The park commemorates the history, culture, and stories of the Nez Perce. It includes sites associated with the Nez Perce War of 1877, when it resisted takeover by the United States, and the flight of Chief Joseph and his band. The park is administered by the National Park Service, although a number of the sites are managed by other federal and state agencies as well as local communities, and the park's headquarters are located in Spalding, Idaho, east of Lewiston.
The park was established by Congress in 1965. Construction of the planned headquarters site and museum were delayed by land acquisition and federal funding problems.
Soon after construction began in September 1979, Native American graves were discovered that needed to be preserved in consultation with the Nez Perce. Construction of the visitor center and museum was later restarted. The museum opened in June 1983.