The name Nez Perce actually represents many distinct tribes with many cultural differences that all existed together peacefully, and for that reason they are usually thought of as being one tribe. The Nez Perce Indians were once the largest congregation of tribes in the western United States.
They have been classed by anthropologists under two geographic divisions: Upper Nez Perce and Lower Nez Perce. 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 Perce 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.
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 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.
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 Perce 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, reduced to about 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.
This tribe's name for themselves is the Nimi'ipuu, which means 'real people.' They were given their English name by French interpreters who met up with Lewis and Clark on their expedition of 1805. Nez Perce translates to 'Pierced Noses," which is not an accurate description of the Nimi'ipuu, who seldom pierced their noses. It is thought that they were mistakenly identifed by a characteristic that was common to a neighboring tribe, the Chinook.
In the journals of William Clark, the people are referred to as Chopunnish (corrupted from Tsutpeli). This term is an adaptation of the term culpnitpelu (The Nez Perce people) which is formed from culpnit (piercing with a pointed object) and pelu (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 Nimi'ipuu (pronounced Nee Mee Poo).
Before the White man came to settle the northwest the Nimi'ipuu lived in peaceful groups on the Columbia Plateau. They traveled seasonally with the deep canyons cut by the Snake, Clearwater and Salmon rivers.
The Nimi'ipuu traveled across Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The traditional homeland of the NiMiiPuu is North Central Idaho, including areas in Southeastern Washington, Northeastern Oregon, and seasonally in Western Montana and Wyoming.
The Nez Perce Indians were the only tribe in the Northwest to ally with the Americans even before the 1855 Treaty.
The Nimi'ipuu aboriginal territory was over 17 million acres or approximately 70 thousand square kilometers or 27 thousand square miles; including the Clearwater River Basin, and the South and Middle forks of the Salmon River Basin.
The treaty signed at the Walla Walla Council of 1855,guarantee that 7.5 million acres of their lands would remain intact as a reservation.
Immediately after the governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Ingalls Stevens, had signed treaties with several Plateau tribes, he wrote a letter to an eastern newspaper proclaiming the Northwest open for settlement. Other area tribes reacted violently to his duplicity by attacking settlers arriving in the territory. This violence led to the Yakima, War of 1855-1858.
Although the Nez Perce remained neutral in the conflict, the treaty signing had split the tribe. The Christianized Nez Perce led by Lawyer (Hallalhot-soot), who signed the treaty, supported the agreement, but many of the tribe's traditionalists balked at signing away their lands. Chief Joseph (the elder), Chief Looking Glass (the elder), Chief Big Thunder, and Chief White Bird were some of the Chiefs who would not sign the treaty.
Then gold was discovered on Nez Perce lands in 1860 by E. D. Pierce, bringing gold-hungry miners onto the reservation illegally. In violation of the 1855 treaty, settlers rushed in and laid claim to the land. They soon began pressuring the U.S. government to open more tribal territory for mining and settlement. Rather than try to keep non-Indians off the reservation, a new treaty was proposed.
In 1863, Governor Stevens again approached the Nez Perce about relinquishing more tribal lands. Although many leaders, including Chief Joseph (Heinmot Tooyalakekt) and White Bird, refused to negotiate, Lawyer and several others signed a new treaty with Stevens. This treaty reduced the Nez Perce reservation to 780,000 remaining acres.
In what came to be known among tribal members as the Thief Treaty, the Nez Perce had lost their claim to many important areas, including Joseph's home territory in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon.
Upon hearing this news, Old Chief Joseph (Tu-kekas), the peaceful leader of the Wallowa band who had converted to Christianity some years earlier, destroyed his Bible. Despite the anger and resentment caused by this treaty, the Nez Perce remained peaceful in their relations with whites and expressed their discontent through passive noncompliance.
Upon the death of Old Chief Joseph in 1871 his son, Young Chief Joseph, took over leadership of the Wallowa band. In 1873 the government tried to create a Wallowa reservation for Joseph's band, but abandoned the attempt two years later under pressure from the white settlers.
Representing his people in a meeting with General Oliver Howard at the Lapwai Council of 1876, Chief Joseph firmly refused to honor the 1863 treaty and give up the tribe's ancestral valley. The following year, however, the government gave the tribe 30 days to vacate Wallowa Valley and move to a reservation near Lapwai, Idaho. When it became clear that war would result if the Wallowa band continued to resist, Chief Joseph agreed to relocate. He stated, "I would give up everything rather than have the blood of my people on my hands."
Before the move could begin, young rebels within the tribe attacked a group of whites in retribution for previous mistreatment of the Nez Perce. Three men were killed and another wounded. Panic spread quickly on both sides, and the U.S. cavalry was mobilized.
When the Nez Perce did not leave the Wallowa Valley as ordered, the cavalry attacked Chief Joseph's village. Joseph and the rest of the Wallowa band, which consisted of 250 men and 500 women, children, and elderly, fled into the surrounding mountains. About 2,000 U.S. Army troops under General Howard followed, marking the beginning of the Nez Perce War of 1877.
Over the next four months, the Nez Perce traveled 1,600 miles through the rugged wilderness of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. During this time, they fought 14 battles against a larger and better-equipped enemy. Until the last battle, the Nez Perce consistently outsmarted, outflanked, and outfought the larger white forces.
At one point in the pursuit, the U.S. troops built a barricade across Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains to prevent the Nez Perce from entering Montana. After the tribe avoided the barricade by leading their horses along the face of a cliff, the ineffective structure came to be known as Fort Fizzle.
The final battle between the U.S. cavalry and the Nez Perce took place near Snake Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, just 30 miles from the Canadian border.
For six days the Nez Perce fought off troops led by Colonel Nelson Miles, who had been dispatched to prevent the Nez Perce from reaching Canada before General Howard's troops could catch up and surround them. After fighting bravely for so long, the Nez Perce finally decided to surrender.
An exhausted Chief Joseph delivered his famous surrender speech to his people, in which he stated: "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."
Following their surrender, Joseph and other tribal leaders such as White Bird and Lean Elk were not allowed to go to the Nez Perce reservation as promised. Instead, they were taken to Indian Country, first in Kansas, then in Oklahoma.
They were eventually sent to the Pacific Northwest after eight years in Kansas and Oklahoma, and assigned to the Colville reservation in north-central Washington, despite Joseph's repeated attempts to reclaim their homeland in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon.
Chief Joseph led his people for another 25 years on the Colville Reservation, where he died in 1904.
For the rest of the Nez Perce, the late nineteenth century was a period of great difficulty. Members of the tribe were forced to attend Christian churches and government schools, which was an attempt to destroy the Nez Perce culture.
Under the General Allotment Act of 1887, the U.S. government divided the reservation into relatively small allotments and assigned them to individual tribal member according to age, status in the tribe and gender. By 1893, reservation lands not alotted were deemed excess and sold to non-Indians. In all, 90% of tribal lands within the reservation boundaries were lost.
Those retained amounted to 90,000 acres scattered in a checkerboard pattern of ownership. In spite of this, Nez Perce tribal traditions persisted into the twentieth century.
In recent times, the Nez Perce have been involved in several fishing rights cases affecting the entire Columbia River Basin. As active sponsors of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, they have taken a number of steps to revitalize salmon and steelhead runs in the region.
In addition, they have been negotiating water rights to the Snake River and trying to reacquire ancestral lands. The Nez Perce of Idaho reached an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had built dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, that will provide the tribe access to traditional fishing stations.
In 1996, the Nez Perce regained 10,000 acres of their homeland in northeastern Oregon from the U.S. Bonneville Power Administration. This land is managed as a wildlife preserve. Additional reacquisitions were also being pursued at the time.
In 2007, descendants of the Wallowa band held their 31st annual ceremony commemorating the members of the tribe who died in the Bear Paw Mountains during the Nez Perce War of 1877. They gathered to smoke pipes, sing, pray, and conduct an empty saddle ceremony, in which horses are led around without riders in order to appease the spirits of the dead.
Following their surrender to the U.S. cavalry, the Wallowa band of Nez Perce was sent to reservations in Oklahoma and Kansas before finally settling on the Colville reservation near Nespelem, Washington. The remainder of the Joseph band members and other Nez Perce live on the Nez Perce reservation in north-central Idaho.
Many also live in various urban areas where better employment opportunities exist. On the Idaho reservation, most of the Nez Perce live in the principal communities of Lapwai, Kamiah, Cottonwood, Nez Perce, Orofino, Culdesac, and Winchester. Some descendants of the Joseph band remained in Oklahoma and others live in Canada.
The Nez Perce Reservation includes parts of Nez Perce County, Lewis County, Idaho County, and Clearwater County in Idaho. Today the Nez Perce own 86,248 acres of land and individual tribal members own an additional 37,950 acres. The total land area today is 3,095.299 square kilometers (1,195.102 sq mi), and the reservation's population as of the 2000 census was 17,959 residents, most of whom are non-indians. This is a population density of 1,283.68 per square mile.
There are approximately 3,300 Nez Perce Tribal members, two-thirds of whom live on or near the reservation. The largest community on the Nez Perce Reservation is the city of Orofino, near its northeast corner.
Communites and towns within the Nez Perce Reservation are: Myrtle, Lenore, Ahsahka, Orofino, Spalding, Lapwai, Gifford, Sweetwater, Culdesac, Greer, Reubens, Winchester, Craigmont, Nezperce, Kamiah, Waha, Ferdinand, Greencreek, Kooskia, Stites, Peck, Cottonwood Creek, Jacques Spur, Slickpoo Mission, Mohler, Clear Creek, and Westlake.
Today, there is a council of nine members which forms the governing board and handles many aspects of reservation life.
In 2005 the estimated median household income on the Nez Perce reservation was $27,300, compared to $41,443 in non-reservation areas of Washington.
The median house/condo value on the Nez Perce reservation was $100,300, compared to $134,900 off reservation.
The unemployment rate on the Nez Perce reservation for people over 25 is only 10.3%. Winter unemployment figures ran close to 70% before the advent of tribal gaming.
For population 25 years and over on the Nez Perce Reservation, 79.3% have completed high school or higher, 12.3% have a bachelor's degree or higher, and 1.7% have a graduate or professional degree.
23.7% of residents on this reservation had income below the poverty level in 1999, compared with 11.8% for the whole state.
12.2% of Nez Perce Reservation residents had income below 50% of the poverty level in 1999, compared with 4.6% for the whole state.
0.8% of households on the Nez Perce reservation lack functional kitchens (meaning a sink with piped water, an elecric or wood burning stove, and a refrigerator). 30.4% of households don't have a telephone and 13.0% don't have any cars.
The Nez Perce Reservation does not have a hospital or any colleges or universities on the reservation. Nimiipuu Health has two clinic locations to serve its patients on the reservation, at Lapwai and at Kamiah.
There are two Nez Perce tribal casinos. In 1995, the Nez Perce Tribe began its venture into gaming with the Itíse-Ye-Ye Casino in Kamiah. That was followed a year later by the inflation of the tent-like Clearwater River Casino building east of Lewiston. Since its construction, the tribe has talked of a permanent building for the Clearwater Casino. The tribe now has preliminary drawings of a $30 million casino resort that triples the size of the current building to accommodate a hotel, convention center, and other amenities, according to Robert Lee, former manager of the casino.
Reservation cemetaries include :
Maggie Williams Cemetery, a small family cemetery on the Clifford and Pauline Hermann Ranch.
Several times each year, the Nez Perce hold celebrations to honor their rich Native American culture. Dressed in their colorful regalia, Native Americans from across the Northwest gather either in nearby Lapwai or up the river in Kamiah for several days to celebrate.
The Tamkaliks Celebration (formerly Wallowa Band Descendants Friendship Feast & Pow Wow) is a celebration and recognition of the continuing Nez Perce presence in the Wallowa Valley. This year the 18th annual celebration takes place July 18th, 19th, and 20th, 2008, in Wallowa, Oregon.
Most common industries for males on the Nez Perce Reservation:
Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (19%)
Public administration (18%)
Arts, entertainment, and recreation (8%)
Health care (6%)
Social assistance (4%)
Most common industries for females on the Nez Perce Reservation:
Public administration (31%)
Arts, entertainment, and recreation (12%)
Educational services (11%)
Health care (11%)
Social assistance (7%)
Department and other general merchandise stores (4%)
Accommodation and food services (4%)