Nez Perce Indians

The Nez Percé Indians 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.

Nez Percé (meaning ‘pierced noses’) is 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. 

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.

The Nez Percé are the same as the  Sahaptin of later writers, and the Chopuunish (corrupted from Tsútpěli) of Lewis and Clark. They were found in 1805 occupying a large area in what is now western Idaho, north east Oregon, and south east Washington, on the 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 mountain range to the headwaters of the Missouri.

They have been classed under two geographic divisions:  Upper Nez Percé and Lower Nez Percé. 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 the treaty of 1855 they ceded a large part of this territory to the United States.

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

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

Nez Perce History

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 the Wallowa valley refused to recognize the treaty, and finally, under Chief Joseph (the Younger), 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 them, and finally, when forced to give way, Chief 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 40 miles of the boundary after an 1,800 mile chase.

Joseph and his remaining followers, about 450, were promised return to Idaho with the rest of their people, but were instead 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 the remaining remnant still resides.

 Nez Perce Population   

Under the collective name Chopunnish, Lewis and Clark estimated the Nez Perce population to be 7,850. Deducting from this total 1,600 for the Pelloatpallah (Paloose) band, now treated as distinct from the Nez Percé, and 250 for the Yeletpo (Wailetpu, i. e., 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. In 1906, there were somewhat more than 1,600, 1,534 being on the reservation in Idaho and 83 on the Colville reservation in Washington.
 Nez Perce Culture   

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.

Owing to the precarious nature of the food supply the greater portion of the inhabitants of any one of these villages would often be absent for a large part of the year, consequently it is impossible to determine with accuracy the location and population of these division’s in early times.

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.
Nez Perce Religion

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 an indefinite number of spirits. The individual might procure a personal protecting spirit in the usual way by rigorous training and fasting.

Famous Nez Perce
Native hatcheries play a critical role in salmon recovery      


Article Index:

10 Things You Should Know About the Nez Perce Tribe

The Nez Perce saved the Lewis & Clark expedition multiple times, and are known for their prized appaloosa horses. Here are 10  things you should know about the Nez Perce tribe.

The role of Fort Leavenworth in Nez Perce History

In 1877, one year after Custer’s defeat, the Army basically fought the last of the Indian Wars. It was against the Nez Perce of eastern Oregon and Idaho. Actually, the war ranged over several states, including several days in the new Yellowstone National Park, and covered about 1,300 miles, ending at Snake Creek near the Bear Paw Mountains in northern Montana, about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.


The previous year, the Indians that had defeated Custer and killed 1 percent of the entire U.S. Army had fled across the same Medicine Line into Canada. Although they were fully aware of the predicament in which the Nez Perce were situated, they were informed by the Canadian authorities that while they were welcome to stay in Canada as refugees, they would not be welcomed back into Canada if they went to the rescue of the Nez Perce in Montana.

So in late 1877, Joseph and Yellow Wolf agreed to surrender to the U.S. troops in order to save the lives of the 400-plus Nez Perce women, children, elderly and the few remaining warriors who were trapped with no chance of escape into Canada. The agreement was that they would give up their weapons and horses and be allowed to return to the reservation in eastern Idaho. Unfortunately, the folks in Idaho and Oregon did not want them to return because they had plans for the land formerly occupied by the Nez Perce.

Instead, the Nez Perce were escorted to Bismarck by boat and by wagon where they eventually boarded the train to be delivered to Fort Leavenworth. If you stand on the corner of the road that crosses the railroad tracks into Sherman Army Airfield, you can look past the hangars and you can visually follow the Road To Rialto that led to the incarceration site.

This being a cavalry post, there were lots of horses, and soldiers liked to race their horses in their spare time. The so-called Victorian Era Horse Race Track was at least the second race track on the fort and was located at the present-day intersection of the Road To Rialto and the levee road, also named Chief Joseph Loop.

The Nez Perce were provided shelter within the confines of the race track and they were provisioned with food and water and security was provided by the Army, although I would hesitate to say that they were totally confined or imprisoned. In fact, with worldwide press coverage of the last of the Great Indian Wars or Nez Perce War, the fact that Chief Joseph was here drew a lot of curious people who wanted to see Joseph and the other real Indians.

The Fort decided to create a curfew to provide the Indians some peace because people were showing up at all hours to see them. Supposedly, the Nez Perce spent some of their time making things for the public to purchase. Since they arrived in the fall, I believe that they may also have spent plenty of time collecting native pecans to eat from the woodlands that were on the fort’s floodplain. Those pecans and plenty of new ones are still there.

It did not take long for the fort to grow tired of housing 400 Indians and caring for them as it got to be pretty expensive and the commander complained to Congress that he would release them immediately if Congress did not provide reimbursement for his costs. The commander argued that he was not equipped to operate a prisoner of war camp and that he would set them free if they were not removed.

Just eight months after they arrived at the fort, they boarded the train in downtown Leavenworth and were transported to Oklahoma where they stayed for about seven years before they were finally allowed to returned to Idaho.

Matt Nowak is a retired natural resources specialist and lives in Lansing.