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New Nez Perce Indian Song Book Preserves Valuable Link With Past

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Loran Olsen (left) and Ron Halfmoon check proofs on booklet of Nez Perce songs.
Story By June Bierbower,
Hilltopics(May, 1972)

An important step has been taken at Washington State University toward preserving the unique music of the Nez Perce Indians, music which has been in danger of disappearing forever.

Nine authentic tribal songs of historical significance have been annotated and published in an eight-page booklet, which is accompanied by a recording sung by a musician who still remembers some of the true Nez Perce songs of the past.

Ninety-year-old Charles “Sol” Webb, who grew up on the Nez Perce Reservation, and who now lives near Pendleton, Ore., has sung the songs which he heard as a child from his grandfather, Weptestma’na’ (Eagle Feathers in a Row), who raised him. The village of Webb, Idaho, where Sol was raised, was named for the grandfather.

The publication is the result of a project conducted by Loran Olsen of the WSU music faculty, and authorized by the tribe’s Executive Committee last May.
“With the passing of every elderly Nez Perce, more of this lovely music is lost forever,” said Olsen. Much of that from before the turn of the century has already disappeared.”

A resolution by the council pointed out that “the music of the Nez Perce is rapidly disappearing and virtually no research has been done to preserve this valuable link with the past…a study of this subject is long overdue and can provide an understanding concerning the unique place of music in the Nez Perce culture before, during and after white encroachment…”

The Nez Perce Tribe, which holds the copyright to the songs and recordings of the official publisher of the booklet-record combination, which is being prepared at the Washington State University Press. A total of 1,000 copies are available, and most went on sale March 1 at the tribal office in Lapwai for $3 per copy. A limited number are also available at the WSU music department office. Profits from the sale over the cost of printing will go to the tribal scholarship fund.

The illustrated booklet contains commentary about the nine songs, documentation from printed historical sources, annotation and words of the songs. The vinyl record is inserted in the back cover. Webb sings the songs in their original language, translates and discusses them.

The booklet is dedicated to the meory of Weptestma’na’, who died Jan. 11, 1905, “A man of peace, whose life reflected understanding, patience, and tolerance,” Olsen writes in it.

Weptestma’na’s grandson, Sol Webb, is a recognized singer from as far back as the early 1900’s, having taken active part in many Inland Empire Indian celebrations as drummer and singer, until moving in 1928 to the Cayuse-Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. A sister, Julia Pablo, lives in Lewiston.

Olsen, a midwesterner who joined the WSU faculty just six years ago last fall, had had no exposure to the Nez Perce culture before coming to Pullman. He became involved after Dr. William Elmendorf, former WSU anthropologist now at the University of Wisconsin, turned over to him some tapes he had recorded of Nez Perce dances and songs.

“Dr. Elmendorf’s work generated considerable friendship between the university and the Nez Perce people,” Olsen said.

Olsen received grants from Alcoa Foundation and from the WSU graduate school to continue Elmendorf’s work in seeking out and preserving the Nez Perce music. Ron Halfmoon, a counselor in the High School Equivalency Program at WSU, suggested the 90-year-old singer as a good subject for recording the old music.

Webb was eager to preserve the old songs, too, on the condition that they be used for educational not commercial purposes, and that they remain the property of the Nez Perce tribe. Olsen made a number of trips to the Pendleton area to record the songs during the past semester.

Weptestma’na’ sang songs used at specific occasions during the 19th century, one of unbelievable change for his people. Others may date from centuries ago; no one knows, says Olsen.

“These are the oldest songs I have been able to find; they have immediate appeal because of the history behind them. They present an Indian viewpoint of history as passed down by word of mouth.”

Six of the songs are in the Nez Perce language. The others are in “vocables,” or vocal syllables.

Several are religious prophecy songs, and strike sharply home. For example, “Song of Tawis Waikt,” says, in substance, “My Spirit tells me that this earth is going to be turned over, and the cattle are going to be all over this land. People are going to live all over this country and there will be no more vacant land as there is today.” Today was the 1820’s.

Olsen, a wrestler as well as a musician in his undergraduate days at Grinnell College in Iowa, came to WSU from Hastings, Neb., College, where he combined teaching music with coaching wrestling. He holds his master’s degree in music from Drake and his doctorate from the University of Iowa.

He said the project “demonstrates the fact that a university can be of service to an Indian community; its resources and staff can be made use of by people who seldom get a chance to use them or don’t know that they are available.”

Many of us at WSU, he said, are “concerned about the Nez Perce people. We are interested in being of help if we can — after all, we are on their land.” WSU is on a corner of land allotted the Nez Perce under the treaty of 1855, although it is now on a vast area of land eliminated by later areas.

“A musician can be of value in service to the people. Very often the arts form the one bridge between cultures — sometimes that is the only way you get to know each other. Since the music comes from this very land we should know about it in our colleges. The whole Indian culture could teach us so much if we were only interested enough to hear. We have a lot to learn from a culture that views itself as a part of nature and has to function under the laws of nature, not one which views itself as a master of nature wishing to change it to meet its own needs.”

“Personally I’ve found a lot of interesting, historical material. It takes the land so much more exciting — the rivers, the mountains and the rugged west that’s disappearing. The most rewarding part of the project, however, has been meeting and working with many interesting individuals on a person-to-person basis.”

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