Wednesday, June 27, 2012

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.

# # #
Note: performances in Sun Valley and Hailey, July 14 and 15. For more information, go to

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Something for the Birds

I finally got a copy of the movie, which was based in part on a story by Alvin Josephy, and stars Victor Mature as a Washington D.C. lobbyist and Patricia Neal as a bird lover on a mission to save California’s giant condors. The movie is nicely done—I particularly liked the old guy who passes himself off as a retired admiral and goes to all the big parties and receptions in town. In fact he works in a print shop that does fancy invitations, and, over time, follows the invitations he engraves to the parties. And of course becomes the lovable yentl in the romance between the lobbyist and the bird lover.

But the title and the movie say it all as far as Alvin and Hollywood are concerned. At least that is what I gather from recollected conversations and what he wrote about Hollywood in A Walk Toward Oregon. After the War, he had come to Hollywood thinking that there was room to write real movies about the war he and other writers had been through and the problems people were dealing with across the country. He was especially excited about a story he had picked up in the New York Times about black and white farmers working to reclaim depleted Georgia cotton land. There was initial enthusiasm for “Red Clay.” Alvin was sent to Georgia to do research and a co-writer and producer were assigned, but in the end, the story was deemed “not commercial enough” and abandoned. “Hollywood hokum,” he dubbed Hollywood movie moguls’ tastes.

Back to the birds! Alvin’s original story about the condors was called “Condors Don’t Pay Taxes,” because that was the argument used by the oil companies and their lobbyists who were trying to open condor nesting grounds to oil exploration. Alvin’s story detailed the work of a University of California scientist who found that the big birds tended one egg every two years and were very sensitive to human incursion. The movie skimmed the science and concentrated on the counterfeit admiral and the love story.

Alvin pointedly was not the screen writer on this one. And I have to think that his flirtations with fiction—the book novel and the screen plays—were frustrating not because they were fiction, but because they failed to get at the truths that the best fiction attends. His own attempt at a war novel, which Knopf was very interested in its first stages, became “too personal” when his first marriage became a war casualty. Later, he would say that fiction writers Bill Kittredge, Ivan Doig, Craig Lesley and others were giving us truths of Western history that the text books were missing.
I know too that he was proud of his work as an advisor on “Little Big Man”—one of the first screen portrayals to honor the Indian point of view, he said—and that he enjoyed working on documentaries with Ken and Ric Burns and others.  Knowing the power and pervasiveness of visual media, I think that Alvin might have been a documentarian in today’s world.

# # #