The Nez Perce
Essay by Deward E. Walker, Jr. and Peter N. Jones
Coyote and Monster:
From there he traveled on. Along the way he took a good bath, saying to himself, "Lest I make myself repulsive to his taste," and then he dressed himself all up: "Lest he will vomit me up or spit me out." Then he tied himself with [very long ropes] to three mountains. From there he came along up and over ridges. Suddenly, behold, he saw a great head. He quickly hid himself in the grass and gazed at it. Never before in his life had he seen anything like it; never such a large thing -- away off somewhere melting into the horizon was its gigantic body.
Coyote shouted to him, "Oh Monster, we are going to inhale each other!" The big eyes of the monster roved, looking all over for Coyote but did not find him because Coyote's body was painted with clay to achieve a perfect protective coloring in the grass. Coyote had on his back a pack consisting of five stone knives, some pure pitch, and a flint fire-making set. Presently Coyote shook the grass to and fro and shouted again, "Monster! We are going to inhale each other." Suddenly the monster saw the swaying grass and replied, "Oh you Coyote, you swallow me first then; you inhale first." So Coyote tried. Powerfully and noisily he drew in his breath, but the great monster just swayed and quivered. Then Coyote said, "Now you inhale me, for you have already swallowed all the people, so swallow me too lest I become lonely."
The monster inhaled like a mighty wind, which carried Coyote along just like that; but as Coyote went he left in his wake great camas roots and great serviceberries, saying, "Here the people will find them and will be glad, for only a short time away is the coming of the human race." He almost got caught on one of the ropes, but he quickly cut it with his knife.
Thus he dashed right into the monster's mouth. From there he walked down the throat of the monster. Along the way he saw bones scattered about and he thought to himself, "It is to be seen that many people have been dying." As he went along he saw some boys and he said to them, "Where is his heart? Come along and show me!" Then, as they were all going along, the bear rushed out furiously at him. "So!" Coyote said to him, "You make yourself ferocious only to me," and he kicked the bear on the nose. As they continued, the rattlesnake bristled at him in fury, "So! Only toward me you are vicious - we are nothing but dung." Then he kicked the rattlesnake on the head and flattened it. Going on he met the brown bear who greeted him, "I see he [the monster] selected you for the last. So! I'd like to see you save your people [derogatory diatribe]."
All along the people hailed Coyote and stopped him. He told the boys, "Pick up some wood." His erstwhile friend Fox hailed him from the side, "Such a dangerous fellow [the monster], what are you going to do to him?" "So!" replied Coyote. "You too hurry along and look for wood."
Presently Coyote arrived at the heart and he cut off slabs of fat and threw them to the people. "Imagine you being hungry under such conditions! Grease your mouths with this." And Coyote started a fire with his flint and shortly smoke appeared from the monster's nose, ears, eyes, and anus. The monster then said, "Oh you, Coyote, that's why I was afraid of you. Oh you, Coyote, let me cast you out." And Coyote replied, "Yes, and later let it be said, 'He who was cast out is officiating in the distribution of salmon.'" "Well then, go out through the nose." Coyote replied, "And will not they say the same?" And the monster said, "Well then, go out through the ears," to which Coyote replied, "'And let it be said, 'Here is ear-wax officiating in the distribution of food.'" "Hn, hn, hn! Oh you, Coyote! This is why I feared you; then go out through the anus." And Coyote replied, "And let people say, 'Feces are officiating in the distribution of food.'" His fire was still burning near the heart and the monster began to writhe in pain. Coyote began cutting away on the heart, and very shortly he broke the stone knife. Immediately he took another and in a short time this one also broke and Coyote said to all the people, "Gather up all the bones and carry them to the eyes, ears, mouth, and anus; pile them up and when he falls dead kick all the bones outside." Then with another knife he began cutting away at the heart. The third knife he broke and the fourth, leaving only one. He told the people, "All right, get yourselves ready because as soon as he falls dead each one will go out of the opening most convenient. Take the old women and old men close to the openings so that they may get out easily."
The heart hung by only a very small piece of muscle and Coyote was cutting away on it with his last stone knife. The monster's heart was still barely hanging when Coyote's last knife broke; Coyote threw himself on the heart and hung on, just barely tearing it loose with his hands. In his death convulsions the monster opened all the openings of his body and the people kicked the bones outside and went out. Coyote, too, went out. The monster fell dead and the anus began to close. But the muskrat was still inside. Just as the anus closed he squeezed out, barely getting his body through. But alas! his tail was caught; he pulled and it was bare when he pulled it out; all the tail hair had been peeled right off. Coyote scolded him, "Now what were you doing; you had to think up something to do at the last moment. You're always behind in everything."
Then he told the people, "Gather up all the bones and arrange them well." They did this, whereupon Coyote added, "Now we are going to carve the monster." Coyote then smeared blood on his hands, sprinkled this blood on the bones, and suddenly there came to life again all those who had died while inside the monster. They carved the great monster and Coyote began dealing out portions of the body to various parts of the country all over the land: toward the sunrise, toward the sunset, toward the warmth, toward the cold, and by that act destining and forenaming the various peoples - Coeur d'Alene, Cayuse, Pend Oreilles, Flathead, Blackfeet, Crow, Sioux, and all the others. He consumed the entire body of the monster in this distribution to various lands far and wide. Nothing more remained of the great monster.
Fox came up and said to Coyote, "What is the meaning of this, Coyote? You have distributed all of the body to faraway lands but have given yourself nothing for this immediate locality." Well," snorted Coyote, "and did you tell me that before? Why didn't you tell me that a while ago before it was too late? I was engrossed to the exclusion of thinking. You should have told me that in the first place." And he turned to the people and said, "Bring me some water with which to wash my hands." They brought him water and he washed his hands and now with the bloody washwater he sprinkled the local regions saying, "You may be little people but you will be powerful. Even though you will be little people because I have deprived you, nevertheless you will be very, very, manly. Only a short time away is the coming of the human race."
The Nez Perce, who consider themselves Iceye¢ yenm mama¢ yac, children of Coyote, came to occupy approximately 13 million acres located in what is now north-central Idaho, southeastern Washington, and northeastern Oregon. Nez Perce territory centered on the middle Snake and Clearwater rivers and the northern portion of the Salmon River basin in central Idaho. Nez Perce territory was marked by a diverse flora and fauna, as well as by temperature and precipitation patterns reflecting sharp variations in elevation. This area has many mountains, rivers, basins, and deep canyons that provided a wide variety of resources and protection from invaders.
In 1800 there were over 70 permanent villages ranging from 30 to 200 individuals, depending on the season and type of social grouping (Walker 1958-1964). About 300 total sites have been identified, including both camps and villages showing a wide number of permanent and semi-permanent habitation areas. In 1805 the Nez Perce were the largest tribal grouping on the Plateau, with a population of about 6,000. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century the Nez Perce had declined to about 1,800 due to epidemics, conflicts with non-Indians, and other factors. Recently the Nez Perce population has been on the rise, with 3,250 individuals in 1994.
The Nez Perce have been divided into Upper and Lower divisions, primarily on dialect grounds with the Upper Nez Perce being more oriented towards a Plains lifeway. The Nez Perce are also very closely related linguistically, culturally, and socially to the Sahaptin speakers of Oregon and Washington, including the Palouse, Walla Walla, Yakima, Umatilla, and Wayampam.
The Nez Perce seasonally migrated throughout their territory in order to take advantage of various resources. Food animals included salmon and other fish, mountain goats and sheep, bear, moose, elk, deer, small game, and birds. Aboriginal food plants included camas bulbs, bitterroot, bark, pine nuts, moss, sunflower seeds, wild carrots, wild onions, and several varieties of berries. Additional resources were acquired on expeditions to what is now southern Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, down the Columbia River, and even into the northern Great Plains for buffalo. Mobility was greatly enhanced after the adoption of the horse in the 1700's, and the Nez Perce became greatly renowned for their large herds and selective breeding practices.
In the early spring when the cache pits had been emptied of stored food, the Nez Perce began their communal food drives in the river valleys, with snowshoe hunting in deep snow and trips by canoe down the Snake and Columbia rivers to intercept the early salmon runs. Although hunting was fundamental and continuous, it was of lesser importance during the seasons of salmon runs when all able-bodied adults turned to fishing, where many thousands of pounds of salmon were customarily caught and processed. Hook and line, spears, harpoons, dip nets, traps, and weirs were all used in various ways for fishing. As spring progressed, salmon began arriving in Nez Perce territory, and the early root crops were gathered at lower elevations.
By midsummer the Nez Perce were leaving their villages in the river valleys and moving into the highlands where later-growing crops were harvested, highland streams were fished, and hunting became more important. Women dug roots with crutch-handled digging sticks. Sundried pottery was made, but coiled basketry was the major form of container. The fall salmon runs, fall hunting, and gathering of late root and berry crops provided winter food stores, along with brief and occasional bison hunting trips into Montana over the Lolo and other passes augmented winter supplies of meat. Some Nez Perce parties stayed in the Plains for several years at a time, and few winters passed that did not see some wintering with the Flathead in Montana. By November most travel had ceased and the Nez Perce were settled in their winter villages until the cycle began again in the spring (Walker 1973: 56).
During the long winter months Nez Perce elders recounted myths and stories which were inhabited by a cast of characters that included animals, plants, rocks, rivers, celestial bodies, and other figures who behaved like humans in a precultural era before humans were created. The Nez Perce believe that although the animals became mute after humans arrived, they could still reveal their full power to humans in visions and dreams. These characters share much in common with the tutelary spirits that Nez Perce individuals traditionally acquired during vision quests.
Shortly before, and for some time after adolescence, Nez Perce youths were sent out to seek visions from tutelary spirits. If successful, this major event in the maturation of both boys and girls meant that they would be successful adults in Nez Perce society. The root of an individual's capacity to thrive in any arena was the particular kind of supernatural power either inherited from ancestors or obtained during the vision quest. Shamans played a major role in assisting an individual in acquiring their power during the vision quest. The quest for supernatural power dominated much of aboriginal Nez Perce ritual activity, especially in the winter tutelary spirit dance (Walker 1998: 426). Shamans not only maintained the series of seasonal, religious ceremonies among aboriginal Nez Perce society, but they also had other duties including curing and healing illnesses, prophesizing the outcome of war parties and other serious ventures, dealing with weather control, and facilitating large hunting parties.
The principal aboriginal Nez Perce house was the mat-covered, double lean-to long-house found commonly among the Plateau groups. It could be quite large, measuring well over a hundred feet in length. The typical, hemispherical, Plateau sweat house also was found in Nez Perce settlements, as were the menstrul hut and submerged hot bath. The Nez Perce girl underwent an elaborate ceremony when she reached puberty that involved the menstrul hut. She was isolated in this hut for about a week during which time she had to keep busy, only being allowed to scratch herself with a stick. The Nez Perce boy also underwent a coming of age ceremony in which his first kill was eaten by a prominent warrior or hunter. This was to guarantee that the boy would be successful and a good provider.
The Nez Perces lived primarily in small villages along the many streams and rivers that cut through their aboriginal territory. These small villages primarily consisted of thirty to two hundred individuals, which were politically unified into bands that, in turn, were organized into composite bands. Villages were identified with the smaller feeder streams, bands with the larger tributaries, and composite bands with larger rivers. Aboriginal Nez Perce villages were usually made up of several related, extended families and led by a headman. Generally he was the eldest able man in the group and was often assisted by prominent younger men. The headman's duties were to demonstrate exemplary behavior, act as spokesman for the village, mediate intravillage disputes, and attend to the general welfare of village members. Women did not speak in most council proceedings but normally influenced their male relatives to achieve their goals.
Most older relatives took part in training children. A grandfather would usually direct a boy's first attempts at hunting, fishing, sweatbathing, and horse riding; a grandmother would usually direct a girl's first root digging or berry picking. Marriages were arranged by family heads, and childhood betrothals were common. Marriage between known relatives, even distant cousins, was forbidden. Sororal polygyny, or a man marrying two or more sisters, was not uncommon (Lundsgaarde 1967). When a young man expressed an interest in a particular girl, his family met and decided if she came from a socially acceptable family. If they seemed compatible and well-matched, a date was set for the marriage ceremony and exchange of gifts. The groom's relatives would give gifts first, and about six months later the bride's family would reciprocated.
Among the aboriginal Nez Perce age brought wealth and power. If a person thought he was about to die he normally made known among the village whom he wished to inherit his property and his tutelary spirits. He also might recommend that certain sons succeed him in the various offices he held. As soon as death occurred, it was announced by a herald or crier. The corpse was ritually bathed, combed, and decorated with red face paint and elaborate new clothes. The grave was dug by volunteers on a talus slope or high geological eminence overlooking the village, and was marked by a wooden stake.
The Nez Perce were the most influential group in intertribal affairs in the Plateau. Together with their close allies the Cayuse, they were the main Plateau opponents of the Blackfoot, who dominated the western Plains and raided into the Plateau. Typically Nez Perce and Cayuse warriors were in charge of the large, intertribal bison hunting and raiding parties that went to the Plains with more than 1,000 individuals at times. They were also closely allied with the Flathead during such ventures; the Nez Perce together with the Cayuse were the major defending force against occasional Northern Shoshone-Bannock raiding parties who ventured north out of the Great Basin from time to time. Indicative of their influence in the Plateau is the fact that Nez Perce was rapidly becoming the language of trade and diplomacy throughout the region when Euro-Americans arrived shortly after 1800 (Walker 1998: 425). At that time the Cayuse language was already being lost in favor of Nez Perce.
Long before the first Euro-American contact occurred with the Nez Perce, aspects of the Euro-American's culture had reached the Nez Perce. By the mid eighteenth century, the horse, reintroduced by the Spanish into the New World, had become an integral and important part of Nez Perce society. The horse eased travel during the Nez Perce seasonal rounds, as well as facilitating in their hunting of the buffalo herds in the east. In 1805 the Nez Perce were the largest tribal grouping on the Plateau, with a population of about 6,000. Trappers were living in Nez Perce villages as early as 1811, and traders attempted to establish a post among them in 1812 (Josephy 1965: 45-47). By 1813, the Nez Perce were firmly engaged in trading with the North West Company post on the Upper Columbia, which led to substantial cultural changes.
A period of relative prosperity for the Nez Perce prevailed during the first half of the nineteenth century, supported by not only the fur trade but also an extensive trade in horseflesh and other commodities with the fur traders and early immigrants to the Oregon Territory. However, epidemics during this period eroded the population, which declined to about 1,600 by the beginning of the twentieth century (ARCIA 1900: 363, 222).
Although Roman Catholic influence had been present in the area sometime before their arrival (and a sizable Nez Perce Catholic community was to develop later), the first permanent missionaries to the Nez Perce were Presbyterian. Rev. Samuel Parker went through their territory in 1832 and was well received but continued down the Snake and Columbia on a tour of exploration. The first phase of Presbyterian missionizing began in 1836 and lasted until 1847. Missionary activity during this period was concentrated along the Clearwater River at Lapwai and Kamiah. The missionaries engaged in several important cultural innovations including the introduction of non-Indian medical practices, establishment of gardens, and the construction of mills in hopes of settling the Nez Perce around the mission settlements. A printing press and instruction in reading and writing were introduced in accordance with the Protestant pattern of placing biblical materials in the hands of native people.
Several important features of the initial christianization of the Nez Perce should be emphasized. First, there were few converts. The reasons for this failure seem to lie principally in the varying functions of religion in Euro-American and Nez Perce cultures. In Nez Perce culture, religion was at the basis of secular success, and the various cults had probably created extremely high expectations of new and wondrous items of material culture. For the missionaries the functions of religion were moral and spiritual, and they failed to satisfy the complex mixture of religious and economic needs apparently responsible for early Nez Perce interest in Christianity. Second, the chiefs and headmen who quickly accepted Christianity were men desirous of further power and were the same people who dominated the government-supported head chief-subchief system. Finally, it is clear that the Dream cult, the winter tutelary spirit dance, as well as most traditional religious beliefs persisted despite the best efforts of the missionaries to eradicate them (Drury 1958).
The most fundamental developments of the second half of the nineteenth century were the treaties of 1855, 1863, and 1868; establishment of the Nez Perce Reservation; and political dominance of the reservation by Presbyterian Nez Perces (Walker 1985). With the treaty of 1855 negotiated by Gov. Isaac I. Stevens at Walla Walla, the Nez Perce were secured in their ownership of a large reservation with guarantees of continued off-reservation rights of hunting, fishing, gathering, and travel (Stevens 1855, Doty 1855, 1978). In 1863 the reservation was reduced, and there was continued pressure to sell Nez Perce lands.
The year 1877 saw the unfolding of the historic drama known as the Nez Perce War or Chief Joseph's War. Gen. Oliver O. Howard held a parley with the nontreaty Nez Perce chiefs at Fort Lapwai to persuade them to remove to the reservation. To their refusal, Howard answered with a 30-day ultimatum demanding the Indians' prompt "voluntary" removal. While Joseph, White Bird, Looking Glass, and other nontreaty chiefs began making preparations to comply, a handful of young warriors attacked and killed some white ranchers. The raids prompted Howard to pursue the "hostiles" with an initial contingent of about 500 soldiers and civilian volunteers. Thus began the three-month, 1,300 mile-long flight of the Nez Perce. Fleeing over Lolo Pass into Montana, the Nez Perce found their way blocked by Flathead who, although normally friendly to them, did not want any part in this war. The Nez Perce thus headed south and re-entered Idaho through Bannock Pass before finally turning eastward hoping to involve their old allies the Crow in their struggle. The refusal of the Crows to join their fight convinced the disillusioned Nez Perce that their only hope was to go north to join Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull who recently had crossed into Canada (Manzonie 1991). Shortly after crossing the Yellowstone River, on September 13 at Canyon Creek the Nez Perces repulsed an attack by troops of the reconstituted 7th Cavalry under Col. Samuel D. Sturgis. On September 30 at Bear Paw Mountain about 40 miles from the Canadian border, the Nez Perce were intercepted by Col. Nelson Miles; a bitter battle ensued and the Indian camp was placed under siege. To save the wounded, women, and children, on October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph formally surrendered with over 400 Nez Perces to General Howard and Colonel Miles.
Most survivors of the Nez Perce War of 1877, who were sent to Oklahoma after their defeat at the Battle of Bear Paw, returned to the northwest in 1885 to reside on the Colville Reservation in Washington. With the defeat of the off-reservation, non-Christian portion of the tribe by 1878, the Christian Nez Perce came to dominate reservation life, and their descendants continued to do so in the twentieth century. They adopted various intensive programs of economic development, formal education, and many features of Euro-American culture.
By 1895 the Dawes Severalty Act had led to allotment of the reservation and its opening to non-Indian settlement. It resulted in the loss of a majority of the remaining land that the Christian Nez Perce had saved in the treaty of 1863. Federally sponsored, forced fee patenting of allotments and other land losses due to taxation reduced the land in Nez Perce hands even more. An original tribal land base of about 13 million acres in 1800 reached a point of less than 80,000 acres by 1975. Since 1980, a tribal land acquisition program has resulted in Nez Perce ownership of about 110,000 acres.
Tribal government is based on the constitution of 1948. The constitution of 1948 established a council of all adult tribal members, but most of the power rests with the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC), which oversees a large array of programs. Tribally administered programs include the natural resource projects, legal affairs, law and order, economic development, education, health, and housing.
By the 1930's Presbyterian influence on the reservation had begun to wane and a reassertion of non-Christian influence was underway. By World War II the non-Christian element had reintroduced the winter tutelary spirit dances and powwows that had been prohibited by reservation authorities for more than 50 years (Walker 1985). Since the 1960's the Nez Perce have pursued a policy of cultural and economic recovery and expansion through legislative and legal means. Revival of traditional culture has paralleled this recovery.
ARCIA (Commissioner of Indian Affairs)
Doty, James 1855-1856
Drury, Clifford M.
Josephy, Alvin M., Jr.
1965. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Lundsgaarde, Henry P.
Manzione, Joseph A.
Stevens, Isaac Ingalls 1854
Stevens, Isaac Ingalls, et al.
Walker, Deward E., Jr.
Deward E. Walker, Jr., is Professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is author or coauthor of numerous books, among them Nez Perce Oral Narratives, Indians of Idaho, Conflict and Schism in Nez Perce Acculturation, Myths of Idaho Indians, Nez Perce Culture and History, and Nez Perce Legends.
Peter N. Jones earned his B.A. in anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He and Walker are currently involved in several projects dealing with the Native Americans of the Great Basin, Plateau, and Northern Plains.