The Nez Perce

Ni-míi-puu (“The People”)

A resourceful, dynamic people steeped in legend and oral tradition, the Nez Perce have influenced the Pacific Northwest for generations with their legacy of culture and perseverance. At the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Nez Perce homelands extended over 14 million acres and they ranged from the buffalo plains to the fishing waters at Celilo Falls. Tribal heritage traces the introduction of horses among the Nez Perce to as early as the 1700’s when their way of life was rapidly transformed with travel and trade. The rich grasslands of their prairies combined with a keen sense of selective horse breeding led the Nez Perce to become leaders in trade and horsemanship among the native people of the upper Columbia plateau tribes. Later, as trappers and traders arrived, the newcomers to the region were dependent on the Nez Perce for horses, too.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century American and European trappers and explorers were greeted warmly by the Nez Perce people, treating them with friendship and honesty. The Nez Perce traded horses and furs for glass beads and guns – heightening their art forms and broadening their adept hunting skills. They welcomed Lewis and Clark and helped their men build sturdy canoes for their journey to the Pacific. Chief Timothy at Alpowai and other Nez Perce at Lapwai welcomed Christian missionaries and built churches and schools for their children, while they retained many of their tribal religious practices, too.

The Nez Perce were among the first to sign the United States Treaty of 1855, acknowledging the preponderance of American settlers and forfeiting thousands of acres of their homeland that they might live in peace with their new American neighbors.

They endured the invasion of treaty lands by gold seekers and settlers. In the Treaty of 1863 the Nez Perce lost another six million acres. Lands were signed away by chiefs designated by the United States Government who held no jurisdiction over distant villages of their tribe, such as the Wallowa Valley. With strong-fisted influence from Government officials, Chief Timothy was among the selected chiefs who signed the treaty, giving away even his own village Alpowai. He was allowed to live there until his death in 1890. Arguments and unhappiness soon turned into raids resulting in the Nez Perce War of 1877. Ultimately overcome by starvation and fatigue, Chief Joseph’s staunch band surrendered at Bear Paw Mountain, Montana, as winter began to descend. Sadly, they were only forty miles from the Canadian border where freedom beckoned to them.

The Nez Perce present an image of people who have lived in harmony with the land and their culture for thousands of years. They have endured hardship, growth and the consequences of western development across their lands, and among their people the cultural impact has been strong. Horsemanship and trade carried the Nez Perce hundreds of miles from their homelands, strengthening their bonds of kinship and culture throughout the Pacific Northwest. Today they remain a strong nation with a vivid cultural heritage and a strong identification with their homeland and its sustainability through time. The proud heritage of the Nez Perce continues to be practiced and preserved through arts and handiworks, music and dance, and by sharing the stories of their nation’s birth and growth through generations of people. Legend and traditions continue to help guide and teach contemporary life.


Corps of Discovery

As Lewis and Clark’s expedition trudged down the snow clad Lolo Trail, the Corps emerged on the beautiful meadows of the Clearwater River in late September 1805. Food had been scarce for the explorers over the last few days and they hoped that like the Shoshone weeks earlier, these Indians would also accept their gestures of friendship and assist them on their journey. The Nez Perce were skeptical at first and for all but one it was their first encounter with white people. The warriors agreed they should be killed but one very old woman, Watkuweis, had been captured years before and lived in Canada among white people. She assured the men of her tribe that they could be trusted and should be spared.

The Corps gorged themselves on dried salmon and camas bread, causing most to suffer indigestion. They rested several days until their health returned and the Nez Perce helped the Corps to hollow out five pine logs for canoes. The Nez Perce soon realized that friendship with these newcomers was the opportunity for trade: horses and food for much-needed guns for protection against their enemies and to improve their hunting prowess on the Plains.

Among the children who hid and stared at the Corps of Discovery was the young boy Ta-Moots-Tsoo. He wondered at the strange object William Clark held and later learned that it was likely a prayer book. Ta-Moots-Tsoo was the first to be christened by missionary Henry Spalding in the late 1830’s. He bore his Christian name Chief Timothy for the remainder of his life.

The Introduction of Settlers

The Corps of Discovery’s explorations signaled expansion opportunities, for much of the world was eagerly seeking new growth in faraway lands. At the urging of several chiefs, including Chief Timothy, the Nez Perce tribe sent representatives to St. Louis in search of religious pastors who might guide them to new beliefs. Many tolerant Nez Perce believed it was wise to explore and learn powerful new ideas but most did not expect to forfeit their traditional ways and spiritual beliefs. It was several years before the Protestant American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions responded to the Nez Perce request, but when they did in 1836, Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and Henry and Eliza Spaulding were accompanied by William Gray to build missions in the Northwest. They travelled first to the prosperous and British–settled Fort Vancouver on the Columbia where earlier Methodist and Catholic missionaries sought the guidance of Dr. John McLoughlin and his company officers. He advised them and lent assistance to settle at Walla Walla to minister among the Cayuse and at Lapwai among the Nez Perce.

The Spauldings settled at Lapwai, building a mission, a church and a school. They introduced new plants and fruits with seeds and irrigation. Orchards flourished at the mission and at Alpowai, Chief Timothy’s home. Missionaries began to believe, too, that the West was a bountiful home that may be shared with other Americans – farms, railroads, and new towns. By the mid-1840’s the concept of “Manifest Destiny” gripped the American nation. People from the East and Midwest were forming wagon trains and heading West. There was good and bad among the newcomers and often they unknowingly carried diseases that devastated the tribes. The medicines of traditional ways and even those of non-tribal peoples could not build resistance to small pox, malaria, measles or other harmful epidemics that threatened the tribes. Children died and suffering was widespread. Indians sought help and then, retaliation when help was not found. Violence erupted, as it had elsewhere throughout the West. President James K. Polk sent the Army to quell disputes and to claim British and Indian-held lands to the 49th Parallel.

Army Intervention

The U.S. Army arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1849 and immediately began to build posts throughout the region. Congress decided that Native Americans were entitled only to lands the Government designated. It was the obligation of the Army to defend American settlers and to protect the Indians residing on reservations set aside for them. Many settlers complicated the duties of the Army in the West by choosing Indian lands over “open” lands and killing Indians lawlessly. Many early communities had no organized laws, courts or officials to uphold the law. General John E. Wool, Commander of the Department of the Pacific, including all of the Pacific Northwest, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, the Southwest and California assessed the situation in his letter to Governor Isaac Stevens at Olympia, February 12, 1856:

…Whilst I was in Oregon, it was reported to me, that many citizens, with due proportion of volunteers, and two newspapers, advocated the extermination of the Indians- This principle has been acted on in several instances without discriminating between enemies and friends, which has been the cause, in Southern Oregon, of sacrificing many innocent and worthy citizens, as in the case of Maj. Lupton and his party (volunteers) who killed 25 Indians, eighteen of whom were women and children. These were friendly Indians on their way to their reservation, where they expected protection from the whites. This barbarous act is the cause of the present war in the Rogue River country, and as Capt. Judah, U.S.A. reports, is retaliatory of the conduct of Maj. Lupton.


By the same mail which brought me your communication, I received one, now before me, from a person whom I think incapable of misrepresentation, which informs me that the friendly Cayuses are every day menaced with death by Gov. Curry’s volunteers. The writer says that they have despoiled these Indians- who have so nobly followed the advice of Mr. Palmer, to remain faithful friends to the Americans- of their provisions. Today, he says, these same volunteers, without discipline and without orders, are not satisfied with rapine and injustice, and wish to take away the small remnant of animals and provisions left. Every day they run off the horses and cattle of the friendly Indians. They have become indignant, and will not be much longer restrained from resisting conduct unworthy of the whites, who have made them so many promises to respect and protect them if they remain faithful friends. The writer further says, if the volunteers are not arrested in their brigand activities, the Indians will save themselves by flying to the homes of their relatives, the Nez Perces, who have promised them help, and then all Indians of Oregon and Washington will join in the common defense, This information is, in great measure, confirmed by a person who, I am assured enjoys your respect and confidence.


I need not say, although I had previously instructed Col. Wright to take the Walla Walla country at the earliest moment practicable, that I directed him to give protection to the Cayuses from the depredations of the volunteers. It is such conduct as here complained of, that irritated and greatly increases the ranks of the hostile tribes, and if the Nez Perces join in war against us, which I hope to prevent, we shall require a much larger force than we now have in Washington and Oregon Territories to resist savage barbarities and to protect the whites.


I am, sir, very respectfully your obedient servant,

John E. Wool

Major General

Chief Timothy Park

At the gateway to Hells Canyon, one of the nation’s most scenic regions, the marks of mankind with dam construction, gold mining and settlements have altered nature’s course. An intermingling of tribal and non-tribal cultures, cross-ethnicity, and various government agencies has generated new traditions, songs and art forms. Chief Timothy Park speaks to the heritage of this place and to its present and future continuity–through the permanence of basalt rock and the people who gather there still.

Located on property owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for a number of years Chief Timothy Park was leased and managed by Washington State Parks but with the dip in the economy, management was turned over to a private agency. Located near Alpowai, Chief Timothy’s historic farm, the construction of Lower Granite Dam in 1975 submerged land once belonging to the Nez Perce tribe. Chief Timothy Park is near the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers. Visitors still see the unique geologic features and many species of wildlife. Boating, camping and hiking are popular forms of recreation at the park.

Chief Timothy Park was blessed by the Nez Perce Tribe in 2007 and dedicated in 2011. Artist Maya Lin worked with tribal elders on the creation of a basalt amphitheater “listening circle” situated near the sound of waves where the new day may be greeted. The scenic location is likely the most similar to the views witnessed by Lewis and Clark in 1805 of the six Confluence projects located in the Northwest.

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