NEZ PERCE MUSIC – AN HISTORICAL SKETCH
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.