Nez Perce Tribe
Before the Europeans arrived in the northwestern US, the Nez Perce (named by the French, meaning "pierced nose"), who called themselves Nimi'ipuu, moved with the seasons. They were a peace loving people, who were, nonetheless, very adept at strategies of war.
Although "nez perce" means "pierced nose" that practice is not done among the people known as Nez Perce. There were other tribes in the areas where they lived that did follow that practice, although the name has apparently attached itself to them. The tribe refers to themselves as Nimi'ipuu, but for simplicity on this site, I will refer to them as Nez Perce for the most part.
The Nez Perce lived in the areas in present day western Idaho, southeastern Washington and northwestern Oregon, along the Snake, Clearwater and Salmon Rivers. In the early spring, the women would go to the lower valleys to dig root crops. The men would head to the Snake and Columbia Rivers to harvest in the early salmon runs. The men still hunted during this time, but gathering the salmon took precedence.
In mid-summer, the villages moved to higher mountain areas to gather later root crops, hunt game and fish. These were temporary camps.
By late fall, the people returned to their traditional villages along the Snake, Clearwater and Salmon Rivers. Salmon, fish, dried roots and berries would see the people through the winter. Hunting parties traveled to the hills and river bottoms where deer and elk wintered.
A traditional diet for the Nez Perce consisted of camas bulb, bitterroot, khouse, wild carrots, wild potatoes, and other roots. The berries they lived off of were gooseberries, hawthorn berries, thorn berries, blackberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, huckleberries, elderberries, chokecherries and currents. They also ate pine nuts, sunflower seeds and black moss. The hunt brought in large game animals of deer, elk, moose, bear, mountain sheep and goats. After the introduction of horses, the Nez Perce would also travel with the Flathead people to the Montana Plains to hunt bison and antelope. Small game hunting brought in rabbit, squirrel, badger and marmot. They also hunted ducks, geese, ruffed grouse and sage hens.
The Nez Perce were not an agricultural people, although when they were forced to the reservations, an agent noted how arable the land was. They had subsisted for centuries as a hunter/gatherer type.
Today, the Nez Perce diet still consists of many of these traditional foods, but now they also have incorporated restaurants and quick/processed foods into their meal choices.
The Nez Perce lived in bands. Bands were identified by the water they lived near. Each band had its own territory. Larger bands were divided into smaller bands which lived in villages along streams and rivers. Each village is made up of several extended, related families lead by a headman, who was usually an elderly man. The headman, usually an inherited position, was responsible for the welfare of those in his village. The largest village within a band also had a band leader, as well as an administrating peace chief and the warchief. The band council consisted of the band leaders as well as important warrior. The council made decisions on behalf of the entire band. The band leader, although elected, was a semi-heriditary position.
The men wore long, fringed buckskin shirts, leggings, belt, a loin cloth and several types of moccasins. Gloves were worn occasionally. A feathered bonnet was common to the Plains culture, although it was popular by the time the Euro-Americans arrived. Bison skin robes were used in cold weather. The women wore long, belted buckskin dresses, corn husk basket hats and knee-length moccasins. Women's dresses were decorated with beads made of shell, bone and later glass, elk teeth, porcupine quills and dyes made from vegetable or mineral. For certain ceremonies, both sexes would paint their faces. Today, the people where clothes purchased from a store and save their traditional dress for special occasions.
Their principal homes were a tule mat-covered long house. The long house could be over a 100 feet long and usually housed several families through the winter. There were several rows of hearths for use by the individual families dwelling there. Semi subterranean dormitories were used to house single men and women. House pits and excavated dwellings were also used in conjunction with the long house. After the introduction of the tipi, these dwellings were used less and less. The tipi is a circular structure with twelve wooden poles. Initially, it was covered with the tule mat. After hunting bison, it was covered with bison skins. Today, they are usually covered with canvas. A sweat house is always part of the permanent settlement as are women's menstrual huts and submerged hot baths. Today, the people live in houses like everyone else, although they still use the tipi for camping because it is so portable.
The purpose of the treaty of 1855 was to separate the Native American Tribes from the whites. However, as much of the Nez Perce lands in Idaho, Oregon and Washington would be held for them, they agreed. This included Joseph the Elder's Wallowa Valley. However, once gold was found, the US called for another treaty which would reduce the Nez Perce lands and they would be centered around Lapwai, Idaho and Joseph the Elder was against selling off tribal lands, particularly since it didn't include his beloved Wallowa Valley. A treaty was signed in 1863, but not all of the Nez Perce were represented. The bands were divided as Treaty and Non-Treaty Nez Perce.
The Treaty Nez Perce moved to the reservation as indicated. The Non-Treaty Nez Perce stayed on their lands as they always had. Joseph the Elder put poles around the Wallowa Valley and proclaimed, "Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man." Joseph the Elder died in 1871 and Chief Joseph took over as chief for his father.
Like his father before him, Chief Joseph struggled to keep the lands of his father, and where his ancestors were buried. The Non-Treaty Nez Perce, particularly those living in the Wallowa Valley were treated shamefully by prospectors and others. Chief Joseph managed to keep his people from making any actions that could be deemed warlike, although some of the younger warriors were tempted.
In 1873, Chief Joseph negotiated with the US and was assured that he could keep the Wallowa Valley lands. In 1877, the US reversed it's position. Army General Oliver Howard threatened to attack the band at Wallowa Valley if they did not relocate to the reservation with the other Nez Perce. Some say that Chief Joseph agreed but his actions do not verify that.
Howard took Joseph to various areas promising to remove anyone already living there for them. However, Joseph and the other chiefs objected because they had been taught not to take things that didn't belong to them. Finally, Howard got upset and told Chief Joseph that they had thirty days to leave or it would be considered an act of war. Although Joseph pleaded for more time, Howard refused. Joseph met with the other chiefs in council. While they were meeting, several warriors rode up claiming they had just killed four whites. Believing that that would lead to further bloodshed, which he wanted to avoid, Joseph and approximately 750 to 800 Nez Perce men, women and children left the Wallowa Valley.
Their initial plan was to join their friends the Crows, but the Crows had been paid to reveal Chief Joseph's plans and they decided to head for Canada. They were followed by 2000 7th Calvarymen.
From the Wallowa Valley in Oregon, the band headed east into Idaho, and crossed Lolo Pass into Montana. They fought a major battle on 9 Aug 1877 at what is now known as Big Hole National Battlefield. The Nez Perce Band repulsed the attack led by Colonel John Gibson, but at a great cost. From there, the Nez Perce headed south and east, back into Idaho and Wyoming, entering Yellowstone National Park near West Yellowstone, Montana.
The tribe left the park crossing Sylvan Pass and following the Clarks Fork River into Montana. From there they headed almost straight north. Starving and exhausted, they camped at Bear Paw, which is 15 miles south of present-day Chinook, Montana on 29 Sep 1877. Following a five-day battle and siege, Chief Joseph surrendered 5 Oct 1877. They were forty miles short of their destination: Canada.
Although Chief Joseph negotiated a safe return home for his people, his plight was far from over. He and about four hundred of his followers were sent by unheated railway cars to Fort Leavenworth to be held in prisoner of war camps there for eight months. Then the survivors were sent to a reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) also by rail. They remained there for nearly ten years.
In 1879, Chief Joseph went to Washington DC and met with President Rutherford B Hayes to try to arrange for his people to return to the Pacific Northwest. In 1885, they were allowed to go back to the Pacific Northwest, although Chief Joseph and several others were sent to Colville Reservation, which is far from the rest of the Nez Perce and the Wallowa Valley.
© 2010 Compilation Copyright - Trails to the Past & Jeanne Hicks. For personal use only. Not for commercial use without the express permission of the copyright holder.