The Nimi’ipuu or Nez Perce, were a Sahaptian-speaking people whose homeland included a vast area in southeastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, and parts of western Montana and Wyoming. They are a perfect case study of how Native people thought about and negotiated the extraordinary challenges they confronted during the latter half of the 19th century.
Masters of the Art of Negotiation
Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Nimi’ipuu mastered the art of negotiating changes brought by non-Native newcomers. After the introduction of horses onto the Plains, for instance, the Nimi’ipuu mastered not only horse riding but also horse breeding, becoming famous for the distinctive Appaloosa or Nez Perce horse. The Nimi’ipuu also deftly handled the arrival of Lewis and Clark and their so-called Corps of Discovery in 1804 and 1805.
Led by Twisted Hair, the Nimi’ipuu offered refuge and assistance to newcomers in return for access to valuable trade goods—especially guns the Nimi’ipuu needed to defend themselves from their rivals.
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The Westward Expansion
By the 1850s and 1860s, the situation had changed dramatically. Now, the federal government’s constant pressure to cede land to make way for westward expansion divided the Nimi’ipuu, like the Modoc, into treaty and non-treaty bands.
In late May and early June 1855, the Nimi’ipuu negotiated the Nez Perce Treaty with Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens at the Walla Walla Treaty Council.
The Nimi’ipuu relinquished their claim to some 5.5 million acres of land while retaining another 7.5 million acres and reserving for themselves the right to hunt, fish, and gather in the ceded areas—also known as usual and accustomed places.
In return, the Nimi’ipuu received compensation in the form of cash payments, provisions, schools, and instruction in farming and various trades.
Learn more about the Lenape people.
But the victory was short-lived. In 1863, a few years after the discovery of gold brought a tidal wave of miners, ranchers, and farmers into Nimi’ipuu land, the federal government returned with still more demands. Some Nimi’ipuu, such as a man whose diplomatic skills earned him the nickname, Lawyer, signed the treaty—which required the Nimi’ipuu to relocate to a smaller reservation in the Clearwater Valley in Idaho.
Lawyer was the son of Twisted Hair and had come to see the white man’s road as the best path for the Nimi’ipuu to follow. The majority of Nimi’ipuu, however, neither signed nor acknowledged the legitimacy of the 1863 treaty. They wanted to stay in the Wallowa Valley where they could retain their way of life on the land that had been created for them.
In 1871, the leader of the Nimi’ipuu in the Wallowa Valley, Joseph—or Old Joseph—passed away. And his son, who also carried the name Joseph, honored his father’s last request that they remain in their homeland.
Nonetheless, push gradually came to shove as more white settlers flooded into the area. And in May 1877, the Army informed the younger Chief Joseph that his people’s time in the Wallowa Valley had run out. The Nimi’ipuu would have to resettle on the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho or be deemed hostiles.
Fleeing to Canada
During their exodus to the Lapwai Reservation, the Nimi’ipuu skirmished with settlers. Joseph responded by leading his people to the south and east and into White Bird Canyon to give them time to decide how best to move forward. To his dismay, a parley with a force of pursuing U.S. troops in mid-June went horribly awry, and fighting erupted.
At this point, the Nimi’ipuu concluded that the only way to survive as a people would be to take flight and seek refuge in Canada. With perhaps 300 warriors and another 500 women and children, the Nimi’ipuu traversed the difficult mountainous terrain along the Snake and Clearwater rivers in present-day Idaho. In late July, they made it through Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains and into western Montana.
By August 1877, a second detachment of American troops from Fort Missoula, Montana caught up with the Nimi’ipuu near the Big Hole River. Under the command of Colonel John Gibbon, the soldiers inflicted high casualties on the Nimi’ipuu, taking the lives of some 90 men, women, and children. The rest escaped.
First, they headed in a southeasterly direction, moving through the recently created Yellowstone Park in northwestern Wyoming, before veering northward toward Canada.
In the Bear Paw Mountains, approximately 40 miles from the border and freedom—the Nimi’ipuu were once again surprised by a detachment of U.S. soldiers. This time, Lakota and Cheyenne scouts led Colonel Nelson Miles and several hundred men from southern Montana into the Bear Paw Mountains.
On September 30, they attacked the haggard Nimi’ipuu encampment, driving away their horses, and forcing them to dig in for a final battle. Despite being surprised and outnumbered, the Nimi’ipuu fought hard. But they couldn’t hold on.
In the wake of this battle, Joseph gave an oration that has become one of the most famous in all of American Indian history: “I am tired of fighting…” Joseph told Colonel Nelson Miles, as he handed him his rifle. “It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death …”
Taking note of what had become of their 1,700-mile flight to freedom, interrupted by bloodshed, physical hardship, and great personal sadness, Joseph said: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Before laying down arms, Joseph and other leaders secured from Colonel Miles the assurance that the Nimi’ipuu would be able to return to their homeland.
But instead, they were forced, like the Modoc, into exile—first to Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, and then to the same desolate northeast corner of the Indian Territory. The 418 Nimi’ipuu who arrived by train at Fort Leavenworth suffered in the winter camps. “All the newborn babies died,” recalled Yellow Wolf, “and many of the old people too.” The situation in northeastern Oklahoma proved equally harsh.
Learn more about the Natives of Werowocomoco in the Northeast.
Joseph and the Insurmountable Odds
In 1884, after many years of campaigning, Joseph, and his band secured a transfer. But it wasn’t to their home in the Wallowa Valley. Approximately half went to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. Joseph and the rest went to the Colville Reservation in Washington Territory. Although he continued to advocate for his people’s right to live in their ancestral land, Joseph died and was buried at Colville in 1904.
Thus, like the Modoc, the Nimi’ipuu adopted multiple strategies to deal with the challenges presented by westward expansion. They did so to preserve a way of life on land they knew had been created for them. But they also did so facing what seemed to be increasingly insurmountable odds.
Common Questions about the Nimi’ipuu: Surviving against All Odds
He signed a treaty which required the Nimi’ipuu to relocate to a smaller reservation in the Clearwater Valley in Idaho.
The Nimi’ipuu relinquished their claim to some 5.5 million acres of land.
After the transfer, Joseph and the rest went to the Colville Reservation in Washington Territory.