ANDRÉ PICARD JR. picks up the hand drum and, in a strong resonant voice, begins singing a Nez Perce song to his rapt student audience.
“Our music is not written down anywhere,” says the visitor to the Washington State University ethnomusicology class. “I can match up with background sounds like a hum, or with other singers. Turns out good that way. Sort of like a jam session—you never know where it goes.”
Picard is a Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) tribal member from Lapwai, Idaho, who on Indigenous Peoples’ Day last October spoke to several classes taught by associate professor of music Melissa Parkhurst.
Parkhurst studies Native American music in the Pacific Northwest and has recorded oral histories and hundreds of songs of the Nimíipuu people both in the field and at WSU School of Music recording studios.
“A lot of what I do is recording the culture bearers singing songs and talking about music they heard growing up and how it’s been meaningful in their lives through the present day,” she says. “I’m hoping to eventually publish an anthology that would be useful for the tribe.”
Parkhurst has recorded a range of music performed by Picard and his wife and sons.
“The last session they did was all stick game songs,” she says. “Stick game is a traditional guessing game that’s played family against family and is popular in the Northwest. While one team hides bones in their hands, they sing power songs to distract the other team from guessing who’s holding the bones.”
Those recordings will eventually join a large body of earlier music collected by Loran Olsen, professor emeritus of music and Native American studies.
“Loran worked with the Nez Perce community for several decades and set up the Nez Perce Music Archive,” Parkhurst says. “He compiled all known sound recordings of the Nez Perce from 1897 through 1974—over 300 hours of music.
“Loran also compiled a body of historic recordings known as the Sam Morris Collection,” she says. “Morris was a Nez Perce tribal member who made recordings with his own Edison phonograph between 1909 and 1912. There are around 60 songs of his friends and family members singing a wide variety of genres, all recorded on wax cylinders.”
In the 1990s, those cylinders were discovered for sale online and brought to Olsen’s attention. He helped WSU acquire and later return them to the tribe in Lapwai, along with the Nez Perce Music Archive. The recording machine remains housed in WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections.
“It’s a really precious body of music,” Parkhurst says. “Part of my work with a recent grant from the WSU Center for Arts and Humanities will be to continue recording Nez Perce singers. We’d like to see it go beyond 1974 to give young people a chance to hear the voices of their grandparents—to know Nimíipuu culture is alive and thriving today.”
Parkhurst is collaborating with Olsen on an upcoming book to be published through WSU Press entitled Niimíipum We’nipt: Songs of the People.
In 2014, while teaching in Oregon, she published To Win the Indian Heart: Music at Chemawa Indian School, an account of music-making practices at the nation’s oldest continuously operating Native American boarding school, outside Salem.
“Chemawa impacted Native families all over the Northwest including the Nimíipuu,” Parkhurst says. “I don’t want to minimize the trauma so many thousands of children experienced in the boarding school system, but I do want to argue that music making often gave these children the friendships and skills that helped them get through some of life’s challenges.”
Instead of causing the children to assimilate as the school had hoped, she says music-making activities often put protective factors in place like the presence of a genuinely caring adult as well as social bonding with peers, a sense of competence on their instrument, and sometimes even pride in their tribal heritage.
With COVID-19 vaccines now readily available, Parkhurst and her team hope to resume documenting the Nimíipuu peoples’ musical heritage through field recordings planned for the spring and summer of 2022.
One of her last pre-pandemic recording sessions took place in 2019 at the Talmaks Camp, a 122-year-old Nez Perce Presbyterian church camp near Craigmont, Idaho.
“There were kids, adults, and elders all gathered there for two weeks with daily church services and music,” Parkhurst says. “We recorded songs in English as well as Nez Perce translated hymns.
“Preserving and documenting this traditional Nimíipuu culture is just one way we can serve the First Nations people on whose land the WSU Pullman campus is located.”
Listen to music from André Picard Jr., historical recordings, and other Nimíipuu music.