Nez Percé

views updated May 23 2018


by Laurie Collier Hillstrom and Richard C. Hanes


The Nez Percé (nez-PURSE or nay-per-SAY) tribe's traditional territory includes the interior Pacific Northwest areas of north-central Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington. The Nez Percé call themselves Nee-Me-Poo or Nimipu, which means "our people." The name Nez Percé is French for "pierced nose" and was applied to the tribe by early French Canadian fur traders, who apparently observed a few individuals in the region with pendants in their noses. Nose piercing, however, is not a common Nez Percé custom.

Despite maintaining peaceful and friendly relations with non-native peoples for most of their historysuch as the celebrated assistance they gave to Lewis and Clark when the famous American explorers were near starvation in 1805the Nez Percé are perhaps best known for their battles with the U.S. Army during the Nez Percé War of 1877. The 750-member Wallowa band of Nez Percé kept more than 2,000 highly-trained American troops at bay during a four-month, 1,600-mile trek through the rugged high country of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. The band was finally forced to surrender only 30 miles short of reaching safety in Canada. At the time, the dramatic "Flight of the Nez Percé" was front-page news in the United States and is still studied by military historians.

The Nez Percé were one of the most numerous and powerful tribes of the Plateau Culture area, living a semi-sedentary existence as fishermen, hunters, and gatherers. They speak a Sahaptian dialect of the Penutian language family, which is common among other Plateau groups in the mid-Columbia River region. According to Michael G. Johnson in The Native Tribes of North America, the Nez Percé population was estimated at about 6,000 in 1800. By the beginning of the next century, their numbers had declined to about 1,500 due to newly introduced diseases, the loss of tribal lands, and a reduction of economic resources. Many of the almost 4,000 descendants of the tribe live on the Nez Percé reservation near Lapwai, Idaho, except for the Joseph band, which resides on the Colville reservation of north-central Washington.


Before the Nez Percé acquired horses in the early 1700s, they lived in semi-subterranean pit houses covered with branches and earth. They spent most of their time fishing, hunting, or gathering wild plants for food. The use of horses rapidly changed the lifestyle of the Nez Percé, allowing them to trade with neighboring tribes and make annual trips to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. The increased contact with tribes of the Great Plains and the Pacific Coast also led to the advent of more decorative Nez Percé clothing styles and new forms of housing, such as hide-covered tepees and pit-tepees. The rich grasslands of the Nez Percé territory enabled the tribe to raise some of the largest horse herds of any Native American group. Skilled horse breeders and trainers, the Nez Percé became particularly well known for breeding the sturdy, spotted horses now called Appaloosas.

Typical of many native groups in the West, the Nez Percé lacked an overall tribal organization, living instead in bands composed of families and extended kinship groups. Each autonomous village or band had a headman who could speak only for his own followers. When a major decision needed to be made, the headmen of the various bands, along with respected shamans, elders, and hunting and war leaders, would meet in a combined council and attempt to reach a consensus.

The first contact between the Nez Percé and non-native people occurred in the fall of 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition wandered into western Idaho. The American explorers were cold, tired, and running low on food when they encountered the Nez Percé. The tribe provided assistance that may have prevented members of the expedition from starving. They also helped the explorers build boats and guided them toward the Pacific Coast. Over the next few decades, the Nez Percé similarly established friendly relations with French Canadian and American fur traders, missionaries, and settlers. At the request of the Nez Percé, a Methodist minister named Henry Spalding established a mission near Lapwai in 1836. Three years later, Asa Smith established another mission at Kamiah. The Nez Percé consulted these ministers for the special powers they seemingly held.

As the number of white settlers in the Northwest increased through the mid-1800s, the Nez Percé avoided many of the conflicts that plagued other tribes. At the Walla Walla Council of 1855, the Nez Percé signed a treaty ceding most of their 13 million acre ancestral territory to the government in exchange for money and a guarantee that 7.5 million acres of their lands would remain intact as a reservation. Immediately after the governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Ingalls Stevens, had signed treaties with several Plateau tribes, he wrote a letter to an eastern newspaper proclaiming the Northwest open for settlement. Other area tribes reacted violently to his duplicity by attacking settlers arriving in the territory. This violence led to the Plateau Indian, or Yakima, War of 1855-1858. Although the Nez Percé remained neutral in the conflict, the treaty signing had split the tribe. The Christianized Nez Percé led by Lawyer (Hallalhot-soot), who signed the treaty, supported the agreement, but many of the tribe's traditionalists balked at signing away their lands.

In the early 1860s, gold was discovered on Nez Percé lands. In violation of the 1855 treaty, settlers rushed in and laid claim to the land. They soon began pressuring the U.S. government to open more tribal territory for mining and settlement. In 1863, Governor Stevens again approached the Nez Percé about relinquishing more tribal lands. Although many leaders, including Chief Joseph (Heinmot Tooyalakekt) and White Bird, refused to negotiate, Lawyer and several others signed a new treaty with Stevens. This treaty reduced the Nez Percé reservation to 780,000 acres. In what came to be known among tribal members as the Thief Treaty, the Nez Percé had lost their claim to many important areas, including Joseph's home territory in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon. Upon hearing this news, Old Chief Joseph (Tu-kekas), the peaceful leader of the Wallowa band who had converted to Christianity some years earlier, destroyed his Bible. Despite the anger and resentment caused by this treaty, the Nez Percé remained peaceful in their relations with whites and expressed their discontent through passive noncompliance.

Upon the death of Old Chief Joseph in 1871 his son, Young Chief Joseph, took over leadership of the Wallowa band. In 1873 the government tried to create a Wallowa reservation for Joseph's band, but abandoned the attempt two years later under pressure from the white settlers. Representing his people in a meeting with General Oliver Howard at the Lapwai Council of 1876, Chief Joseph firmly refused to honor the 1863 treaty and give up the tribe's ancestral valley. The following year, however, the government gave the tribe 30 days to vacate Wallowa Valley and move to a reservation near Lapwai, Idaho. When it became clear that war would result if the Wallowa band continued to resist, Chief Joseph agreed to relocate. He stated, "I would give up everything rather than have the blood of my people on my hands."

Before the move could begin, young rebels within the tribe attacked a group of whites in retribution for previous mistreatment of the Nez Percé. Three men were killed and another wounded. Panic spread quickly on both sides, and the U.S. cavalry was mobilized. When the Nez Percé did not leave the Wallowa Valley as ordered, the cavalry attacked Chief Joseph's village. Joseph and the rest of the Wallowa band, which consisted of 250 men and 500 women, children, and elderly, fled into the surrounding mountains. About 2,000 U.S. Army troops under General Howard followed, marking the beginning of the Nez Percé War of 1877. In the Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, this war is described as "one of the most remarkable stories of pursuit and escape in military history." Over the next four months, the Nez Percé traveled 1,600 miles through the rugged wilderness of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. During this time, they fought 14 battles against a larger and better-equipped enemy. Until the last battle, Waldman noted, the Nez Percé "consistently outsmarted, outflanked, and outfought the larger white forces."

In one of the more embarrassing moments of the war, the U.S. troops built a barricade across Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains to prevent the Nez Percé from entering Montana. After the tribe avoided the barricade by leading their horses along the face of a cliff, the ineffective structure came to be known as Fort Fizzle. The final battle between the U.S. cavalry and the Nez Percé took place near Snake Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, just 30 miles from the Canadian border. For six days the Nez Percé fought off troops led by Colonel Nelson Miles, who had been dispatched to prevent the Nez Percé from reaching Canada before General Howard's troops could catch up and surround them. After fighting bravely for so long, the Nez Percé finally decided to surrender. An exhausted Chief Joseph delivered his famous surrender speech to his people, in which he stated: "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." Following their surrender, Joseph and other tribal leaders such as White Bird, Lean Elk, and Joseph's brother Ollokot, were not allowed to go to the Nez Percé reservation. Instead, they were taken to Indian Country, first in Kansas, then in Oklahoma. They eventually returned to the Northwest at the Colville reservation in north-central Washington, despite Joseph's repeated attempts to reclaim their home.

For the rest of the Nez Percé, the late nineteenth century was a period of great difficulty. Members of the tribe were forced to attend Christian churches and government schools, which was an attempt to destroy the Nez Percé culture. Under the General Allotment Act of 1887, the U.S. government divided the reservation into relatively small allotments and assigned them to individual tribal members. By 1893, reservation lands not allotted were deemed excess and sold to non-Indians. In all, 90 percent of tribal lands within reservation boundaries were lost. Those retained amounted to 90,000 acres scattered in a checkerboard pattern of ownership. In spite of this, Nez Percé tribal traditions persisted into the twentieth century.


In recent times, the Nez Percé have been involved in several fishing rights cases affecting the entire Columbia River Basin. As active sponsors of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, they have taken a number of steps to revitalize salmon and steelhead runs in the region. In addition, they have been negotiating water rights to the Snake River and trying to reacquire ancestral lands. The Nez Percé of Idaho reached an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had built dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, that will provide the tribe access to traditional fishing stations. In 1996, the Nez Percé regained 10,000 acres of their homeland in northeastern Oregon from the U.S. Bonneville Power Administration. This land is managed as a wildlife preserve. Additional reacquisitions were also being pursued at the time.

The Nez Percé honor their unique and tragic tribal history. In 1996, descendants of the Wallowa band held their twentieth annual ceremony commemorating the members of the tribe who died in the Bear Paw Mountains during the Nez Percé War of 1877. They gathered to smoke pipes, sing, pray, and conduct an empty saddle ceremony, in which horses are led around without riders in order to appease the spirits of the dead.


Following their surrender to the U.S. cavalry, the Wallowa band of Nez Percé was sent to reservations in Oklahoma and Kansas before finally settling on the Colville reservation near Nespelem, Washington. The remainder of the Joseph band members and other Nez Percé live on the Nez Percé reservation in north-central Idaho. Many also live in various urban areas where better employment opportunities exist. On the Idaho reservation, most of the Nez Percé live in the principal communities of Lapwai, Kamiah, Cottonwood, Nez Percé, Orofino, Culdesac, and Winchester. Some descendants of the Joseph band remained in Oklahoma and others live in Canada.

Acculturation and Assimilation


Before acquiring horses, the Nez Percé lived in houses covered with plant material. In the summer, they moved often in search of food, living in leantos consisting of a pole framework covered with woven mats of plant fibers. In the winter, they built pole-framed structures over large pits and covered them with layers of cedar bark, sagebrush, packed grass, and earth. Each dwelling usually housed several families, and a village might consist of five or six such pit houses. As horses increased their mobility and contact with other tribes, Nez Percé buildings grew larger and more sophisticated. Their winter pit houses sometimes extended up to 100 feet in length and housed many families. They also adopted the use of hide-covered tepees during summer fishing and hunting trips.

As with many Native American groups in the United States, the Nez Percé began an era of cultural revitalization in the 1960s involving religion, dance, and arts and crafts. In 1978 Phil Lucas produced Nez Percé Portrait of a People, a film documenting the rich history of the Nez Percé. The film uses archival photographs, traditional stories, and scenes of Nez Percé country to tell of their interaction with the Lewis and Clark expedition and the loss of their lands later in the nineteenth century.


In the dry, rugged high country where the Nez Percé lived, gathering food was a time-consuming prospect. They subsisted primarily by fishing, hunting, and gathering vegetables from spring through fall. Surplus food was stored for winter use. During the spring, when large numbers of salmon swam upstream to spawn, the Nez Percé used a variety of methods to catch them, including spears, hand-held and weighted nets, small brush traps, and large enclosures. They also used bows and arrows to hunt elk, deer, and mountain sheep, although hunting was often difficult on the hot, open plateaus of their homeland. The Nez Percé sometimes disguised themselves in animal furs or worked together to surround a herd of animals so that they could be killed more easily.

In the spring, Nez Percé women used sharp digging sticks to turn up cornlike roots called kouse on the grassy hillsides. These roots were ground, then boiled to make soup or shaped into cakes and stored for later use. During the summer, the Nez Percé gathered a wide variety of plants, including wild onions and carrots, bitterroots, blackberries, strawberries, huckleberries, and nuts. In late summer, the various Nez Percé bands came together to gather sweet-tasting camas lily bulbs. These were steamed and made into a dough or gruel. Many of these traditional foods are still shared today as key elements of important celebrations.


Music among the Nez Percé was traditionally a dynamic medium of celebration and ritual, marked by improvisation. It involved not only musical instruments and verse, but also improvised vocalizations of sounds, such as sighs, mimicked animal sounds, moans, and yelps. Flutes made from elderberry stems were one of the preferred musical instruments used by the Nez Percé. It usually had six finger holes. For protection in war, men played wing bone whistles to call guardian spirits. The rasp, which involved scraping a serrated stick with a bone, was standard for war dances prior to the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century, hand drums replaced the rasp. Larger drums associated with Washat ceremonies began to be used in the 1860s. By the 1890s, some drums were large enough to accommodate up to eight drummers. For traditional ceremonies, a shaman used rattles composed of deer hooves on a stick. After the Nez Percé came into contact with white settlers, bells were used instead of hooves. A simple wooden rod beaten rhythmically on a plank was also used as an instrument.


Traditional Nez Percé clothing was made of shredded cedar bark, deerskin, or rabbitskin. Men wore breechcloths and capes in warm weather, adding fur robes and leggings when it turned cold. Nez Percé women were known for the large basket hats they wove out of dried leaves and plant fibers. By the early 1700s, when horses expanded the tribe's hunting range and brought them into contact with tribes of the Pacific Coast and Great Plains, the Nez Percé began wearing tailored skin garments decorated with shells, elk teeth, and beads. As they prepared to make war, Nez Percé men wore only breechcloths and moccasins and applied brightly colored paint to their faces and bodies. Red paint was applied to the part in a warrior's hair and across his forehead, while other colors were applied to his body in special, individual patterns. The warriors also adorned themselves with animal feathers, fur, teeth, and claws representing their connection to their guardian spirits. Elaborate adornments for the horses are characteristic of Nez Percé society, including brightly colored beaded collars and saddlebags, appliquéd with brass tacks and bells added for decorative purposes.


Among the Nez Percé, song is considered essentially the same as prayer. Song accompanied most daily activities from morning to night, and most life events. Individuals often had their own personal songs that others might sing to indicate support. Songs and dance still serve to instill community pride and convey tribal heritage, in addition to providing a forum for socialization. Through special songs and dances, the Nez Percé honored the spirit of Hanyawat and Mother Earth in an effort to maintain a balance with nature and express thanks to fish, birds, plants, and animals.

Song and dance focused on guardian spirits, prophet visions, winter ceremonies, and shamanic rituals; seasonal food thanksgivings for first roots, first fruits, first salmon and first game; and for important rites of passage, including birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and death. For instance, each year during the winter traditional Nez Percé hold the Guardian Spirit Dance, or Wee'kwetset. In this ceremony, young people who had recently acquired a wyakin, a guardian spirit, would dance and sing in prescribed ways in order to become one with their guardian spirits. By watching and participating, other tribal members can often discover the identity of a young people's wyakin. The ceremony sometimes involves contests to see who has received the greatest powers from his or her wyakin. This Winter Dance was meant to ensure a desirable life, with safety, health, wealth, skill and strength.

The war dance complex consisted of a set of dances focused on various aspects of war-related activities. A five-day Scalp Dance would conclude the sequence upon the return of the warriors. After acquisition of horses in the mid-eighteenth century, the Nez Percé began journeying annually to the northern Plains to hunt buffalo, some staying for years at a time. There they encountered Plains customs and brought some back with them, including certain war dance styles and drumming. New religions also brought new songs and dance. When Smohalla of the Wanapums of central Washington introduced the Washat religion, he also introduced a new dance and song that sought restoration of traditional life and removal of white influence. Later, worship at the Indian Shaker Church consisted of stomp dances with loud vocalizations and bells. In addition, a number of Anglican hymns introduced by the Presbyterian church were translated into Nez Percé language and printed in the later 1830s.

Dance and song continues its importance to Nez Percé life today. Annual festivals consist of powwows and celebrations. Powwows include the Four Nation Pow Wow at Nez Percé County Fair Grounds in Lewiston, Idaho, in the fall; the Chief Joseph and Warriors Memorial Pow Wow at the Nez Percé Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, in June; the Pendleton Roundup at Pendleton, Oregon; the Nee-Mee-Poo Sapatqayn and Cultural Days at the Nez Percé Reservation in Spalding, Idaho, in late August; and the Chief Looking Glass Pow Wow at the Nez Percé Reservation in Kamiah, Idaho, the third weekend in August. These events commonly include horse parades, cultural demonstrations, speakers, stick games, arts and crafts, and drumming and dancing, including war dances and social and contest dancing. Other celebrations include the Root Festival the first week of May and the Talmaks celebration, which consists of an early summer camp meeting sponsored by the Presbyterian church. Many of the celebrations are an integral part of the process of cultural rejuvenation still occurring. By observing these celebrations, the Nez Percé maintain connections with the earth, their ancestors, and their historic symbols.


The Nez Percé regularly participate at the Celico Wy-Am Salmon Feast at Celilo Village in Oregon each spring. Also in north-central Oregon is the All-Indian Rodeo held in spring at Tygh Valley, sponsored by the Western States Indian Rodeo Association. The event includes Western dances, a fun run, arts and crafts, and baseball tournament. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year are also celebrated.


The Nez Percé spoke a Sahaptian dialect of the Penutian language family. According to Alvin M. Josephy Jr. in The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, the Nez Percé belonged to one of the oldest known language stocks in North America. Their language was closely related to that of the Walla Walla, Yakima, and other Plateau tribes. The traditional territory of the Sahaptian speakers extended for almost 400 miles from the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho westward to the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. However, Deward E. Walker Jr. explains in Native America in the Twentieth Century the Nez Percé language was rarely spoken by tribal members under the age of 30 in the late 1990s.


Some Washat-related sayings include: wa ·láhsat jumping up and ipnú ·cililpt turning around while chanting. Other words or expressions are: tiwe-t male medicine doctor; tiwata a-t female medicine doctor; Aiiiiii an amen-like utterance at the end of a series of Washat songs; and á-šapatwana'aš wíwnuna I mixed huckleberries with salmon flour.

Family and Community Dynamics


Traditionally, the extended family raised the children, with grandparents teaching many of life's basic lessons. The first non-native schools were introduced by the Presbyterian missionaries who settled in Nez Percé country at the tribe's invitation in 1836. Catholic missionaries followed later. By the late nineteenth century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) established on-reservation elementary schools operated by Indian agents, designed to "civilize" the Nez Percé. Students were discouraged from practicing long-standing tribal traditions and speaking the Nez Percé language. Reflecting the biases of white society, emphasis was placed on educating the boys. Though many of the basics of U.S. elementary schools were taught, including English, vocational training was emphasised. Older children were sent off-reservation, frequently long distances away from their families, to BIA-operated boarding schools such as Carlisle in Pennsylvania and Haskell in Oklahoma. These forced education policies posed dramatic changes to Nez Percé life.

An increasing number of Nez Percé tribal members earned college degrees in the late twentieth century. A number of Nez Percé attend University of Idaho, Washington State University, and University of Washington, among others. Many returned to the tribe to serve the reservation in various capacities including that of wildlife management and administration.


During pregnancy, women were encouraged to exercise vigorously and take a number of medicinal herbs. Nez Percé custom dictated that deformed animals and humans should not be ridiculed for fear of causing similar deformities in the baby. The tying of knots was also avoided because they represented the obstruction of the umbilical cord. Babies were delivered in small separate houses with the help of midwives and female relatives. Shamans were called if major problems arose. The baby's head and feet were shaped immediately upon birth. For good luck the umbilical cord was sown into a small hide pouch and attached to the cradleboard. Feasts and gifts were given to the mother and baby, especially for firstborn children, and at adolescence a formal naming ceremony was held.


As in many indigenous societies, Nez Percé women held a prominent role in food acquisition and preparation. Although men were mainly in charge of the fishing, women assisted in gutting, drying, and storing the large volumes of fish that were caught. Women assumed leadership in food and medicinal plant collecting, using digging sticks to collect various types of roots, or tubers. The bulb of the camas lily, which grows primarily in wet meadows, was a principal plant food. With the absence of a pottery tradition, baskets were used for numerous tasks, including food storage and even cooking, which was accomplished by placing heated stones in a basket full of water to boil foods.

Nez Percé women were given more respect within the tribe than women in other American Indian tribes. Nez Percé women were eligible to be shamans, who were believed to have miraculous powers, able to cure the sick by singing sacred songs and prescribing herbal remedies. During tribal council meetings, the women could speak up, although they could not lead the meetings. Women's roles in powwows have changed in the late twentieth century, with increased participation in drumming and war dancing, both prohibited to Nez Percé women several generations earlier.


Heads of families often arranged marriages in traditional Nez Percé society, sometimes during childhood. The relative prestige of both families was weighed in making selections. Kin relationships, even distant ones, were avoided; on the other hand, commonly several sons and daughters of two families might marry. In cases where marriage was not arranged, when a male found a female he wanted as a wife, an older female relative of the male initiated negotiations with the female's family. The woman might be observed by the elder relative over a period of time to determine if she was acceptable. The couple might then live together for a while to determine compatibility. Once the couple decided to marry, a ceremony and somewhat competitive gift exchange was held. Relatives of the groom might give horses, equipment for hunting and fishing, and skins. The bride's relatives would give baskets, root bags, digging sticks, and beaded bags. When two prestigious families were involved in an exchange ceremony, many people participated. After a second exchange ceremony, the wedding was considered complete. Since the 1960s, wedding ceremonies are often conducted in traditional longhouses.


The death of a leader or highly respected elder is a major event in Nez Percé society. Traditional funerals were elaborate and consisted of many components. Close female relatives of the deceased immediately began wailing as criers announced the death in the area. The deceased's face was traditionally painted red, and the body was washed, dressed in new clothes, wrapped in a robe, and buried the following day. A number of the deceased's favorite valuables were placed in the grave. A favorite horse might even be killed and left in the vicinity. The grave was placed on a prominent hill overlooking a valley or in a rocky talus slope. A shaman would perform rituals to prevent the deceased ghost from returning, and individuals who had tended to the body ritually purified themselves. Following burial, a feast was held and the remaining items of the deceased disbursed. For the following year, the surviving spouse cut his or her hair short, wore old clothes, did not smile in public, and was prohibited from remarrying. At the end of the yearlong mourning period, relatives supplied a new set of clothes, and a new spouse if a brother or sister of the deceased spouse was available.

Various religions are still practiced by the Nez Percé and other natives in the region, including Washat, Feather, and Shaker sects. In some instances, a modern-day funeral may include more than 20 Washat songs performed during a night-long wake. Graveside Washat songs may also be performed at the burial.


The Nez Percé maintained friendly relations with most tribes of the Plateau area, including the Walla Walla, Yakima, Palouse, and Cayuse as well as other tribes to their north. The Nez Percé were traditionally part of a large trading network, trading directly with other Columbia River basin tribes to the west, and native groups to the east in western Montana, and even onto the Great Plains. A variety of raw materials and goods passed through this network. The main enemies of the Nez Percé were the Great Basin groups to the south, including the Shoshone, Northern Paiute, and Bannock. Raids motivated by revenge regularly occurred back and forth between the Nez Percé and these groups.

One of the strongest present-day forums for interaction with other tribes is the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission (CRITFC). The CRITFC was formed to facilitate the restoration of salmon and steelhead runs in the Snake River system, an issue of primary importance in the latter years of the twentieth century. The Nez Percé, the Yakima, Warm Springs, and Umatilla tribes are CRITFC members. The commission developed its own comprehensive restoration plan for the region in the mid-1990s and is a key player with various federal agencies and several states in the major restoration effort.


The Nez Percé felt a deep spiritual connection with the earth and sought to live in harmony with nature. They believed all living things and all features of the natural environment were closely related to each other and to people. Every member of the Nez Percé tribe had a personal link with nature in the form of a guardian spirit, or wyakin, that protected him or her from harm and provided assistance during his or her life. For example, a person might pray to his or her wyakin for success in war or for help in crossing a dangerous river. A small medicine bundle containing materials that represented one's wyakin was often carried.

Around the onset of puberty, a young Nez Percé would leave the village in hopes of acquiring a wyakin through a sacred experience. The youth traveled alone to an isolated place, often at a high mountain or along a river, without food or weapons, and sat upon a pile of stones and waited for the wyakin to reveal itself. The wyakin might appear as something material, such as an elk illuminated in a flash of lightning, or as a hallucination or dream. After returning to the village, the young person did not tell others of the experience but interpreted the power of the wyakin privately. From that point on, there were certain rules to follow in order to avoid bad fortune, but one could also appeal to the wyakin in times of need.

Until the 1863 treaty, the Nez Percé were generally open to white settlement and Christian missions in the region. However, with the continued loss of tribal lands Christianity became a major issue causing factionalism. The white culture not only introduced new technologies to the Nez Percé in the nineteenth century, but also brought epidemics, guns, whiskey, impacts on traditional food resources, and loss of land. Over time, pronounced despair led to the rise of various prophetic movements focused on restoring traditional ways and ridding the area of whites. These movements arrived in cycles as interest would grow, then wane, only to rise again. The first was the Prophet Dance in the 1820s, followed by the Washat or Seven Drum Religion in the 1850s, an Earth-lodge cult of the late nineteenth century, and the Feather cult of 1905. A series of prophets were among the Nez Percé, including Nez Percé Ellis, Wiskaynatowat-sanmay, and Tawis-waikt. The Prophet Dance, the oldest of the series of prophetic movements, generally involved dancing in a circle with a leader making vision-inspired prophecies in a trance-like state. The messages were deeply religious in tone and emphasized a renewal of life.

The Seven Drums Religion, considered a direct descendant of the Prophet Dance, has long been a focal point in the revitalization of Nez Percé traditional religious practices. The religion is a blend of vision quests seeking personal spirit powers and some Christian elements in a native communal worship framework. It is also known as the Long-house Religion, as it was performed in traditional longhouses throughout the Columbia Plateau region and led by highly charismatic individuals. The first roots feasts in spring, a first salmon feast slightly later, and a berry feast toward summer's end as well as funerals and memorials are commonly celebrated in the Washat format.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The traditional Nez Percé economy was based on fishing, gathering, hunting, and, later, raising large herds of horses. Prior to incursions by white settlers, a number of major villages existed along the lower courses of the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater Rivers and their tributaries. Having rich fisheries on these watercourses, including seasonal runs of a variety of salmon and steelhead trout, annual fish consumption in the traditional economy was estimated at more than 500 pounds per person. The traditional territory contains a diversity of landscapes with rugged mountains and numerous valleys and high prairies, primarily within the Snake River drainage system. Each area offered something different in terms of resources.

The loss of a viable land base greatly undermined both the traditional Nez Percé economy and the ability to join the burgeoning market economy of the non-Indians. The tribe won several Indian Claims Commission monetary awards in the latter half of the twentieth century in payment for lost lands. They received $3.5 million for lands ceded in the 1855 treaty and more than $5 million for lands lost in the 1863 treaty and 1893 allotments. Along with several other tribes, the Nez Percé also received compensation for the flooding of a key fishery location on the Columbia River in the 1950s by reservoir construction. The Nez Percé share was almost $3 million.

The Nez Percé tribe has occasionally leased approximately 80 percent of its lands to non-Indians. Tribal economy has been largely based on funding from these leases and a timber program. Reacquisition of tribal lands is a key goal of the tribe. In the mid-1990s, as Wallowa Valley encountered difficult economic times with declines in the timber and cattle markets, residents made plans to invite the Nez Percé back to the area. Residents began raising money to build an interpretive center and purchase 160 acres of land for the tribe to use for cultural events. Though valley residents viewed the return of the Nez Percé as an opportunity to promote tourism, most members of the tribe were pleased to recover some of their ancestral territory. "The whites may look at it as an economic plus, but we look at it as a homecoming," tribal member Soy Redthunder informed journalist Timothy Egan. The Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail, the Nez Percé National Historical Park, and the burial site of Old Chief Joseph have become major tourist attractions. One tourism-related Nez Percé-owned business enterprise is Old West Enterprises Textiles and Tipis in Lapwai, Idaho.

The Nez Percé received approval in 1992 from the Northwest Power Planning Council for an ambitious $14 million Clearwater River hatchery plan to restore chinook, steelhead and eventually other salmon, trout, and sturgeon to the tribe's fishing sites scattered over two million acres of central Idaho. (Project funding from the Bonneville Power Administration proved more elusive.) Project plans included a central hatchery and rearing facility, an auxiliary hatchery, and a number of satellite monitoring facilities. One goal was to return fish to traditional spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the Clearwater tributaries, strengthening natural fish runs. The long-term goal of the project is to restore salmon to 13 million acres of ceded lands in Oregon and Washington.

The Nez Percé are not reluctant to enter main-stram society. The Nez Percé are receptive to the United States educational system and their members thrive in academics. Nez Percé members are doctors, nurses, engineers, journalists, and teachers. The Nez Percé tribe operates a printing plant and a marina. The unemployment rate of the Nez Percé is lower than that of most other Native American tribes.

Politics and Government

In 1923, the non-traditionalists of the tribe, seeking an elective form of government, formed the Nez Percé Home and Farm Association, with James Stuart as the first president. The Nez Percé rejected the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Indian New Deal, instead establishing their own tribal constitution in 1948. Under the constitution, Tribal Executive Committee, whose members are elected at large, governs the tribe. The committee oversees the tribe's economic development, including the use of natural resources and the investment of tribal income. It is also responsible to the General Council, which consists of all enrolled tribal members. By the 1990s, with an annual budget of $2 million, the tribe employed over 250 people and provided many social services to tribal members.

Individual and Group Contributions


Nez Percé anthropologist and activist Archie Phinney (1903-1949) played a significant role in preserving the traditional language and folklore of the tribe. Phinney was born on the Nez Percé reservation and raised in a traditional manner, including speaking the language. He attended the University of Kansas, where he became the first Native American to receive a degree from that school. Phinney then attended Columbia University and earned a graduate degree. Returning to the Nez Percé reservation, he began a project of preserving the Nez Percé language and folklore. Phinney authored two books and several journal articles. One book, the 1934 Nez Percé Texts, contained traditional stories of the tribe and was published by the prestigious Columbia University Press. Phinney demonstrated that folklore was a legitimate academic field of study. Promoting Native American causes nationwide, Phinney held leadership positions with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including that of superintendent of the Northern Idaho Agency, and in the National Congress of American Indians. Phinney lobbied the U.S. Congress regarding education issues and land claims. Internationally recognized, Phinney received an honorary degree from the Russian Academy of Science in Leningrad as well as the Indian Council Fire Award in 1946. In 1973 the Nez Percé published its own history, Noon Nee-Me-Poo: We, the Nez Percés co-authored by Nez Percé historian Allen P. Slickpoo Sr.


Hattie Kauffman, winner of four Emmy Awards, has been a national correspondent for CBS This Morning and a former feature reporter for ABC's Good Morning America.


The works of Phil George (b. 1946), a Wallowa Nez Percé poet, have been published in several anthologies, including The Remembered Earth (1979) and Dancing on the Rim of the World (1990). His poetry has even been read on popular television shows, such as the Tonight Show and the Dick Cavett Show. Born in Seattle, Washington, George attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is also a champion Traditional Plateau dancer. George wrote, produced, and narrated the program A Season for Grandmothers for the Public Broadcasting Service. His work is showcased at the Nez Percé National Historical Park in Spaulding, Idaho.


The Nez Percé have been blessed with a number of influential leaders. These leaders are not only recognized by Native Americans but have also an integral part of American history. Old Chief Joseph (1790?-1871), also known as Tuekakas and Wellaamotkin, was the primary leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Percé in the northeastern Oregon during the period of substantial encroachment of white settlers. Peacefully accepting non-Indians into Nez Percé territory, Joseph was one of the first Nez Percé baptized by the Presbyterian minister Henry Spalding. Joseph reluctantly signed the 1855 treaty with territorial governor Isaac Stevens, since it reserved the Wallowa Valley lands for his band. However, the continued influx of non-Indians into his band's territory led his angry disavowal of Christianity and a stronger alignment with the more militant, anti-treaty Nez Percés. In 1886, nine years after his death, whites opened his grave and displayed his skull in a dental office. In 1926 he was reinterred in his homeland valley.

Lawyer (1796-1876), also known as Aleiya, was the son of Twisted Hair, the Nez Percé leader who welcomed and aided Lewis and Clark in 1805. Following his father's tradition, Lawyer became leader of the band of Nez Percé living along the Clearwater River of north-central Idaho. He also sought friendship with the non-Indians entering the area, serving as guide and interpreter for early explorers and trappers in the region. In addition, Lawyer served as a teacher for Presbyterian missionary Asa Smith at Kamiah. Lawyer was known for his oratorical skills and mastery of English. He became leader of the treaty faction of the Nez Percé, signing both the 1855 and 1863 treaties with territorial governor Isaac Stevens, and even protecting Stevens from attacks by natives. In his latter years, Lawyer traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the breaking of treaty terms by the United States. He died the year before the Nez Percé War.

Looking Glass (1823?-1877) was born Allalimya Takanin. His father, also known as Looking Glass, was leader of the Asotin band of Nez Percé living in the Clearwater River drainage of north-central Idaho. He was also recognized as leader of the non-treaty Nez Percé in general. Takanin inherited the band leadership and the name. Young Looking Glass was appointed a war leader for the Nez Percé in 1848. Like a number of his contemporary Nez Percé leaders, Looking Glass followed a path of passive resistance to white encroachment into Nez Percé territory. However, as war broke out in northeast Oregon between the Joseph band and the United States, Looking Glass was drawn into the conflict when his own village was attacked by a combined volunteer militia and U.S. Army force. Looking Glass became the initial leader of the fleeing force of Nez Percé attempting to join Sitting Bull's Sioux, already exiled in Canada after the Battle of Little Bighorn the previous year. However, Looking Glass's consistent underestimation of the U.S. determination to track down the Nez Percé lost him his leadership role to others, including Chief Joseph. Looking Glass was killed as the Nez Percé fought their last battle just short of the Canadian border.

Also known as Hin-mut-too-yah-lat-kekht, or Thunder-Traveling-Across-Lake-and-Fading-on-Mountainside, Chief Joseph (c.1840-1904) and other tribal leaders led a large band of Nez Percé in the most successful, sustained resistance to the U.S. cavalry ever achieved by Native American fighters. The Nez Percé War of 1877 broke out after the tribe had suffered years of abuse from white settlers living on their land and unreasonable demands by the federal government for the Indians to confine their living space and accommodate the settlers' demands. Chief Joseph, whose father (also named Joseph) was a prominent leader of the Wallowa band, took charge upon his father's death in 1871. After several years of passive noncompliance with the Treaty of 1863, he prepared to lead his band out of Wallowa Valley in Idaho in 1877 under the threat of war with the United States. When rebels from the band attacked and killed a group of white settlers, however, Chief Joseph and his whole band (men, women, children, the elderly, and their horse herd) began a 1,600-mile trek through Idaho and Montana toward Canada with the army in pursuit. After outsmarting the American troops numerous times and engaging in 14 separate battles, the Nez Percé were finally forced to surrender just 30 miles short of their goal. At that time Chief Joseph uttered the famous words, "I will fight no more forever." He continued to be a respected leader during the early reservation years, as he eloquently pleaded the tribe's case before government representatives. In 1879 he gave a famous interview that was published in the North American Review under the title "An Indian's View of Indian Affairs," which brought national attention to the Nez Percé. He died in 1904 on the Colville reservation in Washington. Other leaders of the period included Timothy, White Bird, Yellow Wolf, and Ollikut.


Indian Art Northwest.

Dedicated to enhancing public awareness and appreciation of Native American arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest. Publishes information related to Native American arts and educational events and products.

Address: 911 Northeast 11th Avenue, Portland, Oregon 97232.

Telephone: (503) 230-7005.

Nez Percé Tribal Newspaper.

Address: Box 305, Lapwai, Idaho 85341.

Wana Chinook Tymoo.

A publication of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Address: 729 Northeast Oregon, Suite 200, Portland, Oregon 97232.

Telephone: (503) 238-0667.

Organizations and Associations

Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

Address: 222 Northwest Davis, Suite 403, Portland, Oregon 97209.

Telephone: (503) 241-0070.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Address: 729 Northeast Oregon, Suite 200, Portland, Oregon 97232.

Telephone: (503) 238-0667.

Nez Percé Arts and Crafts Guild.

A cooperative for Nez Percé craftspersons.

Address: P.O. Box 205, Lapwai, Idaho 83540.

Nez Percé Tribe.

Address: P.O. Box 305, Lapwai, Idaho 83540.

Telephone: (208) 843-2253.

Pi-Nee-Waus Community Center.

Provides information concerning contemporary Nez Percé artists.

Address: P.O. Box 305, Lapwai, Idaho 83540.

Telephone: (208) 843-2253.

White Eagle Trading Post.

Retail sales of Nez Percé arts and crafts, including beaded, feather, and leather pieces.

Address: Highway 1, Orofino, Idaho.

Telephone: (208) 476-7753.

Museums and Research Centers

Clearwater Historical Museum.

Holds Nez Percé artifacts, photographic file, and other papers.

Contact: Robert Spencer.

Address: 315 College Avenue, Orofino, Idaho 83544.

Telephone: (208) 476-5033.

Gonzaga University Archives.

Considerable information on traditional Plateau cultures from missionaries' journals and other unpublished archival documents are housed in this independent Catholic college founded in 1887 by Jesuits.

Address: East 502 Boone Avenue, Spokane, Washington 99258.

Telephone: (509) 328-4220.

Idaho State Historical Society Library.

Contains more than 200 volumes of Lapwai Agency records between 1871 and 1883 in addition to photo archives, diaries, and a library of published literature regarding the Nez Percé tribe.

Contact: Arthur A. Hart.

Address: 610 North Julia Davis Drive, Boise, Idaho 83702.

Telephone: (208).

Nez Percé National Historic Park and Museum.

Houses photo archives and exhibits relating to the Nez Percé cultural history.

Contact: Susan J. Buchel.

Address: P.O. Box 93, Spalding, Idaho 83551.

Telephone: (208) 843-2261.

University of Idaho Library Archives and Pacific Northwest Anthropological Archives.

Address: University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83844.

Telephone: (208) 885-6326.

Whitman College Library Archives.

This private college, founded in 1859, houses a collection of unpublished documents on Nez Percé culture.

Address: Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington 99362.

Telephone: (509) 527-5111.

Sources for Additional Study

Brown, Mark. The Flight of the Nez Percé. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Egan, Timothy. "Expelled in 1877, Indian Tribe Is Now Wanted as a Resource."New York Times, July 22, 1996.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.

McWhorter, Lucullus Virgil Yellow Wolf: His Own Story Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd. 1948.

Sherrow, Victoria. The Nez Percé. Brookfield, Conneticut: The Milbrook Press 1994.

Slickpoo, Allen P., and Deward E. Walker, Jr. Noon Nee-Me-Poo: We, the Nez Percés. Lapwai, ID: Nez Percé Tribe of Idaho, 1973.

Trafzer, Clifford E. The Nez Percé. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.

Walker, Deward E., Jr. "Nez Percé." Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, edited by Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Nez Percé

views updated May 17 2018

Nez Percé


Nez Percé (pronounced nez PURSE or nay per-SAY). Before they had horses the tribe called themselves Cuupn’itpel’uu, meaning “we walked out of the woods” or “we walked out of the mountains.” Neighboring tribes called them “people under the tule,” referring to the way they built their houses, or “khouse eaters” after their favorite root. The name Nez Percé means “pierced nose” in French and was applied to the tribe by early fur traders, even though the tribe did not traditionally practice nose piercing. The Nez Percé now call themselves Nimi’ipuu (Nee-Me-Poo), which means “real people” or “we the people.”


The Nez Percé lived on lands in present-day central Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington. At one time their territory also extended into western Montana and Wyoming. In modern times most of the descendants of the tribe live on the Nez Percé Reservation near Lapwai, Idaho, or on the Colville Reservation in the state of Washington.


There were approximately 6,000 Nez Percé in 1800, and 1,500 in 1900. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 4,003 people identified themselves as members of the Nez Percé tribe. The 2000 census showed that 4,082 Nez Percé lived in the United States, and 6,857 people had some Nez Percé heritage.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

Before the Europeans arrived the Nez Percé lived for centuries in small villages along the Clearwater, Salmon, and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest. They are linked culturally and by language to other tribes in that region, including the Yakama, Umatilla, Klickitat, and Walla Walla. They allied with the Cayuse and Flatheads to defend themselves against the Blackfeet, Northern Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock. In the early twenty-first century some Nez Percé live on a reservation with the Colville (see entry).

The Nez Percé were once one of the largest and most powerful tribes of the Northwest, controlling a swath of territory along the Clearwater and Snake Rivers in present-day Idaho and lands in Oregon and Washington. They traveled the area each season as fishermen, hunters, and gatherers. Chief Joseph (1840–1904), their leader during the 1800s, is famous for his resistance to U.S. expansion into Nez Percé territory and his role in the tribe’s final surrender. The dramatic “Flight of the Nez Percé” was front-page news in the United States when it occurred and is still studied by military historians.


Horses bring changes

Before the Nez Percé acquired horses in the early 1700s, they spent most of their time fishing, hunting on foot, or gathering wild plants for food. Within a generation of acquiring horses, however, their lifestyle changed. They started trading with neighboring tribes and began annual trips to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. Their rich grasslands enabled the Nez Percé to raise some of the largest herds of horses of any Native group. They became skilled horse breeders and trainers, particularly of the sturdy, spotted horses now called Appaloosas.

The Nez Percé maintained friendly relations with most neighboring tribes, except those to the south—the Shoshone, Northern Paiute (see entries), and Bannock. Every summer, however, the Nez Percé called a truce with their enemies in order to trade with them at a large gathering.

Important Dates

1805: The Nez Percé assist American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their expedition to the Pacific Coast.

1855: The Nez Percé enter into a treaty with the U.S. government.

1863: The 1855 treaty is amended by trickery and the document becomes known as the Thief Treaty.

1877: During the Nez Percé War Chief Joseph and his people try fleeing to Canada, but are captured by U.S. Army troops.

1996: The Nez Percé are invited back to the Wallowa Valley.

Whites enter tribal lands

The first contact between the Nez Percé and non-Native people took place in 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition wandered into the Wallowa Valley in western Idaho. At that time the American explorers were cold, tired, and running out of food. The Nez Percé aided the members of the expedition and may have kept them from starving. Later the Nez Percé helped them build boats and guided them to the Pacific Coast. Over the next few decades, the Nez Percé established friendly relations with French-Canadian and American fur traders, missionaries, and settlers.

Through the mid-1800s the number of white settlers in the Northwest greatly increased. For the most part the Nez Percé avoided the conflicts that plagued other tribes. They signed the Walla Walla Council of 1855, a treaty giving some of their ancestral territory to the government in exchange for money and a guarantee that the rest of their lands—13 million acres—would remain intact.

Many of the Plateau tribes felt double-crossed when shortly thereafter, the governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–1862), wrote a letter to an eastern newspaper proclaiming that the Northwest was open for settlement. Several area tribes reacted with violence to his trickery, which resulted in a flood of settlers. However, the Nez Percé remained neutral and did not participate in any wars waged by neighboring tribes against the United States military.

In the early 1860s gold was discovered on Nez Percé lands, and fortune seekers ignored the 1855 treaty. In 1863, reacting to pressure from the new settlers, Nez Percé leaders tried, but failed, to reach a new treaty agreement. Governor Stevens then collected the signatures of a few members of the tribe on a deed ceding (giving away) another 7 million acres of Native land. This document, which came to be known as the Thief Treaty, cost the Nez Percé their claim to Wallowa Valley. Upon hearing the news, Old Chief Joseph (died 1871), the peaceful leader of the Wallowa band and a Christian convert, tore up his Bible. Despite their anger and resentment, however, the Nez Percé remained peaceful in their relations with whites. They expressed their discontent by refusing to abide by the treaty.

Nez Percé War

When Old Chief Joseph died in 1871 his son, Young Chief Joseph, took over leadership of the Wallowa group. In 1876 the young chief represented the Nez Percé in a meeting with the U.S. government. He informed them that he would not honor the 1863 Thief Treaty, nor would he give up the tribe’s ancestral valley. The government gave the tribe thirty days to vacate Wallowa Valley and move to a reservation near Lapwai, Idaho. When it became clear that war was the only other alternative, Chief Joseph agreed to move. He said sadly: “I would give up everything rather than have the blood of my people on my hands.”

Before the move began, young rebels from the tribe attacked a group of whites who had mistreated them, killing three men and wounding another. Chief Joseph, along with 250 warriors, 500 women, children, and elderly members of the tribe reluctantly joined the rebels as they fled the valley, hoping to find safety in Canada. Nearly 2,000 U.S. Army troops set out in pursuit. So began the Nez Percé War of 1877.

Over the next four months the Nez Percé traveled 1,600 miles (2,575 kilometers). They crossed the rugged wilderness of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, trekking over mountains, through canyons, and across rivers. In all, they fought fourteen battles against a better-equipped enemy. Until the last battle, they consistently outsmarted the larger military forces.

Nez Percé surrender

In their final battle, which took place just thirty miles from the Canadian border and lasted for six days, the Nez Percé fought off one army unit, but were finally surrounded by another. To save the wounded and the women and children, Chief Joseph surrendered along with four hundred Nez Percé in 1877. It was then that he gave his famous surrender speech. Although some people question whether the words are his, others say it is much like his other speeches.

Not everyone surrendered with Chief Joseph, though. Chief White Bird and between fourteen to one hundred followers escaped to Canada and joined Sioux leader Sitting Bull (1831–1890). The people who surrendered were sent to reservations in Kansas, then Oklahoma. They later ended up sharing the Colville Reservation near Nespelem, Washington. Another part of the tribe was placed on the Nez Percé Reservation near Lapwai, Idaho.

In 1895 the reservation was divided into small individual plots for farming, and leftover property went to white settlers. Much of the land from the treaty of 1863 was lost. Taxation reduced Nez Percé landholdings even more. From 13 million acres in 1800, the tribe’s land base was reduced to less than 80,000 acres by 1975. Since 1980, though, the people have been reacquiring land and now have about 110,000 acres.

Chief Joseph’s Surrender Speech, October 5, 1877

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men [Ollikut] is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. 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.

“Chief Joseph Surrenders.” The History Place. (accessed on September 6, 2007).


The Nez Percé felt a deep spiritual connection with the Earth and lived in harmony with nature. For the Nez Percé, all living things were closely related to each other and to people. Each member of the tribe had a guardian spirit, or wyakin, that protected him or her from harm and provided help when needed. For example, people might pray to their wyakins for help in conquering an enemy or in crossing a dangerous river. The Nez Percé often carried small medicine bundles containing materials that represented their wyakins.

Many modern Nez Percé have adopted Christianity, but combine it with elements of the Dreamer religion. Followers of this traditional Nez Percé religion say that in past times their prophets dreamed about and accurately predicted events such as the arrival of Lewis and Clark and an earthquake near the present-day town of Whitebird.


The Nez Percé spoke a Sahaptin dialect (variety) of the Penutian language family, one of the oldest known language stocks in North America. The Nez Percé language is closely related to that of the Walla Walla, Palus, and other tribes of the region. By the late 1990s only some older members of the tribe could speak the language.

Nez Percé Words

  • Manaa wees? … “How are you?”
  • Ta’c meeywi. … “Good morning.”
  • T’c kuleewit. … “Good evening.”
  • i s … “mother”
  • t’o t … “father”
  • s’ik’em … “a horse”
  • hiy’u m … “bear”
  • cú-y’em … “fish”
  • sác’as … “porcupine”
  • páyos … “snake”
  • ’á-cix … “turtle”
  • qa-sí’ … “bee”


Prior to meeting white missionaries in the 1840s, the seventy small communities that made up the Nez Percé people did not have a formal governing system. Each village had a council of three or four respected men, one of whom was called chief. The job generally went to the person who had the most relatives in the village. Upon the death of a chief, his son usually replaced him. The chief resolved disputes and disciplined unruly children.

Each independent village or group had a headman who spoke for his own followers. When a major decision was needed, the headmen and other respected people would meet in a tribal council to reach an agreement. The Nez Percé had few laws; order was maintained by social pressure. Meetings to discuss problems took place when people gathered to fish or harvest crops. Even then, no tribe member had to obey any group decision.

The Nez Percé rejected U.S. government attempts to reorganize them. Instead, in 1948 they established their own tribal constitution and government. The Nez Percé Tribal Executive Committee is made up of nine elected officers who serve three-year terms. The committee manages economic development, tribal social service programs, natural resources, and tribal investments.


Before white people moved into their lands, the Nez Percé provided for their needs by digging roots, picking berries, and killing small animals for food. In May and June they caught salmon, which they preserved by drying, then ate throughout the year. The people, along with many neighboring tribes, moved seasonally to different hunting, gathering, and fishing grounds.

When the Nez Percé acquired horses in the 1700s, they found them valuable for trading and for traveling long distances. Horses also enabled them to hunt buffalo. The tribe became skilled at horse breeding and training. They were known for their large herds of Appaloosa (horses with spotted coats).

Many tribes from the Plains and Plateau met to barter goods. The Nez Percé traded dried berries and dried cakes, made of sweet-tasting camas lily bulbs and corn-like roots called khouse, as well as salmon oil and dried salmon. They traded horns from mountain sheep, bowls and other objects made from the sheep horns, cedar-root baskets, eagle feathers, and the hunting tools for which they were famous.

Modern economy

The tribe cultivates nearly 38,000 acres of reservation land. Wheat is the primary crop; other crops include barley, dry peas, lentils, canola, bluegrass seed, alfalfa, and hay. The Nez Percé are now breeding an Appaloosa-Akahi-Teke cross. They hope to reestablish the horses that were an important part of their herds before the arrival of Lewis and Clark in 1806. They are also raising cattle.

Some Nez Percé work at farming and lumbering, while others have jobs in the medical, legal, and engineering professions, among many others. The Nez Percé Reservation operates a tribal store, the Nez Percé Limestone Enterprise, and the Nez Percé Forest Products Enterprise. The tribe is also developing small businesses and expanding their economic base by constructing the Aht’way Commercial Plaza. Tribally-owned casinos generate several million dollars a year in revenues.

Tourism and gaming are also important sources of income for the Nez Percé on the Colville Reservation. They, too, operate fisheries and engage in forestry. Agriculture and livestock as well as construction and manufacturing are important to the economy.

In spite of the many new economic opportunities, unemployment remains high on the reservation. During the mid-1990s, the tribe’s unemployment rate stood at 26 percent. By the early 2000s that figure had jumped to 39 percent. Some tribal sources indicate unemployment could possibly be as high as 64 percent.

Daily life


Large families were common among the Nez Percé. Although it was primarily the mother’s job to raise the children, the job was shared by uncles, aunts, cousins, and older siblings. Most jobs in a family were assigned by gender. Women generally picked berries, dug up camas bulbs, and made pottery. Men did the hunting and fishing.


During the summer, when the Nez Percé moved in search of food, they lived in quickly-built lean-tos consisting of a pole framework covered with mats woven of plant fibers. Their winter shelters were pole-framed structures covered with layers of cedar bark, sagebrush, packed grass, and earth. Each winter dwelling, which usually housed several families, contained a small door and a smoke hole in the roof. Five or six houses made up a village.

After horses were introduced the tribe moved around more and saw the lifestyles of other tribes. Nez Percé buildings then grew larger and more sophisticated. Their winter houses sometimes extended to 100 feet (30 meters) in length and housed many families. They also adopted the Plains method of covering their portable dwellings with buffalo skins. Hide-covered tepees were used during summer fishing and hunting trips. Later tepee coverings were made of canvas.

Clothing and adornment

In early times the Nez Percé used shredded cedar bark, deerskin, or rabbitskin to make clothing. In summer, men usually wore capes and breechcloths (flaps of material that cover the front and back and are suspended from the waist), adding fur robes and leggings when it turned cold. The women were known for the large basket hats they wove out of dried leaves and plant fibers.

By the early 1800s, as the Nez Percé came into contact with tribes of the Pacific Coast and Great Plains, they imitated their tailored skin garments decorated with shells, elk teeth, and beads. Men wore their hair arranged in a high mound that stood straight up from the forehead. The remaining hair was braided and hung down the chest. They also adopted feathered war bonnets. Women wore long, belted dresses of buckskin that had fringe at the hem and sleeves and knee length moccasins. Both men and women painted their faces.


Food gathering was a time-consuming task for the Nez Percé, who lived in dry, rugged high country. The people mainly lived by fishing, hunting, and gathering fruit and vegetables from spring through fall, and storing surplus food for winter use.

During the spring they caught large numbers of salmon that swam upstream to spawn. They fished with spears, hand-held and weighted nets, small brush traps, and large, fenced enclosures. Though hunting was often difficult on the hot, open plateaus of their homeland, they used bows and arrows to hunt elk, deer, and mountain sheep. To approach their prey and kill them more easily, they sometimes disguised themselves in animal furs and worked together to surround an animal herd. After they started using horses, the Nez Percé sent a hunting party to the Great Plains to hunt buffaloes each year.

In the spring Nez Percé women went out to the hillsides and used sharp digging sticks to turn up khouse, a root. The khouse was ground up and boiled to make soup or was shaped into cakes and dried for later use. Other plants found in summer included wild onions and carrots, bitterroot, blackberries, strawberries, currants, huckleberries, and nuts. Pine nuts, sunflower seeds, and black moss supplemented the vegetables, fruits, and roots they stored for winter. In late summer several Nez Percé bands came together to gather camas bulbs. These were steamed and then made into dough or gruel (a thin, watery substance).

Women stored food in coiled baskets inside bark- and grass-lined pits or in parfleche bags. They also used baskets to boil food by dropping hot stones into water. They baked other foods in large earthen ovens or broiled them over an open fire using a wooden frame or sticks inserted into the ground.

Fruit Leather

The Nez Percé gathered a great variety of berries. Some were eaten fresh; others were dried for winter. This recipe from the Nez Percé National Historic Trail is a way to sun-dry fruit so it can be enjoyed later as a snack. Many people buy these rolled fruit treats at the store, but they are easy to make at home.

  • 2 cups of ripe fruit (berries, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, apples, or a mixture of these)

Wash the fruit and let it drain on a clean towel. Wash your hands well, then carefully cut the fruit into small chunks. Leave the peels on — they are chewy and nutritious.

Put the fruit into a blender or food processor and blend on high for 15 seconds. Cover a large flat cookie sheet with plastic wrap or wax paper, then pour the fruit mixture onto it. Let it dry in a warm place for a day or so.

To eat the fruit leather, peel the fruit off the plastic wrap. You can also roll it up in the plastic wrap and keep it in a covered container (like a cookie jar or refrigerator box) if you want to store it.

Nez Perce National Historic Trail. (accessed on September 6, 2007).


Grandparents provided much of a child’s education. From them girls learned food-gathering techniques and household management. Boys learned from their grandfathers to fish and to hunt with small bows and arrows. By age three, all children participated in food gathering. Their parents tied them to the saddles of horses and gave them miniature tools. Around age six each child received a lecture about proper morals and behavior from a respected elder.

Children also learned rules of conduct and tribal history from their grandparents. The tradition continues in modern times as children at Nez Percé summer camps learn the importance of preserving their culture through the teaching of tribal elders.

Healing practices

Nez Percé doctors called shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun)—who could be male or female—had miraculous powers. They could change the weather, find lost or stolen items, cause bad people to have misfortunes, remove curses, and cure the sick by singing sacred songs and prescribing herbal remedies. Sometimes the shaman held cleansing ceremonies to purify spirits before special events or to cure illness.

During healing ceremonies assistants often sang and beat on a log placed near the shaman and the patient. Some shaman used a leaf funnel or bone whistle to suck out the curse that had caused the illness. Skilled shaman did not need to touch the patients’s body; they made gathering motions with their arms and hands to concentrate the evil in one place. Those who had Woodpecker power touched one index finger to the spot and drew the curse out.



In modern times dances involving members of several tribes are held at the reservation. Both adults and children are encouraged to display their own personal interpretation of traditional Nez Percé dances to the beat of a drum. During men’s traditional dances the dancers remain upright as they move to a drumbeat, looking down as though to examine the tracks of wild game or the enemy. In the Men’s Fancy Dance they wear outfits adorned with feathers and ribbons and perform fast, spinning movements to a quick beat. During the Grass Dance they perform, graceful, swaying motions that resemble prairie grass bending before the wind.

For their traditional dance, women wear dresses decorated with beadwork, porcupine quills, elk’s teeth, and ribbons. They gently bounce, dip, and sway to the slow beat of the drum. During the Jingle Dance they move in dresses adorned with cones made by rolling the lids from metal cans.

Oral literature

Nez Percé families often gathered to tell stories, especially during the winter months. Many of the tales they shared spoke of the interrelated nature of all things. Legends often explained how natural landmarks came to be or how animals received their physical characteristics. Some stories also taught children proper behavior.



The Nez Percé hold festivals several times a year in celebration of their heritage. These special events feature drumming, singing, and sharing traditional foods. Feasts are held to mark the arrival of edible plants and the major salmon runs. Older members tell stories that pass along the traditional dances, religion, and language.

Finding a guardian spirit

Traditionally an important task for a Nez Percé youngster was finding his or her personal guardian spirit, known as the wyakin. Between the ages of nine and thirteen, boys and girls were instructed by an older tribe member who had a very strong wyakin. After being tutored for several years, the boy or girl went on a solitary journey to find this personal spirit-helper. The individual was not allowed to take food, water, or weapons on the journey.

Sometimes the wyakin came to the young person through dreams that could be peaceful or agitated. Occasionally the adolescent returned home, frightened or homesick, without having acquired the wyakin. In winter young people who had succeeded would dance and sing in ways designed to make them one with their guardian spirits. By watching and participating, other members of the tribe could often discover the identity of the young people’s wyakins. The ceremony sometimes involved contests to see who had received the greatest powers from their wyakin.

Hunting and war rituals

When a young boy had his first successful hunt or caught his first fish, a ceremony took place in which the meat or fish was served to the tribe’s best hunter. The people believed that this ceremony would make the young boy a good provider. A similar ceremony was held in which a skilled gatherer from the tribe would consume the roots or berries that a girl had collected for the first time.

As part of their war preparations, Nez Percé men stripped to breechcloths and moccasins. They applied brightly colored paint to their faces and bodies. Red paint was placed on the part in a warrior’s hair and across his forehead. A variety of colors were applied to his body in special, individual patterns. The warriors also decorated themselves with animal feathers, fur, teeth, and claws representing their connection to their guardian spirits.

Current tribal issues

Modern Nez Percé have been involved in several legal cases; in some instances rights to hunt and fish on their ancestral lands have been restored. In the early twenty-first century they were purchasing property to enlarge their landholdings and to restore tribal land lost during the 1800s.

The Nez Percé people have taken steps to remember their unique and tragic tribal history. In 1996 descendants of the Wallowa band held their twentieth annual ceremony commemorating the members of the tribe who died in the Bear Paw Mountains during the Nez Percé War of 1877. They gathered to smoke pipes, sing, and pray. They also conducted an empty saddle ceremony, in which they lead horses around without riders to appease the spirits of the dead.

In the mid-1990s declines in the timber and cattle markets brought hard economic times to non-Native residents of Wallowa Valley. Valley residents invited the Nez Percé to return to the area. A boom in tourism resulted. The Nee-Me-Poo Trail, the Nez Percé National Historical Park, and the burial site of Old Chief Joseph have become major tourist attractions. Valley residents raised money to build an interpretive center and purchase 160 acres of land for the tribe to use for cultural events. Many members of the tribe were pleased to recover some of their ancestral territory. “The whites may look at it as an economic plus, but we look at it as a homecoming,” said tribal member Soy Redthunder.

Notable people

Chief Joseph (1840–1904), the son of Old Chief Joseph (died 1871), assumed leadership of the tribe after his father’s death. When the U.S. Army attacked his people, who were fleeing the move to a reservation, Chief Joseph led his followers at the Battle of White Bird Canyon. His forces defeated the U.S. Army, killed thirty-three soldiers, and suffered no causalities. They fought valiantly and cleverly against U.S. forces until their final defeat four months later. His people were removed to sites in Washington and Idaho, and Joseph was never allowed to return to his homelands in Oregon and Idaho. He died in 1904, but his words live on. He told North American Review :

Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other then we shall have no more wars. We shall be all alike—brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers’ hands upon the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying. I hope no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.

Baird, Dennis W., and Lynn Baird, eds. In Nez Percé Country: Accounts of the Bitterroots and the Clearwater after Lewis and Clark. Moscow: University Of Idaho Library, distributed by University of Idaho Press, 2003.

Bial, Raymond. The Nez Percé. New York: Benchmark Books, 2002.

Greene, Jerome A. Nez Percé Summer, 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2000.

Greenwald, Emily. Reconfiguring the Reservation: The Nez Percés, Jicarilla Apaches, and the Dawes Act. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Nez Percé Country. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

King, David C. The Nez Percé. New York: Benchmark Books, 2007.

McCoy, Robert R. Chief Joseph, Yellow Wolf and the Creation of Nez Percé History in the Pacific Northwest. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Moulton, Candy. Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People. New York: Forge Books, 2005.

Nerburn, Kent. Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Percé: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

Ryan, Marla Felkins, and Linda Schmittroth. Nez Percé: Native Peoples of the American Plateau. San Diego, CA: Blackbirch Press, 2002.

Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. The Nez Percé. New York: Holiday House, 1994.

Wilfong, Cheryl. Following the Nez Percé Trail: A Guide to the Nee-me-poo National Historic Trail with Eyewitness Accounts. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2006.

Chief Joseph. “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs.” North American Review 128: 269 (April 1879 ): 412–33.

“Chief Joseph.” PBS. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

“Chief Joseph Surrenders.” The History Place. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

“Index: Nez Percé Education & Information.” Internet Montana. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

“Nez Percé Indians.” Valley Vision. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

“Nez Percé National Historic Trail.” USDA Forest Service. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

“Nez Percé National Historical Park.” National Park Service. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

“Nez Percé (Nimiipuu) Tribe.” Wisdom of the Elders. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

Nez Percé Tribe. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

“The Nez Percé Tribe.” Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

Peterson, Keith C. “Dams of the Columbia Basin and Their Effects of the Native Fishery.” Center for Columbia River History. (accessed on September 6, 2007).

Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska

Laurie Edwards

Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)

Laurie Edwards

Amanda Beresford McCarthy

Laurie Edwards

Elizabeth I. Hanson, The College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina

Laurie Edwards

Nez Percé

views updated May 18 2018

Nez Percé

ETHNONYMS: Blue Muds, Chopunnish, Kamuinu, Nimipu, Pierced Noses, Tsoop-Nit-Pa-Loo, Tsutpeli

The Nez Percé are a tribe of Sahaptian-speaking Indians who occupied central Idaho, north of the Northern Shoshone, and parts of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. They are now found principally on the Nez Percé Reservation centered in Lapwai, Idaho. Others live on the Colville Reservation in Washington. The area is generally mountainous, interspersed with river valleys, and fairly arid, receiving about fifteen inches of rainfall a year. In the census of 1980, 2,222 people were entered as Nez Percé.

Before their acquisition of horses around 1720, they lived in separate but related villages. After acquiring the horse they tended to group into larger and more unified settlements. During the early historic period, around the end of the eighteenth century, the Nez Percés were involved in numerous conflicts with the Plains tribes (such as the Blackfoot) and with the Basin Shoshonean groups to the south, with the conflicts centering around bison hunting and horse thefts. The Lewis and Clark expedition, which passed through their territory in 1805, noted much evidence of trade goods from White mariners on the Pacific Coast and Spaniards to the south.

Several Protestant missions were established among them beginning in the early 1830s, with many of the tribe being converted. This, as well as disputes about the various treaties signed with the U.S. government, resulted in conflict between the traditionalists and the converts. Following the discovery of gold in the area in the early 1860s, the territory was overrun by gold prospectors and settlers. Most of the tribe was induced to settle on the present reservation in the 1870s, but the band under Chief Joseph refused and fought the U.S. Army in the Nez Percé War of 1877. The remnants of Joseph's band finally settled on the Colville Reservation.

The historical Nez Percé were composed of many small, local bands, each consisting of one or more villages and fishing camps. The bands generally had elected nonhereditary chiefs. The subsistence basis of the society was salmon fishing and/or bison hunting. The more eastern of the groups tended to depend more on bison as the basis of their subsistence than their relatives to the west who depended more on fishing and hunting other types of game. Trout, eel, and sturgeon were also caught and preserved. Gathering of wild vegetable foods by the women was also important.

Before the agglomeration into larger villages, communities usually had fewer than one hundred inhabitants. They lived in a variety of dwellings, from square and conical mat houses to communal longhouses up to 150 feet long, and also had sweat houses and dance lodges. They had large extended families, and polygyny was relatively common. Descent was bilateral with kindreds present. Although the Nez Percé had no metallurgy, weaving, ceramics, or agriculture, their fine basketry skills provided them with hats, bowls, mats, water-tight vessels, and shirts, leggings, breechclouts, moccasins, dresses, and women's caps; elk and buffalo robes were used for warmth.

Important in the religious life was the vision quest for a guardian spirit. Shamans provided religious leadership, presiding at ceremonies, exorcising ghosts, and curing the sick. The religion was animistic; Coyote was important in the mythology. The tribal religion is still observed among the traditionalists.

The governing body on the present Nez Percé Reservation is the Nez Percé Tribal Executive Committee, with nine persons being elected at large but distributed geographically. The tribe has presented and won several claims before the U.S. Indian Claims Commission. Contemporary Nez Percés are heavily involved in the mainstream culture, attending schools, leasing farai and timberlands, and operating a printing plant and a marina. The tribe holds numerous religious and secular events during the year, including games, wardance contests, religious services, parades, and tribal exhibits.


Haines, Francis (1955). The Nez Percés. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. (1965). The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Slickpoo, Allen P. (1973). Noon nee-me-poo (We, the Nez Percés). Lapwai, Idaho: Nez Percé Tribe of Idaho.

Spinden, Herbert J. (1908). The Nez Percé Indians. American Anthropological Association, Memoir 2, 165-274. Menasha, Wis.

Walker, Deward E., Jr. (1968). Conflict and Schism in Nez Percé Acculturation: A Study of Religion and Politics. Pullman: Washington State University Press.

Nez Perce

views updated May 29 2018


NEZ PERCE. The Nez Perces speak of themselves as Nimiipuu, "the real people, " and are one of several Sahaptian branches of the Penutian language group found in the Pacific Northwest. They were called the Nez Percé or "Pierced Nose" Indians by early French and Anglo explorers because some of the tribe pierced the septum of their noses with dentalium, a custom more common along the Northwest Coast. Numbering between 6,000 to 8,000 when first contacted by Lewis and Clark in 1805, the Nez Perces located themselves at a crossroad between Plains and interior Plateau tribes, and thus had already been introduced to many material items of white origin by 1800.

The Nez Perces were friendly to white trappers. Some Nez Perce women married white or mixed-blood fur traders following the construction of Fort Nez Perce (later Walla Walla) in 1818 by the North West Company. After missionaries Eliza and Henry Spalding arrived in 1836 to live among the Nez Perces, nearly all continued to practice traditional religion and foodways, which integrated salmon fishing and camas gathering into a seasonal ceremonial calendar. These resources were supplemented with hunting of local game, especially deer and elk, and with procuring buffalo hide on biannual trips to the plains of Montana.

At the time of their first treaty with the United States in 1855, the Nez Perces were considered among the more cooperative people in the entire region. That atmosphere changed in the 1860s after whites trespassed on Nez Perce Reservation lands, establishing illegal gold mining camps and the supply center of Lewiston, Idaho, in violation of treaty provisions. This led to the Treaty of 1863, or the "Steal Treaty, " signed in 1863 by one faction of the tribe, thereafter known as the "Treaty Band, " under the United States' designated leader, Hallalhotsoot, "The Lawyer, " who gave further concessions in 1868, reducing a land base of 7.5 million acres under the 1855 treaty to 750,000 acres.

Non-treaty Nez Perces remained scattered in the former reservation area under various headmen, among

them Tuekakas (Old Joseph) in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon. Following Tuekakas's death in 1871, Non-Treaty Nez Perces were pressured to move on to the diminished Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. Violence escalated and when the murder of several Nez Perces went unpunished, young warriors determined to avenge the loss of their kinsmen, killing several whites in the Salmon River country. This led to an unofficial "war" in 1877 that escalated and eventually involved over 2,000 federal and territorial troops in pursuit of bands of Nez Perces not on the reservation. Led by warrior chief Looking Glass and guided by Lean Elk (also called Poker Joe), the non-treaty survivors were stopped after a heroic 1,500-mile trek through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Only a few miles short of their goal of the Canadian border, the survivors stopped to rest and were confronted with superior numbers of U.S. troops. Upon Looking Glass's death in the final battle of the Nez Perce War at Bear's Paw, leadership was assumed by Hinmahtooyahlatkekht (Young Joseph), who surrendered, along with 86 men, 184 women, and 147 children, expecting to be returned to the Nez Perce Reservation. Instead, they faced incarceration on the Ponca Reservation in Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), remembered to this day as "the hot place" where all suffered and many died. A few, who had refused to surrender with Joseph, escaped into Canada with Chief White Bird, where they joined Sitting Bull's band of Sioux in political exile following victory at Little Bighorn the previous year.

In 1885, survivors of 1877 who agreed to convert to Christianity were allowed to return to Idaho; those who refused went to the Colville Reservation in Washington State. Struggling to the end for restoration of a reservation in the Wallowas, Joseph died on the Colville Reservation in 1904. By then, the official Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho had been allotted under the Dawes Severalty Act, which opened up "surplus lands" to non-Indian farmers in 1895.

During the twentieth century, Nez Perce men and women served in the U.S. Armed Services; many followed the lead of tribal member Dr. Archie Phinney and became professionals. Those in Idaho rejected the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, approving their own constitutional system in 1948 with an elected General Council that meets semi-annually. A nine-member elected body known as the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NEPTEC) makes day-to-day decisions and serves as the liaison with all federal agencies.

Enrolled Nez Perces numbered around 3,200 in the 2000 census. In Idaho, their political economy has benefited recently from the return of college graduates, tribal purchase of former lands lost during the Allotment Era, casino revenues, and an aggressive program in language revitalization.


Gulick, Bill. Chief Joseph Country: Land of the Nez Percé. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1981.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.

Slickpoo, Allen P., Sr., and Deward E. Walker Jr. Noon Nee Me-Poo (We, The Nez Percés): Culture and History of the Nez Perces. Lapwai, Idaho: Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, 1973.

Stern, Theodore. Chiefs and Chief Traders: Indian Relations at Fort Nez Percés, 1818–1855. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1996.

William R.Swagerty

See alsoIndian Land Cessions ; Nez Perce War .

Nez Percé

views updated May 23 2018

Nez Per·cé / ˌnez ˈpərz; pərˈsā/ • n. (pl. same or Nez Per·cés) 1. a member of an American Indian people of central Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington.2. the Sahaptian language of this people.• adj. of or relating to this people or their language.

Nez Percé

views updated May 11 2018

Nez Percé (Fr. pierced nose) Tribe of Native North Americans living in central Idaho, sw Washington, and ne Oregon.