Nez Perce
National Historical Park
NPS Arrowhead logo Big Hole
National Battlefield

Chapter 1: Reasons

In the beginning there was the land. The region that today embraces northeastern Oregon, southeastern Washington, and central Idaho was home to the Nee-Me-Poo (Nee-MEE-poo), a term in their own language meaning "The People." The Nee-Me-Poo became known to Euro-Americans as the Nez Perce Indians, a name by which they are commonly recognized today. [1] A broad and topographically diverse area astride the Columbia Plateau, the Nee-Me-Poo homeland—which included their village sites and immediately adjacent and intermittent lands over which they ranged for interband activities and sustenance—stretched westward from Montana's Bitterroot range. It encompassed the rugged Clearwater Mountains, a broken tableland of up to seven thousand feet elevation, as well as an undulating grass plain called Camas Prairie, continuing to include the Blue Mountains and their collateral ranges and valleys in what is today northeastern Oregon.

map of the area of the Nez Perce Outbreak and War
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press, do not use without permission of publisher.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Several rivers transect the region. The Snake and the Salmon, affluents of the Columbia River from the south and southwest, are ancient, swift-flowing streams whose erosive action created their deep and heavily fissured canyons. Likewise, the Clearwater and its branches radiate from the northeast and southeast to drain the glacially sculpted country west of the Continental Divide. Joining the Snake from the southwest is the Grande Ronde, itself fed by the Wallowa, which traces the valley of that name. Below the Salmon, and between that river and the Snake, lies a steeply rising, tortuously dissected plateau supporting the conifer-shrouded Salmon River Mountains and assorted lakes and streams, while north of the lower Clearwater River the country stretches away into rolling uplands with alternating grass and dense forest cover. Throughout forest and plain, rich soil rests atop volcanic deposits of eons past. A place of moderate seasonal temperatures and precipitation, but with somewhat lengthy winter periods, this broad, variegated tract—historically inhabited by the Nee-Me-Poo and related tribes—covered an area of approximately eleven thousand square miles. [2]

The first documented contact between the Nee-Me-Poo and white men occurred in 1805-6, when the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark army expedition to the Pacific passed through their lands, received assistance from them, and collected initial information about them. Subsequent exploring parties, principally those of the establishing fur companies, provided additional data. Early French-Canadian observers called the Nee-Me-Poo "Nez Perces" (pronounced in French "Nay-pair-SAY," but later anglicized to today's "Nez Purse"), in actuality a term prescribed for numerous groups who pierced their noses with dentalium shells. And although the Nee-Me-Poo apparently never practiced this custom extensively, they nonetheless retained the name. A brave, intelligent, and spiritual people, they had occupied their home territory for millennia, with archeological evidence reaching back for as many as thirteen thousand years. In their traditions, the people believe that they have been here since the time the world was first populated. They lived in several modes of housing, notably rush mat lodges, pine-board structures, and large semi-subterranean bark-covered dwellings, all capable of accommodating several families. Linguistically, the Nee-Me-Poo were of the Penutian language group and spoke a Sahaptian dialect, as did neighboring tribes of the Columbia Plateau. Like the mostly sedentary groups to the west, the Nee-Me-Poo traditionally subsisted on salmon, but they also hunted game in the forests and prairies and consumed local berries, roots, and tubers, especially relishing those of the camas and kouse plants.

Organizationally, the Nez Perces comprised a loose federation of bands, each with a village that habitually occupied a specific locale within the tribal territory. Band members lived their lives with guidance from Wyakin, an individually unique nature-force attained through requisite fasting, praying, and vision-seeking. One's Wyakin, the Nez Perces believed, afforded protection, spiritual insight, and guidance in all life matters, and it furnished strength in deciding such critical issues as war and peace. Several chiefs, or headmen, governed each band, although the band only recognized one as the band leader. Chiefs rose in band hierarchy usually, but not exclusively, through hereditary means, but war exploits and economic ingratiation proved mighty factors. Once attained, chieftainship carried numerous responsibilities for the well-being of the band. Often the chief mediated family disputes and meted out punishment to headstrong children in the usual absence of parental discipline. Peer pressure within the band usually governed individual actions, and laws were few and unnecessary, so that the chief spent more time dealing with welfare concerns for the entire group. Although war was no formal prerequisite to chiefdom, some leaders possessed considerable war experience and became noted for their military skills; these chiefs often commanded the most authority among the people.

While communal within the overall tribe, each band possessed autonomy that manifested itself in its independent movements and activities. The bands subscribed to a central tribal authority composed of a council of band leaders that convened whenever tribal necessity demanded. The respective bands maintained distances from one another, partly, no doubt, because of the topography of the region, but also to ensure equitable access to game and other food sources. When first encountered by white men, most Nez Perce villages stood along the Clearwater and its tributaries, although others bordered the lower Snake River and the east side of the Salmon. The bands regularly joined for familial and ceremonial reasons, and sometimes one or more Nee-Me-Poo groups aligned with neighboring tribes for hunting, fishing, and other mutually beneficial pursuits.

Although the entire tribe likely numbered well over six thousand people in 1805, the population estimate stood at less than half that at mid-century, largely because of rampant disease epidemics introduced among them. The closest neighbors of the Nee-Me-Poo included the Cayuses, Yakimas, Walla Wallas, Umatillas, Kalispels, Spokans, and Coeur d'Alenes on the north and west, tribes of cultural and linguistic affinity with whom relations were usually friendly; the Shoshones and related Paiute bands on the south, long considered enemies; and the friendly Flatheads on the east. One group in particular, the Palouses, was so closely related to the Nee-Me-Poo that white observers considered it almost a band of that tribe. Intertribal trade was ongoing, and the Nez Perces periodically journeyed west to barter goods with Pacific Coast peoples and east to trade with the Salish, Kutenais, and Crows. Historically, the Kutenais, Blackfeet, Gros Ventres (Atsinas), Assiniboines, and Lakotas often threatened the Nee-Me-Poo on their occasional trips to the western Montana plains. [3]

The acquisition of horses before the middle of the eighteenth century expedited the journey across the Continental Divide by many Nez Perces, and seasonal migrations to the plains east of the Bitterroots to hunt buffalo became annual occurrences. [4] In the exchange of ideas and products that followed, the plateau Indians soon adopted the portable, buffalo-skin tipis of the Plains tribes while in transit. Firearms, acquired after the start of the nineteenth century, facilitated the buffalo hunt and promoted greater security against enemy tribes while afield. The pursuit of buffalo—emphasized by some Nez Perce bands more than others—influenced not only the participants' mode of subsistence, but their other lifeways and material traits as well. The Nez Perce hunts took place each autumn through early November, with the tribesmen passing over the Bitterroots to the plains, particularly areas of west-central Montana's lush Judith Basin, where the buffalo wintered. Some of the people returned to Idaho; others occupied semi-permanent villages in the Bitterroot Valley, home of their Flathead allies with whom they hunted through the winter before returning to their homes late the following spring. While supplementing their lives thusly, the people also kindled a sustained and friendly association with the Crow Indians of the central Montana plains, a small tribe historically surrounded by enemies. It was principally from the Crows that the Nez Perces acquired Plains-related modifications to their clothing, ornamentation, songs, and dances. Moreover, the bands who routinely emigrated to and from the plains gradually contrasted with those Nez Perce bands who regularly remained at home, contributing to a nascent intratribal cultural schism that would manifest itself in significant ways before and during the conflict with the U.S. Army in 1877. [5]

Pervading all aspects of Nez Perce existence was their ancient and overriding relationship with the land. The earth was the supreme provider, to be revered—not owned—as the mother of life for all creatures. Human and earth were inextricably intertwined through birth, life, and death, in a nonmaterial nurturing that pervaded all aspects of existence. As great benefactor, the earth bestowed life's necessities—among them water, grass, and air—and to the earth, life itself always returned. Central to the Nez Perce concept of land was the notion that the people of the different bands were predestined by a supreme entity to occupy designated areas of the country and were constrained to remain in those homelands. Among the Nez Perces, bands mutually recognized each other's areas as special places set aside to sustain the group economically, socially, and spiritually. Moreover, a band-fostered territorial imperative existed that placed strong emphasis on being born and dying on the same part of the earth. The eternal regeneration of mankind with the land was thus at the root of the Nee-Me-Poo concept of life itself. [6]

Their relationship with the land also accounted for change among the Nez Perces and ultimately provided the vehicle of contention leading to the events of 1877. Following their initial entry onto Nez Perce lands early in the nineteenth century, fur trading companies established long-standing contacts with social implications for the people. Along with sustained association with whites came important modifying influences on Nee-Me-Poo society through routine contact with the traders and through the concomitant effects among the Nez Perces of Christianity, introduced by missionaries in the first half of the century. Ancient Nee-Me-Poo predictions of imminent cultural change—at least partly realized through the loss of game and land resources—proved conducive to their recognition and acceptance of many Christian tenets, including a single creator, the Bible as a source of divine knowledge, ritualized services, and an afterlife. [7] Underlying this acceptance, however, was Nez Perce interest in acquiring the benefits of Euro-American technology.

Although Christianity promoted this objective, its introduction eventually produced cultural schism and factionalism among the Nez Perces. In November 1836, a Presbyterian missionary, Reverend Henry H. Spalding, established a station at the mouth of Lapwai Creek on the south side of the Clearwater. Employing the Nee-Me-Poo language, Spalding introduced agriculture, medical practices, and hymns and prayers that corresponded with the people's traditional forms of worship. In time, chosen Nez Perces became teachers of religious doctrine and worked to spread it among their kinsmen. Missionary activity, initially Protestant (Presbyterians and Congregationalists came in the mid-1830s while Catholics arrived in the region in 1839), concentrated along a relatively heavily populated corridor some sixty miles in length bordering the Clearwater River, home to the Leptepwey, or Lapwai, band of Nez Perces.

For those people, Christianity, along with other influences, changed fundamental aspects of Nez Perce society. Because of the geographic focus of the early proselytizers, not all Nez Perces received equal attention in the acculturation process. The buffalo-hunting proclivities of some bands fostered a cultural exclusiveness that removed them from sustained missionary attention. Compounding this, further inroads by whites flooding into the region via the Oregon Trail during the 1840s escalated competition for land and precipitated violent native reactions against the missionaries among neighboring tribes. Following the Cayuse Indian massacre of the Whitmans at their mission near the Walla Walla River in 1847, and the consequent departure of Spalding from Lapwai, missionary activity ended among the Nez Perces, not to resume in force until the 1870s. [8]

The period immediately following the missionary presence brought continued unrest. Angered by the perceived transgressions of missionaries and intruders into their lands, the Cayuses and Palouses in 1848 resisted troops raised and sent by the provisional government into their Columbia Valley domain in present eastern Washington to punish them for the Whitman murders. Throughout these conflicts, most of the Nez Perces, professing neutrality, remained friendly toward the white Americans. Concurrently, many non-Christian Nez Perces sought spiritual relief from the pressures wrought by the presence of whites through renewed identification with the land. The movement, which affected other Plateau peoples, too, inspired acceptance of the Dreamer religion, a hopeful nativistic theology advocating a return to more traditional tribal beliefs. The Dreamers practiced ritual dances accompanied by rhythmic drumming, and the term, "Drummers," was often applied to them. Strongly adhering to conventional Nez Perce precepts about the land, the Dreamers advocated rejection of white ways and a return to fundamental tribal values. [9]

The rise of the Dreamer religion among the non-Christian Nez Perces reflected a cultural response to a growing crisis brought on by the increasing proximity of white Americans, who were beginning to envelop them. While the people had exuded friendship and forbearance, hospitably accepting whites among them, the growing intrusions threatened that status by introducing a familiar pattern of Indian-white relations wherein the United States government provided for its citizens through territorial confiscation by treaty. Land became the paramount point of contention, philosophically and in actual occupation, as Nez Perce ideas of spiritual bonding with the earth clashed with Euro-American concepts of individual ownership. These convictions, though not always apparent, set the tone for Nez Perce-United States relations from the 1850s into the 1870s.


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap1.htm — 26-Mar-2002