Nez Perce Music & History on the Rivers


By Julie Kehr, heritage guide, S.S. Legacy

Every week, JR Spencer, professional storyteller and singer of traditional songs, visits the SS Legacy docked in Clarkston,Washington during our Columbia & Snake Rivers cruise.

Hailing from Lapwai, Idaho, JR is a member of the Nez Perce tribe. JR enters the room dressed in traditional tribal clothing. He begins his presentation with a Nez Perce greeting and then a song and drumming as guests sit captivated. They remain solemn as he sings until they begin to make out the words of the song: “I like Oreos.”

JR Spencer, Nez Perce

JR Spencer wears traditional Nez Perce clothing

We laugh and JR explains that stories are meant to be fun and we must be in a playful mood in order to enjoy them. The stories he shares combine Nez Perce myths with modern Nez Perce history. He jumps from one story to the next with ease, telling us why the muskrat’s tail boasts no fur and why dogs always sniff each other’s tails. He speaks of the trickster god Coyote and how he created the Nez Perce people to be fierce warriors with big hearts.

In between songs played on wooden flutes, he explains the significance of music in Nez Perce culture, as well as how one too many a young man has found himself in trouble with grandma. Not only does JR’s storytelling provide guests with a sense of the warm culture of the Nez Perce tribe, but it also invites them to connect with him and his experience growing up as a Nez Perce through humor and shared childhood experiences.

JR Spencer plays flute

Singing, drumming and playing flute, a mix of traditional Nez Perce songs along with his humorous versions

This is the wonder of JR’s presence. We as an audience understand that he shares with us something of great value to him and to his people, but with his humor he assures us this value lies partially in not taking ourselves too seriously.

I am fortunate in that I have seen JR’s storytelling numerous times. Each week, the content is different from the next. He might add another joke here or a memory he thought of there. In this way, each audience experiences something different from any other audience, something spontaneous and very much in-the-moment.

Watch a short video capturing JR Spencer's humorous take on a traditional Nez Perce song on YouTube, posted by Cruisington Times.

JR Spencer, storytelling

Telling stories of growing up Nez Perce and his tribe's stories passed down from generation to generation

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