What are Nez Perce Indians?

Laura Evans

The Nez Perce Indians call themselves Nimi'ipuu, or "the People." Early French trappers named the Nimi'ipuu "Nez Perce" for "pierced nose," even though piercing was not part of Nimi'ipuu tradition. In the past, these Native Americans roamed North Central Idaho, Northeastern Oregon, Southeastern Washington, Western Montana, and Wyoming. Today, the Nez Perce Reservation is located in North Central Idaho.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

One of the legends of the origins of the Nimi'ipuu tells the story of a giant monster appearing and eating all of the animals except coyote. Coyote asked the monster to swallow him because coyote missed his friends, the animals. After coyote cut out the monster's heart, coyote and all of his friends escaped. To celebrate, coyote cut up the monster into small pieces and threw these pieces into the winds, creating human beings. The Nez Perce Indians were created from the drops of the monster's blood that coyote washed from his hands to commemorate the land where coyote killed the monster.

Horses indigenous to North America became extinct about 8,0000 to 10,000 years ago. When the Spanish brought horses back to the New World, the world of Native Americans changed. By the 1700s, the Nez Perce Indians had mastered horses and horseback riding. Because of horses, the Nez Perce were able to travel farther to hunt. In addition, horses were a sign of wealth among Native Americans.

The Nez Perce had generally good relationships with Europeans and European-Americans. In fact, Nimi'ipuu offered critical assistance to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 and 1806. It was not until the United States government started taking traditional Nez Perce lands that relationships soured.

Nez Perce Indians gave the United States government nearly 13 million acres (about 5.3 million hectares) in 1855 to avoid being forced to a "foreign" reservation, but were able to keep some of their traditional lands. In 1860, a party led by Captain E. D. Pierce discovered gold on the Nez Perce reservation. Rather than help keep the usurpers off of the reservation, the United States government took about 90 percent of these Native Americans’ remaining land in 1863, splitting the Nez Perce Indians into two groups, those who favored the 1863 treaty and those who did not.

The United States government pressured the Nez Perce Indians who did not agree to the 1863 treaty to move to the reservation. Conflicts between these Nimi'ipuu and settlers escalated until the Nez Perce War broke out in 1877. It took the United States three and a half years to defeat the Nez Perce Indians under Chief Joseph.

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Discussion Comments


@jcraig - I completely agree that it was a losing effort and I feel like there are two different classes to place the native american tribes into.

One class concerns the tribes that realized what they whites were doing and sought to fight them off right away, while they had some type of chance.

The other class I would say were tribes like the Nez Perce who first trusted the whites and then saw what they were and that they were ultimately going to force them off their land.

I am wondering what other tribes there were like the New Perce who waited until the Indian Wars in order to face off against the whites in desperation?

Most of these tribes were ones that had good relations with the whites until they had taken virtually all of their land and saw no other choice but to fight.

Many tribes thought they could settle everything diplomatically, and once they realized it was impossible they fought, which culminated into the Indian Wars in the late 1800's.

Basically I am wondering what tribes participated with the Nez Perce in the Indian Wars and some of their history dealing with the whites.

@Emilski - I understand exactly what you are saying, but I would argue that regardless of how much of a fight the Native Americans put up they were eventually going to lose to the whites.

Unfortunately the native americans were at a disadvantage militarily as well as in numbers and it was simply a matter of time until they were over taken.

The whites did realize this and they did take some steps to keep from basically exterminating tribes, by moving tribes to their own state in Oklahoma. However, like most of the things the whites did in relation to the native americans they did not keep their word and they simply forced them off their lands they gave them.

Chief Joseph was merely fighting a lost cause and it was more of a last ditch resort in order to try and prolong the inevitable that was going to happen regardless.


@JimmyT - I am sure there are many tribes like the Nez Perce who thought this way, but I guarantee there were many other tribes that realized the whites were simply invaders and knew what they were wanting.

Chief Joseph realized too late that the whites were going to force the tribe off their lands or take land until there was none left so that is why he chose to fight them.

He realized that there was no other option because simply trying to negotiate with the whites seemed to go nowhere as the perception was that the whites would never keep their word.

I say that had many of the tribes realized the reality of the situation they could have banded together and fought to keep their lands.

The Indian Wars did not last very long in the large scale of things, but they could have prolonged it to the point maybe they could have gotten the government to give up and allow them an area like a state or something.

It seems to me like the Nez Perce Indians had pretty good relationships with the whites for quite a wile when comparing relationships between whites and other tribes.

It seems like the Nez Perce simply were willing to live together with the whites as guests as long as they were willing to stay on their land.

I understand that most of the tribes during this time did not have a concept of ownership concerning land, so they probably thought that allowing the whites to move in and use the land along side them was the right thing to do. However, they probably did not realize how much need for land there was and eventually they realized that the whites would keep taking land and taking land until they could not have enough land to sustain themselves on their own leading to them being forced to fight.

This was the issue with most tribes during the time and tribes sometimes gave away lands with the thought in mind that they and the white would be co-habitating on the land together.

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