In Idaho, Lapwa—"place of the butterflies"—has been part of the Nez Perce tribal lands for thousands of years. The Nez Perce, or Nimapu as they call themselves, once lived in 50-some small, extended villages along the many streams that sculpt their aboriginal territory. They hunted deer, elk and mountain sheep, and netted trout and salmon from the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers. Acquiring horses in about 1730, they discovered selective breeding and developed the largest herds found in the Columbia River Plateau or Pacific Northwest Coast culture areas. Forcibly reduced under the 1887 Dawes Act from 10,000 square miles, their reservation now encompasses only 88,000 acres. At present, more than 2,000 members are carried on the tribal roll in the Nez Perce office at Lapwai, five miles south of the Nez Perce National Historic Park.
Artists and teachers worked with Nez Perce youth to develop a play grounded in their legends, of which the coyote is a central figure. (Photo courtesy of the Nez Perce tribe)
Adult tribal members are working assiduously through the arts to involve their youth in the cultural traditions of the tribe. One such effort was initiated two years ago and continues to evolve. Supported by a Creative Alternatives for Youth grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, four Nez Perce organizations—Leep'way Arts Council, Students for Success, Nez Perce Community Service Program and Lapwai School District—collaborated to involve tribal youth in learning some of their own legends through a publicly performed play.
Using Theater to Teach Tribal Values
The partners decided to immerse students in the production of a play involving aspects of their heritage. Angel McFarland, a tribal member experienced in working with youth and writing scripts, wrote the play. Dr. Shirlee Hennigan, a theater and communication arts teacher at nearby Lewis-Clark State College, agreed to direct the production. Yvette Whitman, a Nez Perce, designed the historical and animal costumes. Lapwai art teacher Linda Boyer volunteered to provide technical assistance.
Set design focused on a series of four-by-six-foot murals. George Flett, a member of the Spokane tribe, had earlier worked with the children at Lapwai. He conceived and outlined the paintings and brought the panels into the classroom so that the children could develop and complete eight pieces with him during the weeklong residency.
The script integrated three Nez Perce coyote myths—the coyote being the trickster figure that created the Nimapu. Some Nez Perce vocabulary was added to the text, as well as contemporary humor.
Once the costumes were assembled, the murals finished and the 13 characters cast, the play was performed three times in two separate locations for Lapwai students and the community. The final performance, in nearby Lewiston, Idaho, drew an audience of more than 1,000 students. Says Ann McCormack, cultural arts coordinator for the Nez Perce Leep'way Arts Council and project coordinator, "When I heard the children begging to know when they could perform the play again, I knew we had done a good thing."
After the performances were over, the reservation's senior citizens center, community center and Lapwai Elementary vigorously competed for permanent display of the murals. They are an object of pride for everyone who had a hand in their creation.
The Nez Perce Legends program was considered such a success by tribal members that this year the Idaho Commission on the Arts is funding a second Creative Alternatives for Youth project, expanding upon the earlier one. The new program began at the summer 2002 Culture Camp in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon, traditional homeland of the Lapwai band. The camp, now in its third year, escorts over 100 Nez Perce youth to a site in the valley where for two weeks the youngsters learn about their Nez Perce history and culture.
The new project will require each youngster to identify an admirable leader from family, community or tribal history. Then, working with contemporary tribal leaders, they will write a sketch of the person and, together with an art teacher, assemble an artistic collage and a physical symbol representing attributes of that leader.
Over the course of a year, the written sketch will be translated into the Nez Perce language with the help of The Circle of Elders. Once revised and completed, each child, while holding the visible symbol, will give a public oral recitation of his or her description to three different audiences. Subsequently, the artistic collages will be displayed for a month in tribal buildings on the reservation.
This latest endeavor uses the arts to identify qualities of tribal leadership and to connect Nez Perce youngsters with their own historic, linguistic and artistic heritage. "By combining resources and talents, diverse Idaho communities have responded to the serious challenges that drugs, violence and alienation pose for our children," says Dan Harpole, executive director of the Idaho Commission on the Arts. "It's exciting to see the many ways that the arts channel energy into positive alternatives."
Creative Alternatives for Youth Year started: 2001 Purpose: To support collaborations among arts organizations and social service agencies addressing at-risk youth through prevention and intervention strategies. Total projects: 3-4 annually Grant awards: $7,500-$10,000 with 1:1 match Funding: $50,000 from the Idaho State Legislature