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nez perce indians


The Nez Perce Indians, or Nimi'ipuu (pronounced Nee-Me-Poo) are a Columbia Plateau tribe (also known as Western Plateau) speaking a Penutian language dialect. Most of the Nez Perce tribe reside on or near the Nez Perce Reservation in southern Idaho, but about 500 decendants of Chief Joseph's Wallowa band now belong to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in eastern Washington. The original territory of the Nez Perce covered a large portion of central Idaho, and sections of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. They also made regular seasonal hunting trips into Montana and Wyoming.

Official Tribal Name:


Nez Perce Tribe (formerly the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho)

Address: P.O. Box 305, Lapwai, ID 83540
Phone: Varies. See:
Fax: Varies. See:
Email: Varies. See:
Official Website:

Common Name:   Nez Perce Tribe

Meaning of Common Name:

   Pierced Noses - Name given by French interpreters traveling with Lewis & Clark on 1805 expedition. Misnomer that probably referred to a neighboring tribe called Chinook Indians, who did pierce their nose. This was not a common practice among the Nez Perce, but the name stuck.

Traditional Name:


Meaning of Traditional Name:

Nimi'ipuu = Real People or The People
Cuupn'itpel'uu = Older traditional name meaning: We walked out of the woods or walked out of the mountains.

Alternate names:

  Chopunnish (name used by Lewis & Clark), Blue Muds (name applied by traders),Green Wood Indians (in Henry-Thompson Journal),Tsutpeli,Tsútpeli, Cuupn'itpel'uu, Alpowna, Assuti, Lamtama, Lapwai, Willewah, Wallowa, Chief Joseph's Band,Kamu'inu (Band)

Alternate spellings:

  Nez Perce' (with the French diacritic), Nez Perces, Nee Me Poo, Nee-Me-Poo, Culpnitpelu, NiMiiPuu, Ni Mii Puu, Ni Mee Pu,

Nez Perce name in other languages:

Atsina: A-pa-o-pa
Caddo: TchaXsúkush
Calapooya: Anípörspi
Crow: A-pu-pe' = to paddle, or paddles
Dakota: Po'-ge-hdo-ke
Kansa: Pe ga'-zan-de
Kiowa: Â'dal-k'ato'igo = people with hair cut across the forehead
Kiowa Apache: Mikadeshitchisi
Okanagon: Sa-áptin
Osage: Pa ka'-san-tse = plaited hair over the forehead
Pawnee: Tsuharukats
Quapaw: I'-na-cpe
Siksika (Blackfoot): Ko-mun'-i-tup'-i-o
Shoshone: Thoig'a-rik-kah = louse eaters
Tenino: Shi'wanish = name for both the Nez Perce and the Cayuse, meaning "strangers from up the river."

Registered Population:

3,300 in Nez Perce Tribe,(about 2/3 live on or near the Nez Perce Reservation). Also, about 92 decendants of Chief Joseph's Wallowa band are now officially considered members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in eastern Washington.


  Columbia Plateau (Western Plateau)


    Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming


 Nez Perce Reservation, Colville Reservation

Bands / Population at Contact:

In 100 the Nez Perce population was estimated at 8,000. 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 tribe on the Columbia River Plateau, with a population of about 6,000.

However, by the beginning of the twentieth century the Nez Perce had declined to about 1,800 due to epidemics, conflicts with non-Indians, and other factors.

At one time, there were more than fifty bands of Nez Perce. The bands and divisions of the Nez Perce are now known only approximately. The following bands were known in the early 1900s:
  • Almotipu, and other bands extended about 80 miles down Snake River from Lewiston.
  • Alpowna or Alpowe'ma, on a small branch of the Clearwater, below Lewiston, Idaho on Alpaha (Alpowa) Creek.
  • Assuti, on Assuti creek, Idaho;
  • Atskaaiwawixpu, at the mouth of the northern fork of Clearwater River.
  • Esnime, Slate Creek Band, the Upper Salmon River Indians.
  • Ilasotino, at Hasutin, opposite Asotin City, Wash.
  • Hatweme, on Hatweh Creek.
  • Heswéiwewipu, at the month of Asotin Creek.
  • Hinsepu, at Hansens Ferry on the Grande Ronde.
  • Imnáma, on Imnaha River.
  • Inantoinu, at the mouth of Joseph Creek.
  • Isäwisnemepu, near Zindels, on the Grande Ronde.
  • Iwatoinu, at Kendrick on Potlatch Creek.
  • Kamiaxpu, at Kamiah, at the mouth of Lawyer's Creek; this band also called Uyame.
  • Kannah, at the town of that name on the Clearwater, Idaho;
  • Lamtáma, from a branch of the Salmon river, in Idaho;
  • Lapwai, near the junction of Lapwai creek and the Clearwater;
  • Lapweme, on Lapwai and Sweetwater Creeks.
  • Makapu, on Cottonwood or Maka Creek.
  • Nuksiwepu, and other bands extended about 80 miles down Snake River from Lewiston.
  • Painima, near Peck, on Clearwater River.
  • Pinewewewixpu, and other bands extended about 80 miles down Snake River from Lewiston.
  • Pipu'inimu, on Big Canon Creek.
  • Sahatpu,and other bands extended about 80 miles down Snake River from Lewiston.
  • Saiksaikinpu, on the upper portion of the Southern Fork of Clearwater River.
  • Sakánma, between the mouth of Salmon River and the mouth of Grande Ronde.
  • Sálwepu, on the Middle Fork of Clearwater River, about 5 miles above Kooskia, Idaho.
  • Saxsano, about 4 miles above Asotin City, Wash., on the east side of Snake River.
  • Siminekempu, at Lewiston, Idaho.
  • Taksehepu, at Agatha on Clearwater River.
  • Tamanmu, at the mouth of Salmon River.
  • Tewepu, at the mouth of Oro Fino Creek.
  • Toiknimapu, above Joseph Creek on the north side of the Grande Ronde.
  • Tokalatoinu, and other bands extended about 80 miles down Snake River from Lewiston.
  • Tsokolaikiinma, between Lewiston and Alpowa Creek.
  • Tuke'liklikespu, at Big Eddy.
  • Tukpame, on the lower portion of the South Fork of 'Clearwater River.
  • Tunèhepu, at Juliaetta on Potlatch Creek.
  • Walwáma, in Willows Valley.
  • Wawawipu, extended about 80 miles down Snake River from Lewiston.
  • Willewah, formerly occupying Wallowa Valley, Oregon, and now for the greater part on Colville reservation, Wash. (Joseph's band)
  • Wewi'me, at the mouth of the Grande Ronde.
  • Witkispu, about 3 miles below Alpowa Creek, on the east side of Snake River.
  • Yakto'inu, at the mouth of Potlatch Creek.
  • Yatóinu, on Pine Creek.
In addition a number of bands have been recorded by the names of their chiefs or their supposed places of residence.

Language Classification:

Penutian -> Plateau Penutian -> Sahaptin -> Nez Perce

Language Dialects:

The Nez Perce have been divided into Upper and Lower divisions, primarily on dialect grounds with the Upper Nez Perce being more oriented towards a Plains lifeway.

Indicative of their influence in the Plateau is the fact that Nez Perce was rapidly becoming the language of trade and diplomacy throughout the region when Euro-Americans arrived shortly after 1800. At that time the Cayuse language was already being lost in favor of Nez Perce.

Number of fluent Speakers:

Nez Perce is spoken to some degree by about 600 in Idaho, but fluent Nez Perce is spoken by only sixty to seventy elders, the majority of whom speak the Upper River dialect. Only a handful of elders still speak the Lower River dialect. All fluent speakers are older adults. Conversational Nez Perce is being taught in Nespelem, Washington.

Tribal Enrollment Requirements:

1)Must be on the Nez Perce Roll of 1956; or 2)Must have at least 1/4 Nez Perce blood quantum and at least one parent must be an enrolled member, provided membership is requested within 18 years of birth; or 3)Adoption into the tribe.

Tribal Flag:


Nez Perce Flag

Nez Perce Flag

Tribal Emblem:


colvile tribal seal

Related Tribes:

The Nez Perce are very closely related linguistically, culturally, and socially to the Sahaptin speakers of Oregon and Washington, including the Cayuse, Palouse, Walla Walla, Yakima, Umatilla, and Wayampam.


The Nez Perce say they have occupied their homelands from the beginning of time. They trace their origin to the mythic emergence of the Netíitelwit, the first human beings to inhabit the earth. The emergence of the Netíitelwit brought to an end the existence of powerful mythic beings and signaled the beginning of a world inhabited by ordinary humans. Archeologists theorize they migrated to the area 8,000 to 11,000 years ago.

More than 75 Nez Perce village sites have been identified along the Snake and its tributaries. Some have been carbon-dated to 11,000 years, or about 500 generations; there are also indications of far older settlements.

Traditional Territory:

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.

The Nez Perce originally lived in three of the most rugged river canyons in the Northwest--the canyons of Idaho's Clearwater, Salmon, and Snake Rivers. The Snake's Hells Canyon, with its staircase rapids rushing through a chasm deeper than that of the Grand Canyon, contains more than 112 pictographs left by the Nez Perce ancestors, in addition to well-worn trails down the canyon's steep walls.

The Nez Perce also lived on the Oregon side of the canyon, in a valley in the shadow of the Wallowa Mountains.

The Nez Perce also made seasonal trips for hunting and trading into Montana and Wyoming.


  1855, 1863, and 1868,Executive Order establishing Wallowa Reservation 1873 (later recinded) and Proclamation regarding Nez Perce Reservation (1895)

The Nez Perce Treaty signed at Camp Stevens in 1855 ordered the Nez Perce to relinquish their ancestral territory and move to Oregon's Umatilla Reservation with the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla Tribes.

However, all the tribes so opposed this plan that Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens granted the Nez Perce the right to remain in their own territory in the Nez Perce Treaty of Lapwai (1863), on the condition that they relinquish nearly 13 million acres to the U.S. government.

After gold and other metals were discovered in Nez Perce country, the U.S. government negotiated a new treaty with the tribe in 1868. Officially called the Third Nez Perce Treaty, this treaty was nicknamed the "Thief Treaty." It stripped the Nez Perce of the Wallowa and Imnaha Valleys and the land at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers--the site of the present-day towns of Lewiston and Clarkston.

This treaty was signed by Lawyer and others on behalf of all the Nez Perce, for which they didn't have the authority to speak. Chief Joseph and a number of other Nez Perce band chiefs refused to sign this treaty and became known as the non-treaty Nez Perce.

An executive order in 1873 established a Nez Perce reservation in the Wallowa Valley, but was quickly recinded when white settlers encroached on the area. The 1895 proclamation was an act to provide for the allotment of lands in severalty to the Indians on the various reservations, and opened the way to sell off unalloted lands to white settlers.

Traditional Allies:

Flathead, Cayuse

The Nez Perce were the most influential group in intertribal affairs in the Plateau. Typically Nez Perce and Cayuse warriors were in charge of the large, intertribal bison hunting and raiding parties that went to the Plains with more than 1,000 individuals at times. They were also closely allied with the Flathead during such ventures.

Traditional Enemies:

Shoshone, Blackfoot (Blackfeet), Northern Shoshoni-Bannock, Chelan Indians at times, at others they were allies.

Together with their close allies the Cayuse, they were the main Plateau opponents of the Blackfoot, who dominated the western Plains and raided into the Plateau. The Nez Perce together with the Cayuse were the major defending force against occasional Northern Shoshone-Bannock raiding parties who ventured north out of the Great Basin from time to time.

By the 1860s, smallpox epedemics had virtually ended tribal warfare, due to the drastic decrease in population. From 1840 onward, the US government tried to move all indians to reservations. The resulting wars between the 1840s to the 1870s were the final push to tame the West.

Ceremonies / Dances:

Winter Spirit Dance, Gathering of the Camas Root Ceremony, Salmon Harvest Ceremony, Pueberty Ceremony, First Hunt Ceremony, First Harvest Cermony,

The Nez Perce hold dance ceremonies to celebrate the change in seasons, harvest, births, peuberty and marriages. There are also several memorial ceremonies commemorating various events in Nez Perce history. The Winter Spirit Dance is the most important religious ceremony of the Nez Perce.


The Nez Perce indians are best known for tule and grass baskets, porcupine quillwork, and later beadwork. Basketry was a well-developed skill, and baskets were used to collect, process, store, and even cook most of the foods.

Nez Perce women were known for the large basket hats they wove out of dried leaves and plant fibers.

The Nez Perce were expert corn husk weavers.

Famous Contemporary People:



Elaine Miles - Full Blood Nez Perce actress, best known from her role in the television series Northern Exposure.

Jack and Al Hoxie - Silent film actors who were sons of a half Nez Perce mother.


Jackson Sundown - Nez Perce War veteran and rodeo champion.


Archie Phinney - Plublished Nez Perce Texts, a collection of Nez Perce myths and legends from the oral tradition.

Drum Groups:

Fool Soldiers - includes members of several nations, including Sans Ark Lakota, Nez Perce, Colville, Tshimsin, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Crow, Assiniboine-Sioux, Yakama, and Umitilla.

Red Tail Singers - Yakama & Nez Perce from Lapwai, ID


Historical Leaders:


Old Chief Joseph (Tuekakas)- Father of Chief Joseph. Sometimes called the elder Joseph.

Chief Joseph (Heinmot Tookyalakekt)- Led about 750 Nez Perce of the Wallowa Band on a four month, 1600 mile flight to Canada. They fought the last 14 Nez Perce battles and were captured less than 30 miles from the Canadian border. After 8 years in Kansas and Oklahoma, they were sent to the Colville Reservation in Washington. Their decendants are now members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Chief Ollicot (also spelled Ollecot and Ollokot) - Brother of Chief Joseph. Killed in the last Nez Perce battle, was the war chief of the younger Nez Perce during the Nez Perce War.

Chief White Bird - Led about 50 Nez Perce into Canada on the night Chief Joseph surrendered.

Lean Elk - Nez Perce chief who fought with Chief Joseph's band.

Chief Looking Glass (the elder)

Chief Looking Glass

Chief Twisted-Hair - Nez Perce chief who kept Lewis & Clark's horses while they traveled by canoe to the Pacific Coast in the fall of 1805.

Chief Red Heart - Nez Perce chief, who along with 33 members of his family and band, who were captured on July 1, 1877 and taken by steamship to Fort Vancouver where they were imprisioned from August 1877 to April 22, 1878 before being relocated to the Nez Perce Reservation.

Lawyer - Nez Perce orator who became a prominent leader. Son of Chief Twisted-Hair. Lawyer was a friend of the Whites. He was especially prominent in the negotiations with Governor Stevens after the great war of 1855. He threw the weight of his great influence in favor of the treaty, which established the existing reservation. Owhi - Nez Perce leader who opposed the treaty of 1863. Kamiakin - Nez Perce leader who opposed the treaty of 1863. Chief Peu-peu-mox-mox - Nez Perce war chief who opposed the treaty of 1863.

Catastrophic Events:

Smallpox epidemics in 1755, 1760, 1781-82. The 1755 epidemic killed 50% of the population. Population declined from about 8,000 in 1700 to 1,800 in 1900.
Nez Perce War of 1877
Nez Perce suffered from disease and starvation in Oklahoma Indian Territory, 1878-1885
Four dams without fish ladders built on traditional salmon rivers.
Indian lands appropriated for trans continental railroad in 1866.

Extensive railways built in 1876-1897 brought a flood of settlers.
Forest fires in 1910, 1919 and 1934 devastated the Selkirk Mountains and the timber industry.



In the News:

See Nez Perce News

Further Reading:


Wapato Heritage: The History of the Nez Perce and Entiat Indians

Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest

Canoe in Sparks Lake, Broken Top Mountain in Background, Cascade Mountains, Oregon, USA
Canoe in Sparks Lake
Miglavs, Janis
Buy at
Framed   Mounted

Tribal Profiles
Oral History
Official Websites
Related Websites



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The town of Nespelem, situated on the Colville Indian Reservation derived its name from an Indian word meaning "large meadow beside a stream."

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Most Sinixt or Lake indians are now part of the Colville tribe in Washington state, but once roamed both Washington and British Columbia.

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The Chelan Indians were historically located at the outlet of Lake Chelan in Washington State.

Marriage and Wedding Customs
Men of the Plateau Tribes usually had at least two wives at the same time, more if they were wealthy.

Burial Customs of the Colville
Burial / Funeral Traditions of the Plateau Indians

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