The name white settlers gave them was a mistake. The Nez Perce – which loosely translates to “pierced noses” – never practiced nose piercing.
Hunters and gatherers, formidable horse people and warriors, they were given the name Nez Perce by early French settlers.
The story of the Nez Perce is typical of what happened to Native American tribes in the 1800s.
Visitors can get an overview of the tribe’s history at the Nez Perce National Historical Park museum and visitor center, just north of Lapwai, at the site of the Spalding Mission.
A grasp of Nez Perce history can help a visitor understand the park’s layout. A movie at the visitor center offers a synopsis.
Children of the Coyote
Nez Perce call themselves Nee-Mee-Poo, or Children of the Coyote. Before white settlers arrived, the tribe roamed an area of roughly 17 million acres covering parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana.
They lived off what they gathered and hunted while traveling, and they bred horses that were fast and intelligent. These horses became the foundation for the Appaloosa breed.
Lewis and Clark reached Nez Perce country in 1805, followed by missionaries Henry and Elizabeth Spalding in 1836. The Spaldings built a mission at the current site of the visitor center.
Treaties in 1855 and 1863 reduced the Nez Perce land to 750,000 acres and divided the tribe into two factions: those who accepted the treaties and those who didn’t.
Meanwhile, settlers, trappers, gold miners and farmers were moving into the area, increasing tensions between Nez Perce and white settlers.
War broke out in June 1877, culminating in the battle of Big Hole in Western Montana two months later. There, a small group of Nez Perce were surprised by U.S. troops; the few who survived fled toward Canada on horse and on foot.
They never made it.
Just 40 miles from the Canadian border, the tribe led by Chief Joseph surrendered.
In the aftermath of the war, tribal members were divided among the current reservation at Lapwai, the Umatilla reservation in Oregon and the Colville reservation northwest of Spokane.
Plenty of options
You could put more than 1,100 miles on your car driving to all the park’s destinations and historical sites.
The Nez Perce Trail – the route the tribe traveled in 1877 from Wallowa Valley, Ore., to Bear Paw, Mont. – would take you 1,170 miles.
But you can plan a day-long driving tour using a map of the 26 historical sites that are on or close to the Nez Perce reservation; the map is available at the Spalding visitor center. (The remaining 12 sites are in adjacent states.)
The Nez Perce visitor center and museum at Spalding is a day trip on its own.
The collection of Native American artwork and artifacts is impressive.
There are picnic grounds near the Clearwater River, and just a short walk from the visitor center you’ll find the original Spalding Church as well as the Indian Agency Cabin and Watson’s Store.
Today, Spalding is a contemplative place, quiet except for the crackling of grasshoppers and the occasional shriek of a circling hawk.
Faded silk flowers decorate graves at the small cemeteries, and years ago someone pressed a child’s magnetic letters into wet cement in front of the church.
In sun-baked red and yellow letters they read: “Lord breathe on us again” – a prayer for a future that’s brighter than the violent past.