What is the Nez Perce Tribe?

C. K. Lanz

The Nez Perce are a Pacific Northwest tribe of Native Americans who currently inhabit and govern a reservation in north central Idaho that includes the towns of Ahsahka, Craigmont, Culdesac, Ferdinand, Kamiah, Orofino, Spalding and Winchester. The reservation is more than 1,195 square miles (3,095 square km).

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The city of Lapwai, Idaho, is the Nez Perce seat of government. The tribe’s name, a French term meaning pierced nose, was coined by an interpreter traveling with Lewis and Clark in the early 19th century despite the fact that the tribe never practiced piercing. Members of the Nez Perce tribe prefer to refer to themselves as the Nimi’ipuu or “real people.”

Lewis and Clark were the first Caucasians to encounter the Nez Perce tribe when they entrusted the tribes people with some of the party’s horses while the explorers continued west by boat. Prior to this initial contact, the Nez Perce tribe lived on approximately 17 million acres (69,000 square km) in what are today the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. The tribe migrated throughout the year in search of food and bison to hunt. It is estimated that there were more than 6,000 Nez Perce in the early 19th century but disease and armed conflict with the U.S. government lowered the population to around 1,800 by the 20th century.

By the middle of the 19th century, a large population of settlers had arrived and desired Nez Perce land. In 1863, the tribe was offered a hospital, money and a school in exchange for relocating to a small reservation in Idaho. The threat of relocation divided the Nez Perce tribe into two factions, a band that approved the treaty and a band lead by Chief Joseph that opposed it. After a long resistance campaign toward sanctuary in Canada, Chief Joseph surrendered to the U.S. military in 1877. His remaining followers were first interred in a prison camp for several months and then taken to a large reservation in Oklahoma known as Indian Territory before finally being moved to the current Nez Perce reservation in Idaho.

The Nez Perce tribe has a proud tradition of horsemanship and horse breeding that was broken during the turmoil of the 19th century. The tradition was revived in 1994 and 1995 with the establishment of a Nez Perce breeding program by the tribe and the First Nations Development Institute, a non-profit group. The tribe crossbred an Asian horse breed known as the Akhal-Teke with the Appaloosa to create the Nez Perce Horse, a white and brown spotted horse that is prized for its endurance and jumping ability.

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