Field Recordings of Nez Perce Native Singers, 2019-2020

Primary author: Melissa Parkhurst

Primary college/unit: WSU Center for Arts and Humanities; WSU School of Music; NW Public Broadcasting
Campus: Pullman


WSU’s Pullman campus is located on the traditional lands of the Nimiipuu, known also as the Nez Perce. Song has long permeated all aspects of life for the Nez Perce people, giving power, protection, and healing, and transmitting knowledge that solidifies community bonds.

Since the time of contact, the intense pressures of colonialism, missionization, land dispersal, boarding schools, and acculturation have changed and augmented the Nez Perce body of song. New religions (e.g., the Feather Religion and Washat / Seven Drum) emerged on the Plateau. Nez Perce musicians returned home from boarding schools to start jazz combos and swing bands such as The Nez Percians. More recently, Nez Perce youth have spearheaded community and campus powwows, drum groups, and dance competitions.

Since June 2019, our project team has recorded singers at Talmaks, Idaho; Lapwai, Idaho; and here in the recording studio at the WSU School of Music. In spring 2020, we will record culture bearers in Pendleton, Oregon. Singers choose which songs they wish to record, how their recordings will be used, and where the recordings will be archived.

Many of the singers are older and the bodies of songs they know constitute inestimable cultural treasures. The songs contain extensive history, teachings, and traditional knowledge. Young people can hear the voices of their grandparents and know that their culture is alive and thriving today within the Nez Perce Reservation and beyond.