Forest Service Working with Nez Perce Tribe on Place Names along the Nez Perce (Ne-Me-Poo) Trail

Author: Adapted from Press Release, US Forest Service

The Nez Perce (Ne-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail, administered by the Forest Service, is working with the Nez Perce Tribe (Niimíipuu, pronounced Ne-Me-Poo) on establishing signage and interpretation for significant sites and areas. Niimíipuu place names are a reminder of the accountability that the Niimíipuu have to the land and its resources. The relationship Niimíipuu have maintained over generations is fundamental to their existence and the Law which governs their actions upon the landscape provides the basis for this to occur. It is through this understanding of “relationship” that Niimíipuu people derive culture and identity. Therefore, the place names project will play an important role in meaningfully interpreting sites along the trail while honoring the stories they tell.

Winter Village Sites (‘elwínikinwees – winter encampment, winter lodge) are usually situated along junctions of rivers and creeks. Occupied during the coldest months, winter village sites were sheltered in canyon valleys where driftwood could be easily accessed for fuel. Nearby winter village sites include the current Kamiah, Idaho (qémye – proposed etymology is qéemu Indian hemp), and Lewiston, Idaho (simíinikem – where two rivers meet).  

Winter sites were also situated near spring Chinook fisheries and sites of early-season root crops, such as qeqíit (wild potato) and qáaws (biscuit root). Individual family groups dispersed to different area campsites (wic’éenwees) near  fishing, root grounds, and hunting areas.

Family group/band (‘inéek’nikt) gathering area sites were particularly valued because of unusually abundant resources and opportunities for groups to gather socially. These include the current Weippe area games gathering site (‘oyáyp), the current Bruce’s Eddy/North Fork Clearwater chinook fishery (timíimap), and the current Wallowa Lake/Blueback Fishery (‘iwéetem). 

Geological features and landmarks were associated with oral traditions (tiwáatit) and historical narratives. Basalt formations are often associated with titwáatit. They serve to prompt stories and accountability. Numerous legend sites throughout aboriginal Niimíipuu occupied and accustomed areas will receive attention from the project. 

Fundamentally, Niimíipuu cultural identity and lifeways are not superimposed over the landscape, rather it is the Law and resources which provide for and facilitate the transmission of the beliefs and values that are foundational to the Niimíipuu identity. Because of this understanding, aboriginal place names which were interpreted and passed on by elders (titéeq’is) have significance to Niimíipuu understanding of this Land and their place upon it.