Nez Perce people

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Nez Perce
Total population
Regions with significant populations
United States (Idaho)
English, Nez Perce
Seven Drum (Walasat), Christianity, other
Related ethnic groups
other Sahaptin peoples

The Nez Perce /ˌnɛzˈpɜːrs/ (autonym: Niimíipu) are a Native American tribe who live in the Pacific Northwest region (Columbia River Plateau) of the United States. An anthropological interpretation says they descended from the Old Cordilleran Culture, which moved south from the Rocky Mountains and west into lands where the tribe coalesced.[2] The federally recognized Nez Perce Nation currently governs and lives within its reservation in Idaho.[3] Their name for themselves is Nimíipuu (pronounced [nimiːpuː]), meaning, "The People," in their language, part of the Sahaptin family.[4]

They speak the Nez Perce language or Niimiipuutímt, a Sahaptian language related to the several dialects of Sahaptin. The Sahaptian sub-family is one of the branches of the Plateau Penutian family (which in turn may be related to a larger Penutian grouping).


Nez Perce baby in cradleboard, 1911.

Nez Percé is an exonym given by French Canadian fur traders who visited the area regularly in the late 18th century, meaning literally "pierced nose". Today the Nez Perce identify most often as Niimíipu in Sahaptin.[4] The tribe also uses the term "Nez Perce," as do the United States Government in its official dealings with them, and contemporary historians. Older historical ethnological works use the French spelling of Nez Percé, with the diacritic. The original French pronunciation is [ne pɛʁse], with three syllables.

William Clark in his journals referred to the people as the Chopunnish /ˈpənɪʃ/. This term is an adaptation of the term cú·pʼnitpeľu (the Nez Perce people) which is formed from cú·pʼnit (piercing with a pointed object) and peľu (people).[5] When analyzed through the Nez Perce Language Dictionary, the term cúpnitpelu contains no reference to "Piercing with a pointed object," as described by D.E. Walker. The prefix - means "in single file." This prefix, combined with the verb -piní, "to come out (e.g. of forest, bushes, ice)". Finally, with the suffix of -pelú, meaning "people or inhabitants of". Put all three parts of the Nez Perce word together now to get - + -piní + pelú = cúpnitpelu, or "the People Walking Single File Out of the Forest."[6][original research?] Nez Perce oral tradition indicates the name "Cuupn'itpel'uu" meant "we walked out of the woods or walked out of the mountains" and referred to the time before the Nez Perce had horses.[7]

Nez Perce is a misnomer given by the interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the time they first encountered the Nez Perce in 1805.[citation needed] It was a French term meaning "pierced nose." This is an inaccurate description of the tribe. They did not practice nose piercing or wearing ornaments. The "pierced nose" tribe lived on and around the lower Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and are commonly called the Chinook tribe by historians and anthropologists. The Chinook relied heavily upon salmon, as did the Nez Perce. The peoples shared fishing and trading sites but the Chinook were much more hierarchical in their social arrangements.[citation needed]

Traditional lands and culture

A traditional Nez Perce beaded shirt.
Nez Perce encampment, Lapwai, Idaho, ca. 1899
No Horn on His Head, a Nez Perce man painted by George Catlin

The Nez Perce territory at the time of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806) was approximately 17,000,000 acres (69,000 km2). It covered parts of present-day Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, in an area surrounding the Snake, Salmon and the Clearwater rivers. The tribal area extended from the Bitterroots in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west between latitudes 45°N and 47°N.[8]

In 1800, the Nez Perce had more than 100 permanent villages, ranging from 50 to 600 individuals, depending on the season and social grouping. Archeologists have identified a total of about 300 related sites, mostly in the Salmon River Canyon, including both camps and villages. In 1805 the Nez Perce were the largest tribe on the Columbia River Plateau, with a population of about 12,000. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Nez Perce had declined to about 8500 because of epidemics, conflicts with non-Indians, and other factors.[9] A total of 3499 Nez Perce were counted in the 2010 Census.[1]

Similar to many western Native American tribes, the Nez Perce were migratory and would travel in seasonal rounds, according to where the abundant food was to be found at a given time of year. This migration followed a predictable pattern from permanent winter villages through several temporary camps, nearly always returning to the same locations each year. They were known to go as far east as the Great Plains of Montana to hunt buffalo, and as far west as the west coast. Before construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957, which flooded this area, Celilo Falls was a respected and favored location to fish for salmon on the Columbia River. They relied heavily on q'emes or camas root as a food source; it was gathered in the region between the Salmon and Clearwater river drainages.

The Nez Perce believed in spirits called weyekins (Wie-a-kins) which would, they thought, offer "a link to the invisible world of spiritual power".[10] The weyekin would protect one from harm and become a personal guardian spirit. To receive a weyekin, both girls and boys, aged 12 to 15, would go to the mountains alone on a vision quest. The person on quest would take a brew of dry peyote or other sacred plants, which the people believed held spiritual power. They did not eat and drank very little water. While on the quest, the individual would receive a vision of a spirit, which would take the form of a mammal or bird. This vision could appear physically or in a dream or trance. The weyekin was to bestow the animal's powers on its bearer—for example; a deer might give its bearer swiftness. A person's weyekin was very personal. It was rarely shared with anyone and was contemplated in private. The weyekin stayed with the person until death.

The Nez Perce National Historical Park, with headquarters in Spalding, Idaho, is managed overall by the National Park Service. The museum in Spalding includes a research center holding the park's historical archives and library collection. It is available for on-site use in the study and interpretation of Nez Perce history and culture.[11] The park includes 38 sites associated with the Nez Perce in the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, many of which are managed by local and state agencies.[11]


European contact

"The Heart of the Monster", described in the Nez Perce origin story

In 1805 William Clark was the first known Euro-American to meet any of the tribe, excluding the aforementioned French Canadian traders. While he, Meriwether Lewis and their men were crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, they ran low of food, and Clark took six hunters and hurried ahead to hunt. On September 20, 1805, near the western end of the Lolo Trail, he found a small camp at the edge of the camas-digging ground, which is now called Weippe Prairie. The explorers were favorably impressed by the Nez Perce whom they met. Preparing to make the remainder of their journey to the Pacific by boats on rivers, they entrusted the keeping of their horses until they returned to "2 brothers and one son of one of the Chiefs." One of these Indians was Walammottinin (meaning "Hair Bunched and tied," but more commonly known as Twisted Hair). He was the father of Chief Lawyer, who by 1877 was a prominent member of the "Treaty" faction of the tribe. The Nez Perce were, generally, faithful to the trust; and the party recovered their horses without serious difficulty when they returned.[12]

Flight of the Nez Perce

Map showing the flight of the Nez Perce and key battle sites

Under pressure from the European Americans, in the late 19th century the Nez Perce split into two groups: one side accepted the coerced relocation to a reservation and the other refused to give up their fertile land in Idaho and Oregon. Those willing to go to a reservation made a treaty in 1877. The flight of the non-treaty Nez Perce began on June 15, 1877, with Chief Joseph, Looking Glass, White Bird, Ollokot, Lean Elk (Poker Joe) and Toohoolhoolzote leading 2,900 men, women and children in an attempt to reach a peaceful sanctuary. They intended to seek shelter with their allies the Crow but, upon the Crow's refusal to offer help, the Nez Perce tried to reach the camp in Canada of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. He had migrated there after decisively defeating United States forces in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Nez Perce were pursued by over 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army on an epic flight to freedom of more than 1,170 miles (1,880 km) across four states and multiple mountain ranges. The 800 Nez Perce warriors defeated or held off the pursuing troops in 18 battles, skirmishes, and engagements. More than 300 US soldiers and 1,000 Nez Perce (including women and children) were killed in these conflicts.[13]

A majority of the surviving Nez Perce were finally forced to surrender on October 5, 1877, after the Battle of the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana, 40 miles (64 km) from the Canadian border. Chief Joseph surrendered to General Oliver O. Howard of the U.S. Cavalry.[14] During the surrender negotiations, Chief Joseph sent a message, usually described as a speech, to the US soldiers. It has become renowned as one of the greatest American speeches: "...Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."[15]

The route of the Nez Perce flight is preserved by the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.[16] The annual Cypress Hills ride in June commemorates the Nez Perce people's attempt to escape to Canada.[17]

Nez Perce horse breeding program

Nez Perce warrior on horse, 1910.

In 1994 the Nez Perce tribe began a breeding program, based on crossbreeding the Appaloosa and a Central Asian breed called Akhal-Teke, to produce what they called the Nez Perce Horse.[18] They wanted to restore part of their traditional horse culture, where they had conducted selective breeding of their horses, long considered a marker of wealth and status, and trained their members in a high quality of horsemanship. Social disruption due to reservation life and assimilationist pressures by Americans and the government resulted in the destruction of their horse culture in the 19th century. The 20th-century breeding program was financed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the Nez Perce tribe, and a nonprofit group called the First Nations Development Institute (based in Washington D.C.) It has promoted businesses in Native American country that reflect values and traditions of the peoples. The Nez Perce Horse breed is noted for its speed.


Fishing is an important ceremonial, subsistence, and commercial activity for the Nez Perce tribe. Nez Perce fishers participate in tribal fisheries in the mainstream Columbia River between Bonneville and McNary dams. The Nez Perce also fish for spring and summer Chinook salmon and steelhead in the Snake River and its tributaries. The Nez Perce tribe runs the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery on the Clearwater River, as well as several satellite hatchery programs.

Nez Perce people historically depended on fish for their food. Chinook salmon were eaten the most, but other species such as lampreys, whitefish, and chiselmouth.[19] Prior to contact with Europeans, the Nez Perce's traditional hunting and fishing areas spanned from the Cascade Range in the west to the Bitterroot Mountains in the east.[20]

Nez Perce Indian Reservation

The current tribal lands consist of a reservation in north central Idaho at Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found., primarily in the Camas Prairie region south of the Clearwater River, in parts of four counties. In descending order of surface area, the counties are Nez Perce, Lewis, Idaho, and Clearwater. The total land area is about 1,195 square miles (3,100 km2), and the reservation's population at the 2000 census was 17,959.[21] Its largest community is the city of Orofino, near its northeast corner. Lapwai, the seat of tribal government, has the highest percentage of Nez Perce people, at about 81.4 percent.

Similar to the opening of lands in Oklahoma, the U.S. government opened the reservation for white settlement on November 18, 1895. The proclamation had been signed less than two weeks earlier by President Cleveland.[22][23][24][25]


In addition, the Colville Indian Reservation in eastern Washington contains the Joseph band of Nez Perce.

Notable Nez Perce

Yellow Wolf
December 30, 1909
Peo Peo Tholekt (Bird Alighting), a Nez Perce warrior who helped capture the mountain howitzer at the Battle of the Big Hole
  • Chief Lawyer "Hal-hal-hoot-soot" was the son of Twisted Hair. He was designated as Head Chief of the Nez Perce for the signing of the 1855 and controversial 1863 Treaty. He was called the Lawyer by fur trappers because of his oratory and ability to speak several languages. He defended the actions of the 1863 Treaty which cost the Nez Perce nearly 90% of their lands after gold was discovered because he knew it was futile to resist the US Government and its military power. He tried to negotiate the best outcome which still allowed the majority of Nez Perce to live in their usual village locations. He died, frustrated that the US Government failed to follow through on the promises made in both Treaties even making a trip to Washington, DC to express his frustration.[citation needed]
  • Old Chief Joseph (Tuekakas), (also: tiwíiteq'is), was leader of the Wallowa Band and one of the first Nez Percé converts to Christianity and vigorous advocate of the tribe's early peace with whites, father of Chief Joseph (also known as Young Joseph).
  • Chief Joseph (hinmatóoyalahtq'it - "Thunder traveling to higher areas") the best-known leader of the Nez Perce, who led his people in their struggle to retain their identity, with about 60 warriors, he commanded the greatest following of the non-treaty chiefs. (also known as Young Joseph)
  • Ollokot, (’álok'at, also known as Ollikut) younger brother of Chief Joseph, war chief of the Wallowa band, was killed while fighting at the final battle on Snake Creek, near the Bear Paw Mountains on October 4, 1877.
  • Looking Glass, (Allalimya Takanin) leader of the non-treaty Alpowai band and war leader, who was killed during the tribe's final battle with the US Army; his following was third and did not exceed 40 men.
  • Eagle from the Light,[26] (Tipiyelehne Ka Awpo) chief of the non-treaty Lam'tama band, that traveled east over the Bitterroot Mountains along with Looking Glass' band to hunt buffalo, was present at the Walla Walla Council in 1855 and supported the non-treaty faction at the Lapwai Council, refused to sign the Treaty of 1855 and 1866, left his territory on Salmon River (two miles south of Corvallis) in 1875 with part of his band, and did settle down in Weiser County (Montana), joined with Shoshone Chief's Eagle's Eye. The leadership of the other Lam'tama that rested on the Salmon River was taken by old chief White Bird. Eagle From the Light didn't participate in the War of 1877 because he was too far away.
  • Peo Peo Tholekt (piyopyóot’alikt - "Bird Alighting”), a Nez Perce warrior who fought with distinction in every battle of the Nez Perce War, wounded in the Battle of Camas Creek.
  • White Bird (Peo-peo-hix-hiix, piyóopiyo x̣ayx̣áyx̣ or more correctly Peopeo Kiskiok Hihih - "White Goose”), also referred to as White Pelican was war leader and tooat (Medicine man (or Shaman) or Prophet) of the non-treaty Lamátta or Lamtáama band, belonging to Lahmatta ("area with little snow”), by which White Bird Canyon was known to the Nez Perce, his following was second in size to Joseph's, and did not exceed 50 men
  • Toohoolhoolzote, was leader and tooat (medicine man (or shaman) or prophet) of the non-treaty Pikunan band; fought in the Nez Perce War after first advocating peace; died at the Battle of Bear Paw
  • Yellow Wolf (He–Mene Mox Mox, himíin maqsmáqs, wished to be called Heinmot Hihhih or In-mat-hia-hia - "White Lightning”, c. 1855, died August 1935) was a Nez Perce warrior of the non-treaty Wallowa band who fought in the Nez Perce War of 1877, gunshot wound, left arm near wrist; under left eye in the Battle of the Clearwater
  • Yellow Bull (Chuslum Moxmox, Cúuɫim maqsmáqs), war leader of a non-treaty band
  • Wrapped in the Wind (’elelímyeté'qenin’/ háatyata'qanin')
  • Rainbow (Wahchumyus), war leader of a non-treaty band, killed in the Battle of the Big Hole
  • Five Wounds (Pahkatos Owyeen), wounded in right hand at the Battle of the Clearwater and killed in the Battle of the Big Hole
  • Red Owl (Koolkool Snehee), war leader of a non-treaty band
  • Poker Joe, warrior and subchief; chosen trail boss and guide of the Nez Percé people following the Battle of the Big Hole, killed in the Battle of Bear Paw; half French Canadian and Nez Perce descent
  • Hallalhotsoot (Halalhot'suut, c.1796 - Jan. 3, 1876), known to whites as "Lawyer," son of a Salish-speaking Flathead woman and Twisted Hair, the Nez Perce who welcomed and befriended Lewis and Clark in the fall of 1805. His father's positive experiences with the whites greatly influenced him, leader of the treaty faction of the Nez Percé, signed the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855
  • Timothy (Tamootsin, 1808–1891), leader of the treaty faction of the Alpowai (or Alpowa) band of the Nez Percé, was the first Christian convert among the Nez Percé, was married to Tamer, a sister of Old Chief Joseph, who was baptized on the same day as Timothy.[27]
  • Archie Phinney (1904–1949), scholar and administrator who studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University and produced Nez Perce Texts, a published collection of Nez Perce myths and legends from the oral tradition[28]
  • Elaine Miles, actress best known from her role in television's Northern Exposure
  • Jack and Al Hoxie, silent film actors; mother was Nez Perce
  • Jackson Sundown, war veteran and rodeo champion
  • Claudia Kauffman, a former state senator in Washington state

Fiction Nez Perce

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 2010 Figures for total Nez Perce community. Retrieved 2010.10.05
  2. Josephy, Alvin M. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, Boston: Mariner Books, 1997. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-395-85011-4.
  3. R. David Edmunds "The Nez Perce Flight for Justice," American Heritage, Fall 2008.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Aoki, Haruo. Nez Perce Dictionary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0-520-09763-6.
  5. Walker, Deward (1998). Plateau. Handbook of North American Indians v. 12. Smithsonian Institution. pp. 437–438 l. ISBN 0-16-049514-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Aoki, Haruo (1994). Nez Perce Dictionary. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 52, 527, 542. ISBN 978-0-520-09763-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Since Time Immemorial". Lewis & Clark Rediscovery Project. Nez Perce Tribe. Retrieved May 23, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  9. Walker, Jr., Deward E.; Jones, Peter N. (1964). The Nez Perce. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Research Center". Nez Perce National Historic Park. Retrieved April 14, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Josephy, Alvin. "The Nez Perce Indians and the opening of the Northwest". Yale University Press, 1971.
  13. Josephy, Jr., Alvin M. The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 632–633.
  14. "Letters and Quotations of the Nez Perce Flight". US Forest Service. Retrieved April 14, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Chief Joseph Surrenders". Great Speeches. Retrieved April 14, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Maps of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail". US Forest Service. Retrieved April 14, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Praharenka, Gail; Niemeyer, Bernice. "Nez Perce Ride to Freedom". Archived from the original on May 17, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Nez Perce horse culture resurrected through new breed". Idaho Natives. Retrieved May 22, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  20. Landeen (1999), Salmon and His People, p. 92
  21. "Nez Perce Reservation Census of Population". United States Census Bureau. 2000. Archived from the original on October 8, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Hamilton, Ladd (June 25, 1961). "Heads were popping up all over the place". Lewiston Morning Tribune. p. 14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Brammer, Rhonda (July 24, 1977). "Unruly mobs dashed to grab land when reservation opened". Lewiston Morning Tribune. p. 6E.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "3,000 took part in "sneak" when Nez Perce Reservation was opened". Lewiston Morning Tribune. November 19, 1931. p. 3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Nez Perce Reservation". Spokesman-Review. December 11, 1921. p. 5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. McCoy, Robert R. (2004). Chief Joseph, Yellow Wolf and the Creation of Nez Perce History in the Pacific Northwest. Indigenous Peoples and Politics. New York: Routledge. pp. 103&ndash, 109. ISBN 0-415-94889-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "The Treaty Trail: U.S.-Indian Treaty Councils in the Northwest". Washington State Historical Society. Retrieved April 14, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Rigby, Barry (July 3, 1990). "Archie Phinney was a champion of Indian rights". Lewiston Morning Tribune. p. 4-Centennial.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Beal, Merrill D. "I Will Fight No More Forever": Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963.
  • Bial, Raymond. The Nez Perce. New York: Benchmark Books, 2002. ISBN 0-7614-1210-7.
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Will Henry: From Where the Sun Now Stands, New York: Bantam Books, 1976. ISBN 0-553-02581-3.
  • Humphrey, Seth K. (1906). "Wikisource link to The Nez Perces". The Indian Dispossessed (Revised ed.). Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Wikisource. OCLC 68571148. 
  • Josephy, Alvin M. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. Yale Western Americana series, 10. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value). Oral traditions from the Chinook, Nez Perce, Klickitat and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Lavender, David Sievert. Let Me Be Free: The Nez Perce Tragedy. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. ISBN 0-06-016707-6.
  • Nerburn, Kent. Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy. New York: HarperOne, 2005. ISBN 0-06-051301-2.
  • Pearson, Diane. The Nez Perces in the Indian Territory: Nimiipuu Survival. 2008 Indian Studies professor traces the history of the Nez Perces and their maltreatment by the U.S. government. ISBN 978-0-8061-3901-2.
  • Stout, Mary. Nez Perce. Native American peoples. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Pub, 2003. ISBN 0-8368-3666-9.
  • Warren, Robert Penn. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Who Called Themselves the Nimipu, "the Real People": A Poem. New York: Random House, 1983. ISBN 0-394-53019-5.

External links