Before contact with non-Indians, the Nez Percé lived on about 17 million acres between the Blue and the Bitterroot Mountains in southeast Washington, northeast Oregon, and southwest Idaho. Today, most live in the counties of Clearwater, Idaho, Lewis, and Nez Percé in Idaho; Ferry and Okanogan Counties in Washington; and in regional cities and towns.
Small, local bands each had one or more villages and fishing areas. Civil chiefs led the bands, although war chiefs exercised temporary power during periods of conflict. Chiefs were generally elected, although sons often followed fathers, and wealth (in horses) became more important in the early contact period. They had no power in purely personal matters. Women could neither be nor elect chiefs. Chiefs and old men made up the village and tribal councils; decisions were made by consensus. Ultimately, tribal cohesion grew out of the necessity to defend against fighters from the Great Plains.
Bands were called by the names of streams. Each group contained at least one permanent winter village and a number of temporary fishing camps. Some subsistence areas were considered tribal property. All handmade items were the property of the maker, except that the male was entitled to all property in unusual cases of separation or divorce.
Menstruating and late-term pregnant women were strictly segregated. Young, unmarried men slept in the sweat lodges. Young men and women, especially the latter, were married by about age fourteen. Brides were commonly purchased, and polygamy was common. Abortion was rare, as was birth out of wedlock. Adultery was a capital crime. Women did most of the domestic work, including dressing skins; men's work revolved around hunting and war.
Permanent settlements were located along rivers. Winter dwellings were semisubterranean, circular wood-frame structures covered with cedar bark, sage, mats, grasses, and earth. The roof was flat or conical. Mats covered the floors. There were also teepee-like communal longhouses, up to 150 feet long, of similar construction. These houses held up to fifty families. People slept along inner walls and shared fires along the center.
Older boys and unmarried men slept and sweated in grass- and earth-covered sweat lodges; others were built for men and women to sweat in. Circular, underground menstrual huts were about twenty feet in diameter. In summer, people built temporary brush lean-tos. Some groups adopted hide teepees in the eighteenth century.
Nez Percé were seminomadic, moving with the food supply. Fish, especially salmon, was a staple, along with trout, eel, and sturgeon. Salmon was either broiled, baked, or boiled fresh or dried, smoked, and stored. Animal food included elk, deer, moose, mountain sheep, rabbits, and small game. After the Nez Percé acquired the horse, parties traveled to the Plains to hunt buffalo. Some meat was jerked for winter. Deer were run down or shot, as were other game, with a bow and arrow or killed with a spear. Some animals were hunted with the use of decoys.
Women gathered plant foods such as camas, kouse, bitterroot, wild carrot, wild onion, and berries. Camas, dug in the midsummer, was peeled and baked in a pit oven. Most berries were dried and stored for winter. Other food included fowl, eggs, and birds. People ate horses, lichens, and tree inner bark when there was nothing else to eat. Most food was either boiled, steamed in pits, or roasted in ashes.
Fish were speared from platforms and caught using nets, spears, small traps, and weirs. Men used various nooses, snares, nets, and deadfalls for hunting as well as bows made of mountain sheep horn. Women made a range of woven and coiled baskets, some watertight, as well as woven reed bags. They also made cups, bowls, winnowing baskets, women's caps, and mats of cattails and tule. Many baskets were made of Indian hemp, bear grass, and other grasses.
Other important raw materials included bone, horn, and wood. Many tools and items, such as mortars, pestles, knives, and mauls, were made of chipping and flaking stone and also obsidian. Mattresses were cottonwood inner bark or dry grass, blankets were elk hides, and folded skins served as pillows.
Nez Percé Indians also used a fire-hardened digging stick, a fire drill, and board and buckskin cradles. Musical instruments included rattles, flageolets, whistles, and drums. They also used a twelve-month calendar and named four seasons.
In general, raiding and war, for booty, glory, and revenge, were very important to the Sahaptians. By virtue of their being the most powerful Plateau tribe, the Nez Percé played a central role in regional peace and war. At least after the late eighteenth century, they fought with the Flatheads, Coeur d'Alenes, and Spokans against the Blackfeet, Gros Ventres, Crows, and other Plains tribes. They also sometimes fought against these allies. The Cayuses, Umatillas, Yakimas, and Walla Wallas were also allies against the Shoshones, Bannocks, and other northern Great Basin tribes.
Men held intertribal dances before wars and buffalo hunts. Weapons included cedar, ash, or mountain sheep horn bows; obsidian or jasper-tipped arrows, sometimes dipped in rattlesnake venom; and spears. Elk skin shields, helmets, and armor were used for defense. The eagle feather war bonnet may or may not have come originally from the Plains. Men and horses were painted and decorated for war.
Somewhere around 1730, the Nez Percé acquired horses and began their dramatic transformation from seminomadic hunters, fishers, and gatherers to Plains-style buffalo hunters. They quickly became master horse riders and breeders. Several decades of peaceful hunting and trading ended around 1775, when the Blackfeet Indians, armed with guns they received through the fur trade, began a long period of conflict in western Montana. By 1800 or so, the Nez Percé Indians had been exposed to Euro-American technology and had heard rumors of a very powerful people to the east.
Their first encounter with non-Indians was with the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition (1805). The Indians welcomed these white people as well as the hundreds of traders, missionaries, and others who poured in subsequently. The Nez Percé were involved in the fur trade during the 1820s and 1830s; they even helped to outfit settlers in the 1840s. Meanwhile, epidemics were taking a tremendous toll on their population.
In 1855, the Indians ceded several million acres of land but kept over 8 million acres for a reservation. Non-Indian miners and other intruders ignored the restrictions and moved in anyway, precipitating a crisis among the Indians over the issue of loyalty toward whites. Following gold strikes in 1860, whites wanted the Wallowa and Grande Ronde Valleys, land that equaled more than 75 percent of the reservation. In 1863, only one chief, with no authority to sell Nez Percé land, signed a treaty. The United States then used that document as an eviction notice, ending years of friendship and cooperation between the Nez Percé and whites. In the meantime, the Dreamer religion had begun influencing the Nez Percé, among others, to resist non-Native imperialism.
In 1877, the Wallowa band were unilaterally given thirty days to leave their homeland. In response to this ultimatum, some younger Indians attacked a group of whites. Young Joseph, chief with his brother, Ollikut, reluctantly sided with the resisters. When soldiers came, firing on an Indian delegation under a flag of peace, the Indians fired back. Joseph's band, about 450 Indians under the leadership of Looking Glass, knew that they could never return home or escape punishment at the hands of the United States. They decided to head for Canada.
During their two-month flight, the group traveled 1,700 miles, constantly evading and outwitting several thousand U.S. Army troops. They did fight several battles during their journey but never were defeated. They also passed through Yellowstone National Park at one point, encountering tourists but leaving them in peace. Joseph was just one of the leaders of this flight, but he became the most important and well-known. Many Indians died along the way.
Tired, hungry, and cold, the group was forced to surrender in early October just thirty miles from Canada. Joseph and other Nez Percé were never allowed to return to their homeland. Those who survived were exiled to Kansas and the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where many died of disease, and finally to the Colville Reservation in Washington.
The sharply rising death rate among the Nez Percé from tuberculosis after the 1870s stemmed largely from the replacement of their traditional mat houses by "modern" wooden ones. Heavy missionization had by the end of the nineteenth century resulted in factionalism and considerable loss of tribal heritage. In 1971, the Nez Percé received land claims settlements of $3.5 million.