Nez Perce

Nez Perce

[nez purs; Fr. ney per-sey]
The Nez Perce are a tribe of Native Americans who live in the Pacific Northwest region (Columbia River Plateau) of the United States. It is estimated that at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition the native people had been in the area for over 10,000 years. The tribe currently govern and inhabit a reservation in Idaho. The Nez Perce's name for themselves is Nimíipuu (nimiːpuː), which means simply "the people", or "we the people". The name "Nez Percé" (meaning "pierced nose") is derived from the French, a name inspired by nose pendants some of them wore, although this practice was more common among tribes downriver.

Name, language, and culture

"Nez Perce" is the spelling of the name used by the tribe itself, the United States Government, and contemporary historians. Older historical and ethnological works use the French spelling "Nez Percé," with the diacritic.

In the journals of William Clark, the people are referred to as Chopunnish ('ʧopənɪʃ). This term is an adaptation of the term cú·pʼnitpeľu (the Nez Perce people) which is formed from cú·pʼnit (piercing with a pointed object) and peľu (people). Nez Perce oral tradition indicates the name Cuupn'itpel'uu meant “we walked out of the woods or walked out of the mountains" and referred to the time before the Nez Perce had horses. The most common self-designation used today by the Nez Perce is Nimíipuu. Nez Perce is a misnomer given by the interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the time they first encountered the Nez Perce in 1805. It is from the French, "pierced nose." This is an inaccurate description of the tribe. They did not practice nose piercing or wearing ornaments. The actual "pierced nose" tribe lived on and around the lower Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and are commonly called the Chinook tribe by historians and anthropologists. The Chinook relied heavily upon salmon as did the Nez Perce and shared fishing and trading sites but were much more hierarchical in their social arrangements.

The Nez Perce National Historical Park includes a research center which has the park's historical archives and library collection. It is available for on-site use in the study and interpretation of Nez Perce history and culture.

Traditional lands

The Nez Perce territory at the time of Lewis and Clark was approximately 17,000,000 acres (69,000 km²). It covered parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, in an area surrounding the Snake, Salmon and the Clear Water Rivers. The tribal area extended from the Bitterroots in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west between latitude 45°N and 47°N.

In 1800, there were over 70 permanent villages ranging from 30 to 200 individuals, depending on the season and social grouping. About 300 total sites have been identified, including both camps and villages. In 1805 the Nez Perce were the largest tribes on the Columbia River Plateau, with a population of about 6,000. By the beginning of the twentieth century the Nez Perce had declined to about 1,800 because of epidemics, conflicts with non-Indians, and other factors.

The Nez Perce, as many western Native American tribes, were migratory and would travel with the seasons, according to where the most abundant food was to be found at a given time of year. This migration followed a predictable pattern from permanent winter villages through several temporary camps, nearly always returning to the same locations year after year. They were known to go as far east as the Great Plains, hunting American Bison and fishing for salmon at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. They relied heavily on quamash or camas gathered in the region between the Salmon and Clearwater River drainages as a food source.

Chief Joseph's surrender

On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Nation surrendered to units of the U.S. Cavalry near Chinook in the north of what is now Montana. Before this surrender the Nez Perce fought a cunning strategic retreat toward refuge in Canada from about 2,000 soldiers. This surrender, after fighting 13 battles and going about toward Canada, marked the last great battle between the U.S. government and an Indian nation. After surrendering, Chief Joseph stated his famous quote "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." The flight path is reproduced by the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. The annual Cypress Hills ride in June commemorates the Nez Perce people's crossing into Canada.

Notable people

  • Probably the best known leader of the Nez Perce was Chief Joseph, who led his people in their struggle to retain their identity in the face of U.S. encroachments on their land.
  • One notable Nez Perce scholar was Archie Phinney. He studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University and produced a published collection of Nez Perce myths and legends from the oral tradition, Nez Perce Texts.
  • Actress Elaine Miles, best known from her role in television's Northern Exposure is Nez Perce.
  • Silent film actors Jack and Al Hoxie are the sons of a half Nez Perce mother.
  • Nez Perce War veteran and rodeo champion Jackson Sundown

Nez Perce horse breeding program

The Nez Perce tribe began a breeding program in 1995 based on crossbreeding the Appaloosa and a Central Asian breed called Akhal-Teke to produce the Nez Perce Horse. This is a program to re-establish the horse culture of the Nez Perce, a proud tradition of selective breeding and horsemanship that was destroyed in the 19th century. The breeding program was financed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the Nez Perce tribe and a nonprofit group called the First Nations Development Institute (Based in Washington D.C.), which promotes such businesses in Indian country.


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

Nez Perce Indian Reservation

The current tribal lands consist of a reservation comprising parts of four counties in northern Idaho; in descending order of surface area they are Nez Perce County, Lewis County, Idaho County, and Clearwater County. The total land area is 3,095.299 km² (1,195.102 sq mi), and the reservation's population as of the 2000 census was 17,959 residents. Its largest community is the city of Orofino, near its northeast corner.




  • Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.: The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
  • L.V. McWhorter: Hear Me, My Chiefs! Nez Perce Legend and History. Caxton Printers, 1992.
  • L.V. McWhorter: Yellow Wolf: His Own Story. Caxton Printers, 1940.
  • John R. Swanton: The Indian Tribes of North America. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 145, Smithsonian Press, Washington D.C., 1969
  • Deward E. Walker Jr.: Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 12: Plateau. Smithsonian Institution (Hg.). Washington: 1998.
  • Brown, Dee (1970). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. ISBN 0-330-23219-3.

Further reading

  • Beal, Merrill D. "I Will Fight No More Forever"; Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963.
  • Bial, Raymond. The Nez Perce. New York: Benchmark Books, 2002. ISBN 0761412107
  • Boas, Franz (1917). Folk-tales of Salishan and Sahaptin tribes. Published for the American Folk-Lore Society by G.E. Stechert & Co..
  • Humphrey, Seth K (1906). The Indian dispossessed. Revised, Little, Brown and Co..
  • Josephy, Alvin M. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. Yale western Americana series, 10. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.
  • Judson, Katharine Berry (1912). Myths and legends of the Pacific Northwest, especially of Washington and Oregon. 2nd, McClurg. Oral traditions from the Chinook, Nez Perce, Klickitat and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Lavender, David Sievert. Let Me Be Free: The Nez Perce Tragedy. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. ISBN 0060167076
  • Nerburn, Kent. Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancicso, 2005. ISBN 0060513012
  • Stout, Mary. Nez Perce. Native American peoples. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Pub, 2003. ISBN 0836836669
  • Warren, Robert Penn. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Who Called Themselves the Nimipu, "the Real People": A Poem. New York: Random House, 1983. ISBN 0394530195

External links

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