Nez Percé

ETHNONYMS: Blue Muds, Chopunnish, Kamuinu, Nimipu, Pierced Noses, Tsoop-Nit-Pa-Loo, Tsutpeli

The Nez Percé are a tribe of Sahaptian-speaking Indians who occupied central Idaho, north of the Northern Shoshone, and parts of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. They are now found principally on the Nez Percé Reservation centered in Lapwai, Idaho. Others live on the Colville Reservation in Washington. The area is generally mountainous, interspersed with river valleys, and fairly arid, receiving about fifteen inches of rainfall a year. In the census of 1980, 2,222 people were entered as Nez Percé.

Before their acquisition of horses around 1720, they lived in separate but related villages. After acquiring the horse they tended to group into larger and more unified settlements. During the early historic period, around the end of the eighteenth century, the Nez Percés were involved in numerous conflicts with the Plains tribes (such as the Blackfoot) and with the Basin Shoshonean groups to the south, with the conflicts centering around bison hunting and horse thefts. The Lewis and Clark expedition, which passed through their territory in 1805, noted much evidence of trade goods from White mariners on the Pacific Coast and Spaniards to the south.

Several Protestant missions were established among them beginning in the early 1830s, with many of the tribe being converted. This, as well as disputes about the various treaties signed with the U.S. government, resulted in conflict between the traditionalists and the converts. Following the discovery of gold in the area in the early 1860s, the territory was overrun by gold prospectors and settlers. Most of the tribe was induced to settle on the present reservation in the 1870s, but the band under Chief Joseph refused and fought the U.S. Army in the Nez Percé War of 1877. The remnants of Joseph's band finally settled on the Colville Reservation.

The historical Nez Percé were composed of many small, local bands, each consisting of one or more villages and fishing camps. The bands generally had elected nonhereditary chiefs. The subsistence basis of the society was salmon fishing and/or bison hunting. The more eastern of the groups tended to depend more on bison as the basis of their subsistence than their relatives to the west who depended more on fishing and hunting other types of game. Trout, eel, and sturgeon were also caught and preserved. Gathering of wild vegetable foods by the women was also important.

Before the agglomeration into larger villages, communities usually had fewer than one hundred inhabitants. They lived in a variety of dwellings, from square and conical mat houses to communal longhouses up to 150 feet long, and also had sweat houses and dance lodges. They had large extended families, and polygyny was relatively common. Descent was bilateral with kindreds present. Although the Nez Percé had no metallurgy, weaving, ceramics, or agriculture, their fine basketry skills provided them with hats, bowls, mats, water-tight vessels, and shirts, leggings, breechclouts, moccasins, dresses, and women's caps; elk and buffalo robes were used for warmth.

Important in the religious life was the vision quest for a guardian spirit. Shamans provided religious leadership, presiding at ceremonies, exorcising ghosts, and curing the sick. The religion was animistic; Coyote was important in the mythology. The tribal religion is still observed among the traditionalists.

The governing body on the present Nez Percé Reservation is the Nez Percé Tribal Executive Committee, with nine persons being elected at large but distributed geographically. The tribe has presented and won several claims before the U.S. Indian Claims Commission. Contemporary Nez Percés are heavily involved in the mainstream culture, attending schools, leasing farai and timberlands, and operating a printing plant and a marina. The tribe holds numerous religious and secular events during the year, including games, wardance contests, religious services, parades, and tribal exhibits.


Haines, Francis (1955). The Nez Percés. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. (1965). The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Slickpoo, Allen P. (1973). Noon nee-me-poo (We, the Nez Percés). Lapwai, Idaho: Nez Percé Tribe of Idaho.

Spinden, Herbert J. (1908). The Nez Percé Indians. American Anthropological Association, Memoir 2, 165-274. Menasha, Wis.

Walker, Deward E., Jr. (1968). Conflict and Schism in Nez Percé Acculturation: A Study of Religion and Politics. Pullman: Washington State University Press.

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