Way of Life

Shelter and Structures

Historically, the Nez Perce constructed at least four unique types of structures. The largest, and probably most important, was the longhouse. They were large enough to house many families, and were shaped similar to an A-framed tent. It was constructed of ridge poles and side poles that were tied together, with an opening at the apex. The poles were covered originally with cattail or tule mats, and in later years by canvas.

Long House

The second most important structure was the very mobile tepee. The framework was usually constructed of 10-12 poles. Of these, three poles were tied together at the upper end to form a tripod, and the remaining poles were laid against the three, usually in odd numbers. They were then normally covered with mats. Sometimes the tepees were buried one to two feet, especially in winter.


Other structures common to the Nez Perce were menstrual lodges, sudatory lodges for unmarried men and sweat lodges (Spinden, 1974).



The traditional dress of the Nez Perce was the type used by many Sahaptin and Salish people. The men’s dress usually consisted of moccasins, leggings, shirt, blanket, breech cloth, made of skins and furs. Their clothing was highly decorated in a variety of ways, including fringes, beads, porcupine quills, paint and metal ornaments.

Nez Perce women usually wore moccasins, a long loose gown, a fez-shaped cap, and occasionally they wore gator-like leggings. Normally, the women’s clothing was not as highly decorated as the clothing of men, but were made of the same materials, and decorated with similar items (Spinden, 1974).

The Nez Perce, like other Plateau peoples, were known as Cúupnitpeluu (The Emerging or The Walking Out People). They procured their first horses between 1700-1730. After the horse, the Nez Perce became very mobile, and were able to travel farther, especially to the buffalo country on the Plains. They also utilized canoes for travel up and down the many rivers in their homeland (Treaties: Nez Perce Perspectives, 2003).


Hunting and Gathering

The Nez Perce were, and still are today, avid hunters and gatherers. They mostly hunted deer, elk, buffalo and mountain sheep, but the occasional otter, bear and beaver were also hunted. They also fished for salmon, trout, eels, suckers and sturgeon.

The women gathered a variety of vegetal products. Qém’es (camas) was the most important bulb that was gathered throughout their homelands. Other favorite foods were qáaws (kouse), it’áan (bitterroot), cawíitx (wild carrots), séex (wild onions) and páasx (sunflower), as well as a variety of berries, such as: cemíitx (huckleberries), kikéeye (serviceberries), blackberries, tíms (choke cherries), currants and goose berries.