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First Posted: Oct 24, 2009
Oct 30, 2011

Nez Perce Native American (Indians) and Horses

Photo from Nez Perce Horse Registry

Photo - Nez Perce Traditional Garb

Nez Perce

The Nez Perce are a tribe of Native Americans who live in the Pacific Northwest region (Columbia River Plateau) of the United States. An anthropological theory says the tribe descended from the Old Cordilleran Culture, which moved south from the Rocky Mountains and west in Nez Perce lands. The tribe currently governs and inhabits a reservation in Idaho. The Nez Perce's name for themselves is Nimíipuu meaning, "The Real People."


The most common self-designation used today by the Nez Perce is Nimíipuu. "Nez Perce" is also used by the tribe itself, the United States Government, and contemporary historians. Older historical and ethnological works use the French spelling "Nez Percé," with the diacritic.

In the journals of William Clark*, the people are referred to as Chopunnish. This term is an adaptation of the term cúpitpelu (the Nez Perce people) which is formed from cúpit (piercing with a pointed object) and pelu (people). Nez Perce oral tradition indicates the name "Cuupn'itpel'uu" meant "we walked out of the woods or walked out of the mountains" and referred to the time before the Nez Perce had horses. Nez Perce is a misnomer given by the interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the time they first encountered the Nez Perce in 1805. It is from the French, "pierced nose." This is an inaccurate description of the tribe. They did not practice nose piercing or wearing ornaments. The actual "pierced nose" tribe lived on and around the lower Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and are commonly called the Chinook tribe by historians and anthropologists. The Chinook relied heavily upon salmon as did the Nez Perce and shared fishing and trading sites but were much more hierarchical in their social arrangements.

Interesting Note* - "Whatever the case may be, we know from reports of Captains Lewis and Clark that the Nez Perce were fond of Appaloosas and raised beautiful horses. Lewis noted that on their return trip from the Pacific in 1806, while staying with the Nez Perce, that the Nez Perce had the largest horse herd on the Continent. The horse was an important form of transportation to the Nez Perce people. It enabled them to travel great distances to visit other tribes, to participate in the Trapper Rendezvous, and to travel to the Buffalo country of present-day Montana and Wyoming. In 1835 Chief Lawyer met Reverend Marcus Whitman and Reverend Samuel Parker at the Green River Rendezvous. Later, Chief Lawyer would play an important role in helping the missionaries pursue their work among the Nez Perce. He often traveled between the Whitman Mission located near present-day Walla Walla and his ancestral lands near Kamiah where he lived. It was during one of these long journeys that he helped resolve the intense personality conflict that existed between Reverend Marcus Whitman and Reverend Asa Smith. He encouraged Asa to travel to Kamiah and set up a mission there and work on a Nez Perce language dictionary which Asa did. Chief Looking Glass, a famous warrior and hunter, traveled to Montana numerous times to hunt buffalo. We know, for example, that in 1873 Chief Looking Glass was in present-day Montana where he helped the Crow defeat the Sioux at the Battle of Pryor Creek." Appaloosa Horses & Nez Perce Culture

Traditional Lands and Culture

The Nez Perce area at the time of Lewis and Clark was approximately 17,000,000 acres. It covered parts of Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, in an area surrounding the Snake, Salmon and the Clearwater rivers. The tribal area extended from the Bitterroots in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west between latitude 45ºN and 47ºN.

In 1800, there were more than 70 permanent villages ranging from 30 to 200 individuals, depending on the season and social grouping. About 300 total sites have been identified, including both camps and villages. In 1805 the Nez Perce were the largest tribes on the Columbia River Plateau, with a population of about 6,000. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Nez Perce had declined to about 1,800 because of epidemics, conflicts with non-Indians, and other factors.

The Nez Perce, as many western Native American tribes, were migratory and would travel with the seasons, according to where the most abundant food was to be found at a given time of year. This migration followed a predictable pattern from permanent winter villages through several temporary camps, nearly always returning to the same locations year after year. They were known to go as far east as the Great Plains of Montana to hunt buffalo, and as far west as Celilo Falls to fish for salmon on the Columbia River. They relied heavily on quamash or camas gathered in the region between the Salmon and Clearwater River drainages as a food source.

The Nez Perce National Historical Park includes a research center which has the park's historical archives and library collection. It is available for on-site use in the study and interpretation of Nez Perce history and culture.


The Nez Perce splintered into two groups in the mid-19th century, with one side accepting coerced relocation to a reservation and the other refusing to give up their fertile land in Washington. On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Nation surrendered to units of the U.S. Cavalry near Chinook in the north of what is now Montana. Before this surrender, the Nez Perce fought a cunning strategic retreat toward refuge in Canada from about 2,000 soldiers. This surrender, after fighting 13 battles and going about 1,800 miles (2,900 km) toward Canada, marked the last great battle between the U.S. government and an Indian nation. After surrendering, Chief Joseph stated his famous quote: "Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." The flight path is reproduced by the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. The annual Cypress Hills ride in June commemorates the Nez Perce people's crossing into Canada.

Nez Perce Horse Breeding Program

The Nez Perce tribe began a breeding program in 1995 based on crossbreeding the Appaloosa and a Central Asian breed called Akhal-Teke to produce the Nez Perce Horse. This is a program to re-establish the horse culture of the Nez Perce, a proud tradition of selective breeding and horsemanship that was destroyed in the 19th century. The breeding program was financed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the Nez Perce tribe and a nonprofit group called the First Nations Development Institute (based in Washington D.C.), which promotes such businesses in Indian country.

Nez Perce Horse

Country of Origin: Idaho, United States

The Nez Perce Horse is a spotted horse breed of the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho. The Nez Perce Horse Registry (NPHR) program began in 1995 in Lapwai, Idaho and is based on cross-breeding the old-line Appaloosa horses (the Wallowa herd) with an ancient Central Asian breed called Akhal-Teke. This program seeks to re-establish the horse culture of the Nez Perce, a tradition of selective breeding of Appaloosa horses and horsemanship that was destroyed in the 19th century. The breeding program was financed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the Nez Perce tribe and a nonprofit group called the First Nations Development Institute, which promotes such businesses.

The Nez Perce Horse is "fit to carry the Nez Perce name," according to Rudy Shebala, director of the Tribe's Horse Registry and the Nez Perce Young Horsemen program.


The Akhal-Teke is an ancient breed that originated in Turkmenistan (near Afghanistan). They are known for their superb endurance and "metallic" coats. The Akhal-Teke coat colors commonly include duns, palominos, buckskins, and dark bays. A typical Nez Perce Horse is a buckskin or palomino with Appaloosa characteristics - mottled skin with a spotted coat or a blanket.

The Nez Perce Horse's conformation is longer and leaner than the Quarter Horses or other stock horses of the Western U.S., with narrower shoulders and hindquarters, a longer back, and a lean runner's appearance. They excel at long rides and compete well in endurance races; they're also excellent jumpers. The Nez Perce Horses are often "gaited," with a fast and smooth running walk.

The Nez Perce say that the horse has attitude - they "allow" people to ride them! The Nez Perce people are historically known for their selective horse breeding practices, according to NPHR breeders Jon and Rosa Yearout. "We strive to follow the lead of our ancestors and carry on their legacy and traditions."


Fishing is an important ceremonial, subsistence, and commercial activity for the Nez Perce tribe. Nez Perce fishers participate in tribal fisheries in the mainstem Columbia River between Bonneville Dam and McNary Dam. The Nez Perce also fish for spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead in the Snake River and its tributaries. The Nez Perce tribe runs the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery on the Clearwater River as well as several satellite hatchery programs.

Nez Perce Indian Reservation

The current tribal lands consist of a reservation comprising parts of four counties in northern Idaho, primarily in the Camas Prairie region. In descending order of surface area, the counties are Nez Perce, Lewis, Idaho, and Clearwater. The total land area is 1,195.1 square miles (3,095 km2), and the reservation's population at the 2000 census was 17,959 residents. Its largest community is the city of Orofino, near its northeast corner. Lapwai, the seat of tribal government, has the highest percentage of Nez Perce people, at 81.39%.

Source of Wealth and Income

The Appaloosa horse was not only a source of pride and transportation for the Nez Perce people, it was also a source of wealth. During the 1800s, the Nez Perce were considered to be wealthy people by any standard you would care to measure wealth. Chief Joseph's own experiences and comments provide us with important glimpses into the significance of the Appaloosa as a source of wealth.

In 1870 ranchers rode up to the Wallowa Plateau in search of grass for their cattle, since cattle in the Grand Ronde area had been suffering from severe drought. One of the ranchers remarked to his companions as he stood gazing at a meadow on the slopes of Joseph Canyon that "there must be 10,000 head of horses in that meadow." In July of 1872 Joseph began a diplomatic initiative working for the removal of settlers from Joseph's ancestral lands in the Wallowas. A series of diplomatic meetings resulted in Joseph's stature and influence being raised. He was considered by his adversaries to be eloquent, logical and to possess a keen intellect. One particular intense meeting between Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon Territory, T. B. Odeneal, and Nez Perce Reservation Indian Agent, John Monteith, on March 27, 1873, was very important. Joseph's response provides us with insight into his views of Nez Perce wealth and the importance of the Appaloosa horse to the economic well being of his people.

For More Information:

Nex Perce information for Children
Nez Perce Horse Registry
Nez Perce Tribe Web Site