Sleeping Chief Mountain, a legend in Nez Perce culture.

Jack McNeel

Sleeping Chief Mountain, a legend in Nez Perce culture.

10 Things You Should Know About the Nez Perce Tribe

The Nez Perce, or 'The People', saved the Lewis & Clark expedition multiple times, and are known for their prized appaloosa horses

The Nez Perce Reservation rests in north central Idaho surrounded by the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater Rivers. Historically their homeland covered roughly 16 million acres in parts of what are now Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The Treaty of 1855 reduced that to 7.5 million acres and the subsequent discovery of gold caused the government to reduce it again to 770,000 acres, Idaho’s largest Indian reservation.

They called themselves the Nimiipuu, meaning “The People.” That term is again becoming more commonly used. Nez Perce was the name given them by French Canadian fur trappers in the 18th century.

Certain names stand out. Chief Joseph is known for his involvement in the Nez Perce War of 1877, the longest and final Indian war in the region. Jackson Sundown is known to those who follow rodeo, declared World Champion Saddle Bronc rider in 1916 at the Pendleton Roundup. Hattie Kauffman is a contemporary woman with many years broadcasting on CBS national television, first on Good Morning America, then The Early Show which brought her in contact with worldwide leaders.

ICMN talked with Nez Perce Executive Committee Chairman Anthony Johnson who coordinated efforts to develop the following list of 10 items.

1876 Church at Spalding, Nez Perce

Jack McNeel

The oldest ongoing church in Idaho is the First Indian Presbyterian Church

Spirituality:  Mary Jane Miles, an ordained Presbyterian Minister, serves on the tribal executive committee. The oldest ongoing church in Idaho is the First Indian Presbyterian Church – the first in the U.S. – where she served as minister. The upriver Indians in the Kamiah area received Christianity willingly and readily, “even raced out to ask, are you the one with the book?” Miles explained. “We also have the traditional people, the Seven Drum, and it’s very strong as well,” she explained. “There’s a growing appreciation to respect each other’s belief system. It’s encouraging that we enjoy Christianity as well as our cultural beliefs.”

Appaloosa, Nez Perce

Jack McNeel

The highly prized Nez Perce appaloosas.

Horse Breeding: It’s believed the Nimiipuu were the first tribe to selectively breed horses for specific traits and these horses, the appaloosas, were highly prized and greatly cared for. Lewis and Clark compared them to “the best blooded horses of Virginia.” They are now the State Horse of Idaho. Jake Whiteplume is the Horse Coordinator for the tribe. “We’re known for breeding good horses. We want to adhere to the highly selective breeding practices we were known for, going back in time.”

Lapwai High School, Nez Perce

Jackie McNeel

Lapwai High School, Nez Perce reservation

Education: “Education is a priority with our tribe,” Vice Chairman Bill Picard said. “We are doing great things but without education could not have accomplished it. We push our tribal members to get an education to help their family, themselves, and the tribe. We now have doctors, lawyers, directors, managers and executives who are enrolled Nez Perce. I am very proud of each and every one of them.”

4-2 Book by Pinkham, tribal member1

Lewis & Clark Expedition: The Nez Perce Tribe was the largest tribe the Expedition met and more time was spent with them than any other tribe. The Nez Perce saved them from death more than once. Allen Pinkham, tribal elder and historian, has co-authored a book titled Lewis & Clark Among the Nez Perce. “It was prophesized what was going to happen. Because of information exchange between tribes we knew what was happening. We knew more about Lewis and Clark than they knew about us. Either you kill them or you treat them nice. Killing them was hopeless because if we killed one there would be another 100 to replace him.” Pinkham added there are always two sides to a story and the Lewis & Clark Expedition story is always seen from the viewpoint of the U.S. The Nez Perce version would be about what the expedition did to their country.

Nimiipuu Youth Dancers, Nez Perce

Jack McNeel

Nimiipuu Youth Dancers

Wellness Model/Visual Resource Mapping: Jackie McArthur is Manager of Social Services. Youth and elders are particularly important. McArthur points out the tribe’s funding in these areas far surpasses state and federal funding. One particular highlight is the creation of a wellness model and service instrument to do visual mapping for those in need. “This plan is an interactive visual journey. It shows need in areas such as medical, transportation, and spirituality, and who their people of support are, plus they also list their strengths. Providers then know where to help and can identify support.”

Whitebird Site sign, Nez Perce

Jack McNeel

Sign at Whitebird site on Nez Perce Reservation

Nez Perce War and Memorials: The war is well documented, how the tribe traveled from their homeland, across Montana and then north nearly to Canada, defeating or outwitting the U.S. Army for 1,600 miles before finally having to surrender. Wilfred Scott tells about the annual memorials that began in 1977 on the 100th anniversary of that surrender. It was Scotty’s first year as chairman. “We start off with horses and a pipe ceremony. A lot of people heard so many things, voices coming from the willows and battlefield. Then we keep the microphone open so people could talk about those things. A lot say we’re here because our ancestors sacrificed themselves. These memorials brought a desire for our people to learn more of their family trees and how their ancestors were involved. We’ve been to 17 different sites including Canada, Kansas, Oklahoma, plus all the ones here.”

Clearwater River Casino and Lodge on Nez Perce Reservation.

Jack McNeel

Clearwater River Casino and Lodge on Nez Perce Reservation.

Enterprises and Tourism: Joe Pakootas commented, “The Nez Perce Historic Trail is a major tourism item.” This trail reaches from Wallowa Lake in Oregon to the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana essentially following the route taken during the Nez Perce War. Lilly Kauffman talked of another enterprise, explaining the Clearwater Casino and Lodge has recently been renovated and expanded to include 700 gaming machines and an event center that can accommodate 1,500 people. “It also has a cultural walk with a large statue of Chief Joseph and a hallway with exhibits of traditional arts on loan from the Nez Perce National Historical Park. A business park of approximately 12,000 square feet is also in the engineering phase and will be leased to businesses for industrial use and to support a diverse work force.”

Nez Perce Police Chief David Rodgers

Jackie McNeel

Nez Perce Police Chief David Rodgers

Law Enforcement: Police Chief David Rogers has been with the tribe since 2013 and the changes he’s made in the Department have already been significant. The reservation covers portions of five counties in a checkerboard fashion and animosity had developed over the years. “I consider everybody within the boundaries of the reservation to be folks our agency is responsible to respect and serve, not just the tribal community,” Rogers said. “We have full time investigations. Our officers probably get three times the training of local entities. We hire at a higher standard. We have developed a professional level yet maintain our status as a culturally competent department.” It’s been a success story.

RELATED: Whirlwind of Change For Nez Perce Police Force

Endangered Anadromous Fisheries: “The tribe’s fisheries department is perhaps one of the largest and most successful fisheries departments in the United States with almost 200 employees and a budget of over $20 million a year,” Dave Johnson, Fisheries Department Manager, commented. “We have co-management responsibilities in south east Washington, north central Idaho, and north east Oregon, plus the main stem of the Columbia River. The tribe has been instrumental in bringing fall chinook salmon back from the brink of extinction. That’s from a low of only 300 fish at Lower Granite Dam to last year about 80,000 fall chinook. Also, the tribe has worked with coho salmon bringing them back from extirpation. They were no longer present in the Snake River Basin. Last year’s return was about 18,000.

Nez Perce salmon management

Jack McNeel

Nez Perce salmon management

“We have a very large watershed restoration program working throughout the tribe’s ceded lands, about 13 million acres in those three states, Johnson explained. “The tribe implements more watershed restoration activities than any single entity within this three state area. The tribe also has a significant hatchery program. We operate two hatcheries and co-manage the Dworshak Fish Hatchery with the Fish and Wildlife Service plus another 10 acclimation sites.   We are also involved in implementing some stop gap measures to assure that lampreys don’t go extinct in the Snake River.”

Nez Perce economic summit

Economic impact: Ann McCormack, Economic Development Planner for the tribe, spoke of a study by a University of Idaho economist concerning the tribe’s impact on the region. “Perhaps the most interesting fact is how many jobs we create. We’re in the top three positions continuously the past 10 years for employment in Region 2. The tribe, in 2013, contributed close to $195 million to the state economy including multiplier effects, and we paid almost $10 million in taxes. People who don’t know the tribe can see at what level the tribe is a driver in the community.”

This story was originally published September 10, 2015.

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10 Things You Should Know About the Nez Perce Tribe

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