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Nez Percé ('pierced noses') A term applied by the French to a number of tribes which practiced or were supposed to practice the custom of piercing the nose for the insertion of a piece of dentalium. The term is now used exclusively to designate the main tribe of the Shahaptian family, who have not, however, so far as is known ever been given to the practice.
The Nez Percé or Sahaptin of later writers, the Chopuunish (corrupted from Tsútpěli) of Lewis and Clank, their discoverers, were found in 1805 occupying a large area in what is now western Idaho, north east Oregon, and south east Washington, on lower Snake river and its tributaries. They roamed between the Blue Mountains in Oregon and the Bitter Root Mountains in Idaho, and according to Lewis and Clark sometimes crossed the range to the headwaters of the Missouri.
By certain writers they have been classed under two geographic divisions Upper Nez Percé and Lower Nez Percé. The latter were found by Bonneville in 1834 to the north and west of the Blue Mountains on several of the branches of Snake river, where they were neighbors of the Cayuse and Walla Walla. The Upper Nez Percé held the Salmon river country in Idaho in 1834 and probably also at the same time the Grande Ronde valley in eastern Oregon but by treaty of 1855 they ceded a large part of this territory to the United States.
The reservation in which they were confined at that time included the Wallowa valley in Oregon, as well as a large district in Idaho. With the discovery of gold and the consequent influx of miners and settlers the Oregon districts were in demand, and a new treaty was made by which the tribe was confined to the reservation at Lapwai, Idaho.
The occupants of Wallowa valley refused to recognize the treaty, and finally, under their chief, Joseph, took active measures of resistance, and the Nez Percé war of 1877 resulted. Several severe defeats were inflicted on the United States troops who were sent against the Indians, and finally, when forced to give way, Joseph conducted a masterly retreat across the Bitter Root Mountains and into Montana in an attempt to reach Canadian territory, but he and his band were surrounded and captured when within a few miles of the boundary. Joseph and his followers to the number of 450 were removed to Indian Territory, where their loss from disease was so great that in 1885 they were sent to the Colville reservation in northern Washington, where a remnant still resides.
Under the collective name Chopunnish, Lewis and Clark estimated the population to be 7,850. Deducting from this total 1,600 for the Pelloatpallah (Paloos) band, now treated as distinct from the Nez Percé, and 250 for the Yeletpo (Wailetpu, i. e., Cayuse), now supposed to belong to a distinct stock, the total of the Nez Percé in 1805 according to those authors was about 6,000. Wilkes estimated the Chopunnish at about 3,000 in 1849, and Gibbs gave them a population of more than 1,700 in 1853. In 1885 they were estimated officially at 1,437. There are now, (1906) somewhat more than 1,600, 1,534 being on the reservation in Idaho and 83 on the Colville reservation in Washington.
In general habits of life the Nez Percé as well as the other Shahaptian tribes
conform to the inland type of Indians and differ sharply in most respects from
their western neighbors, the Chinook. At the time of Lewis and Clark's visit they are reported as living in communal houses, said to contain about 50 families each. There is evidence, however, that the Nez Percé used the typical underground lodge, and that these seldom contained more than 3 or 4 families. A much larger dancing house was built at each permanent winter camp. Salmon constituted their most important food in early times, and with roots and berries made up their entire food supply until the introduction of horses facilitated hunting expeditions to the neighboring mountains. The tribe seems to have been divided into a number of bands or villages, named according to the place where the permanent winter camp was made.
Owing to the precarious nature of the food supply the greater portion of the
inhabitants of any one of these villages would often be absent for a large part of
the year, consequently it is impossible to determine with accuracy the location and
population of these division's in early times. There was no head chief of the tribe, but each band had several chiefs, of whom one was regarded as the leader,
and these chiefs were succeeded by their sons as a rule. Expeditions for hunting or war were led by chiefs chosen for the occasion. There are no signs of a clan
system in the social organization of the Nez Percé, and marriage is apparently
permitted between any couple except in the case of recognized relationship.
The religious beliefs of the Nez Percé, previous to the introduction of Christianity, were those characteristic of the Indians of the interior, the main feature being the belief in all indefinite number of spirits. The individual might procure a personal protecting spirit in the usual way by rigorous training and fasting.
The Nez Percé have always borne a high reputation for independence and bravery, and have been particularly noted for their almost constant friendliness to the whites. Practically the only rupture in these relations was the Nez Percé war of 1877, mentioned above.
NEZ PERCE CHIEF
In 1871, Young Chief Joseph took over as chief of the Nez Perce from his father, Joseph, the Elder.
In 1873, Chief Joseph negotiated with the federal government to ensure his people could stay on their land in the Wallowa Valley. But in 1877, the government reversed its policy, and Army General Oliver Howard threatened to attack if the Wallowa band did not relocate to the Idaho Reservation with the other Nez Perce. Chief Joseph reluctantly agreed.
Joseph and other Nez Perce chiefs began leading his people north toward Canada
Chief Joseph was pursued by 2000 Federal Troops under the direction of General Howard. The Native Americans traveled over 1600 miles through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, all the while fending off attacks by the Federal troops.
Finally, on October 5, 1877, less than 40 miles from freedom in Canada, Chief Joseph surrendered to General Nelson Appleton Miles.
In 1879 Chief Joseph went to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes and plead the case of his people.
Chief Joseph died on September 21, 1904, and was buried in Nespelem, Okanogan County, Washington.
Read more on Chief Joseph here.