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A prominent tribe formerly holding a considerable territory in Western Idaho and adjacent portions of Oregon and Washington, including the lower Snake River, with its tributaries the Salmon, Clearwater, and Grande Ronde, from about 45° down nearly to the entrance of the Palouse, and from the Blue Mountains of Oregon on the west to the main divide of the Bitter-root Mountains on the east.
They are of the Shahaptian linguistic stock, to which belong also the Palouse, Umatilla, Tenino (Warmsprings), Yakima and others farther to the west, with whom they maintained close friendly relations, while frequently at variance with the Salishan tribes on their northern border — the Flatheads, Coeur d'Alene and Spokan — and in chronic warfare with the Blackfeet, Crows, and Shoshoni on the east and south.
They call themselves Numipu, meaning simply "people". The name Sahaptin or Saptin comes through the Salishan tribes. By Lewis and Clark (1805) they were called Chopunnish, possibly another form of Saptin. Their popular and official name of Nez Percés, "Pierced Noses", originally bestowed by the French trappers, refers to a former custom of wearing a dentalium shell through a hole bored in the septum of the nose. When first known (1805) they numbered, according to the most reliable estimates, probably over 6000, but have greatly decreased since the advent of the whites, and are still steadily on the decline. Contributing causes are incessant wars with the more powerful Blackfeet in earlier years; a wasting fever, and measles epidemic (1847) from contact with immigrants; smallpox and other diseases following the occupation of the country by miners after 1860; losses in the war of 1877 and subsequent removals; and wholesale spread of consumption due to their changed condition of living under civilization. In 1848 they were officially estimated at 3000; in 1862 they were reported at 2800; in 1893 the census showed 2035; in 1910 they were officially reported at 1530, including all mixed bloods, all upon the Fort Lapwai (allotted) reservation in northern Idaho, excepting the remnant of Joseph's band, numbering then only 97, upon Colville reservation in north-eastern Washington. Of their numerous former bands, this one, formerly centring in Wallowa (or Willewah) valley, Oregon, was perhaps the most important, numbering originally about 500.
In their primitive condition the Nez Percés, although semi-sedentary, were without agriculture, depending on hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild roots and berries. Their permanent houses were communal structures, sometimes circular, but more often oblong, about twenty feet in width and sixty to ninety feet in length, with framework of poles covered by rush mats, with floor sunk below the ground level, and earth banked up around the sides, and with an open space along the centre of the roof, for the escape of smoke. On the inside were ranged fires along the centre at a distance of ten or twelve feet apart, each fire serving two families on opposite sides of the house, the family sections being sometimes separated by mat curtains. One house might thus shelter more than one hundred persons. Lewis and Clark mention one large enough to accommodate nearly fifty families. On temporary expeditions they used the ordinary buffalo-skin tipi or brush shelter.
They had also sweat-houses and menstrual lodges. The permanent sweat-house was a shallow subterranean excavation, roofed with poles and earth and bedded with grass, in which the young and unmarried men slept during the winter season, and occasionally sweated themselves by means of steam produced by pouring water upon hot stones placed in the centre. The temporary sweat-house used by both sexes was a framework of willow rods, covered with blankets, with the heated stones placed inside. The menstrual lodge, for the seclusion of women during the menstrual period and for a short period before and after childbirth, was a subterranean structure, considerably larger than the sweat-house, and entered by means of a ladder from above. The occupants thus secluded cooked their meals alone and were not allowed even to touch any articles used by outsiders. Furniture consisted chiefly of bed platforms, baskets and bags woven of rushes or grass, wooden mortars for pounding roots and spoons of horn. The woman had also her digging stick for gathering roots; the man his bow, lance, shield, and fishing equipment.
The Nez Percé bow of mountain-sheep horn backed with sinew was the finest in the West. The ordinary dress was of skins, with the addition of a fez-shaped basket hat for the woman and a protective skin helmet for the warrior. Aside from fish and game, chiefly salmon and deer, their principal foods were the roots of the camas ( Camassia esculenta ) and kouse ( Lomatium kous , etc.), the first being roasted in pits by a peculiar process, while the other was ground in mortars and molded into cakes for future use. The gathering and preparing devolved upon the women.
Marriage occurred at about the age of fourteen and was accompanied by feasting and giving of presents. Polygamy was general, but kinship prohibition was enforced even to the third degree. Inheritance was in the male line. "The standard of morality, both before and after marriage seems to have been conspicuously high" (Spinden). Interment was in the ground, the personal belongings of the deceased being deposited with the body, and the house torn down or removed to another spot. The new house was ceremonially purified and the ghost exorcised, and the mourning period was terminated with a funeral feast. Sickness and death, especially of children, were frequently ascribed to the work of ghosts.
The religion was animistic, with a marked absence of elaborate myth or ritual. The principal religious event in the life of the boy or girl was the dream vigil, when, after the solitary fasting for several days, the fevered child had a vision of the spirit animal which was to be his or her tutelary through life. Dreams were the great source of spiritual instruction. The principal ceremonial was the dance to the tutelary spirit, next to which in importance was the scalp dance. The clan system was unknown. Chiefs were elective rather than hereditary, governing by assistance of the council, and there was no supreme tribal chief. They were considerably under the influence of the so-called "Dreamer religion" of the upper Columbia tribes, but had no part in the later "ghost dance".
Previous to the visit of the American explorers, Lewis and Clark (1805), the Nez Percés had had no direct acquaintance with white men, although aware of their presence beyond the mountains and on the Pacific coast. They already had horses from the South. A few years later trading posts were established in the upper Columbia region, and from the Catholic Canadian and Iroquois employees of the Hudson's Bay Company traders, they first learned of Christianity and as early as 1820 both they and the Flatheads had voluntarily adopted many of the Catholic forms. Of the Nez Percés it has been said: "They seemed to realize the paucity of their religious traditions and from the first eagerly seconded the efforts of the missionaries to instruct them in the Christian faith."
As a result of urgent appeals from the Flathead Indians for missionaries, a Presbyterian mission was established (1837) among the Nez Percés at Lapwai, near the present Lewistown, Idaho, under Reverend H.H. Spaulding, who, two years later, set up a printing press from which he issued several small publications in the native language. Regular Catholic work in the same region began with the advent of Fathers Blanchet and Demers on the Columbia (1838) and of De Smet and the Jesuits in the Flathead country (1840). The establishment of the Oregon trail through the country of the Nez Percés and allied tribes led (1849) to the introduction of an epidemic disease, by which they were terribly wasted, particularly the Cayuse, who, holding responsible Dr. Whitman, in charge of the Presbyterian mission in their tribe, attacked and destroyed the mission, murdering Whitman and his wife and eleven others. The Catholic Bishop Brouillet, who was on his way at the time to confer with Whitman for the purchase of the mission property, was not molested, but was allowed to bury the dead and then found opportunity to warn Spaulding in time for him to reach safety. In consequence of these troubles all the Presbyterian missions in the Columbia region were discontinued but the work was resumed in later years and a considerable portion of the Nez Percés are now of that denomination.
In 1855 they sold by treaty a large part of their territory. In the general outbreak of 1855-6, sometimes designated as the Yakima war, the Nez Percés, almost alone, remained friendly. In the year 1863, in consequence of the discovery of gold, another treaty was negotiated by which they surrendered all but the Lapwai reservation. Joseph, whose band held the Wallowa valley in North-Eastern Oregon, refused to be a party to the treaty, and his refusal led to the memorable Nez Percés war (1877). After successfully holding in check for some months the regular troops under General Howard and a large force of Indian scouts, Joseph conducted a masterly retreat for over a thousand miles across the mountains, but was finally intercepted by General Miles when within a short distance of the Canadian frontier. Despite the promise that he should be returned to his own country, Joseph and the remnant of his band were deported to Oklahoma, where they wasted away so rapidly that in 1885 the few who survived were transferred, not to Lapwai, but to the Colville reservation in Washington. Throughout the entire retreat no outrage was committed by Joseph's warriors. The main portion of the tribe took no part in the war. In 1893 those of Lapwai were given individual allotments and the reservation was thrown open to white settlement. The Catholic work in the tribe is in charge of the Jesuits, aided by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, and centring at St. Joseph's mission, Slickpoo, Idaho. For fifty years it was conducted by Fr. Joseph Cataldo, S.J., who gave attention also to the neighbouring cognate tribes.
The Catholic Indians are reported at over 500, edifying and faithful in their religious duties, in spite of the general tribal aversion to education and civilization. The materiel condition of the tribe, however, is not promising. While maintaining their old reputation for honesty and generosity, they are non-progressive and are rapidly withering away under consumption, which threatens their speedy extinction. Aside from the Spaulding publications already noted the most valuable contributions to the study of the Nez Percé language are a grammar by Father Cataldo and a dictionary by Father Van Gorp. The most important study of a cognate language is probably the "Grammar and Dictionary of the Yakama Language" by the Oblate Father Pandosy (see Y AKIMA ).
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