Nez Perce (Native Americans of the Plateau)

Nez Perce French for "pierced nose," was a name bestowed by non-Indian traders in the nineteenth century. Ironically, the Nez Perce did not generally pierce their noses as many other local Indians did. Their Salishan neighbors called them Sahaptin, or Shahaptin. Their self-designation was Nimipu, "the People," or Tsoop-Nit-Pa-Loo, "the Walking Out People." Their early historic culture also contained Great Plains and Northwest Coast elements.

Location Before contact with non-Indians, the Nez Perce lived on about 17 million acres between the Blue and the Bitterroot Mountains in southeast Washington, northeast Oregon, and southwest Idaho. Today, most live in Clearwater, Idaho, Lewis, and Nez Perce Counties, Idaho; Ferry and Okanogan Counties, Washington; and in regional cities and towns.

Population The early-nineteenth-century Nez Perce population was about 6,000. In 1990, roughly 3,000 enrolled Nez Perces lived in Idaho.

Language Nez Perce is a member of the Sahaptian division of the Penutian language family.

Historical Information

History Somewhere around 1730, the Nez Perce acquired horses and began their dramatic transformation from seminomadic hunters, fishers, and gatherers to Plains-style buffalo hunters. They quickly became master horse riders and breeders. Several decades of peaceful hunting and trading ended around 1775, when the Blackfeet Indians, armed with guns they received through the fur trade, began a long period of conflict in western Montana. By 1800 or so, Nez Perce Indians had been exposed to Euro-American technology and had heard rumors of a very powerful people to the east.

Their first encounter with non-Indians was with the Lewis and Clark expedition (1805). The Indians welcomed these white people as well as the hundreds of traders, missionaries, and others who poured in in subsequent years. The Nez Perce were involved in fur trade during the 1820s and 1830s; they even helped to outfit settlers in the 1840s. Meanwhile, epidemics were taking a tremendous toll on their population.

In 1855, the Indians ceded several million acres of land but kept over eight million acres for a reservation. Non-Indian miners and other intruders ignored the restrictions and moved in anyway, precipitating a crisis among the Indians over the issue of loyalty toward whites. Following gold strikes in 1860, whites wanted the Wallowa and Grande Ronde Valleys, land that equaled more than 75 percent of the reservation. In 1863, only one chief, with no authority to sell Nez Perce land, signed a treaty. The United States then used that document as an eviction notice, ending years of friendship and cooperation between the Nez Perces and whites. In the meantime, the Dreamer religion had begun influencing the Nez Perce, among others, to resist non-native imperialism.

In 1877, the Wallowa Band were unilaterally given 30 days to leave their homeland. In response to this ultimatum, some younger Indians attacked a group of whites. Young Joseph, chief with his brother, Ollikut, reluctantly sided with the resisters. When soldiers came, firing on an Indian delegation under a flag of peace, the Indians fired back. Joseph’s band, about 450 Indians under the leadership of Looking Glass, knew that they could never return home or escape punishment at the hands of the United States. They decided to head for Canada.

Chief Joseph, legendary spokesman for the united bands of the Nez Perce (1903).

Chief Joseph, legendary spokesman for the united bands of the Nez Perce (1903).

During their two-month flight, the group traveled 1,700 miles, constantly evading and outwitting several thousand U.S. Army troops. They did fight several battles during their journey but never were defeated. They also passed through Yellowstone National Park at one point, encountering tourists but leaving them in peace. Joseph was just one of the leaders of this flight, but he became the most important and well known. Many Indians died along the way.

Tired, hungry, and cold, the group was forced to surrender in early October just 30 miles from Canada. Joseph and other Nez Perce were never allowed to return to their homeland. Those who survived were exiled to Kansas and the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where many died of disease, and finally to the Colville Reservation in Washington.

The sharply rising death rate among the Nez Perce from tuberculosis after the 1870s stemmed largely from the replacement of their traditional mat houses by "modern" wooden ones. Heavy missionization had by the end of the nineteenth century resulted in factionalism and considerable loss of tribal heritage. In 1971, Nez Perces received land claims settlements of $3.5 million.

Religion Spirits were inherent in all of nature. After years of instruction, adolescents sought their protection and power by fasting and visiting remote places. Men and women shamans, with especially strong, heavenly oriented guardian spirits, provided religious leadership. They cured illness, controlled the weather, and presided at ceremonies. They might also inflict harm. Curing methods included smoking, sweats, and herbal medicines. Dreams were also connected to good and evil events. During the winter religious ceremonies, participants dressed as their spirits and sang their spirit songs. There were many intertribal festivals and ceremonials as well, such as scalp dances.

Government Small, local bands each had one or more villages and fishing areas. Civil chiefs led the bands, although war chiefs exercised temporary power during periods of conflict. Chiefs were generally elected, although sons often followed fathers, and wealth (in horses) became more important in the late prehistoric period. They had no power in purely personal matters. Women could neither be nor elect chiefs. Chiefs and old men made up the village and tribal councils; decisions were taken by consensus. Ultimately, tribal cohesion grew out of the necessity to defend against fighters from the Great Plains.

Customs Bands were called by the names of streams. Each group contained at least one permanent winter village and a number of temporary fishing camps. Some subsistence areas were considered tribal property. All handmade items were the property of the maker, except that the male was entitled to all property in unusual cases of separation or divorce.

Menstruating and late-term pregnant women were strictly segregated. Young, unmarried men slept in the sweat lodges. Young men and women, especially the latter, were married by about age 14. Brides were commonly purchased, and polygamy was common. Abortion was rare, as was birth out of wedlock. Adultery was a capital crime. Women did most domestic work, including dressing skins; men’s work revolved around hunting and war.

Immediately after death, corpses were dressed in good clothes and had their faces painted. After several days, they were wrapped in deerskin and buried with their former possessions. Boulders and cedar stakes marked grave sites. The family in mourning cut their hair and wore poor, dirty clothing.

Pipe smoking was an important part of burial and other rites and ceremonies. The murder of a tribe member usually required blood revenge or at least blood money. Theft was punished by public disgrace. Other serious crimes or infractions included adultery, rape, and lying. Prisoners of war might be used as slaves, but their children were free, and the adults were also frequently adopted into the tribe. Some names and songs ran in the male line. Typical games included archery, dice, hoop-and-pole, and the hand game; most included betting. Childrens’ games included tops and string games.

Dwellings Permanent settlements were located along rivers. Winter dwellings were semisubterranean, circular wood frame structures covered with cedar bark, sage, mats, grasses, and earth. The roof was flat or conical. Mats covered the floors. There were also tipi-like communal longhouses, up to 150 feet long, of similar construction. These houses held up to 50 families. People slept along inner walls and shared fires along the center.

Older boys and unmarried men slept and sweated in grass- and earth-covered sweat lodges; others were built for men and women to sweat in. Circular, underground menstrual huts were about 20 feet in diameter. In summer, people built temporary brush lean-tos. Some groups adopted hide tipis in the eighteenth century.

Diet Nez Perces were seminomadic, moving with the food supply. Fish, especially salmon, was a staple, along with trout, eel, and sturgeon. Salmon was broiled, baked, or boiled or dried, smoked, and stored. Animal food included elk, deer, moose, mountain sheep, rabbits, and small game. After the Nez Perce acquired the horse, parties traveled to the Plains to hunt buffalo. Some meat was "jerked" for winter. Deer were run down or shot, as were other game, with a bow and arrow or killed with a spear. Some animals were hunted with use of decoys.

Women gathered plant foods such as camas, kouse, bitterroot, wild carrot, wild onion, and berries. Camas, dug in midsummer, was peeled and baked in a pit oven. Most berries were dried and stored for winter. Other food included fowl, eggs, and birds. People ate horses, lichens, and tree inner bark when there was nothing else to eat. Most food was either boiled, steamed in pits, or roasted in ashes.

Key Technology Fish were speared from platforms and caught using nets, spears, small traps, and weirs. Men used various nooses, snares, nets, and deadfalls for hunting as well as bows made of mountain sheep horn. Women made a range of woven and coiled baskets, some watertight, as well as woven reed bags. They also made cups, bowls, winnowing baskets, women’s caps, and mats of cattails and tule. Many baskets were made of Indian hemp, bear grass, and other grasses.

Other important raw materials included bone, horn, and wood. Many tools and items, such as mortars, pestles, knives, and mauls, were made of chipping and flaking stone and also obsidian. Mattresses were cottonwood inner bark or dry grass, blankets were elk hides, and folded skins served as pillows.

Nez Perce Indians also used a fire-hardened digging stick, a fire drill, and board and buckskin cradles. Musical instruments included rattles, flageolets, whistles, and drums. They also used a 12-month calendar and named four seasons.

Trade Relatively early acquisition of horses gave the Nez Perce a trade advantage, although they also traded widely before they had the horse. They acquired items made as far away as British Columbia and the Mississippi Valley. Abalone was among the items they acquired from coastal Indians, as were carved wooden items, dried clams, dentalium shells, and wapato root. Also, by the eighteenth century, the Nez Perce were trading east of the Bitterroots for buffalo products and other Plains items.

Notable Arts Traditional arts included woven baskets, wallets, petroglyphs, and blankets and tipi skins decorated with pictographs. In the historical period they were known for porcupine-quill embroidery, rawhide painting, and cornhusk basketry.

Transportation After acquiring the horse in the mid-eighteenth century, the Nez Perce went on to develop first-rate stock through selective breeding. They also used snowshoes and dugout canoes.

Dress Clothing was made of cedar bark and the untailored skin of deer, elk, and buffalo. Men wore moccasins, leggings, breechclouts, shirts, and highly decorated robes. Women wore moccasins, fringed gowns, and basket hats, replaced in the historic period with skin caps decorated with fringe and elks’ teeth. People cleaned their clothes with white clay. Men plucked their facial hair. People painted their faces and bodies for decoration and against snow blindness. Tailored, Plains-style skin clothing became popular in the eighteenth century.

War and Weapons In general, raiding and war, for booty, glory, and revenge, were very important to the Sahaptians. By virtue of their being the most powerful Plateau tribe, the Nez Perce played a central role in regional peace and war. At least after the late eighteenth century, they fought with the Flathead, Coeur d’Alene, and Spokan against the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Crow, and other Plains tribes. They also sometimes fought against these allies. The Cayuse, Umatilla, Yakima, and Wallawalla were also allies against the Shoshone, Bannock, and other northern Great Basin tribes.

Men held intertribal dances before wars and buffalo hunts. Weapons included cedar, ash, or mountain sheep horn bows; obsidian or jasper-tipped arrows, sometimes dipped in rattlesnake venom; and spears. Elk-skin shields, helmets, and armor were used for defense. The eagle-feather war bonnet may or may not have come originally from the Plains. Men and horses were painted and decorated for war.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Nez Perce Reservation (1855) is located in Clearwater, Idaho, Lewis, and Nez Perce Counties, Idaho. It contains 92,685 acres; the 1990 Indian population was 1,860.

A tribal committee is elected every three years, according to the constitution adopted in 1948. A nine-member executive committee serves staggered three-year terms. The Nez Perce Tribe is a member of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and other state and regional organizations.

The Colville Reservation (1872) is located in Ferry and Okanogan Counties, Washington. It contains 1,011,495 acres and had a 1990 Indian population of 3,782. Under the Indian Reorganization Act constitution approved in 1938, the reservation is governed by a 14-member business council plus various subcommittees. The Confederated Tribes is a member of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians as well as other intertribal organizations.

Economy The Nez Perce tribe is currently undertaking a major land reacquisition program. Most income comes from farm and timber, and the tribe runs a printing plant, a marina, and a limestone quarry. Their economic development plans include a forestry management program and gambling and tourist facilities, including the Nee-Mee-Poo Trail and an expansion of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. With other Idaho tribes, they are negotiating for a favorable settlement of the water rights issue. A large percentage of the reservation is leased to non-Indians.

Nez Perce warriors on horseback. By virtue of their being the most powerful Plateau tribe, the Nez Perce played a central role in regional peace and war. Men and horses were painted and decorated for war.

Nez Perce warriors on horseback. By virtue of their being the most powerful Plateau tribe, the Nez Perce played a central role in regional peace and war. Men and horses were painted and decorated for war.

Important economic activities on the Colville Reservation include stock raising, farming, logging (including a sawmill) and reforestation, seasonal labor, mining, and tourism. The reservation contains the potential to develop hydroelectric resources. The tribe owns a meat-packing plant, a log cabin sales business, and various gambling enterprises.

Legal Status The Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life The Nez Perce tribe makes an effort to preserve their native language, since few people under age 30 speak it well. There are dictionaries and other texts in the Nez Perce language. Other ongoing aspects of native culture include traditional dances, root feasts, traditional games, and Seven Drums Society ceremonies. The tribe has attained legal jurisdiction on the reservation. It is actively involved in nuclear and other regional environmental issues, including efforts to reinstate local salmon and steelhead runs. The tribe administers a scholarship fund for deserving students. Among the festivals observed on the reservation are Lincoln’s birthday, a spring root festival in May, a Presbyterian camp meeting in early summer, and Pi-Nee-Wau Days in August.

Colville people are largely acculturated. Language preservation programs are hindered by lack of a common language. The Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perces, with their Seven Drum religion, have taken the lead in recent efforts to reinvigorate disparate tribal cultures and religions. The Indian Shaker Church and the Native American Church are also active on the reservation. There is a program to reacquire and consolidate the land base. Educational levels are on the rise. The Colville business council wields growing power in regional and statewide issues.

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