Member of an American Indian people who inhabited the plateau between the Rocky Mountain and Coastal ranges (Idaho, Washington, and Oregon) until the mid-19th century. Their language belongs to the Penutian family. They were mistakenly named for another people, as nose-piercing was never a custom among them. Formerly sedentary and dependant on salmon-fishing, they adopted the nomadic buffalo-hunting lifestyle of the Plains Indians after acquiring horses in the 1730s. They were unique in selectively breeding horses, developing the Appaloosa into one of the largest herds in North America. The Nez Percé now live in Idaho and Washington and number about 1,500 (1990). Business concerns include logging, fishing, and commerce.
The Nez Percé originally lived in communal A-framed lodges, which often accommodated up to 30 families, in small independent villages located beside rivers and streams. They fished for salmon, which they dried for later consumption, and supplemented their diet by hunting game and gathering wild plants, including the camas plant which they used to make a form of bread. Dreams and their interpretation played an important part in their religion. In the 1730s the Nez Percé acquired horses and they adopted a way of life based on hunting the buffalo. Like other Plains Indians they lived in tepees, were warlike, and gained status by performing deeds of courage during warfare.
French explorers gave the Nez Percé their European name, but they mistook them for a people living further south who had been seen wearing nose ornaments. The Nez Percé never adopted this custom, and called themselves the Miwipu, meaning ‘the real people’.
The first recorded contact with the Nez Percé was by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. In the 1830s missionaries began to enter the area and convert the Nez Percé to Christianity. White settlers began moving into their area in the late 1840s and in 1852 the Union Pacific Railway was surveyed through their territory. In 1855 the Nez Percé signed a treaty with the USA which provided the Lapwai Reservation for them in central Idaho, encompassing most of their traditional land.
In 1860, however, gold was discovered on the Salmon and Clearwater rivers, and the influx of thousands of miners and settlers resulted in 1863 in a renegotiation of the treaty, which reduced the size of their land to one-quarter its original size. Many Nez Percé refused to acknowledge the treaties or to settle on the reservation; in particular, members of the Lower Nez Percé claimed that the Upper Nez Percé had no right to sign away their distinct lands in the Wallowa Valley, Oregon. However, the US government saw no distinction between the two groups and increasing conflicts with the growing number of white settlers eventually escalated into the Nez Percé War in 1877. For five months Chief Joseph and a small band of followers eluded a force of 5,000 US troops who tracked them for over 1,600 km/1,000 mi through Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone Park. Chief Joseph and his band hoped to cross the Canadian border but were eventually surrounded by US troops and forced to surrender on 5 October 1877. They were assigned to a reservation in Oklahoma where many died. In 1885 the few survivors were returned to Lapwai, but Chief Joseph was sent to the Colville Reservation, Washington.
Chiefs on the Idaho reservation were appointed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent who also forced them to wear Western-style clothing. Presbyterian ministers suppressed all forms of traditional life. Between 1890 and 1895 one third of the reservation land was allotted to individuals with the remaining two-thirds sold to white settlers. By 1923 half of their remaining land had been sold and most Nez Percé took up wage labour. By the 1960s most had completely lost their traditional culture, although a revival has occurred since.