Special Reports

Nimiipuu: The story of the Nez Perce

The story of the Nez Perce people, the Nimiipuu (NEE-mee-poo), has been told many times. Historians have devoted significant portions of their lives to it.

Most of the histories have been told from a white perspective. With a few exceptions, notably the works of L.V. McWhorter, the Nez Perce stories familiar to most Americans omit the Nez Perce perspective. In popular history, the tribe is best known for helping Lewis and Clark in the grand cause of westward expansion and for the military genius of Chief Joseph, its greatest leader. The reality in the hearts and histories of the Nez Perce people could not be more different.

The following pages tell the Nez Perce story from the Nez Perce perspective, relying mainly on oral history and interviews with members of the tribe today. Secondary sources were used to provide context or bridge gaps.

Interview subjects spanned four generations, and, departing from what once seemed to be standard practice, included as many women and girls as men and boys. Times have changed in Nez Perce country as they have everywhere; the new tribal chairman is the first female "chief" in the tribe's history.

Their stories don't always agree. Minor details of one family's account of an event may differ from another family's. But they agree on the essence of the stories, which comprise a complex and troubling heritage. Within a generation of Lewis and Clark, whom they easily could have killed, the people who were the original and most powerful inhabitants of much of the Northwest were in free fall toward cultural and literal decimation from which they're still recovering.

The Nimiipuu numbered about 6,000 when Lewis and Clark arrived in what was then their country. Today, there are about 3,400.

Their story is an American tragedy, a tale of greed and arrogance virtually unknown to most contemporary Americans. It should give us all pause.

— Tim Woodward