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5.1.6 Nez Perce Group Known as Chief Joseph's Band, Lapwai, Idaho

A large group of men on horseback with mountains in the background. Chief Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass can be seen in the front center of the group.

Nez Perce group known as "Chief Joseph's Band", Lapwai, Idaho, spring, 1877, courtesy Joel E. Ferris Research Archives, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

The Nez Perce traditionally lived in the Northwest along the southern Snake River. They had leaders, or chiefs, and a council that guided the leader in making decisions. The Nez Perce developed a strong horse culture that helped them travel farther for trade, diplomacy, and war with other groups. From the 1850s to the 1870s, Americans settled on Nez Perce land. The United States tried to force the Nez Perce to sign treaties to give up land in Oregon. In 1877, US officials tried to force a group of Nez Perce people to move to a reservation in Idaho, but Chief Joseph and his people met in council and decided that they must fight back to protect their way of life. In this picture, Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce leaders sit on horseback. About how many people are pictured here? What information does this image offer in helping us to determine how the Nez Perce governed themselves?

The Nez Perce system of government included leaders who were chosen by the people. These leaders had specific specialties such as trade, war, religion, or hunting. A council guided leaders in their decision making. Nez Perce territory provided people with access to ample hunting, fishing, and trade opportunities. Once they gained access to horses, the Nez Perce were able to travel farther and increase their ability to trade. By the 1800s the Nez Perce were very strong, but they faced pressure to move off their land by Euro-American settlers and miners. Nez Perce leaders signed a treaty with the US government at Walla Walla in 1855 to protect their lands. Despite this treaty, American settlers continued to move onto Nez Perce territory. In the 1870s, Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt) and other Nez Perce leaders refused to give more of their land to the United States. They fought against removal and ultimately attempted to move their people north. Eventually Chief Joseph surrendered, with the promise that the US government would allow his people to return to the Nez Perce reservation. However, US officials instead sent them to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and did not allow them to go to the Idaho reservation until 1885. This example demonstrates that the Nez Perce attempted to work with the United States within the Nez Perce system as a sovereign nation. Encourage students to consider the ways that this story shows examples of how the Nez Perce system of government operated when attempting to negotiate with the United States.