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Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians
by William R. Swagerty, University of the Pacific, Stockton
(updated June 8, 2005)

Photo 1: Chief Joseph standing in Pendleton Robe Lee Moorhouse Photo, Pendleton, Oregon, c. 1901

Photo 1: Chief Joseph standing in Pendleton Robe Lee Moorhouse Photo, Pendleton, Oregon, c. 1901 Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Neg. #52504

One of the most famous Indians in American history, Chief Joseph was born in 1840 near the Grand Ronde River in present-day northeast Oregon. The warm and dry interior of a natural cave provided a safe place for a family on the move to give birth to their child. Son of Old Chief Joseph (Tuekakas), a Cayuse-Umatilla-Nez Perce, and Khapkhaponimi, a Nez Perce (pronounced Nes Purse) woman whose name translates “strong leader of women,” Young Joseph was named Hinmahtoo-yahlatkekht, “Thunder Rising over Loftier Mountain Heights.” The name reflects the place he was born, the life he led, and the legacy he left behind.

Illustration 1: “Joseph, Toowe-tak-hes, Chief of the Nez Perce Indians,”

Illustration 1: “Joseph, Toowe-tak-hes, Chief of the Nez Perce Indians,” pencil sketch by Gustav Sohon, artist at the 1855 Walla Walla Treaty Council, reproduced courtesy of Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma.

The Nez Perce called themselves “Nee-Me-Poo,” which translates “the people.” A custom among the Nee-Me-Poo was to allow outsiders to intermarry, thereafter assuming affiliation with the band or band leader of that particular group. Such was the case with Joseph’s father, whose maternal lineage included Nez Perce heritage. At the time of young Joseph’s birth, Tuekakas was a respected leader of the Wallamotkin (or Wallowa) Band of the Nez Perce in present-day Oregon.

Hinmahtoo-yahlatkekht was raised as a traditional Nez Perce in the village of In-nan-toe-e-in, one of seven children. His older brother, Sousouquee, his younger brother, Ollokot (meaning “Frog”) and his sisters were all close and important to Joseph. The children grew up trying to understand new ideas and pressures as whites came into their lives. That tension dates back to 1839 when their parents were married in 1839 by a Presbyterian missionary sent from the east coast to live among the Nez Perce.

Henry Spalding

Photo 2: Henry Harmon Spalding with Bible and hoe; Courtesy National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park, Neg. # 1789

Henry H. Spalding and his wife, Eliza, established a mission and school at Lapwai in 1836 near present-day Lewiston, Idaho. Joseph’s father was one of the first to show interest in Christianity. Because of this, Young Joseph was baptized with the biblical name, “Ephraim.” The family moved between the Wallowa Valley and the Clearwater River country, where Spalding’s mission had been built on Lapwai Creek. Late in life, Joseph recalled being a student of Mrs. Spalding and liking his experience, but many Nez Perce stayed away and very few converted to Christianity due to the Spaldings’ rigid attitude and lack of tolerance of Nez Perce customs and religion. To Spalding, the Bible and the hoe were the tools that would lead the Nez Perce to a better life. Most Nez Perce could not accept this point of view.

During Joseph’s youth, the Wallamotkin Band of Nez Perce numbered several hundred people. They spent their days in relative peace, breeding and herding horses, fishing for salmon, hunting, and gathering camas bulbs and other foods native to the Plateau, a region distinguished by dramatic changes in elevation from valleys and canyons a few feet above sea level to mountains higher than 10,000 feet. In this diverse environment, the Nez Perce lived amidst forested mountains, rolling hills covered with grass, large rivers with extensive flood plains, deep canyons, and flat highlands (i.e. the geographic term, “plateau”).

Chief Joseph’s ancestors are thought to have been residents of this area for at least 13,000 years. When first described by the white explorers Lewis and Clark in 1805, the Nez Perce lived in around seventy villages, each with several extended families. Their population was estimated to be 7,850 individuals. Prior to this, it is difficult to know how many Nez Perce lived at any given point in time. A hundred years earlier, it is likely that they had a larger population living in as many as 100 villages, but beginning in the 1780s, their population began to decline as European and Asian sailors landed and introduced new diseases into the region. The worst of these was smallpox, which spread up and down the Columbia River in the 1780s killing at least half of the native peoples living between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains. Other diseases spread by water, air and contact with infected peoples’ clothing or skin further reduced the Nez Perce. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, and influenza or the common cold–“childhood diseases” that could also kill white children and adults, took many Indian lives causing disruption of normal patterns of life.

The Nez Perce had many close relatives, who spoke various dialects of the same language within the language family called “Plateau Penutian.” Some bands such as those at Kamiah and Kooskia in present-day Idaho were described as “upriver bands;” others closer to Joseph’s people were called “downriver people.” All spoke Nimipuutimpt, “Nez Perce.” Others within the same language family spoke a related dialect called Sahaptian. These included the Yakimas, Walla Wallas, and Palouse in present-day Washington State, groups along the Columbia River in present-day Oregon including the Umatilla (near Pendleton), and the Celilo (near The Dalles). Yet another group within the family spoke Klamath, whose homeland extended as far south as present-day northern California.

Map 1: Close up of Map, “Native Languages and Language Families of North America,”

Map 1: Close up of Map, “Native Languages and Language Families of North America,” from Languages, vol. 17 of Handbook of North American Indians. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996, end map)

Map 2:, “ Nez Perce territory in the 19th century

Map 2:, “ Nez Perce territory in the 19th century
with modern town and reservation locations” from Plateau, ed. Deward E. Walker, Jr., vol. 12 of Handbook of North American Indians (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), p. 421, Fig. 1.

Some Nez Perce traveled beyond the region of their language family to hunt buffalo, to visit distant friends, and to trade. Their closest friends were other speakers of Sahaptian such as the Umatilla and Yakima along the Columbia River and its tributaries. They also had close ties with the Coeur d’Alene to their north in Idaho, the Salish and Pend d’Oreille of the Bitterroot and Mission valleys in western Montana (both named by the French and later called the Flathead Indians), and the Crow of eastern Montana and Wyoming.

Map 3:, “Neighboring Tribes to the Nez Perce Indians,”

Map 3:, “Neighboring Tribes to the Nez Perce Indians,” from Bill Gulick, Chief Joseph Country, p. 11. Courtesy of the Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho.

   On the long trips into Montana and northern Wyoming, the Nez Perce used buffalo-hide tipis such as the ones seen below in this first photograph ever taken of what are believed to be Nez Perce people camping somewhere on the Yellowstone River in 1871.

Photo 3: “Encampment on the Yellowstone River, near mouth of Shields River, Mont., 1871.” William H. Jackson, photo from the DeLancey Gill Collection, Bureau of American Ethnology. Courtesy National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Neg. # 2976.

Photo 4: “Skin lodges in encampment on Yellowstone River near mouth of Shields River, Mont, 1871.” William H. Jackson, photographer. Courtesy National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Neb. # 2979.
[Note: The men in this photo have been recently
idenfied as Looking Glass and his brother, No Hunter].

   We have no photographs of “Ephraim” or Joseph as a youth. His formative years in the Wallowas of eastern Oregon were a mix of learning traditional Nez Perce language and customs and new ideas and lifeways introduced by missionaries, settlers, and Indian agents. He grew up in a mat-lodge similar to the one pictured below, which served as a three-season dwelling made out of local reeds woven into mats which could be tied together to form a comfortable house.

Photo 5: Mat lodge; Lee Moorhouse photographer Courtesy National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park, Spalding, Idaho, Neg. # 1590

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