Nez Perce Tribe


Last Updated: 3 years

The Nez Perce Tribe is one of five federally recognized tribes in the state of Idaho. Their most famous chief is Chief Joseph.

Official Tribal Name: Nez Perce Tribe


Official Website:

Recognition Status:

Federally Recognized

Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:

Niimíipuu, meaning, “The People.”

cú·pʼnitpeľu, or Cuupn’itpel’uu  – Literal translation from Sahaptin to English: “the People Walking Single File Out of the Forest.” 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.

Common Name / Meaning of Common Name:

Nez Perce, from a French term meaning “pierced nose.” (The Nez Perce did not pierce their noses. That was a practice of the Chinook, a neighboring tribe.)

Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Mispellings:

Formerly the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho.

Chopunnish, used by (Lewis &) William Clark in his journals, meaning the Nez Perce people.  

Niimiipu, Nez Percé.

Other alternate names were Blue Mud Indians, Blue Earths, and Green Wood Indians. Those with the words “mud” and “earth” refer to the color of Nez Perce face paint.  

Name in other languages:

Region: Columbia Plateau

State(s) Today: Idaho, Washington

Traditional Territory:

The Nez Perce territory at the time of Lewis and Clark (1804–1806) was approximately 17,000,000 acres (69,000 km2) and covered parts of present-day Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, in an area surrounding the Snake, Salmon and the Clearwater rivers. The tribal area extended from the Bitterroots in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west.

Confederacy: Nez Perce


Reservations: Nez Perce Reservation
Land Area:  1,195 square miles (3,100 km2)
Tribal Headquarters:  Lapwai, ID
Time Zone:  

First European Contact:

The Nez Perce first encountered French fur traders in the late 1700s. In 1805, William Clark and five other men who were on an advance hunting trip for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, were the next white men to meet the Nez Perce.

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Language Classification: Penutian => Plateau Penutian => Sahaptian => Nez Perce (Niimi’ipuutímt)

Language Dialects: Upper Nez Perce and Lower Nez Perce

As in many other indigenous languages of the Americas, a Nez Perce verb can have the meaning of an entire sentence in English.

Number of fluent Speakers:

Nez Perce is a highly endangered language. While sources differ on the exact number of fluent speakers, it is almost definitely under 100. The Nez Perce tribe is endeavoring to reintroduce the language into native usage through a language revitalization program, though at present the future of the Nez Perce language is far from assured.



Bands, Gens, and Clans

Related Tribes:

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Traditional Enemies:

Crow, Sioux


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Nez Perce Legends / Oral Stories:

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The Nez Perce lived in a portable structure called a tipi. This consisted of a number of pine sapling poles tied together in a conical structure, which was covered with buffalo hides.

In 1800, the Nez Perce had more than 100 permanent villages, ranging from 50 to 600 individuals, depending on the season and social grouping. Archeologists have identified a total of about 300 related sites including camps and villages, mostly in the Salmon River Canyon.

Like other Plateau tribes, the Nez Perce had seasonal villages and camps in order to take advantage of natural resources throughout the year. Their migration followed a reoccurring pattern from permanent winter villages through several temporary camps, nearly always returning to the same locations each year. The Nez Perce traveled far east as the Great Plains of Montana to hunt buffalo and as far west as the West Coast.


The Nez Perce were hunter gatherers, but they also had large permanent villages. Before the 1957 construction of The Dalles Dam, which flooded this area, Celilo Falls was a favored location on the Columbia River for salmon fishing. Hunters in small groups (and some women to help process the meat and tan the hides) made trips to Montana to hunt bison every couple years, but fish was their primary meat. They also hunted deer, elk, and small game. Camas was a staple root, which is similar to a potato. Camas bulbs were gathered in the region between the Salmon and Clearwater river drainages. They were also used as a trade item. They also gathered other plants and root crops for both food and medicine, and various berries, which were ground with fat to make pemmican.

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Traditional Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:

The Nez Perce believed in spirits called weyekins (Wie-a-kins) which would offer “a link to the invisible world of spiritual power.” The weyekin would protect one from harm and become a personal guardian spirit.

To receive a weyekin, a seeker would go to the mountains alone on a vision quest. This included fasting and meditation over several days. While on the quest, the individual may receive a vision of a spirit, which would take the form of a mammal or bird. This vision could appear physically or in a dream or trance.

The weyekin was to bestow the animal’s powers on its bearer, for example; a deer might give its bearer swiftness or a bear might give them understanding of medicines to cure specific ailments. A person’s weyekin was very personal. It was rarely shared with anyone and was contemplated in private. The weyekin stayed with the person until death.

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Wedding Customs


Famous Nez Perce Chiefs & Leaders

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