Geographical region : Great Basin (Idaho, Oregon,Washington)

This tribe lived in plains tipis

Language : sahaptin - chinook branch of the Penutian linguistic stock


Nez Percé ( the French translate 'pierced noses'), a term applied by the French to a number of tribes which practiced or were supposed to practice the custom of piercing the nose for the insertion of a piece of dentalium.

This is untrue as the Nee-me-poo did not practice nose piercing or wearing ornaments. The "pierced nose" people lived on the lower Columbia River and throughout other parts of the Northwest.

The term is now used exclusively to designate the main tribe of the Shahaptian family, who have not, however, so far as is known ever been given to the practice.

Also called the Sahaptin, or Shahaptin.

The Nez Percé or Sahaptin of later writers, the Chopuunish (corrupted from Tsútpeli) of Lewis and Clark, their discoverers, were found in 1805 occupying a large area in what is now western Idaho, north east Oregon, and south east Washington, on lower Snake river and its tributaries.

They roamed between the Blue Mountains in Oregon and the Bitter Root Mountains in Idaho, and according to Lewis and Clark sometimes crossed the range to the headwaters of the Missouri.

After the introduction of the horse (c.1700) they became noted horse breeders and adopted many plains area traits, including buffalo hunts.

By certain writers they have been classed under two geographic divisions Upper Nez Percé and Lower Nez Percé.

The latter were found by Bonneville in 1834 to the north and west of the Blue Mountains on several of the branches of Snake river, where they were neighbors of the Cayuse and Walla Walla.

The Upper Nez Percé held the Salmon river country in Idaho in 1834 and probably also at the same time the Grande Ronde valley in eastern Oregon but by treaty of 1855 they ceded a large part of this territory to the United States.

The reservation in which they were confined at that time included the Wallowa valley in Oregon, as well as a large district in Idaho.

With the discovery of gold and the consequent influx of miners and settlers the Oregon districts were in demand, and a new treaty was made by which the tribe was confined to the reservation at Lapwai, Idaho.

The occupants of Wallowa valley refused to recognize the treaty, and finally, under their chief, Joseph, took active measures of resistance, and the Nez Percé war of 1877 resulted.

Several severe defeats were inflicted on the United States troops who were sent against the Indians, and finally, when forced to give way, Joseph conducted a masterly retreat across the Bitter Root Mountains and into Montana in an attempt to reach Canadian territory, but he and his band were surrounded and captured when within a few miles of the boundary.

Joseph and his followers to the number of 450 were removed to Indian Territory, where their loss from disease was so great that in 1885 they were sent to the Colville reservation in northern Washington, where a remnant still resides.

Under the collective name Chopunnish, Lewis and Clark estimated the population to be 7,850.

Deducting from this total 1,600 for the Pelloatpallah (Paloos) band, now treated as distinct from the Nez Percé, and 250 for the Yeletpo (Wailetpu, Cayuse), now supposed to belong to a distinct stock, the total of the Nez Percé in 1805 according to those authors was about 6,000.

Wilkes estimated the Chopunnish at about 3,000 in 1849, and Gibbs gave them a population of more than 1,700 in 1853.

In 1885 they were estimated officially at 1,437. There are now, (1906) somewhat more than 1,600, 1,534 being on the reservation in Idaho and 83 on the Colville reservation in Washington.

In general habits of life the Nez Percé as well as the other Shahaptian tribes conform to the inland type of Indians and differ sharply in most respects from their western neighbors, the Chinook.

At the time of Lewis and Clark's visit they are reported as living in communal houses, said to contain about 50 families each.

There is evidence, however, that the Nez Percé used the typical underground lodge, and that these seldom contained more than 3 or 4 families.

A much larger dancing house was built at each permanent winter camp.

Salmon constituted their most important food in early times, and with roots and berries made up their entire food supply until the introduction of horses facilitated hunting expeditions to the neighboring mountains.

The tribe seems to have been divided into a number of bands or villages, named according to the place where the permanent winter camp was made.

There was no head chief of the tribe, but each band had several chiefs, of whom one was regarded as the leader, and these chiefs were succeeded by their sons as a rule.

Expeditions for hunting or war were led by chiefs chosen for the occasion.

There are no signs of a clan system in the social organization of the Nez Percé, and marriage is apparently permitted between any couple except in the case of recognized relationship.

The religious beliefs of the Nez Percé, previous to the introduction of Christianity, were those characteristic of the Indians of the interior, the main feature being the belief in all indefinite number of spirits.

The individual might procure a personal protecting spirit in the usual way by rigorous training and fasting.

The Nez Percé have always borne a high reputation for independence and bravery, and have been particularly noted for their almost constant friendliness to the whites.

Practically the only rupture in these relations was the Nez Percé war of 1877, mentioned above.

The bands and divisions of the Nez Percé are known only approximately.

The following are the best defined:

Alpowna, on a small branch of the Clearwater, below Lewiston, Idaho.

Assuti, on Assuti creek, Idaho.

Kannah, at the town of that name on the Clearwater, Idaho.

Lamtama, so called from a branch of Salmon river, Idaho.

Lapwai, near the junction of Lapwai creek and the Clearwater.

Willewah, formerly occupying Wallowa Valley, Oregon, and now for the greater part on Colville reservation, Wash. (Joseph's band).

In addition a number of bands have been recorded by the names of their chiefs or their supposed places of residence.



Chief Joseph "I will Fight No More Forever"

1840-1904, chief of a group of Nez Perce.

On his father's death in 1871, Joseph became leader of one of the groups that refused to leave the land ceded to the United States by the fraudulently obtained treaty of 1863.

Faced with forcible removal (1877), Joseph and the other nontreaty chiefs prepared to leave peacefully for the reservation.

Misinformed about the intentions of the Nez Perc, Gen. Oliver Otis Howard ordered an attack, which the Native Americans repulsed.

Pursued by the U.S. army, the warriors, with many women and children, began a masterly retreat to Canada of more than 1,000 mi (1,609 km).

The Nez Perc won several engagements, notably one at Big Hole, Mont., but 30 mi (48 km) short of the Canadian border they were trapped in a cul-de-sac by troops under Gen. Nelson A. Miles and forced to surrender.

His eloquent surrender speech is one of the best-known Native American statements.

The whites had assumed that Joseph, spokesman for the tribe in peacetime, was responsible for their outstanding strategy and tactics, which actually had been agreed upon in council by all the chiefs.

He became, however, a symbol of the heroic, fighting retreat of the Nez Perces.

He was taken to Fort Leavenworth, then spent the remainder of his life on the Colville Indian Reservation in the state of Washington and strove to improve the conditions of his people.

In 1903 he made a ceremonial visit to Washington, D.C.

See biographies by O. O. Howard (1881, repr. 1972) and H. A. Howard (1941, repr. 1965); Merrill D. Beal, I Will Fight No More Forever (1985).