The Nez Perce
3 May – 30 June 1806
A few days after leaving the Columbia River, the Expedition returned to the territory of the Nez Perce Indians (Lewis and Clark called them "Chopunnish"), one of the most friendly and helpful tribes encountered on the entire journey. On 3 May, Chief Wearkoomt, or "Flint Necklace," and ten Nez Perce warriors rode up to greet the Americans, when they were still some distance from Nez Perce homeland along the ClearWater River.
Chief Wearkoomt had accompanied the Expedition to the Columbia River in October 1805 and helped smooth the way for the Americans among Sahaptian-speaking tribes. The next day, one of their former guides, Chief Tetoharsky, helped the Corps cross the Snake River in Indian canoes. Such extraordinary assistance was one reason why Lewis and Clark made sure to allow plenty of time on their trip home to learn about the Nez Perce people.
The Nez Perce population in 1806 was about 4,000 people, living in several dispersed villages under different chiefs. Originating as a Plateau people, the Nez Perce had adopted many Plains traits. For instance, salmon and camas roots were still their main foods, but they now had horses that allowed them to hunt game animals far and wide for part of the year. Originally a river people, they were also adept at mountain crossings.
The Nez Perce still lived in large multi-family long houses, as big as 15 feet wide by 150 feet long, made of mats and thatch. Important councils, however, were held in a Plains-style buffalo hide tipi. Like their Flathead and Shoshoni neighbors, the Nez Perce had been long-neglected by British and French fur traders. Surrounded by powerful, well-armed Crow (Absaroke), Blackfeet, and Gros Ventres (Atsina) tribes, they were particularly interested in becoming allies of the United States in order to obtain firearms to defend themselves.
Lewis and Clark held important parleys with Nez Perce leaders, promising American trade goods in the future, but they also gave away several guns – which was very rare for the Expedition – because they liked and trusted these Indians so much. A grand council was held on 10-12 May 1806 with all the leading chiefs – Twisted Hair (one of the helpful guides from 1805), Cutnose (wounded in a battle with the Shoshoni), Broken Arm (who flew the U.S. flag from his lodge), The Bloody Chief (who arrived at the head of 50 mounted warriors), and Five Big Hearts ("a chief of great note").
After feasting on horsemeat and smoking the ceremonial pipe, Lewis and Clark described the United States, told about the many Indians they had visited on both sides of the Rockies, and explained that the American government wanted to bring peace and trade to all good Indians. Because no Nez Perce understood English, every word had to be translated using a complicated system. The captains spoke in English to Corpsman Labiche, who spoke in French to Charbonneau, who spoke in Hidatsa to his wife, Sacagawea, who spoke in Shoshoni to a Nez Perce captive from her tribe, who finally relayed the Americans' words in the Sahaptian dialect understood by the Nez Perce! The assembled chiefs were well pleased with Lewis and Clark's presentation – especially the promise to provide guns – and they enthusiastically pledged their loyalty to the United States.
After the speeches, the captains gave peace medals to the chiefs, amazed them with the air gun and compass, and demonstrated the power of their rifles. Captain Lewis twice hit a target 220 yards away! After more feasting, smoking, singing, shooting, gambling, and dancing, all the chiefs bedded down in the captains' tent for a diplomatic sleepover.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed at "Camp Chopunnish" (near present-day Kamish, Idaho) for another six weeks, because the trails through the Bitterroot Mountains were covered with up to 15 feet of snow! Although the explorers were eager to get home, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves among the Nez Perce. Indians and Corpsmen competed in foot races and horse races, pitched quoits, and played "prison base," an early form of baseball.
Low on supplies, the Americans traded the skins they had tanned at Fort Clatsop and even the brass buttons from their uniforms for camas roots, cous bread, and fat dogs for roasting (which the non-dog-eating Nez Perce considered a bit gross). The Indians, however, did not charge for horses and invited the Corpsmen to fill their plates with horsemeat anytime they wanted. (They also returned all of the Expedition's branded horses that had been left with them for safekeeping in 1805.)
It was, wrote Clark, a level of generosity and hospitality "not expected from even our own countrymen" – and quite a contrast with the Chinooks' hard bargaining. To return the favor, "Doctor" Clark provided medicines and treatments that cured or relieved the Indians' sore eyes, fevers, body aches, broken limbs, and even an old man's paralysis.
On 24 June, the Nez Perce set pine trees on fire in a ceremony designed to improve the wintry weather. Only a week later on 1 July, conditions improved, and the Expedition finally left their Nez Perce friends to begin the next leg of their journey home.