The Nez Perce // (autonym: Niimíipuu in their own language, meaning "the walking people" or "we, the people") are an Indigenous people of the Plateau who have lived on the Columbia River Plateau in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States for at least 11,500 years.
Members of the Sahaptin language group, the Niimíipuu were the dominant people of the Columbia Plateau for much of that time, especially after acquiring the horses that led them to breed the appaloosa horse in the 18th century.
Prior to "first contact" with Western civilization the Nimiipuu were economically and culturally influential in trade and war, interacting with other indigenous nations in a vast network from the western shores of Oregon and Washington, the high plains of Montana, and the northern Great Basin in southern Idaho and northern Nevada).
After first contact, the name "Nez Perce" was given to the Niimíipuu and the nearby Chinook people by French explorers and trappers. The name means "pierced nose," but only the Chinook used that form of decoration.
Today they are a federally recognized tribe, the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, and govern their Indian reservation in Idaho through a central government headquartered in Lapwai, Idaho known as the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC) as a sovereign nation. They are one of five federally recognized tribes in the state of Idaho. Some still speak their traditional language, and the Tribe owns and operates two casinos along the Clearwater River in Idaho in Kamiah, Idaho and outside of Lewiston, Idaho, health clinics, a police force and court, community centers, salmon fisheries, radio station, and other things that promote economic and cultural self-determination.
Cut off from most of their horticultural sites throughout the Camas Prairie by the 1863 "theft treaty", confinement to reservations in Idaho, Washington and Oklahoma Indian Territory after the Nez Perce War of 1877, and Dawes Act of 1887 land allotments (today some Nez Perce lease land to farmers or loggers, but the Nez Perce only own 12% of their own reservation), the Nez Perce remain as a distinct culture and political economic influence within and outside their reservation. Today, hatching, harvesting and eating salmon is an important cultural and economic strength of the Nez Perce through full ownership or co-management of various salmon fish hatcheries, such as the Kooskia National Fish Hatchery in Kooskia, Idaho or the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery in Orofino, Idaho.
The US Forest Service cites over 300 academic works on the Nez Perce between 1877 and 2005. Robert McCoy explores the "creation" of Nez Perce history as told by Anglo-American scholars, missionaries, and settlers to develop a regional identity (Pacific Northwest) that was integrated into a national framework of the West, the Manifest Destiny of the United States and global capitalism. Using secondary and primary sources from the 1870s-1940, with special attention paid to the "silence" of Nez Percé and other Plateau people’s voices, McCoy unpacks a "history" that, as Yellow Wolf said, was told to "please themselves". However, there are some very good sources on the Nez Perce.
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." English-speaking traders and settlers adopted the name in turn. Since the late 20th century, the Nez Perce identify most often as Niimíipuu in Sahaptin. The Lakota/ Dakota named them the Watopala, or Canoe people, from Watopa. However, after Nez Perce became a more common name, they changed it to Watopahlute. This comes from pahlute, nasal passage & is simply a play on words. If translated literally, it would come out as either "Nasal Passage of the Canoe," (Watopa-pahlute) or "Nasal Passage of the Grass." (Wato-pahlute) The tribe also uses the term "Nez Perce," as does the United States Government in its official dealings with them, and contemporary historians. Older historical ethnological works and documents use the French spelling of Nez Percé, with the diacritic. The original French pronunciation is [ne pɛʁse], with three syllables.
The interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition mistakenly identified this people as the Nez Perce when the team encountered the tribe in 1805. Writing in 1889, anthropologist Alice Fletcher, who the U.S. government had sent to Idaho to allot the Nez Perce Reservation, explained the mistaken naming. She wrote, "It is never easy to come at the name of an Indian or even of an Indian tribe. A tribe has always at least two names; one they call themselves by and one by which they are known to other tribes. All the tribes living west of the Rocky Mountains were called "Chupnit-pa-lu," which means people of the pierced noses; it also means emerging from the bushes or forest; the people from the woods. The tribes on the Columbia river used to pierce the nose and wear in it some ornament as you have seen some old fashioned white ladies wear in their ears. Lewis and Clark had with them an interpreter whose wife was a Shoshone or Snake woman and so it came about that when it was asked "What Indians are these?" the answer was "They are 'Chupnit-pa-lu'" and it was written down in the journal; spelled rather queerly, for white people's ears do not always catch Indian tones and of course the Indians could not spell any word."
In his journals, William Clark referred to the people as the Chopunnish //, a transliteration of a Sahaptin term. According to D.E. Walker in 1998, writing for the Smithsonian, this term is an adaptation of the term cú·pŉitpeľu (the Nez Perce people). The term is formed from cú·pŉit (piercing with a pointed object) and peľu (people). By contrast, the Nez Perce Language Dictionary has a different analysis than did Walker for the term cúpnitpelu. The prefix cú- 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." Together, these three elements: cú- + -piní + pelú = cúpnitpelu, or "the People Walking Single File Out of the Forest." 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.
The Nez Perce language, or Niimiipuutímt, is 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.
The Nez Perce territory at the time of Lewis and Clark (1804–1806) was approximately 17,000,000 acres (69,000 km2) and covered parts of present-day Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, in an area surrounding the Snake (Weyikespe), Grande Ronde River, Salmon (Naco’x kuus) ("Chinook salmon Water") and the Clearwater (Koos-Kai-Kai) ("Clear Water") rivers. The tribal area extended from the Bitterroots in the east (the door to the Northwestern Plains of Montana) to the Blue Mountains in the west between latitudes 45°N and 47°N.
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 including camps and villages, mostly in the Salmon River Canyon. 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 8,500 due to epidemics, conflicts with non-Indians, and other factors. A total of 3,499 Nez Perce were counted in the 2010 Census.
Like other Plateau tribes, the Nez Perce had seasonal villages and camps in order to take advantage of natural resources throughout the year. Their migration followed a recurring pattern from permanent winter villages through several temporary camps, nearly always returning to the same locations each year. The Nez Perce traveled via the Lolo Trail (Salish: Naptnišaqs - "Nez Perce Trail") (Khoo-say-ne-ise-kit) far east as the Plains (Khoo-sayn / Kuseyn) ("Buffalo country") of Montana to hunt buffalo (Qoq'a lx) and as far west as the Pacific Coast (’Eteyekuus) ("Big Water"). Before 1957 construction of The Dalles Dam, which flooded this area, Celilo Falls (Silayloo) was a favored location on the Columbia River (Xuyelp) ("The Great River") for salmon (lé'wliks)-fishing.
The Nez Perce had many allies and trading partners among neighboring peoples, but also enemies and ongoing antagonist tribes. To the north of them lived the Coeur d’Alene (Schitsu'umsh) (’Iskíicu’mix), Spokane (Sqeliz) (Heyéeynimuu), and further north the Kalispel (Ql̓ispé) (Qem’éespel’uu, both meaning "Camas People"), Colville (Páapspaloo) and Kootenay / Kootenai (Ktunaxa) (Kuuspel’úu), to the northwest lived the Palus (Pelúucpuu) and to the west the Cayuse (Lik-si-yu) (Weyíiletpuu - "Ryegrass People"), west bound there were found the Umatilla (Imatalamłáma) (Hiyówatalampoo), Walla Walla, Wasco (Wecq’úupuu) and Sk'in (Tike’éspel’uu) and northwest of the latter various Yakama bands (Lexéyuu), to the south lived the Snake Indians (various Northern Paiute (Numu) bands (Hey’ǘuxcpel’uu) in the southwest and Bannock (Nimi Pan a'kwati)-Northern Shoshone (Newe) bands (Tiwélqe) in the southeast), to the east lived the Lemhi Shoshone (Lémhaay), north of them the Bitterroot Salish / Flathead (Seliš) (Séelix), further east and northeast on the Northern Plains were the Crow (Apsáalooke) (’Isúuxe) and two powerful alliances - the Iron Confedery (Nehiyaw-Pwat) (named after the dominating Plains and Woods Cree (Paskwāwiyiniwak and Sakāwithiniwak) and Assiniboine (Nakoda) (Wihnen’íipel’uu), an alliance of northern plains Indian nations based around the fur trade, and later included the Stoney (Nakoda), Western Saulteaux / Plains Ojibwe (Bungi or Nakawē), and Métis) and the Blackfoot Confederacy (Niitsitapi or Siksikaitsitapi) (’Isq’óyxnix) (composed of three Blackfoot speaking peoples - the Piegan or Peigan (Piikáni), the Kainai or Bloods (Káínaa), and the Siksika or Blackfoot (Siksikáwa), later joined by the unrelated Sarcee (Tsuu T'ina) and (for a time) by Gros Ventre or Atsina (A'aninin)).
Because of great inter-marriage between Nez Perce bands and neighboring tribes or bands to forge alliances and peace (often living in mixed bilingual villages together), the following bands were also counted to the Nez Perce (which today are viewed as being linguistically and culturally closely related, but separate ethnic groups):
The semi-sedentary Nez Percés were Hunter-gatherer without agriculture living in a society in which most or all food is obtained by foraging (collecting wild plants and roots and pursuing wild animals). They depended on hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild roots and berries.
Nez Perce people historically depended on various Pacific salmon and Pacific trout for their food: Chinook salmon or "nacoox" (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha) were eaten the most, but other species such as Pacific lamprey (Entosphenus tridentatus or Lampetra tridentata), and chiselmouth. Other important fishes included the Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), Silver salmon or ka'llay (Oncorhynchus kisutch), Chum salmon or dog salmon or ka'llay (Oncorhynchus keta), Mountain whitefish or "ci'mey" (Prosopium williamsoni), White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), White sucker or "mu'quc" (Catostomus commersonii), and varieties of trout - West Coast steelhead or "heyey" (Oncorhynchus mykiss), brook trout or "pi'ckatyo" (Salvelinus fontinalis), bull trout or "i'slam" (Salvelinus confluentus), and Cutthroat trout or "wawa'lam" (Oncorhynchus clarkii).
Historically, in late May and early June, Nez Perce villagers crowded to communal fishing sites to trap eels, steelhead, and chinook salmon, or haul in fish with large dip nets. Fishing took place throughout the summer and fall, first on the lower streams and then on the higher tributaries, and catches also included salmon, sturgeon, whitefish, suckers, and varieties of trout. Most of the supplies for winter use came from a second run in the fall, when large numbers of Sockeye salmon, silver, and dog salmon appeared in the rivers.
Fishing is traditionally an important ceremonial and commercial activity for the Nez Perce tribe. Today 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 Rainbow trout/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.
The first fishing of the season was accompanied by prescribed rituals and a ceremonial feast known as "kooyit". Thanksgiving was offered to the Creator and to the fish for having returned and given themselves to the people as food. In this way, it was hoped that the fish would return the next year.
Like salmon, plants contributed to traditional Nez Perce culture in both material and spiritual dimensions.
Aside from fish and game, Plant foods provided over half of the dietary calories, with winter survival depending largely on dried roots, especially Kouse, or "qáamsit" (when fresh) and "qáaws" (when peeled and dried) (Lomatium especially Lomatium cous), and Camas, or "qém'es" (Nez Perce: "sweet") (Camassia quamash), the first being roasted in pits, while the other was ground in mortars and molded into cakes for future use, both plants had been traditionally an important food and trade item. Women were primarily responsible for the gathering and preparing of these root crops. Camas bulbs were gathered in the region between the Salmon and Clearwater river drainages. Techniques for preparing and storing winter foods enabled people to survive times of colder winters with little or no fresh foods.
Favorite fruits dried for winter were serviceberries or "kel" (Amelanchier alnifolia or Saskatoon berry), black huckleberries or "cemi'tk" (Vaccinium membranaceum), red elderberries or "mi'ttip" (Sambucus racemosa var. melanocarpa), and chokecherries or "ti'ms" (Prunus virginiana var. melanocarpa). Nez Perce textiles were made primarily from dogbane or "qeemu" (Apocynum cannabinum or Indian hemp), tules or "to'ko" (Schoenoplectus acutus var. acutus), and western redcedar or "tala'tat" (Thuja plicata). The most important industrial woods were redcedar, ponderosa pine or "la'qa" (Pinus ponderosa), Douglas fir or "pa'ps" (Pseudotsuga menziesii), sandbar willow or "tax's" (Salix exigua), and hard woods such as Pacific yew or "ta'mqay" (Taxus brevifolia) and syringa or "sise'qiy" (Philadelphus lewisii or Indian arrowwood).
Many fishes and plants important to Nez Perce culture are today state symbols: the black huckleberry or "cemi'tk" is the official state fruit and the Indian arrowwood or "sise'qiy", the Douglas fir or "pa'ps" is the state tree of Oregon and the ponderosa pine or "la'qa" of Montana, the Chinook salmon is the state fish of Oregon, the cutthroat trout or "wawa'lam" of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and the West Coast steelhead or "heyey" of Washington.
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". The weyekin would protect one from harm and become a personal guardian spirit. To receive a weyekin, a seeker would go to the mountains alone on a vision quest. This included fasting and meditation over several days. While on the quest, the individual may 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 museum at the Nez Perce National Historical Park, headquartered in Spalding, Idaho, and managed by the National Park Service includes a research center, archives, and library. Historical records are available for on-site study and interpretation of Nez Perce history and culture. 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.
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.
Recollecting the Nez Perce encounter with the Lewis and Clark party, in 1889 anthropologist Alice Fletcher wrote that "the Lewis and Clark explorers were the first white men that many of the people had ever seen and the women thought them beautiful." She wrote that the Nez Perce "were kind to the tired and hungry party. They furnished fresh horses and dried meat and fish with wild potatoes and other roots which were good to eat, and the refreshed white men went further on, westward, leaving their bony, wornout horses for the Indians to take care of and have fat and strong when Lewis and Clark should come back on their way home." On their return trip they arrived at the Nez Perce encampment the following spring, again hungry and exhausted. The tribe constructed a large tent for them and again fed them. Desiring fresh red meat, the party offered an exchange for a Nez Perce horse. Quoting from the Lewis and Clark diary, Fletcher writes, "The hospitality of the Chiefs was offended at the idea of an exchange. He observed that his people had an abundance of young horses and that if we were disposed to use that food, we might have as many as we wanted." The party stayed with the Nez Perce for a month before moving on.
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 instead of surrendering after the decisive Indian victory at 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.
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 Canada–US border. Chief Joseph surrendered to General Oliver O. Howard of the U.S. Cavalry. 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."
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. 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 the nonprofit called the First Nations Development Institute. 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.
The current tribal lands consist of a reservation in north central Idaho at , 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.
Due to tribal loss of lands, the population on the reservation is predominantly white, nearly 90% in 1988. The largest community is the city of Orofino, near its northeast corner. Lapwai is the seat of tribal government, and it has the highest percentage of Nez Percé people as residents, at about 81.4 percent.
Similar to the opening of Native American lands in Oklahoma by allowing acquisition of surplus by non-natives after households received plots, the U.S. government opened the Nez Percé reservation for general settlement on November 18, 1895. The proclamation had been signed less than two weeks earlier by President Grover Cleveland. Thousands rushed to grab land on the reservation, staking out their claims even on land owned by Nez Percé families.
Chief Lawyer, c. 1861
Peo Peo Tholekt (Bird Alighting), a Nez Perce warrior who helped capture the mountain howitzer at the Battle of the Big Hole
Yellow Wolf, December 30, 1909
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