Monica Melhem

GINS 530

Dr. Mihesuah

22 September, 2011

The Nez Perce: A Brief History of Food and Health

            Between the Cascade Range and Rocky Mountain system in the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. is the original land of the Nez Perce tribe.  This land is located on the Colombia River Plateau along the border of four states that are now known as Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Oregon.  Dense evergreen forests run along the crooked canyons while pines stand tall in the alluvial flats in the river bend.  Running through this area is the Continental Divide.  Within this region is also the Bitterroot Mountain Range, Snake and Salmon valleys, and Clearwater drainage, west of the Rockies and on the eastern rim of the great basin. 

            In this region, the Nez Perce People practiced a seasonal subsistence cycle and lived in predominantly sedentary fishing villages.  However, they occasionally traveled around, temporarily camping in nearby areas where food was more plentiful for the season.  Fish and game were hunted year-round, when available, and used for food as well as tools and materials.  Throughout the springtime women collected various root crops and berries for food.  Near the time of winter, salmon and other fish along with roots and berries would be dried and preserved. Because the tribe stored and dried much of their food, they seldom suffered from famine as many other tribes did (Haines, 13).      

            One of the important staple foods is a root crop called “cowish” or “kouse” which the Nez Perce People would flock to in the springtime, craving fresh vegetables after a winter filled with dried foods (Haines, 11).  The roots were steamed and boiled into a mush for the “Time of First Eating” (Haines, 11).  If cooked properly into a bread or biscuit, it would keep for months.  When white travelers appeared in the early 1800’s, they called this “biscuit root” because to them it tasted much like stale biscuits.  Another important root crop is the blue camas plant, a wild lily variety.  In summer, women would dig up the camas bulbs using elkhorn tied to wood (Haines, 12).  After being cleaned of its black outer husk, the camas bulbs were ready to be piled on a bed of grass on hot stones and placed over a fire pit.  Water would be poured over the hot stones to produce steam.  The fire, sustained by layers of dirt and grass, would keep the mass hot until the next day in which it would be dried, possibly more than once.  The extensive cooking broke down a good portion of the starch content to sugar, producing a sweet potato-like flavor (Haines, 12). 

            In the summer, after spring floods had subsided, came the great salmon migration that would supply the villages with 80 to 90 percent of their entire food needs for the year (Haines, 12).  Men labored all day using spear, net, and trap to catch the salmon for the women to then clean, split, and dry or smoke.  Men would also hunt game such as elk and mountain sheep.  These animals would be hunted with agate-tipped arrows and used for more than just meat.  Shirts, leggings, moccasins, shields, and body armor were made from elk skin.  Wedges, handles for digging, and even some bows were made from elk horns.  Sheepskin was used for women’s dresses and coverings for cradleboards or babies’ wraps.  Sheep horns were used to make eating utensils, cups, bowls, and Nez Perce bows, the “most highly prized of any in the Northwest” (Haines, 13).  From early summer until late fall, wild berries became an important component of the tribes’ diet.  Serviceberry and huckleberry were the most important, plentiful, and easiest to harvest (Haines, 14).  Surplus berries were dried and made into cakes for winter and often used as flavoring for cowish or camas mush (Haines, 14).

            In the 1700’s, after the introduction of horses to this region, the people of the Nez Perce tribe lived less of a sedentary or isolated lifestyle.  The tribal peoples began to use horses during hunts and began to hunt farther away from their villages in buffalo country, or the Plains.  After contact, the Nez Perce People became involved in trade and had access to different foods and tools.  For example, traditional wallets and bags were woven with Indian hemp.  After missionaries introduced corn culture, they replaced the hemp with cornhusks (Haines, 13).  They also began to use twine instead of hemp to make cords, with a great loss of durability.  The tribe became herders of cattle and grew grains such as wheat.  At the same time, they still relied heavily on salmon and root crops and many of the other foods that they relied on before contact.              

            After contact the Nez Perce People were coerced into giving up their land after many detrimental wars, famines, and political struggles.  In the mid 1800s, as settlers moved westward, “treaties” with the Nez Perce tribe allowed them to take more than 17 million acres of the tribe’s original land.  The people of the Nez Perce were taken to a lagoon on the Mississippi in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where living conditions were terrible.  Those who survived were taken to Indian Territory and suffered even more from malaria and starvation.  Relocated many times, the Nez Perce tribe currently lives on a reservation separated into four counties in northern Idaho, primarily in the Camas Prairie region. 

            Today, the Nez Perce People are not nearly as healthy as they were pre-contact.  Inevitably, TV dinners and restaurant food has interfered with the native lifestyle.  Nevertheless, many of the traditional foods are still considered important to the Nez Perce People.  For example, salmon, elk, and deer are still being hunted and used for food.  The integration of nontraditional foods into their diet has lead to health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.  For the majority, it seems that the tribe is relatively healthy when compared to the rest of Idaho.  From a survey in 2011, 17 percent of Nez Perce adults affiliate with “poor” or “fair” health.  These include the 30 percent that are considered “obese” and the 19 percent that take part in heavy alcohol consumption (County Health Rankings, 2011).

Works Cited

"2011: Nez Perce, Idaho." County Health Rankings. University of Wisconsin. Web. 21 Sept. 2011. <>.

Haines, Francis. The Nez Perce: Tribesmen of the Columbia Plateau. 1st ed. Norman, OK:     University of Oklahoma, 1955. Print.

"Nez Perce - A Hard Fight For Their Homeland." Legends of America - A Travel Site for the Nostalgic and Historic Minded. Web. 22 Sept. 2011. <>.com/na-nezperce.html