The Nez Percé tribe, which now calls itself the Nimiipuu people, are a sovereign Native American nation that once held extensive territory in the lands that are now divided among Washington, Oregon, and Idaho in the United States of America. Their expeditions for hunting, fishing and trade also frequently brought them into regions of Montana and Wyoming. Before the Nimiipuu came in contact with frontiersmen of the United States, they had already encountered French explorers, fur traders and missionaries. It was from these Frenchmen that the Nez Percé name was coined. Chief Joseph, one of the most famous leaders in the tribe’s history, recorded an origin story of the name in his remarkable account of the brief, but dramatic, Nez Percé War, which occurred in 1877. In his text, Chief Joseph’s Own Story, Chief Joseph introduced his tribe as the “Chute-pa-lu” people, but he went on to describe that the French, “called our people ‘Nez Percés,’ because they wore rings in their noses for ornaments. Although very few of our people wear them now, we are still called by the same name” (Chief Joseph’s Own Story, paragraph 4). Nez Percé translates to “Pierced Nose” in French, referencing the nose ornaments mentioned in Chief Joseph’s account. Curiously, this might have been a case of misidentification by the French. As was reported by Chief Joseph in his account, it was rare to find one of his people with a pierced nose, and it has been argued that the Nez Percé people, despite their French label, never traditionally wore nose ornaments.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Left: H’co-a-h’co-a-h’cotes-min (Rabbit’s Skin Leggings) painted by George Catlin (c. 1796-1872); Center: Chief Joseph painted by William Henry Holmes (c. 1846-1933); Right: Hee-oh’ks-te-kin (No Horns on His Head) painted by George Catlin, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian).
- Chief Joseph’s Own Story, by Chief Joseph, originally published in 1879; republished with an introduction by Bishop W. H. Hare and General Howard’s Comment in The North American Review (1879). Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, 2010.