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in Idaho. While in Spokane, Julia helped to create One Heart Native Arts & Film Festival, a two-day celebration of contemporary indigenous stories from indigenous perspectives.

Drummers & Dancers at Tamkiliks

In 1989, Taz Conner, Cayuse-Nez Perce, and Wallowa teacher Terry Crenshaw gathered people around the idea of a local powwow. It started at the school, but soon grew into a yearly powwow and friendship feast, which grew year to year to become the “Tamkaliks Celebration,” held every year the third weekend in July.

Nimiipuu Rock

Doug Marconi Sr., who grew up at Lapwai and now lives on the Colville Reservation, has been one of the founding members in three rock, blues-rock bands over the last eight years, and played on stage with many others while participating in jam sessions, or while his band was invited to play as the featured line-up at Tribal events, concerts, and casinos. “During the time I was a powwow dancer and drummer I was also a member of two drum groups, most notably Nez Perce Nation,” he says. And through high school at Lapwai, Doug was a board member of the high school Indian Club, which had the distinction of starting the first high school powwow in the Northwest. It’s still going, known now as the Annual Northwest Indian Youth Conference.