Historically, the Nez Perce Tribe functioned as a self-governing nation. Later, treaties with the federal government preserved the tribe’s status as a sovereign nation within the United States.
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Originally, the Nimiipuu people occupied an area that included parts of present-day Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. They moved throughout this region and parts of what are now Montana and Wyoming to fish, hunt, and trade.
The Nez Perce Tribe’s government included a leader for many aspects of their traditional lifeways, such as fishing, hunting, warfare, and religion. Councils guided the decisions of each leader. The Nimiipuu people chose leaders and council members based on their knowledge and skill sets.
Today, many traditional ways remain part of our tribal culture.
During the 1855 treaty negotiations at Walla Walla, the Tribe insisted on retaining these inherent rights. Tribal leaders negotiated retention of approximately 7.5 million acres to be protected as the Tribe’s exclusive reservation.
Once gold was discovered, mass trespass and theft took place within the Tribe’s reservation. Instead of protecting the reservation from encroachment, the federal government forced the Tribe into a second treaty in 1863, which reduced the reservation to about 750,000 acres. A third treaty in 1868 primarily dealt with timber trespass issues.
In 1871, the federal government ceased the treaty-making process with Tribes. However, the federal government later imposed the Allotment Act upon the Tribe, sending a surveyor to determine and assign parcels to individual tribal members, then declaring the remaining reservation area open for non-Indian settlement. An 1893 Agreement ultimately reflected this new process. This is why today’s reservation is deemed to be a “checkerboard” reservation, where Indian allotments are intermingled with non-Indian parcels to create a complex jurisdictional landscape.
Throughout the treaty-making process, the Nez Perce Tribe retained the inherent right to fish at usual and accustomed fishing stations, and to hunt, gather and graze livestock on open and unclaimed lands, all outside of the reservation boundary. These off-reservation rights have been upheld on numerous occasions in state court cases, citing treaty rights as the supreme law of the land.