Table of Contents

  1. What did the Nez Perce people eat before contact with white men?
  2. Where did the Nez Perce live before contact with white men and where do they live now?
  3. How was the Nez Perce Tribe organized and governed?
  4. What did the Nez Perce people wear?
  5. What kind of shelter did the Nez Perce people have?
  6. Give some examples of the kinds of tools the Nez Perce people used?
  7. What is the population of the Nez Perce Tribe?  And what was it at the time the white man first encountered the Nez Perce?
  8. Were the Nez Perce people nomadic?
  9. In early history were the Nez Perce people peaceful or warlike? 

What did the Nez Perce people eat before contact with white men?

The Nez Perce people didn't just concentrate all their time on food gathering, hunting or food preparation.  The question was "what kind of food did the Nez Perce people eat", and it so happens we travel with the seasons.  I will describe the food gathering, hunting and preparing by going through each season and what a Nez Perce family (or band) would have gathered at that time.

Within the deep canyons of the traditional Nimi'ipuu land, the people relied on the rivers, mountains and prairies for sustenance.  They practiced a seasonal subsistence cycle, living with the seasons, not by the month.  In early spring, the women traveled to the lower valleys to dig root crops.  The men traveled to the Snake and Columbia rivers to intercept the early salmon runs.  The men still hunted, but much less during the salmon runs. In mid-summer all the people of the village moved to higher mountainous areas setting up temporary camps to gather later root crops, fish the streams, and do more hunting of the big game.  By late fall the people settled back into their traditional villages along the Snake, Clearwater, and Salmon rivers.  Salmon and other fish, game, dried roots and berries provided winter foods for storage.  However, hunting parties would travel to the hills and river bottoms where the deer and elk wintered.

The basic roots gathered for winter storage included camas bulb (kehmmes), bitterroot (thlee-tahn), khouse (qawas), wild carrot (tsa-weetkh), wild potato (keh-keet), and other root crops.  Fruit collected included service berries, gooseberries, hawthorn berries, thorn berries, huckleberries, currants, elderberries, chokecherries, blackberries, raspberries, and wild strawberries.  Other food gathered includes pine nuts, sunflower seeds, and black moss.

Large game animals that were hunted include deer, elk, moose, bear (black, brown, and grizzly), mountain sheep and goats.  After the introduction of the horse, the Nimi'ipuu men traveled to the Montana Plains to hunt bison and antelope with the Flathead (Sa-likh) people.  Even after bison was introduced into the Nimi'ipuu diet, deer and elk meat were still important foods for the winter storage.  Small game was hunted when needed, include rabbit, squirrel, badgers, and marmot.  Birds  such as ducks, geese, ruffed grouse, and sage hens were also hunted.  

Today deer, elk, and salmon are still important foods for the Nimi'ipuu, but they are no longer our only foods.  We also frequent restaurants and eat modern foods ( TV dinners, microwave dishes, canned foods...)

Food Preperation 
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Where did the Nez Perce live before contact with white men and where do they live now?

The Nimi'ipuu lived in peaceful groups traveling seasonally with the deep canyons cut by the Snake, Clearwater and Salmon rivers.

The Nimi'ipuu traveled across Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.  The tradition homeland of the NiMiiPuu is North Central Idaho, including areas in Southeastern Washington, Northeastern Oregon with usual and accustomed areas in Western Montana and Wyoming.  The Nimi'ipuu aboriginal territory was approximately 17 million acres or approximately 70 thousand square kilometers or 27 thousand square miles; including the Clearwater River Basin,  the South and Middle forks of the Salmon River Basin and their tributaries.

Today the Nimi'ipuu live all over the world, but the Nez Perce Reservation is located in North Central Idaho.

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How was the Nez Perce Tribe organized and governed?

The Nimi'ipuu  lived in bands which were divided as the Upper Clearwater River Nimi'ipu and the Lower Nimi'ipu of the Wallowa Valley.  Each  band with its own territory and group of composite bands.  These bands then subdivided into smaller bands of people living in villages along streams and rivers, together making up the politically unified composite band.  The different bands were generally identified by using the name of the tributary stream that they lived near.

Each village was led by a headman, and was made up of several related, extended families.  The head man was generally one of the elder men of the group, attending to the general welfare of the village members.  This was generally an inherited position, although the headman was at times also a shaman who was a religious figure, and healer.  The largest village within the composite band had a band leader, including the administrating peace chief, and the war chief.  The village council was made up of the band leaders, and important warriors.  The council was in charge of making major decisions involving the village.  The band leader was elected by the village council even though the position could be semi-hereditary.

Today we have an elected council of nine (NPTEC) which is voted in during our general council.

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What did the Nez Perce people wear?

The Nimi'ipuu men wore long, fringed buckskin shirts, leggings, belts, a breech cloth, and several types of moccasins.  Gloves were also occasionally worn by the men.  The feathered bonnet was also a trait common to the Plains culture.  This was popular by the time the Euro-Americans had arrived.  In the cold weather, Nimi'ipuu men wore bison skin robes.  Women wore long, belted buckskin dresses, corn husk basketry hats, and knee length moccasins.  the dresses were decorated with elk teeth, beads made of shell, bone, and later glass, porcupine quills, and vegetable and mineral dyes.  Both sexes painted their faces for certain ceremonies or occasions.

Today Nimi'ipuu wear modern clothing usually purchased in a store.  We still wear their traditional regalia at pow wows, ceremonies, memorials, and special events.

Below is an example of a man's buckskin shirt and leggings.  The other photo is an example of a cloth wing dress a woman would wear, a beaded baby board, a man's head dress and a beaded robe.

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What kind of shelter did the Nez Perce people have?

The Nimi'ipuu lived in groups of extended families, in small villages along streams and rivers.  The principal Nimi'ipuu house was the tule mat-covered long house.  The length varied, but could be over 100 feet long.  These dwellings were used for ceremonial purposes, and for winter housing by several families.  There were several rows of hearths in the center of the structure, used by several families.  At times, semi subterranean dormitories were used in conjunction with the long house to accommodate single men and women.  House pits or excavated dwellings were also used by families simultaneously with the mat-covered long house structures.  These structures became less popular after the introduction of the tipi.  The tipi is made using twelve wood poles with tule mat covers which were eventually replaced by bison skins during the late 18th century.  After the introduction of trade, canvas covers replaced the bison skin and tule mats.  Historically, a few semi subterranean plank and log homes were found among the Nimi'ipuu.  A circular semi subterranean Plateau sweat house was always part of the permanent Nimi'ipuu settlements, as were the women's menstrual huts, and the submerged hot bath.

Today Nimi'ipuu live in modern homes.  We still camp and travel using the tipi for shelter, because the tipi is very portable.

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Give some examples of the kinds of tools the Nez Perce people used?

Below is a photo of some of the tools that a Nez Perce man would have used to hunt and he would have traveled with these items.

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What is the population of the Nez Perce Tribe?  And what was it at the time the white man first encountered the Nez Perce?

Currently (as of November 2004) the enrollment for the Nez Perce Tribe is 3,363.  As for the population at the time of the settlers, it is best if you look up in Lewis and Clark's journals - it states an estimate of the number of Nez Perce people.

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Were the Nez Perce people nomadic?

In the Webster's Collegiate Dictionary it states under nomadic, "roaming about from place to place aimlessly, frequently, or without a fixed pattern of movement."  The Nimi'ipuu people were not nomadic, they did travel with the seasons to pre-determined areas.  You may also want to look at the answer for #2.

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In early history were the Nez Perce people peaceful or warlike? 

The Nez Perce people were warriors and known for their thought out and intelligent strategies in battle.  The Nez Perce people helped Lewis and Clark in their travels in the Northwest. Lewis and Clark recorded how peaceful and helpful the Nez Perce people are, in their journal.  For more info you can look up Lewis and Clark journals.

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Copyright 2009 Nez Perce Tribe. All rights reserved.
Revised: April 11, 2011 .