Shoshone-Bannock Tribes' History Unfolds In World Premier "Sacred Land"

Nov 16, 2012

Idaho’s capitol city celebrates its 150 anniversary next year. But long before Boise became a city, the Treasure Valley was home to the Shoshone–Bannock people. In the mid-1800s the tribe was forced to relocate to Eastern Idaho.

Their story, from early history to present day, unfolds in a new musical piece called Sacred Land which premiers this weekend.

Boise based composer Jim Cockey listens to a rehearsal this week of his latest work
Credit Sadie Babits / Boise State Public Radio

Robert Franz, music director for the Boise Philharmonic,  says the 40 minute long piece started from a question.  “I’m new to the Treasure Valley and all of a sudden it dawned on me I didn’t know what happened 151 years ago in the Treasure Valley.”

He discovered a vast history that he calls “amazing and heart-wrenching.”  For hundreds of years, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes traversed a vast stretch of land. Depending on the season, they’d move from Oregon’s Blue Mountains through present day Boise, to Eastern Idaho, and into Wyoming and Montana.  

The land in and around Boise was considered sacred.  But in 1869 federal troops began the forced relocation of the Shoshone-Bannock to the Fort Hall Reservation in Eastern Idaho.  The goal with Sacred Land was to tell this story ahead of Boise’s big anniversary.

Franz commissioned Boise based composer Jim Cockey to create the piece.  “And I thought ‘Oh boy’ this could be tricky,” recalls Cockey.  “We’re celebrating the very event that became such a huge trauma for the Shoshone-Bannock that had been here for millennium with the forced relocation.”

Cockey worked with the tribes before he started to write. One tribal member says she gave him a basic course in Shoshone – Bannock music so he’d know how tribal songs connect people spiritually to the natural world.  Cockey says he was struck by how tribal members embraced the project and gave it their blessing.

“We eventually realized is that we’re telling the whole story,” he says. “The story before the European arrival, the conflict that happened -  a conflict on many levels physical, psychological and lifestyle  - and after that as well.”         

Composer Jim Cockey goes through the score for
Credit Sadie Babits / Boise State Public Radio

Sacred Land has four movements.  It opens with a sacred dance with English translations of two Shoshone songs. One is about the land. And the other is a prayer.  “Really a text that grabbed me the first time I read it, ‘Behold you are the one that created us. You have become a white butterfly.’ It blew my mind and it still does,” chuckles Cockey.

The second part celebrates the annual gathering each fall when all the tribes in the area would come together. Cockey says the third movement is about the relocation. He calls this “To Our Ancestors.”

“One of the direct descendants of the relocation that spoke to me at Fort Hall told me that her great grandmother said that the ‘Boise river turned red with the blood of our ancestors.’ And as soon as she told me that phrase, I went, ‘There’s my third movement.’” 

At a rehearsal this week, Robert Franz literally jumps off the floor and stamps his feet as he conducts the Boise Master Chorale through this third movement. When the premiere happens, Franz says, he doesn’t want the audience to feel guilt about the past.

“One of the great things about art is we can bring to the stage an awareness, a thought, a question,” Franz explains. “Really that is what this piece is for me. It’s to say to our audience ‘what does this mean to you. You live in this valley where for millennia people have lived.’ And so what does it mean how do we respond to that.”

The answer may come in the final movement which Cockey has named “To the healing of all people.”

At Saturday’s performance, the Boise Philharmonic,  the Boise Master Chorale, and 14 dancers from Ballet Idaho will take the stage. Shoshone – Bannock tribal members will be in the audience for the world premiere of Sacred Land.

Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio