The Sahaptin peoples were a number of Native American tribes which spoke dialects of the Sahaptin language group. The Sahaptin tribes inhabited territory along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Sahaptin-speaking peoples included the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Tenino, and Yakama.
The prominent Sahaptin tribe formerly held a considerable territory in western Idaho and adjacent portions of Oregon and Washington, including the lower Snake River, with its tributaries the Salmon, Clearwater, and Grand Ronde rivers, from about 45° latitude down nearly to the entrance of the Palouse, and from the Blue Mountains of Oregon on the west to the main divide of the Bitterroot Mountains on the east.
They are of the Shahaptian linguistic stock, to which belong also the Palouse, Umatilla, Tenino, Yakama and others farther to the west, with whom they maintained close friendly relations, while frequently at variance with the Salishan tribes on their northern border — the Flatheads, Coeur d'Alene and Spokane — and in chronic warfare with the Blackfeet, Crows and Shoshoni on the east and south.
They call themselves Ni Mii Puu, meaning simply "the people", or "we the people". The name Sahaptin or Saptin comes through the Salishan tribes. When Lewis and Clark came through the area in 1805, they were called Chopunnish, possibly another form of Saptin. The popular and official name of Nez Percés, "Pierced Noses", originally bestowed by the French trappers, refers to a former custom of wearing a dentalium shell through a hole bored in the septum of the nose.
In 1805 they numbered, according to the most reliable estimates, probably over 6,000 but have greatly decreased since the advent of the whites, and they are still on the decline. Contributing causes were incessant wars with the more powerful Blackfeet in earlier years; a wasting fever, and measles epidemic (1847) from contact with immigrants; smallpox and other diseases following the occupation of the country by miners after 1860; losses in the war of 1877 and subsequent removals; and wholesale spread of consumption because of their changed condition of living under civilization. In 1848 they were officially estimated at 3,000; by 1910 they were officially reported at 1,530.
The clan system was unknown. Chiefs were elective rather than hereditary, governing by assistance of the council, and there was no supreme tribal chief.
Their permanent houses were communal structures, sometimes circular, but more often oblong, about 20 feet (6.1 m) in width and 60 to 90 feet (18 to 27 m) in length, with framework of poles covered by rush mats, with floor sunk below the ground level, and earth banked up around the sides, and with an open space along the centre of the roof, for the escape of smoke. On the inside were ranged fires along the centre at a distance of 10 to 12 feet (3.0 to 3.7 m) apart, each fire serving two families on opposite sides of the house, the family sections being sometimes separated by mat curtains. One house might thus shelter more than one hundred persons. Lewis and Clark mention one large enough to accommodate nearly fifty families. On temporary expeditions they used the ordinary buffalo-skin tipi or brush shelter.
They had also sweat-houses and menstrual lodges. The permanent sweat-house was a shallow subterranean excavation, roofed with poles and earth and bedded with grass, in which the young and unmarried men slept during the winter season and occasionally sweated themselves by means of steam produced by pouring water upon hot stones placed in the centre. The temporary sweat-house used by both sexes was a framework of willow rods, covered with blankets, with the heated stones placed inside. The menstrual lodge, for the seclusion of women during the menstrual period and for a short period before and after childbirth, was a subterranean structure, considerably larger than the sweat-house, and entered by means of a ladder from above. The occupants thus secluded cooked their meals alone and were not allowed even to touch any articles used by outsiders.
Furniture consisted chiefly of bed platforms, baskets and bags woven of rushes or grass, wooden mortars for pounding roots and spoons of horn. The woman had also her digging stick for gathering roots; the man his bow, lance (stone or silver strung to willow branch), shield, and fishing equipment. The Nez Percé bow of mountain-sheep horn backed with sinew was the finest in the West. The ordinary dress was of skins, with the addition of a fez-shaped basket hat for the woman and a protective skin helmet for the warrior.
In their primitive condition the Nez Percés, although semi-sedentary, were without agriculture, and they depended on hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild roots and berries. Aside from fish and game, chiefly salmon and deer, their principal foods were the roots of the camas (Camassia esculenta) and kouse (Lomatium kous), the first being roasted in pits, while the other was ground in mortars and molded into cakes for future use. Women were primarily responsible for the gathering and preparing of these root crops.
Marriage occurred at about the age of fourteen and was accompanied by feasting and giving of presents. Polygamy was general, but kinship prohibition was enforced. Inheritance was in the male line. "The standard of morality, both before and after marriage seems to have been conspicuously high" (Spinden). Interment was in the ground, the personal belongings of the deceased being deposited with the body, and the house torn down or removed to another spot. The new house was ceremonially purified and the ghost exorcised, and the mourning period was terminated with a funeral feast. Sickness and death, especially of children, were frequently ascribed to the work of ghosts.
The religion was animistic, with a marked absence of elaborate myth or ritual. The principal religious event in the life of the boy or girl was the dream vigil, when, after the solitary fasting for several days, the fevered child had a vision of the spirit animal which was to be his or her tutelary through life. Dreams were the great source of spiritual instruction. The principal ceremonial was the dance to the tutelary spirit, next to which in importance was the scalp dance.
Trading posts were established in the upper Columbia region, and from the Catholic Canadian and Iroquois employees of the Hudson's Bay Company traders they first learned of Christianity, and as early as 1820 both they and the Flatheads had voluntarily adopted many of the Catholic forms. Of the Nez Percés it has been said: "They seemed to realize the paucity of their religious traditions and from the first eagerly seconded the efforts of the missionaries to instruct them in the Christian faith."
As a result of urgent appeals from the Flathead Indians for missionaries, a Presbyterian mission was established (1837) among the Nez Percés at Lapwai, near the present Lewiston, Idaho, under Reverend H.H. Spaulding, who two years later set up a printing press from which he issued several small publications in the native language. Regular Catholic work in the same region began with the advent of Fathers Blanchet and Demers on the Columbia (1838) and of De Smet and the Jesuits in the Flathead country (1840). The establishment of the Oregon Trail through the country of the Nez Percés and allied tribes led to the introduction of an epidemic disease, by which they were terribly wasted, particularly the Cayuse, who, holding responsible Dr. Whitman, in charge of the Presbyterian mission in their tribe, attacked and destroyed the mission, murdering Whitman and his wife and eleven others. The Catholic Bishop Brouillet, who was on his way at the time to confer with Whitman for the purchase of the mission property, was not molested but was allowed to bury the dead and then found opportunity to warn Spaulding in time for him to reach safety. In consequence of these troubles all the Presbyterian missions in the Columbia region were discontinued, but the work was resumed in later years, and a considerable portion of the Nez Percés are now of that denomination.
The Catholic work in the tribe was given in charge of the Jesuits, aided by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, and centering at St. Joseph's mission, Slickpoo, Idaho. For fifty years it was conducted by Fr. Joseph Cataldo, S.J., who gave attention also to the neighbouring cognate tribes. The Catholic Indians were reported in the early 20th century at over 500.
Treaties and conflict
In 1855 they sold by treaty a large part of their territory. In the general outbreak of 1855–56, sometimes designated as the Yakima war, the Nez Percés, almost alone, remained friendly. In 1863, in consequence of the discovery of gold, another treaty was negotiated between another Nez Percés chief known as Lawyer (whose band had converted to Christianity and was now assimilating to white culture) and General Oliver O. Howard of the U.S. Army in which Lawyer surrendered all but the Lapwai reservation. Chief Joseph of the Wallowa band refused to sign the new treaty, stating that the Treaty of 1855 was promised to be the rule of law for "as long as the sun shines," protecting their home land from white intrusion. Since Nez Percés custom dictated that no single chief spoke for all others, when Joseph and others (including Toohoolhoolzote and Looking Glass) refused to sign the treaty, it was done so with the understanding that the U.S. Government was still bound by their original agreement, and that only Lawyer's band would be bound by the new treaty that only they signed.
However, General Howard gathered numerous other Nez Percés to make their "X" on the document so as to give the illusion that Joseph and the others had indeed signed the treaty. Thus, in the eyes of the U.S. government, they would also be subject to its terms.
Joseph steadfastly refused to be a party to the treaty or to its terms, only relenting when it became clear that the survival of his people depended on it. But as they made the arduous trek out of their home land and to the new reservation, a small group of young Nez Percés warriors broke off and murdered numerous white settlers along the Salmon River. These events were what set in motion the Nez Percés war (1877). After successfully holding in check for some months the regular troops and a large force of Indian scouts, Joseph, Looking Glass, and other chiefs conducted a retreat for over a thousand miles across the mountains but were finally intercepted and forced to surrender within a short distance of the Canadian frontier. Despite the promise that he should be returned to his own country, Joseph and the remnant of his band were deported to Oklahoma, where they wasted away so rapidly that in 1885 the few who survived were transferred to the Colville reservation in Washington. Throughout the entire retreat no outrage was committed by Joseph's warriors. The main portion of the tribe took no part in the war.
In 1893 those of Lapwai were given individual allotments, and the reservation was opened to white settlement.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 
- Boas, Franz (1917). Folk-tales of Salishan and Sahaptin tribes. Published for the American Folk-Lore Society by G.E. Stechert & Co.Available online through the Washington State Library's Classics in Washington History collection