Nez Perce (the tribe)…

… and how White Bird got it’s name.

Just north of White Bird (where I was staying for two nights) is the town of Nezperce (see previous post), and just northwest of that is the current center of the Nez Perce Reservation. Nez Perce is one of five federally recognized Native American tribes located in Idaho. It has a rich, and at times, turbulent history.

The tribe was peaceful (when left alone) and it’s members were known as extraordinary horsemen. They are credited with the development of the Appaloosa horse breed. Their name literally means “pierced nose” in French, though there is no evidence that that trait was ever exhibited by their members.

Chief Lawyer, and other members of the tribe, assisted explorers Lewis and Clark in their trek west. Their best known leader was Chief Joseph and there are numerous places named for him throughout the northwest US, as well as references to the tribe itself. At their peak the Nez Perce numbered about 12,000 and at their lowest, 2,000 on the early 1900’s. Today there are about 3,500 members of the Nez Perce tribe.

The Nez Perce homeland originally included most of central Idaho as well as parts of western Montana, southeast Washington and northeast Oregon. In 1855 a treaty established approximately 17 million acres as being the “official” reservation. Later, in 1863, another treaty slashed the size of the reservation down to only 750,000 acres. Many tribe members, including leader Chief Joseph, called it the “Steal” treaty and refused to acquiesce and move to the smaller area. This conflict eventually escalated to become the Nez Perce War, which started about a half mile from current day White Bird on June 17, 1877.

There is a scenic overlook on “new” Highway 95, just north of White Bird which has an information shelter explaining the conflict. It calls this the White Bird Battlefield.

US Army cavalry members approached a Nez Perce settlement here and, though the peaceful tribe members tried to surrender, shots were fired and the conflict quickly got out of control. The tribe members successfully held off the US forces (with loss of life on both sides) and the battle continued at other venues until Chief Joseph finally surrendered to US troops in Montana on October 5, 1877, ending the war. Chief White Bird (aka White Pelican), led this portion of the tribe and had a loyal following of about 50 men, second to Chief Joseph with 60 and ahead of Chief Looking Glass with 40. Chief White Bird led the battle here which is why the battlefield, and now the town, are named for him.