by Laurie Collier Hillstrom and Richard C. Hanes
The Nez Percé (nez-PURSE or nay-per-SAY) tribe's traditional territory includes the interior Pacific Northwest areas of north-central Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington. The Nez Percé call themselves Nee-Me-Poo or Nimipu, which means "our people." The name Nez Percé is French for "pierced nose" and was applied to the tribe by early French Canadian fur traders, who apparently observed a few individuals in the region with pendants in their noses. Nose piercing, however, is not a common Nez Percé custom.
Despite maintaining peaceful and friendly relations with non-native peoples for most of their history—such as the celebrated assistance they gave to Lewis and Clark when the famous American explorers were near starvation in 1805—the Nez Percé are perhaps best known for their battles with the U.S. Army during the Nez Percé War of 1877. The 750-member Wallowa band of Nez Percé kept more than 2,000 highly-trained American troops at bay during a four-month, 1,600-mile trek through the rugged high country of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. The band was finally forced to surrender only 30 miles short of reaching safety in Canada. At the time, the dramatic "Flight of the Nez Percé" was front-page news in the United States and is still studied by military historians.
The Nez Percé were one of the most numerous and powerful tribes of the Plateau Culture area, living a semi-sedentary existence as fishermen, hunters, and gatherers. They speak a Sahaptian dialect of the Penutian language family, which is common among other Plateau groups in the mid-Columbia River region. According to Michael G. Johnson in The Native Tribes of North America, the Nez Percé population was estimated at about 6,000 in 1800. By the beginning of the next century, their numbers had declined to about 1,500 due to newly introduced diseases, the loss of tribal lands, and a reduction of economic resources. Many of the almost 4,000 descendants of the tribe live on the Nez Percé reservation near Lapwai, Idaho, except for the Joseph band, which resides on the Colville reservation of north-central Washington.
Before the Nez Percé acquired horses in the early 1700s, they lived in semi-subterranean pit houses covered with branches and earth. They spent most of their time fishing, hunting, or gathering wild plants for food. The use of horses rapidly changed the lifestyle of the Nez Percé, allowing them to trade with neighboring tribes and make annual trips to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. The increased contact with tribes of the Great Plains and the Pacific Coast also led to the advent of more decorative Nez Percé clothing styles and new forms of housing, such as hide-covered tepees and pit-tepees. The rich grasslands of the Nez Percé territory enabled the tribe to raise some of the largest horse herds of any Native American group. Skilled horse breeders and trainers, the Nez Percé became particularly well known for breeding the sturdy, spotted horses now called Appaloosas.
Typical of many native groups in the West, the Nez Percé lacked an overall tribal organization, living instead in bands composed of families and extended kinship groups. Each autonomous village or band had a headman who could speak only for his own followers. When a major decision needed to be made, the headmen of the various bands, along with respected shamans, elders, and hunting and war leaders, would meet in a combined council and attempt to reach a consensus.
The first contact between the Nez Percé and non-native people occurred in the fall of 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition wandered into western Idaho. The American explorers were cold, tired, and running low on food when they encountered the Nez Percé. The tribe provided assistance that may have prevented members of the expedition from starving. They also helped the explorers build boats and guided them toward the Pacific Coast. Over the next few decades, the Nez Percé similarly established friendly relations with French Canadian and American fur traders, missionaries, and settlers. At the request of the Nez Percé, a Methodist minister named Henry Spalding established a mission near Lapwai in 1836. Three years later, Asa Smith established another mission at Kamiah. The Nez Percé consulted these ministers for the special powers they seemingly held.
As the number of white settlers in the Northwest increased through the mid-1800s, the Nez Percé avoided many of the conflicts that plagued other tribes. At the Walla Walla Council of 1855, the Nez Percé signed a treaty ceding most of their 13 million acre ancestral territory to the government in exchange for money and a 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 Plateau Indian, or Yakima, War of 1855-1858. Although the Nez Percé remained neutral in the conflict, the treaty signing had split the tribe. The Christianized Nez Percé 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.
In the early 1860s, gold was discovered on Nez Percé lands. 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. In 1863, Governor Stevens again approached the Nez Percé 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 Percé reservation to 780,000 acres. In what came to be known among tribal members as the Thief Treaty, the Nez Percé 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 Percé 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 Percé. Three men were killed and another wounded. Panic spread quickly on both sides, and the U.S. cavalry was mobilized. When the Nez Percé 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 Percé War of 1877. In the Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, this war is described as "one of the most remarkable stories of pursuit and escape in military history." Over the next four months, the Nez Percé 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, Waldman noted, the Nez Percé "consistently outsmarted, outflanked, and outfought the larger white forces."
In one of the more embarrassing moments of the war, the U.S. troops built a barricade across Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains to prevent the Nez Percé 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 Percé took place near Snake Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, just 30 miles from the Canadian border. For six days the Nez Percé fought off troops led by Colonel Nelson Miles, who had been dispatched to prevent the Nez Percé from reaching Canada before General Howard's troops could catch up and surround them. After fighting bravely for so long, the Nez Percé 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, Lean Elk, and Joseph's brother Ollokot, were not allowed to go to the Nez Percé reservation. Instead, they were taken to Indian Country, first in Kansas, then in Oklahoma. They eventually returned to the Northwest at the Colville reservation in north-central Washington, despite Joseph's repeated attempts to reclaim their home.
For the rest of the Nez Percé, 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 Percé 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 members. By 1893, reservation lands not allotted were deemed excess and sold to non-Indians. In all, 90 percent of tribal lands within reservation boundaries were lost. Those retained amounted to 90,000 acres scattered in a checkerboard pattern of ownership. In spite of this, Nez Percé tribal traditions persisted into the twentieth century.
In recent times, the Nez Percé 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 Percé 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 Percé 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.
The Nez Percé honor their unique and tragic tribal history. In 1996, descendants of the Wallowa band held their twentieth annual ceremony commemorating the members of the tribe who died in the Bear Paw Mountains during the Nez Percé 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 Percé 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 Percé live on the Nez Percé 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 Percé live in the principal communities of Lapwai, Kamiah, Cottonwood, Nez Percé, Orofino, Culdesac, and Winchester. Some descendants of the Joseph band remained in Oklahoma and others live in Canada.
Acculturation and Assimilation
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
Before acquiring horses, the Nez Percé lived in houses covered with plant material. In the summer, they moved often in search of food, living in leantos consisting of a pole framework covered with woven mats of plant fibers. In the winter, they built pole-framed structures over large pits and covered them with layers of cedar bark, sagebrush, packed grass, and earth. Each dwelling usually housed several families, and a village might consist of five or six such pit houses. As horses increased their mobility and contact with other tribes, Nez Percé buildings grew larger and more sophisticated. Their winter pit houses sometimes extended up to 100 feet in length and housed many families. They also adopted the use of hide-covered tepees during summer fishing and hunting trips.
As with many Native American groups in the United States, the Nez Percé began an era of cultural revitalization in the 1960s involving religion, dance, and arts and crafts. In 1978 Phil Lucas produced Nez Percé — Portrait of a People, a film documenting the rich history of the Nez Percé. The film uses archival photographs, traditional stories, and scenes of Nez Percé country to tell of their interaction with the Lewis and Clark expedition and the loss of their lands later in the nineteenth century.
In the dry, rugged high country where the Nez Percé lived, gathering food was a time-consuming prospect. They subsisted primarily by fishing, hunting, and gathering vegetables from spring through fall. Surplus food was stored for winter use. During the spring, when large numbers of salmon swam upstream to spawn, the Nez Percé used a variety of methods to catch them, including spears, hand-held and weighted nets, small brush traps, and large enclosures. They also used bows and arrows to hunt elk, deer, and mountain sheep, although hunting was often difficult on the hot, open plateaus of their homeland. The Nez Percé sometimes disguised themselves in animal furs or worked together to surround a herd of animals so that they could be killed more easily.
In the spring, Nez Percé women used sharp digging sticks to turn up cornlike roots called kouse on the grassy hillsides. These roots were ground, then boiled to make soup or shaped into cakes and stored for later use. During the summer, the Nez Percé gathered a wide variety of plants, including wild onions and carrots, bitterroots, blackberries, strawberries, huckleberries, and nuts. In late summer, the various Nez Percé bands came together to gather sweet-tasting camas lily bulbs. These were steamed and made into a dough or gruel. Many of these traditional foods are still shared today as key elements of important celebrations.
Music among the Nez Percé was traditionally a dynamic medium of celebration and ritual, marked by improvisation. It involved not only musical instruments and verse, but also improvised vocalizations of sounds, such as sighs, mimicked animal sounds, moans, and yelps. Flutes made from elderberry stems were one of the preferred musical instruments used by the Nez Percé. It usually had six finger holes. For protection in war, men played wing bone whistles to call guardian spirits. The rasp, which involved scraping a serrated stick with a bone, was standard for war dances prior to the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century, hand drums replaced the rasp. Larger drums associated with Washat ceremonies began to be used in the 1860s. By the 1890s, some drums were large enough to accommodate up to eight drummers. For traditional ceremonies, a shaman used rattles composed of deer hooves on a stick. After the Nez Percé came into contact with white settlers, bells were used instead of hooves. A simple wooden rod beaten rhythmically on a plank was also used as an instrument.
Traditional Nez Percé clothing was made of shredded cedar bark, deerskin, or rabbitskin. Men wore breechcloths and capes in warm weather, adding fur robes and leggings when it turned cold. Nez Percé women were known for the large basket hats they wove out of dried leaves and plant fibers. By the early 1700s, when horses expanded the tribe's hunting range and brought them into contact with tribes of the Pacific Coast and Great Plains, the Nez Percé began wearing tailored skin garments decorated with shells, elk teeth, and beads. As they prepared to make war, Nez Percé men wore only breechcloths and moccasins and applied brightly colored paint to their faces and bodies. Red paint was applied to the part in a warrior's hair and across his forehead, while other colors were applied to his body in special, individual patterns. The warriors also adorned themselves with animal feathers, fur, teeth, and claws representing their connection to their guardian spirits. Elaborate adornments for the horses are characteristic of Nez Percé society, including brightly colored beaded collars and saddlebags, appliquéd with brass tacks and bells added for decorative purposes.
DANCES AND SONGS
Among the Nez Percé, song is considered essentially the same as prayer. Song accompanied most daily activities from morning to night, and most life events. Individuals often had their own personal songs that others might sing to indicate support. Songs and dance still serve to instill community pride and convey tribal heritage, in addition to providing a forum for socialization. Through special songs and dances, the Nez Percé honored the spirit of Hanyawat and Mother Earth in an effort to maintain a balance with nature and express thanks to fish, birds, plants, and animals.
Song and dance focused on guardian spirits, prophet visions, winter ceremonies, and shamanic rituals; seasonal food thanksgivings for first roots, first fruits, first salmon and first game; and for important rites of passage, including birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and death. For instance, each year during the winter traditional Nez Percé hold the Guardian Spirit Dance, or Wee'kwetset . In this ceremony, young people who had recently acquired a wyakin, a guardian spirit, would dance and sing in prescribed ways in order to become one with their guardian spirits. By watching and participating, other tribal members can often discover the identity of a young people's wyakin. The ceremony sometimes involves contests to see who has received the greatest powers from his or her wyakin. This Winter Dance was meant to ensure a desirable life, with safety, health, wealth, skill and strength.
The war dance complex consisted of a set of dances focused on various aspects of war-related activities. A five-day Scalp Dance would conclude the sequence upon the return of the warriors. After acquisition of horses in the mid-eighteenth century, the Nez Percé began journeying annually to the northern Plains to hunt buffalo, some staying for years at a time. There they encountered Plains customs and brought some back with them, including certain war dance styles and drumming. New religions also brought new songs and dance. When Smohalla of the Wanapums of central Washington introduced the Washat religion, he also introduced a new dance and song that sought restoration of traditional life and removal of white influence. Later, worship at the Indian Shaker Church consisted of stomp dances with loud vocalizations and bells. In addition, a number of Anglican hymns introduced by the Presbyterian church were translated into Nez Percé language and printed in the later 1830s.
Dance and song continues its importance to Nez Percé life today. Annual festivals consist of powwows and celebrations. Powwows include the Four Nation Pow Wow at Nez Percé County Fair Grounds in Lewiston, Idaho, in the fall; the Chief Joseph and Warriors Memorial Pow Wow at the Nez Percé Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, in June; the Pendleton Roundup at Pendleton, Oregon; the Nee-Mee-Poo Sapatqayn and Cultural Days at the Nez Percé Reservation in Spalding, Idaho, in late August; and the Chief Looking Glass Pow Wow at the Nez Percé Reservation in Kamiah, Idaho, the third weekend in August. These events commonly include horse parades, cultural demonstrations, speakers, stick games, arts and crafts, and drumming and dancing, including war dances and social and contest dancing. Other celebrations include the Root Festival the first week of May and the Talmaks celebration, which consists of an early summer camp meeting sponsored by the Presbyterian church. Many of the celebrations are an integral part of the process of cultural rejuvenation still occurring. By observing these celebrations, the Nez Percé maintain connections with the earth, their ancestors, and their historic symbols.
The Nez Percé regularly participate at the Celico Wy-Am Salmon Feast at Celilo Village in Oregon each spring. Also in north-central Oregon is the All-Indian Rodeo held in spring at Tygh Valley, sponsored by the Western States Indian Rodeo Association. The event includes Western dances, a fun run, arts and crafts, and baseball tournament. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year are also celebrated.
The Nez Percé spoke a Sahaptian dialect of the Penutian language family. According to Alvin M. Josephy Jr. in The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, the Nez Percé belonged to one of the oldest known language stocks in North America. Their language was closely related to that of the Walla Walla, Yakima, and other Plateau tribes. The traditional territory of the Sahaptian speakers extended for almost 400 miles from the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho westward to the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. However, Deward E. Walker Jr. explains in Native America in the Twentieth Century the Nez Percé language was rarely spoken by tribal members under the age of 30 in the late 1990s.
GREETINGS AND POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
Some Washat-related sayings include: wa · láhsat — jumping up and ipnú · cililpt —turning around while chanting. Other words or expressions are: tiwe-t — male medicine doctor; tiwata a-t —female medicine doctor; Aiiiiii —an amen-like utterance at the end of a series of Washat songs; and á-šapatwana'aš wíwnuna —I mixed huckleberries with salmon flour.
Family and Community Dynamics
Traditionally, the extended family raised the children, with grandparents teaching many of life's basic lessons. The first non-native schools were introduced by the Presbyterian missionaries who settled in Nez Percé country at the tribe's invitation in 1836. Catholic missionaries followed later. By the late nineteenth century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) established on-reservation elementary schools operated by Indian agents, designed to "civilize" the Nez Percé. Students were discouraged
An increasing number of Nez Percé tribal members earned college degrees in the late twentieth century. A number of Nez Percé attend University of Idaho, Washington State University, and University of Washington, among others. Many returned to the tribe to serve the reservation in various capacities including that of wildlife management and administration.
BIRTH AND BIRTHDAYS
During pregnancy, women were encouraged to exercise vigorously and take a number of medicinal herbs. Nez Percé custom dictated that deformed animals and humans should not be ridiculed for fear of causing similar deformities in the baby. The tying of knots was also avoided because they represented the obstruction of the umbilical cord. Babies were delivered in small separate houses with the help of midwives and female relatives. Shamans were called if major problems arose. The baby's head and feet were shaped immediately upon birth. For good luck the umbilical cord was sown into a small hide pouch and attached to the cradleboard. Feasts and gifts were given to the mother and baby, especially for firstborn children, and at adolescence a formal naming ceremony was held.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
As in many indigenous societies, Nez Percé women held a prominent role in food acquisition and preparation. Although men were mainly in charge of the fishing, women assisted in gutting, drying, and storing the large volumes of fish that were caught. Women assumed leadership in food and medicinal plant collecting, using digging sticks to collect various types of roots, or tubers. The bulb of the camas lily, which grows primarily in wet meadows, was a principal plant food. With the absence of a pottery tradition, baskets were used for numerous tasks, including food storage and even cooking, which was accomplished by placing heated stones in a basket full of water to boil foods.
Nez Percé women were given more respect within the tribe than women in other American Indian tribes. Nez Percé women were eligible to be shamans, who were believed to have miraculous powers, able to cure the sick by singing sacred songs and prescribing herbal remedies. During tribal council meetings, the women could speak up, although they could not lead the meetings. Women's roles in powwows have changed in the late twentieth century, with increased participation in drumming and war dancing, both prohibited to Nez Percé women several generations earlier.
COURTSHIP AND WEDDINGS
Heads of families often arranged marriages in traditional Nez Percé society, sometimes during childhood. The relative prestige of both families was weighed in making selections. Kin relationships, even distant ones, were avoided; on the other hand, commonly several sons and daughters of two families might marry. In cases where marriage was not arranged, when a male found a female he wanted as a wife, an older female relative of the male initiated negotiations with the female's family. The woman might be observed by the elder relative over a period of time to determine if she was acceptable. The couple might then live together for a while to determine compatibility. Once the couple decided to marry, a ceremony and somewhat competitive gift exchange was held. Relatives of the groom might give horses, equipment for hunting and fishing, and skins. The bride's relatives would give baskets, root bags, digging sticks, and beaded bags. When two prestigious families were involved in an exchange ceremony, many people participated. After a second exchange ceremony, the wedding was considered complete. Since the 1960s, wedding ceremonies are often conducted in traditional longhouses.
The death of a leader or highly respected elder is a major event in Nez Percé society. Traditional funerals were elaborate and consisted of many components. Close female relatives of the deceased immediately began wailing as criers announced the death in the area. The deceased's face was traditionally painted red, and the body was washed, dressed in new clothes, wrapped in a robe, and buried the following day. A number of the deceased's favorite valuables were placed in the grave. A favorite horse might even be killed and left in the vicinity. The grave was placed on a prominent hill overlooking a valley or in a rocky talus slope. A shaman would perform rituals to prevent the deceased ghost from returning, and individuals who had tended to the body ritually purified themselves. Following burial, a feast was held and the remaining items of the deceased disbursed. For the following year, the surviving spouse cut his or her hair short, wore old clothes, did not smile in public, and was prohibited from remarrying. At the end of the yearlong mourning period, relatives supplied a new set of clothes, and a new spouse if a brother or sister of the deceased spouse was available.
Various religions are still practiced by the Nez Percé and other natives in the region, including Washat, Feather, and Shaker sects. In some instances, a modern-day funeral may include more than 20 Washat songs performed during a night-long wake. Graveside Washat songs may also be performed at the burial.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER TRIBES
The Nez Percé maintained friendly relations with most tribes of the Plateau area, including the Walla Walla, Yakima, Palouse, and Cayuse as well as other tribes to their north. The Nez Percé were traditionally part of a large trading network, trading directly with other Columbia River basin tribes to the west, and native groups to the east in western Montana, and even onto the Great Plains. A variety of raw materials and goods passed through this network. The main enemies of the Nez Percé were the Great Basin groups to the south, including the Shoshone, Northern Paiute, and Bannock. Raids motivated by revenge regularly occurred back and forth between the Nez Percé and these groups.
One of the strongest present-day forums for interaction with other tribes is the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission (CRITFC). The CRITFC was formed to facilitate the restoration of salmon and steelhead runs in the Snake River system, an issue of primary importance in the latter years of the twentieth century. The Nez Percé, the Yakima, Warm Springs, and Umatilla tribes are CRITFC members. The commission developed its own comprehensive restoration plan for the region in the mid-1990s and is a key player with various federal agencies and several states in the major restoration effort.
The Nez Percé felt a deep spiritual connection with the earth and sought to live in harmony with nature. They believed all living things and all features of the natural environment were closely related to each other and to people. Every member of the Nez Percé tribe had a personal link with nature in the form of a guardian spirit, or wyakin, that protected him or her from harm and provided assistance during his or her life. For example, a person might pray to his or her wyakin for success in war or for help in crossing a dangerous river. A small medicine bundle containing materials that represented one's wyakin was often carried.
Around the onset of puberty, a young Nez Percé would leave the village in hopes of acquiring a wyakin through a sacred experience. The youth traveled alone to an isolated place, often at a high mountain or along a river, without food or weapons, and sat upon a pile of stones and waited for the wyakin to reveal itself. The wyakin might appear as something material, such as an elk illuminated in a flash of lightning, or as a hallucination or dream. After returning to the village, the young person did not tell others of the experience but interpreted the power of the wyakin privately. From that point on, there were certain rules to follow in order to avoid bad fortune, but one could also appeal to the wyakin in times of need.
Until the 1863 treaty, the Nez Percé were generally open to white settlement and Christian missions in the region. However, with the continued loss of tribal lands Christianity became a major issue causing factionalism. The white culture not only introduced new technologies to the Nez Percé in the nineteenth century, but also brought epidemics, guns, whiskey, impacts on traditional food resources, and loss of land. Over time, pronounced despair led to the rise of various prophetic movements focused on restoring traditional ways and ridding the area of whites. These movements arrived in cycles as interest would grow, then wane, only to rise again. The first was the Prophet Dance in the 1820s, followed by the Washat or Seven Drum Religion in the 1850s, an Earth-lodge cult of the late nineteenth century, and the Feather cult of 1905. A series of prophets were among the Nez Percé, including Nez Percé Ellis, Wiskaynatowat-sanmay, and Tawis-waikt. The Prophet Dance, the oldest of the series of prophetic movements, generally involved dancing in a circle with a leader making vision-inspired prophecies in a trance-like state. The messages were deeply religious in tone and emphasized a renewal of life.
The Seven Drums Religion, considered a direct descendant of the Prophet Dance, has long been a focal point in the revitalization of Nez Percé traditional religious practices. The religion is a blend of vision quests seeking personal spirit powers and some Christian elements in a native communal worship framework. It is also known as the Long-house Religion, as it was performed in traditional longhouses throughout the Columbia Plateau region and led by highly charismatic individuals. The first roots feasts in spring, a first salmon feast slightly later, and a berry feast toward summer's end as well as funerals and memorials are commonly celebrated in the Washat format.
Employment and Economic Traditions
The traditional Nez Percé economy was based on fishing, gathering, hunting, and, later, raising large herds of horses. Prior to incursions by white settlers, a number of major villages existed along the lower courses of the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater Rivers and their tributaries. Having rich fisheries on these watercourses, including seasonal runs of a variety of salmon and steelhead trout, annual fish consumption in the traditional economy was estimated at more than 500 pounds per person. The traditional territory contains a diversity of landscapes with rugged mountains and numerous valleys and high prairies, primarily within the Snake River drainage system. Each area offered something different in terms of resources.
The loss of a viable land base greatly undermined both the traditional Nez Percé economy and the ability to join the burgeoning market economy of the non-Indians. The tribe won several Indian Claims Commission monetary awards in the latter half of the twentieth century in payment for lost lands. They received $3.5 million for lands ceded in the 1855 treaty and more than $5 million for lands lost in the 1863 treaty and 1893 allotments. Along with several other tribes, the Nez Percé also received compensation for the flooding of a key fishery location on the Columbia River in the 1950s by reservoir construction. The Nez Percé share was almost $3 million.
The Nez Percé tribe has occasionally leased approximately 80 percent of its lands to non-Indians. Tribal economy has been largely based on funding from these leases and a timber program. Reacquisition of tribal lands is a key goal of the tribe. In the mid-1990s, as Wallowa Valley encountered difficult economic times with declines in the timber and cattle markets, residents made plans to invite the Nez Percé back to the area. Residents began raising money to build an interpretive center and purchase 160 acres of land for the tribe to use for cultural events. Though valley residents viewed the return of the Nez Percé as an opportunity to promote tourism, most members of the tribe were pleased to recover some of their ancestral territory. "The whites may look at it as an economic plus, but we look at it as a homecoming," tribal member Soy Redthunder informed journalist Timothy Egan. The Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail, the Nez Percé National Historical Park, and the burial site of Old Chief Joseph have become major tourist attractions. One tourism-related Nez Percé-owned business enterprise is Old West Enterprises Textiles and Tipis in Lapwai, Idaho.
The Nez Percé received approval in 1992 from the Northwest Power Planning Council for an ambitious $14 million Clearwater River hatchery plan to restore chinook, steelhead and eventually other salmon, trout, and sturgeon to the tribe's fishing sites scattered over two million acres of central Idaho. (Project funding from the Bonneville Power Administration proved more elusive.) Project plans included a central hatchery and rearing facility, an auxiliary hatchery, and a number of satellite monitoring facilities. One goal was to return fish to traditional spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the Clearwater tributaries, strengthening natural fish runs. The long-term goal of the project is to restore salmon to 13 million acres of ceded lands in Oregon and Washington.
The Nez Percé are not reluctant to enter main-stram society. The Nez Percé are receptive to the United States educational system and their members thrive in academics. Nez Percé members are doctors, nurses, engineers, journalists, and teachers. The Nez Percé tribe operates a printing plant and a marina. The unemployment rate of the Nez Percé is lower than that of most other Native American tribes.
Politics and Government
In 1923, the non-traditionalists of the tribe, seeking an elective form of government, formed the Nez Percé Home and Farm Association, with James Stuart as the first president. The Nez Percé rejected the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Indian New Deal, instead establishing their own tribal constitution in 1948. Under the constitution, Tribal Executive Committee, whose members are elected at large, governs the tribe. The committee oversees the tribe's economic development, including the use of natural resources and the investment of tribal income. It is also responsible to the General Council, which consists of all enrolled tribal members. By the 1990s, with an annual budget of $2 million, the tribe employed over 250 people and provided many social services to tribal members.
Individual and Group Contributions
Nez Percé anthropologist and activist Archie Phinney (1903-1949) played a significant role in preserving the traditional language and folklore of the tribe. Phinney was born on the Nez Percé reservation and raised in a traditional manner, including speaking the language. He attended the University of Kansas, where he became the first Native American to receive a degree from that school. Phinney then attended Columbia University and earned a graduate degree. Returning to the Nez Percé reservation, he began a project of preserving the Nez Percé language and folklore. Phinney authored two books and several journal articles. One book, the 1934 Nez Percé Texts, contained traditional stories of the tribe and was published by the prestigious Columbia University Press. Phinney demonstrated that folklore was a legitimate academic field of study. Promoting Native American causes nationwide, Phinney held leadership positions with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including that of superintendent of the Northern Idaho Agency, and in the National Congress of American Indians. Phinney lobbied the U.S. Congress regarding education issues and land claims. Internationally recognized, Phinney received an honorary degree from the Russian Academy of Science in Leningrad as well as the Indian Council Fire Award in 1946. In 1973 the Nez Percé published its own history, Noon Nee-Me-Poo: We, the Nez Percés co-authored by Nez Percé historian Allen P. Slickpoo Sr.
FILM, TELEVISION, AND THEATER
Hattie Kauffman, winner of four Emmy Awards, has been a national correspondent for CBS This Morning and a former feature reporter for ABC's Good Morning America .
The works of Phil George (b. 1946), a Wallowa Nez Percé poet, have been published in several anthologies, including The Remembered Earth (1979) and Dancing on the Rim of the World (1990). His poetry has even been read on popular television shows, such as the Tonight Show and the Dick Cavett Show. Born in Seattle, Washington, George attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is also a champion Traditional Plateau dancer. George wrote, produced, and narrated the program A Season for Grandmothers for the Public Broadcasting Service. His work is showcased at the Nez Percé National Historical Park in Spaulding, Idaho.
The Nez Percé have been blessed with a number of influential leaders. These leaders are not only recognized by Native Americans but have also an integral part of American history. Old Chief Joseph (1790?-1871), also known as Tuekakas and Wellaamotkin, was the primary leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Percé in the northeastern Oregon during the period of substantial encroachment of white settlers. Peacefully accepting non-Indians into Nez Percé territory, Joseph was one of the first Nez Percé baptized by the Presbyterian minister Henry Spalding. Joseph reluctantly signed the 1855 treaty with territorial governor Isaac Stevens, since it reserved the Wallowa Valley lands for his band. However, the continued influx of non-Indians into his band's territory led his angry disavowal of Christianity and a stronger alignment with the more militant, anti-treaty Nez Percés. In 1886, nine years after his death, whites opened his grave and displayed his skull in a dental office. In 1926 he was reinterred in his homeland valley.
Lawyer (1796-1876), also known as Aleiya, was the son of Twisted Hair, the Nez Percé leader who welcomed and aided Lewis and Clark in 1805. Following his father's tradition, Lawyer became leader of the band of Nez Percé living along the Clearwater River of north-central Idaho. He also sought friendship with the non-Indians entering the area, serving as guide and interpreter for early explorers and trappers in the region. In addition, Lawyer served as a teacher for Presbyterian missionary Asa Smith at Kamiah. Lawyer was known for his oratorical skills and mastery of English. He became leader of the treaty faction of the Nez Percé, signing both the 1855 and 1863 treaties with territorial governor Isaac Stevens, and even protecting Stevens from attacks by natives. In his latter years, Lawyer traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the breaking of treaty terms by the United States. He died the year before the Nez Percé War.
Looking Glass (1823?-1877) was born Allalimya Takanin. His father, also known as Looking Glass, was leader of the Asotin band of Nez Percé living in the Clearwater River drainage of north-central Idaho. He was also recognized as leader of the non-treaty Nez Percé in general. Takanin inherited the band leadership and the name. Young Looking Glass was appointed a war leader for the Nez Percé in 1848. Like a number of his contemporary Nez Percé leaders, Looking Glass followed a path of passive resistance to white encroachment into Nez Percé territory. However, as war broke out in northeast Oregon between the Joseph band and the United States, Looking Glass was drawn into the conflict when his own village was attacked by a combined volunteer militia and U.S. Army force. Looking Glass became the initial leader of the fleeing force of Nez Percé attempting to join Sitting Bull's Sioux, already exiled in Canada after the Battle of Little Bighorn the previous year. However, Looking Glass's consistent underestimation of the U.S. determination to track down the Nez Percé lost him his leadership role to others, including Chief Joseph. Looking Glass was killed as the Nez Percé fought their last battle just short of the Canadian border.
Also known as Hin-mut-too-yah-lat-kekht, or Thunder-Traveling-Across-Lake-and-Fading-on-Mountainside, Chief Joseph (c.1840-1904) and other tribal leaders led a large band of Nez Percé in the most successful, sustained resistance to the U.S. cavalry ever achieved by Native American fighters. The Nez Percé War of 1877 broke out after the tribe had suffered years of abuse from white settlers living on their land and unreasonable demands by the federal government for the Indians to confine their living space and accommodate the settlers' demands. Chief Joseph, whose father (also named Joseph) was a prominent leader of the Wallowa band, took charge upon his father's death in 1871. After several years of passive noncompliance with the Treaty of 1863, he prepared to lead his band out of Wallowa Valley in Idaho in 1877 under the threat of war with the United States. When rebels from the band attacked and killed a group of white settlers, however, Chief Joseph and his whole band (men, women, children, the elderly, and their horse herd) began a 1,600-mile trek through Idaho and Montana toward Canada with the army in pursuit. After outsmarting the American troops numerous times and engaging in 14 separate battles, the Nez Percé were finally forced to surrender just 30 miles short of their goal. At that time Chief Joseph uttered the famous words, "I will fight no more forever." He continued to be a respected leader during the early reservation years, as he eloquently pleaded the tribe's case before government representatives. In 1879 he gave a famous interview that was published in the North American Review under the title "An Indian's View of Indian Affairs," which brought national attention to the Nez Percé. He died in 1904 on the Colville reservation in Washington. Other leaders of the period included Timothy, White Bird, Yellow Wolf, and Ollikut.
Indian Art Northwest.
Dedicated to enhancing public awareness and appreciation of Native American arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest. Publishes information related to Native American arts and educational events and products.
Address: 911 Northeast 11th Avenue, Portland, Oregon 97232.
Telephone: (503) 230-7005.
Nez Percé Tribal Newspaper.
Address: Box 305, Lapwai, Idaho 85341.
Wana Chinook Tymoo.
A publication of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Address: 729 Northeast Oregon, Suite 200, Portland, Oregon 97232.
Telephone: (503) 238-0667.
Organizations and Associations
Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
Address: 222 Northwest Davis, Suite 403, Portland, Oregon 97209.
Telephone: (503) 241-0070.
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Address: 729 Northeast Oregon, Suite 200, Portland, Oregon 97232.
Telephone: (503) 238-0667.
Nez Percé Arts and Crafts Guild.
A cooperative for Nez Percé craftspersons.
Address: P.O. Box 205, Lapwai, Idaho 83540.
Nez Percé Tribe.
Address: P.O. Box 305, Lapwai, Idaho 83540.
Telephone: (208) 843-2253.
Pi-Nee-Waus Community Center.
Provides information concerning contemporary Nez Percé artists.
Address: P.O. Box 305, Lapwai, Idaho 83540.
Telephone: (208) 843-2253.
White Eagle Trading Post.
Retail sales of Nez Percé arts and crafts, including beaded, feather, and leather pieces.
Address: Highway 1, Orofino, Idaho.
Telephone: (208) 476-7753.
Museums and Research Centers
Clearwater Historical Museum.
Holds Nez Percé artifacts, photographic file, and other papers.
Contact: Robert Spencer.
Address: 315 College Avenue, Orofino, Idaho 83544.
Telephone: (208) 476-5033.
Gonzaga University Archives.
Considerable information on traditional Plateau cultures from missionaries' journals and other unpublished archival documents are housed in this independent Catholic college founded in 1887 by Jesuits.
Address: East 502 Boone Avenue, Spokane, Washington 99258.
Telephone: (509) 328-4220.
Idaho State Historical Society Library.
Contains more than 200 volumes of Lapwai Agency records between 1871 and 1883 in addition to photo archives, diaries, and a library of published literature regarding the Nez Percé tribe.
Contact: Arthur A. Hart.
Address: 610 North Julia Davis Drive, Boise, Idaho 83702.
Nez Percé National Historic Park and Museum.
Houses photo archives and exhibits relating to the Nez Percé cultural history.
Contact: Susan J. Buchel.
Address: P.O. Box 93, Spalding, Idaho 83551.
Telephone: (208) 843-2261.
University of Idaho Library Archives and Pacific Northwest Anthropological Archives.
Address: University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83844.
Telephone: (208) 885-6326.
Whitman College Library Archives.
This private college, founded in 1859, houses a collection of unpublished documents on Nez Percé culture.
Address: Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington 99362.
Telephone: (509) 527-5111.
Sources for Additional Study
Brown, Mark. The Flight of the Nez Percé. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
Egan, Timothy. "Expelled in 1877, Indian Tribe Is Now Wanted as a Resource." New York Times, July 22, 1996.
Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.
McWhorter, Lucullus Virgil Yellow Wolf: His Own Story Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd. 1948.
Sherrow, Victoria. The Nez Percé. Brookfield, Conneticut: The Milbrook Press 1994.
Slickpoo, Allen P., and Deward E. Walker, Jr. Noon Nee-Me-Poo: We, the Nez Percés. Lapwai, ID: Nez Percé Tribe of Idaho, 1973.
Trafzer, Clifford E. The Nez Percé. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.
Walker, Deward E., Jr. "Nez Percé." Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, edited by Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.