Time Immemorial

September 22, 2005 

— They called themselves the Nimiipuu.

In their language, the people.

They didn't need a more specific name. Most of the time, in their part of the world, they were the only people.

The nucleus of their part of the world encompassed what are now parts of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. They were the original and for generations the only inhabitants of 13 million acres.

Centuries passed before they were called Nez Perce, a name white people gave them in error that continues to the present.

Unlike the rest of us, they didn't come here from somewhere else. They've lived in their Northwest homeland since time immemorial.

Their oral history says they were created when Coyote, an all powerful animal spirit, killed a monster and threw parts of its body for miles in all directions. Where a body part landed, a tribe of people was created.

When Coyote was finished, he washed his hands to remove the blood from the monster's heart. Where the drops landed, the Nimiipuu were created. Heart of the Monster, a geographic formation near today's Kamiah marks the spot.

They lived in scores of villages in a vast territory extending from North Idaho's Clearwater Valley into Oregon and Washington on the west, the Bitterroot Range of Idaho and Montana on the east and just beyond the Salmon River on the south. Their permanent homes or "long houses" were made of poles and branches caulked with mud and lined with woven rushes. The long houses glowed with fires built in rows down the center.

Many families crowded into the shelters during winter. Extended families spanning several generations lived together. Each village had a leader or "head man."

The Nimiipuu weren't nomadic, but they did travel widely to gather food. Annual cycles regulated the rhythms of their lives. In spring, they began to harvest root crops. They knew when the doves began to coo in June that it was time for the salmon to run. They fished, gathered roots and berries and hunted in summer. Hunters were taught never to kill female animals with young. In August, the Nimiipuu harvested camas bulbs. Fall was the time for drying and storing foods for winter.

Women were considered as important as men and in some ways enjoyed greater status. Women gathered foods, put up tipis for the traveling bands and did much of the work in the camps and villages. They owned most of the possessions, kept the family histories and arranged marriages to influence blood lines for mutual benefit. Alliances through marriage were pragmatic. Families united through wedlock might quarrel, but the blood bonds that joined them were forever.

Children went by nicknames or play names until about age six, when their personalities had developed and their parents chose a grownup name that suited them. Competition for names of respected ancestors was great. Only one person at a time could have the name. Girls took names from their mothers' sides of the family, boys from their fathers'. Significant events could change a name at any time. A person could have several during a lifetime.

Men were mainly responsible for bringing home fish and game, a prestigious responsibility because it was frequently dangerous, and for defending the people against enemies. Men owned their weapons and tools. Women owned everything else, including the clothing they made for their husbands. If a woman wanted a divorce, she had only to set her husband's tools and weapons on the ground outside their home.

There was no single chief who was the primary or most important leader. Each band had a leader, and chiefs were considered equals. Each chief had a specialty such as war or travel or even a specific geographic area with which he was more familiar than the others. Important decisions for the tribe were made in councils, with the majority view prevailing or the other chiefs temporarily deferring to one whose specialized knowledge of an area or situation best suited the occasion.

Chiefs tended to be the oldest sons of families with first-born daughters. Experience taught the Nimiipuu that boys born first were spoiled and made poor leaders. Experience also taught them that girls born first were bossy. When a man became a chief and went to a council with other chiefs, he first had to consult his older sister for her views.

The tribe acquired horses, initially brought by the Spanish and obtained from the Shoshonis or Blackfeet, in about 1700. Boys and girls learned to ride at an early age. Weapons were developed specifically for hunting and fighting on horseback. The tribe cultivated large herds and became expert at caring for them.

Horses were not only highly prized but extended the tribe's range. Men left their homeland to hunt buffalo on the plains to the east; a few were known to have traveled even farther east. The tribe also was part of a well-developed trade network that included many tribes. They traded with Montana tribes for buffalo hides and other plains products and with coastal tribes for Pacific seashells that adorned Nimiipuu women's dresses. Hides and shells comprised a small fraction of what the trading network offered, and the "moccasin telegraph" brought information from distant places. Long before the first white men came, the Nimiipuu knew about the Great Lakes and both seacoasts. They spoke of the continent as an island because they knew about the waters that ended it. They knew about the white "across the water people" east of the Mississippi.

And they knew they were coming.

They had a faith that sustained them for generations. They believed in a Creator who made the Earth and everything in it. The Creator was in some ways similar to the God of Christianity, but there was no hell, no need for salvation. The Earth, the plants, the air and water and the animals with which the people shared them were sacred to them. The animals were brothers who sacrificed themselves to provide food, clothing and shelter. All things were interconnected. Nothing was to be taken from the Earth without giving something back — a physical offering, a prayer or both.

It wasn't a perfect life. People had to work hard to have enough to eat; daily physical labor and occasional danger were the accepted price of a meal. Winters in crowded, smoky long houses could seem endless, and hunting big game with bows and arrows or fishing from slippery rocks could be fatal. The Nimiipuu were friendly with most of the tribes who lived on the edges of their homeland, but not all of them. Outsiders seen as encroaching on their land were repelled. Clashes with members of tribes now known as the Bannocks and to a lesser extent the Shoshonis often ended in death.

Not a perfect life, but a good life. The Nimiipuu were a few thousand people living on millions of acres. The land was abundant, providing fish, meat, roots, berries, medicinal plants and materials for clothing and shelter. What they couldn't get from their own land they traded for with other tribes. Horses brought mobility and status. Centuries of development produced a rich culture. The tribe had skilled artists and crafts workers, historians, a highly developed social order, an intense spirituality. The Nimiipuu had the tools, the raw materials and the knowledge to live independently and well.

Their descendants proudly claim that they were the richest, most powerful tribe in the Northwest.

Then the white men came.

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