The Nez Perce are Native American people who live in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. An anthropological theory says they descended from the Old Cordilleran Culture, which moved south from the Rocky Mountains and west in Nez Perce lands. The Nez Perce nation currently governs and inhabits a reservation in Idaho. The Nez Perce’s name for themselves is Nimíipuu, meaning, “The People.”
Nez Percé is an exonym given by French Canadian fur traders who visited the area regularly in the late 18th century, meaning literally ‘pierced nose’. The most common self-designation used today by the Nez Perce is Niimíipu. “Nez Perce” is also used by the tribe itself, the United States Government, and contemporary historians. Older historical ethnological works use the French spelling “Nez Percé,” with the diacritic.
Nez Perce is a misnomer given by the interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the time they first encountered the Nez Perce in 1805. It is from the French, “pierced nose.” This is an inaccurate description of the tribe. They did not practice nose piercing or wearing ornaments. The actual “pierced nose” tribe lived on and around the lower Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and are commonly called the Chinook tribe by historians and anthropologists. The Chinook relied heavily upon salmon as did the Nez Perce and shared fishing and trading sites but were much more hierarchical in their social arrangements.
In 1800, there were more than 70 permanent villages ranging from 30 to 200 individuals, depending on the season and social grouping. About 300 total sites have been identified, including both camps and villages. In 1805 the Nez Perce were the largest tribes on the Columbia River Plateau, with a population of about 6,000. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Nez Perce had declined to about 1,800 because of epidemics, conflicts with non-Indians, and other factors.
The Nez Perce, as many western Native American tribes, were migratory and would travel with the seasons, according to where the most abundant food was to be found at a given time of year. This migration followed a predictable pattern from permanent winter villages through several temporary camps, nearly always returning to the same locations year after year. They were known to go as far east as the Great Plains of Montana to hunt buffalo, and as far west as Celilo Falls to fish for salmon on the Columbia River. They relied heavily on quamash or camas gathered in the region between the Salmon and Clearwater River drainages as a food source.
The Nez Perce believed in spirits called wyakins (Wie-a-kins) which would, they thought, offer a link to the invisible world of spiritual power. The wyakin would protect one from harm and become a personal guardian spirit. To receive a wyakin, a young girl or boy around the age of 12 to 15 would go to the mountains on a vision quest. The person on quest would carry no weapons, eat no food, and drink very little water. There, he or she would receive a vision of a spirit that would take the form of a mammal or bird. This vision could appear physically or in a dream or trance. The wyakin was to bestow the animal’s powers on its bearer – for example; a deer might give its bearer swiftness. A person’s wyakin was very personal. It was rarely shared with anyone and was contemplated in private. The wyakin stayed with the person until death.
The Nez Perce National Historical Park includes a research center which has the park’s historical archives and library collection. It is available for on-site use in the study and interpretation of Nez Perce history and culture.