Nez Perce Tribe

Nez Perce Native Indian

This article contains interesting facts, pictures and information about the life of the Nez Perce Native American Indian Tribe of the Columbia River Plateau region.

The Nez Perce Tribe
Summary and Definition: The semi-nomadic Nez Perce tribe were fishers, hunter gatherers and traders of the Plateau cultural group. The Nez Perce, a Sahaptian speaking tribe, lived in parts of present-day Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. . The names of the most famous chiefs of the Nez Perce tribe included Chief Joseph and Chief Looking Glass.

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Facts about the Nez Perce Native Indian Tribe
This article contains fast, fun facts and interesting information about the Nez Perce Native American Indian tribe. Find answers to questions like where did the Nez Perce tribe live, what clothes did they wear, what did they eat and who were the names of their most famous leaders? Discover what happened to the Nez Perce tribe with facts about their wars and their history.

Did the Nez Perce have pierced noses? No
The explorers of the Lewis and Clark expedition referred to the tribe as the Chopunnish. The name Nez Perce, meaning "pierced nose" was incorrectly provided by French fur traders who were generalizing about the customs of the tribes the Corps of Discovery would next meet, such as the Chinook in the Northwest Pacific coast, who favored nose rings.

What was the lifestyle and culture of the Nez Perce tribe?
The Nez Perce tribe were one of the most numerous and powerful tribes of the Plateau Culture area. They lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle fishing, hunting, or gathering wild plants for food. They lived in pit houses in the winter and tule-mat lodges in the summer. The introduction of the horse in the 1700's brought about a change in lifestyle and many of the people traveled to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo. They adopted some of the ideas of the Great Plains native Indians including the use of the tepee which were covered with buffalo hides and some items of clothing made from buffalo hides. The rich grasslands of the Nez Perce territory enabled the tribe to become horse breeders and traders and they raised some of the largest horse herds of any Native American Indian group. They are famous for breeding the sturdy, spotted horses now called Appaloosas, that were named after the Palouse tribe. The Lewis and Clark expedition encountered the Nez Perce during their explorations and Meriwether Lewis described the Appaloosa in his journal dated February 15, 1806 "Their horses appear to be of an excellent race. They are lofty, elegantly formed, and durable".


Where did the Nez Perce tribe live?
The Nez Perce are people of the Plateau Native American cultural group whose territories covered hundreds of miles from the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho, west to the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and further westward to the state of Washington and eastwards to Montana. The location of the Nez Perce tribal homelands are shown on the map. The geography of the region in which they lived dictated the lifestyle and culture of the Nez Perce tribe.

  • The Nez Perce lived along the lower courses of the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater Rivers and their tributaries
  • Land: Fast flowing rivers, lakes, forests and prairies
  • Climate: Warm summers and cold, snowy winters
  • Animals: The  animals included elk, deer, bear, mountain goat, groundhog, coyote, raccoon, fox, porcupine, weasel, beaver and hare
  • Fish: Salmon, steelhead trout
  • Natural Resources: Berries such as blackberries, strawberries, huckleberries, bulbs, bitterroots, onions, nuts and seeds

Map showing Plateau Indian Tribes

Map showing location of the
Plateau Native Indian Tribes


Picture of a Nez Perce TepeePicture of a Tule-mat lodge

What did the Nez Perce tribe live in?
The Nez Perce were semi-nomadic and needed shelters that were easy to set up and take down. The Nez Perce lived in one of three shelters, depending on the season. The types of shelters were  a semi-subterranean pit house, a tepee or a tule-mat lodge.

  • Pit houses were winter shelters that were built with logs and sealed for insulation with dirt and grasses. Pit houses were built below ground with an entrance and ladder at the top and were generally used during the cold, winter months.
  • The summer shelters, the tepee and tule-mat lodge, were above ground. Tepees were covered with animal skins but the tule-mat lodge was covered with mats of strong, durable, tule reeds (bulrushes).

What language did the Nez Perce tribe speak?
The Nez Perce tribe spoke in a Sahaptian dialect of the Penutian language. They call themselves 'Nimiipu', which means "the people".

What transportation did the Nez Perce use? Dugout Canoes
The Nez Perce tribe built dugout canoes built dugout canoes made from the hollowed-out logs of large trees. The men hollowed logs with controlled fire that softened the timber so they could carve and shape their canoe to have a flat bottom with straight sides. The dugout canoes were important to the way of life of the Nez Perce as semi-nomadic fishers and hunters and was a perfect means of transportation for travel along fast streams and shallow waters of the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater Rivers and their tributaries. 

Dugout Canoe

The Nez Perce tribe and the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Lewis and Clark encountered the Nez Perce tribe in October 1805. They used new dugout canoes built with the help of the friendly Nez Perce Native American Indians. The canoes enabled the expedition to float downstream from the Clearwater River Idaho, the Snake River into the Columbia River in the state of Washington.

Who were the allies and enemies of the Nez Perce tribe?
The allies of the Nez Perce tribe were many of the other Native American Indians who inhabited the Plateau region including the Cayuse, Walla Walla, Spokane, Coeur D'Alene, Yakama and Palouse. The main enemies of the Nez Perce tribe were the Great Basin groups to the south, including the Shoshone, Northern Paiute, and the Bannock tribes.

The Nez Perce War
The Nez Perce War was fought between June - October 1877. It was led by Chief Joseph, his brother Ollikut, White Bird and Chief
Looking Glass. The Nez Perce fought a series of battles and skirmishes with General Howard and later, Colonel Nelson A. Mileson in a fighting retreat that covered 1,170 miles. The Nez Perce stopped at the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana, about 40 miles from the Canadian border. It was here that they fought a 5 day battle against Colonel Miles's troops. On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce, was forced to surrender to the US forces and the short, ill-fated Nez Perce War came to an end.

What food did the Nez Perce tribe eat?
The food that the Nez Perce tribe ate included salmon and fish and a variety of meats from the animals that they hunted. They supplemented their protein diet with seeds, nuts and fruits and used cornlike roots to make 'kouse'

What weapons did the Nez Perce use?
The weapons used by the Nez Perce were spears, knives, bows and arrows and clubs.

What clothes did the Nez Perce men wear?
Traditional Nez Perce clothes were made of shredded cedar bark, deerskin, or rabbit skin. However with the introduction of the horse, and the ability to hunt buffalo on the Great plains, they used buffalo hides to make their clothes.  The clothes worn by the men varied according to the season but generally they wore breechcloths and leggings, shirts and robes. Blankets and gloves were frequently used to keep out the cold. Nez Perce clothes were often belted and they wore moccasins on their feet. It was customary to decorate their clothes with fringes. Breastplates were worn for decoration purposes and made from the narrow dentallum shells acquired in trading with the coastal tribes and later they were made from buffalo bones and were called "pipe bones". Armbands, wristbands and anklets were also worn for special ceremonies. Headdresses were made of feathers, but did not trail to the floor. Their hair was kept long and decorated with plaits and beads for special occasions.

What clothes did the Nez Perce women wear?
The Nez Perce women during the 1700's wore large basket hats they wove out of dried leaves and plant fibers. The women of the tribe wore long dresses that covered them from the neck to their mid calves. The women also wore knee length moccasins during the winter. The Nez Perce made a large bag called a parfleche to store and carry their food and clothing. Parfleche were made from tough hides, and were often beautifully decorated.  Nez Perce Clothes were decorated with beads made from a variety of materials that included shells, bones, pebbles, claws, nuts, seeds, porcupine quills, horns, pieces of metal and bird talons.

What was the religion and beliefs of the Nez Perce tribe?
The religion and beliefs of the Nez Perce tribe was based on Animism that encompassed the spiritual or religious idea that the universe and all natural objects animals, plants, trees, rivers, mountains rocks etc have souls or spirits. The Nez Perce believed they had a personal link with nature in the form of a guardian spirit, or wyakin, that protected them from harm and provided assistance during their life.

Who were the most famous leaders and chiefs of the Nez Perce tribe?
The most famous leaders and chiefs of the Nez Perce tribe included Chief Joseph and Chief Looking Glass who both fought in the Nez Perce War (June - October 1877) against the US Government. They led the following battles in the Nez Perce war including the Battle of Clearwater Creek in Idaho, the battle at Big Hole Valley in Montana, Camas Creek in Idaho, Canyon Creek and Cow Island in Montana, and the battle at Bear Paw in Montana.

Nez Perce History Timeline: What happened to the Nez Perce tribe?
The following Nez Perce history timeline details facts, dates and famous landmarks and battles fought by the Nez Perce Nation. The Nez Perce history timeline explains what happened to the people of their tribe.

Nez Perce History Timeline

  • 1750's: The Nez Perce acquire the horse and their lifestyle is changed

  • 1805: Contact was made between the Nez Perce and the Lewis and Clark expedition

  • 1812: A trading post known as Spokane House was built near the confluence of Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers

  • 1825: The Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver as a trading post

  • 1836: Henry Harmon and Eliza Spalding established a Presbyterian mission among the Nez Perce Native Indians

  • 1843: The first major migration along the Oregon Trail took place in 1843 which led to violent conflicts with the white settlers who traveled along the Oregon trail in wagon trains.

  • 1853: Washington Territory was established, dividing the Nez Perce homeland in two parts

  • 1855: Isaac Stevens (March 25, 1818 – September 1, 1862) , governor of Washington Territory, negotiated the Walla Walla treaty with the Nez Perce reserving 7,000,000 acres of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon for the tribe

  • 1855: The Yakima War (1855-1858) erupted, fought by members of the Native Indian alliance including the Yakama led by Chief Kamiakin and the Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse tribes

  • 1860: The discovery of gold in Pierce, Idaho prompted an influx of white prospectors on the Nez Perce territory

  • 1861: Nez Perce Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established

  • 1861: More than 1000 gold prospectors arrived in Pierce, Idaho.

  • 1862: An estimated $7-10 million in gold was taken from Nez Perce lands by more than 15,000 gold prospectors

  • 1862: A new treaty was negotiated and the Lapwai reservation was established

  • 1873: President Ulysses S. Grant signs an executive order granting half the Wallowa Valley to the Nez Perce people

  • 1877: President Grant opens the Nez Perce homeland to more settlers and demanded that all roaming Nez Perce bands move onto the Lapwai reservation in present-day Idaho

  • 1877: The forced removal of the Nez Perce led to the killing of several settlers and the short-lived Nez Perce War began

  • 1877: The Nez Perce War (June - October 1877) led by Chief Joseph

  • 1877: October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph was forced to surrender.

  • 1877: Chief Joseph was assured that the Nez Perce would be permitted to return to their home country in Lapwai, Oregon however the promise was broken and they were sent to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma

  • 1879-80: The Nez Perce tribe was under the jurisdiction of the Ponca Agency in Indian Territory

  • 1885: Some of the Nez Perce were allowed to return to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, but Chief Joseph and a few others were sent to the Colville Reservation in north eastern Washington

  • 1904: Chief Joseph died on 21 September 1904 and was buried in Nespelem, Washington

The Story of Nez Perce
For additional facts and information refer to the legend and the Story of the
Nez Perces and the Poncas and the Story of Chief Joseph.

Nez Perce

  • Interesting Facts and information about the way the people lived
  • The clothes worn by men and women
  • Description of the homes and the type of food the Nez Perce would eat
  • Fast Facts and info about the Nez Perce
  • Names of famous chiefs and leaders
  • Interesting Homework resource for kids on the history of the Nez Perce Native American Indians

Pictures and Videos of Native American Indians and their Tribes
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