"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
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.
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
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
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,
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)