"The Real People"

A brief history of the Nez Perce tribe
By Matt Warshauer and Bryan Brown

They called themselves Nimi'ipuu (NEE-me-poo), "the real people." But eventually they became known as the Nez Perce (nehz PURS), from the French for "pierced nose." No one is sure how they got the name. By one account, a French interpreter saw some Native Americans with decorative shells in their noses. Another story holds that U.S. explorer William Clark misinterpreted the sign language motion for Nimi'ipuu. Whatever the truth, the name stuck.

For 10,000 years the tribe lived on a 13-million-acre stretch of valleys, prairies, plateaus, and mountains that spread across the borders of present-day Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State. Before whites settled the area, the Nez Perce were a thriving people. They traveled seasonally, digging roots and fishing for salmon, their main food, in the deep canyons cut by the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater rivers.

Helping Lewis and Clark
Spanish explorers were the first to arrive, in the early 18th century. The horses they left behind dramatically changed the Nez Perce way of life. The Nez Perce became excellent riders and breeders of horses, such as the Appaloosa. Horses enabled tribal members to hunt buffalo and trade far beyond their original lands.

In September 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark crossed the Bitterroot Mountains into Nez Perce territory. The tribe fed the explorers, who had nearly starved to death in the mountains, and helped them build canoes. After the encounter, the Nez Perce were prepared to welcome more friendly Americans.

But the people who came next brought disastrous change. A steady stream of white settlers moved up the Oregon Trail, and the U.S. government began to bargain for Nez Perce land. In 1855, Nez Perce chiefs signed a treaty agreeing to live on a reservation of 7.5 million acres, leaving the rest for the settlers.

Sacred Journey
Then, in 1860, gold was discovered on Nez Perce land. A new influx of white settlers led to new demands by Washington. In 1863, a small group of Nez Perce chiefs signed a new treaty granting 90 percent of the existing reservation land to the U.S. Many Nez Perce considered the treaty to be fraudulent (false) because it did not speak for all the Nez Perce people. Among them was a leader named Chief Joseph.

In 1877, when the U.S. government ordered all Nez Perce onto the reservation, Chief Joseph resisted. Instead, he decided to take his small band of people — some 250 warriors and their families — to Canada.

Five thousand U.S. Army troops followed, determined to bring them back. Chief Joseph led the Army on a chase of more than 1,000 miles through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

Outnumbered by at least 10 to 1, the Nez Perce were forced to fight several battles, and defeated the soldiers against all odds. Whites called this retreat and its encounters the Chief Joseph War.

"I Will Fight No More Forever"
In the end, the Nez Perce could not escape. On October 5, Chief Joseph surrendered to General Nelson Miles in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, 40 miles from the Canadian border.

"Hear me, my chiefs," Chief Joseph said to his people. "I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

Today, more than 3,000 members of the Nez Perce tribe live across the U.S. Many are still on the reservation in Idaho, where a Tribal Executive Committee, established in their Constitution of 1948, governs them.

Like their ancestors, the Nez Perce of today are admired for their horses. More than this, they are honored for the bravery and nobility of such warriors as Chief Joseph.

A photo of Chief Joseph taken 1903, a year before he died. (Photo Courtesy Library of Congress)